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Have Light Table, Will Travel

One of the coolest toys I ever came across while working in child care was a light box. We let the kids use it for all sorts of activities: tracing their names in sand, looking at x-rays, sorting, color mixing, etc - it really makes almost anything more fun. As much as I enjoyed them, I never thought having one at home would be an option - they are expensive!  Then I started seeing quite a few DIY versions popping up on blogs and was so smitten with this idea that I shared it with Husbanie.  He's pretty great, so now a couple weeks later we have this:

suitcase light box

The version he made varies quite a bit from the example I showed him so I asked him if he'd be willing to write up a tutorial of his own.  With out further ado - my husbandie : ) 

Hi all...I'm pretty honored and excited that I get let loose on my wife's blog. Well, not really - the standard is pretty high around here, so I am actually pretty nervous; please excuse any stutters.

My tutorial will follow this format: material list (that I used), step by step tasks (the main idea of each step), and pictures that go with the appropriate step (which will have a caption giving more detail on what I experienced). So, here it goes...

  1. Suitcase (on hand)
    1. The choice of suitcase will determine much of the details and/or number of materials used and how they go together. But after having researched other similar projects, and now completed my own, I would recommend the following: 
      1. wood-product shell
      2. lid fits around the bottom box
      3. no lid “hardware”, such as bars that extend straight to keep the lid open
        1. If these are a part of the suitcase you will be using, it can be accommodated as long as you realize that the transparent “table-top”, and the material that holds it up, will most likely need to change to allow for the hardware to fold back down into the suitcase.
  2. X-acto Knife (on hand)
  3. Painter’s Tape (on hand)
  4. White Primer Paint (on hand)
  5. Screw Gun (on hand)
    1. 1/2” bit [for light plug]
    2. 1/8” bit [for screws]
  6. (2) 6’ LED light ropes ($8)
    1. (2) 6’ light rope
    2. (6) rope clips
    3. (6) wood screws for clips, washers as needed
  7. (14) Machine Screws, one nut per screw (on hand)
  8. Ripped 1x Lumber, cut to length (on hand)
  9. Clear Acrylic Sheet, 0.22”x18”x24” (Optix from Plaskolite) ($28)
  10. Orbital Sander, 150ct. sandpaper (on hand)

1. Clean the inside of the suitcase.
2. Determine the desired height of the table-top within the suitcase and mark this level with painters’ tape around the perimeter. 

cleaning will include removing any loose
fabric/material in the bottom of the box.
 our suitcase 
had pockets all along the sides, so I removed them with 
an x-acto. i chose to place the table-top away from the 
rim of the suitcase approximately 2” so items, such as
water beads, could be used on the table without them 
going everywhere.

3. Paint the inside bottom of the box with white primer paint. (This will help reflect the maximum amount of light.)

4. Once the paint is dry, remove the tape and plan out how your light source is going to be arranged/affixed to the suitcase bottom.


i chose the place where the plug would connect to the
 light rope and
 used the 1/2” bit to make and widen a
hole for this connection. i kept this hole purposefully
 snug so as to minimize movement without having to
resort to any kind of hardware.

knowing where the rope was entering the box, I arranged the length of
the rope in a circular pattern working toward the middle.

i used the provided rope clips at the most strategic
point of the pattern. as you can see from the picture,
the provided screws were too deep for the thickness
of the shell, so a few washers were needed.

5. Provide the appropriate supports for the tabletop inside the box.

to create our supports i cut the needed lengths out of 
a .75”x1.25” piece of pine. i pre-drilled appropriate 
holes through the wood supports while holding them at 
the right height on the inside the box, and then through
 the outside of the shell. using the machine screws, I fed 
the screw from outside the box, and then fit the nut on 
the inside. (these screws are the same as the ones 
used to tighten an outlet, just longer.) i did this process
 on all four sides, keeping the length of the supports 
level with the top of the box.
6. Measure, and cut to fit, your chosen “glass”.

i decided to use the thicker grade acrylic since i knew that our kids would 
be placing a lot of their weight on the tabletop, if not their whole selves. 
the acrylic will also not shatter - a definite plus in a product for kids.

after cutting down the tabletop, alter the material as is needed. clear 
acrylic was all that was available at home depot so i used my orbital 
sander to produce a “frosted” affect on one side (you don’t want to be 
staring at your light source all the time, you just want the light). i also used 
my sander to knock down a few of the corners so the tabletop fit better
 inside the box. depending on your material and gaps left over, you 
might want to make sure their are no more sharp edges. 

7. Affix your tabletop in place.

to keep it simple, i measured and predrilled two more holes on either 
side of the suitcase and fitted another screw and nut in each. the length of
 the screw extends right over the top edge of the acrylic so that it does fall
 out of place if the suitcase was closed and carried.

8. Plug it in...

we had two phases to this since one 6’ length of rope light did not
 provide the light we wanted. after trying it out with one, we added another, 
just using the same process mentioned above to create more and closer 
rings with the rope. 

My work here is done. I will hand it back over to my lovely "wifie". If there are any questions or clarifications that would be helpful, please let her know and I would be happy to provide as much information as I can.

Didn't he do a great job! Since we had a lot of the materials on hand, he was able to do it for under $40 too - which is pretty good since a similar sized light boxes cost around $200.  One of my favorite things about this light box is that since we used a vintage suitcase I don't have to worry too much about getting it out and putting it away.  I can just close the lid and call it decor :)


  1. What a great idea! Love that it is so portable. It also looks like it would be a lot easier to make it using this method than the other methods that I have read about. Using an orbital sander to make it frosty is pure genius! Most people either buy frosted, spray paint it frosted, or use wax paper. None of which are practical for me. I may actually try my hand at making another one. My last one, the main piece of wood split when I tried to hammer a nail in it, and I just gave up after that (I'd already put tons of work into it).

  2. How fun is this? I am so looking for a suitcase on my next trip to the thrift store. Thanks for the inspiration. My kids will love this!
    Warm wishes, Brittany

  3. Fabulous idea! I want a portable light table to use at home and at the library for playgroups. This is a wonderful option.

  4. That is awesome! Maybe I can get my guy to make one, our little would love it ;-)

  5. forwarding the info onto my husband as I type... thanks for the detailed tutorial. I've been wanting one for a while and couldn't figure out how to get it cheaper!

  6. This is wonderful, Rachel ... and how awesome that your husband is so handy and helpful! Thanks for linking up with Montessori Monday. I featured your post at the Living Montessori Now Facebook page and pinned it to my Light Box Pinterest board at

  7. oh how unbelievably clever! i love this and thank you for the idea!


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