Commentary, alterations, and additions for fantasy board and card games. Also home of the developing OFGI (Open Fantasy Game Initiative) as time permits.

Boxing Lessons, Part 9: Art and Decoration

#games, #boardgames, #cardgames, #fantasygames, #crafts

Time for the (too) long awaited final entry in this first series on homemade game accessories. And for those who need a little (or a lot of) catch up…

See Also:

But Wait, There is Less…

I do not have a decorated “shell” container to show you. The one that leads off this article is a “fitted” container made long ago for the Purchase deck in Talisman 4ER. In more recent years, I have taken to leaving (most of) my containers undecorated. The flat black look has several advantages.

When I retire or give away a game, undecorated containers made for it can be reused in other games with similar components. Containers decorated for one game look out of place in a new one unless you take the time (and hassle) to redecorate. Some then wonder “Why not just buy something?”

Well, for one, most purchased containers usually serve only in storage and not during play, especially for racked cards, etc. Finding something that really works (for play as well as storage), does not waste space in main game box, and is affordable may be difficult.

Making your own requires a somewhat costly investment in materials and tools but only at the start. On average (and sans time), most of my containers shown on this site cost less than $1 in materials used. Undecorated boxes also fade to the background in the playing area if flat black assembly wrap is used. Thereby they are not a distraction.

If these reasons are not enough to craft your own containers, then this is not a pursuit for you… and that is okay. For others, if you really want to decorate, that is also okay. A little extra glitz in the game might be nice at times, so let us proceed… but sensibly.

Wrap vs. Panel Decoration

Perfectionists prefer full wrap art for that commercial “look.” Here is one of my early attempts for Barb’s custom MTG deck. In this case I used some handmade / block printed paper for a more artsy, gift box look.

Fortunately such perfectionists are few. Some I have met were good at full wrap. One I met while a guest author at a convention was exceptional… and so were the prices on his beautiful containers.

If you tilt this way, I have three words of sage advice: get over it!

Paper for full wrap must be flexible, durable, densely compressed but thin, and finely finished in post-print. Odds are you will not find affordable stuff at the local copy/print shop suitable for your take on themed game art. Even if, you will mess up more than once in early experiments and have to repeat. Most copy/print shops offer color copier paper in various finishes; I recommend satin or semi-gloss, as full gloss finishes show scratches and wear too easily/quickly.

I learned full wrap by hand, became good at it though not exceptional, and I will never do it again except when creating gift boxes for holidays. The cost (if successful or not in the first try) is too high in time and money; both are better spent on another game. Panel art is easier, cost effective, and pleasing to the eye if done right.

Graphics Application

You need one to layout and prepare art panels for printing. It should have both vector (shapes) and raster capability. I use Photoshop CC, which is not affordable for most and has a steep learning curve; earlier editions of Photoshop (even Photoshop Elements) should work for this tutorial as well.

If you do not have such an application, then check out two free, open source, and cross platform alternatives: Gimp and Inkscape. The second only works if the art you will use is purely vector format, for Inkscape is a purely (but powerful) vector program.

Panel Layout Document/File Preparation

A hand assembled container has reasonably square and even dimensions if you were careful during parts production and assembly. Art panels when cut for adhering will be slightly smaller than the top, sides, and ends of the container’s top half. This allows a little fudge room in applying panels in the final step.

File/Document Setup:
Start a new file/document in your graphics program. Set the PPI (pixels per inch) to 300 or 600. The latter is better for print quality; the former is the more common output of most copy shop color printers; they should handle 600ppi just the same.

The entire document should be USA or World/Euro Letter size, depending on your location and what sheet size is locally available. For ruler bars/borders in the program, set them to “inches” for this tutorial.

Panel Dimensions:
If you built a container with different dimensions than the example in this tutorial series, do not worry. Instead of going back to find dimensions from previous lessons, simply measure the sides, ends, and top of your container. Leave notches for last.

Measure paired side and end walls as sets, use the lesser of each dimension in a pair, and use that set of height and width for both sides and both ends. Round down to, say, the nearest 1/16”.

For notches, return to previous lessons to get their measures for positioning in your panel layouts… or take measures off your container for width and depth and use the standard 30 degree angle for the notch sides.

Frame the Panels

1_Panel_FramesShapes presented are based on the example “shell” container in this tutorial series; adjust as needed for your size of container. Use vector shapes (not paths) to outline panels including notches by the dimensions in the last step.

Vector shapes are more easily adjusted than raster pixels. This is partly why you want a graphics program that works with vector shapes even if your artwork is raster based. You also want a program that can work in layers; both Gimp and Inkscape do so.

Vector Shapes vs. Paths:
A shape is better than a path, for you can fill a shape with a color. Set the color to full black if you used black paper (and you should have) to wrap assemble the container. This will help make panels blend with the container at their edges during final placement.

Crop Mark the Panels

2_Panel_FramesThe layout of a panel is larger than the final cut result to provide bleed zones. When panels are printed, you will lay the ruler over the artwork area and expose the part to trim off. This is the safe way to cut and protect the part of the panel you intend to use.

WARNING: Crop marks should be placed along the outside of the cut line you desire; they should not be centered directly on the cut line you intend use. Placing them to the outside will ensure they are fully visible when the ruler is place over the panel layout.  You will cut to the inside edge of the crop marks.


1_Lines_CropsNOTE: If your graphics program allows you to drag “guide lines” onto the layout in any horizontal or vertical position, then do so for the cut lines you desire. You can use them to help align crop marks precisely. All versions of Photoshop have this function, and so do Gimp and Inkscape. Guidelines do not show in the final export / print, so leave them where they are.

Crop marks can be added as either raster or vector marks; make them at least 1/4” long. At 300ppi they should be at least 6 pixels thick; 12 pixels thick for 600ppi. If marks are not visible enough for you, double these widths. Align all crop marks (or rather their intended cut lines) at 1/16” inside of panel frame edges.

Frame the Art Zone

3_Panel_FramesThe area in which to place your art should be 1/16” to 1/8” smaller on all sides than the cropping zone you just marked — not the full panel. In this example, I have used 1/16”. That means there is 1/8” between the edge of the black and the edge of the art zone (shown in gray).

If you filled your panel frame with black, this will leave a 1/16” to 1/8"” black edge around the art after cutting out the panels. This is best for blending with the container’s black wrap later herein. If you used some other colored paper for your wrap assembly, you might try a matching color for the panel fill, but it is very difficult to get that color to match during print. This is another reason you should (re)consider using black craft paper for wrap assembly of a container.

Place You Art

This might differ a bit, depending upon the graphics program you use. Almost all editions of Photoshop have multiple choices for what follows. For one, you can put your art in the top most layer, resize it as needed, and use a vector or raster mask based on the grey zone. 

You can also place the art layer just above the art frame layer (gray) and right-click / select “Create Clipping Mask”; the art layer will then show only the area that matches the art frame layer. Anything that exceeds the bounds of the art frame will be hidden. This option might be available in other graphics programs.

Similar approaches can be accomplished in other graphics applications. Or you can simply erase / cut / crop the art layer to match the art frame layer outline. There are also many other ways to hide unwanted areas of the art (such as the part overlapping the notches), but I simply cannot cover all of the variables herein. Study your program’s help documentation.

Print The Panels

If you do this at home, make certain you printer settings are at the highest resolution (PPI). Also be aware that an inkjet printed image is not water proof! The better option is to save / export the layout to a PNG or TIFF or PDF file on a USB stick and take it to the local print/copy shop. Trust me, they can produce a much higher quality print, though be aware that variance in hue, contrast, and saturation will occur vs. what you see on your screen.

Sorry, but I will not go into how to adjust for that herein; it would take too long to explain what I do, aside from how to accomplish such in all possible graphics programs. If you feel the need to do so for after a test print, look in your program’s help documentation. Look for instructions about “Lightening,” “Contrast,” and/or “Saturation” curves and/or other image “Adjustments.”

Experiment to find the right improvements vs. any test print. Note and remember what you did for any future container panels you will make. If the program you use can setup and save adjustment “layers",” save such with your first panel file. You can then reopen that file to begin a future panel layout with all adjustments needed ready to go.

WARNING: Be aware that if you change print shops or the shop changes its machine, you may need to do a test print and adjust your previous adjustment layers. Been there, done that!

Cropping The Panels

Unfortunately, I cannot diagram this step. Start by cutting the top of each notch in the ends and sides. Do not cut all the way to the interior notch corners! Next cut the angled sides of the notches to where they would just meet the notch’s top cut when extended. Then go back and finish notch top cuts to join the angled side cuts. This is the trickiest part of cutting your panels, so take your time.

Proceed to cut along the bottom of any notched a panel. Then cut the top, but do not cut all the way to the paper’s edges; cut no more than 1/4” (at most) beyond the panel’s intersecting cut lines. This way, the panel will on flop around too much as your proceed, and you will not mistakenly cut away the vertical crop marks. Lastly, proceed to the vertical crop marks to completely free your panels.

Stain the Panel Edges

Here is the risky part, though this step will stain away the white edge of the paper that shows after cutting out the panels. Unfortunately I cannot diagram this step effectively.

Take up a black permanent Sharpie or other felt marker (preferably with a tapered tip). Hold a panel with the art facing you. Lightly and carefully brush the panel’s upward edge  with the middle (not base or tip) of the pen’s felt. Carefully rotate the panel without touching the stained edge and repeat for all edges. Take extra care in doing the notches.

Use minimal pressure and be careful; multiple strokes over the same spot can multiply the bleed into the paper. This is another reason why some black around the edges of the art was planned into the design. Repeat for all panels. Let all panels dry for at least one hour before proceeding. Seriously, one hour and no less!

Adhere the Panels

Before proceeding, put the containers bottom back into its top if you separated them for measuring and designing panels. The whole “shell” box will be solid and easy to apply panels this way. Apply the following steps one panel at a time; do not try to prepare multiple panels at the same time.

  1. Using a piece of clean scrap paper (or just spare printer paper), lay the art panel face down on it. Use a glue stick to evenly coat the back of the panel all the way off of its edges.
  2. Take up your craft knife and use its point to lift free one corner of the coated panel. Carefully peel it free of the scrap paper.
  3. Center the panel on the appropriate side, end, or top of the container. The glue should be still damp enough to shift and adjust it.
  4. Carefully rub the art panel smooth from the center outward. I mean carefully, or you may scratch the panel. Some people lay another clean sheet for the panel before doing this.
  5. If you overlaid paper scrap before rubbing the panel smooth, lift that scrap sheet carefully. Glue may have squeezed out around panel edges grabbed the scrap sheet. After removing the scrap sheet, check around the panel’s edges for any scrap fibers stub in the glue; remove them with gentle scrapping of your craft knife.
  6. NOTE: If the fibers will not remove completely, then wait for the glue to fully dry. Use the felt marker’s fine tip to carefully stain those stuck fibers like you stained panel edges previously.
  7. Repeat for all panels and let your container fully dry overnight before use.

As mentioned earlier, I do not have a decorated “shell” container to show you. Here is another image of the “fitted” container that led off this article. This same technique is applicable to any style of container made by the methods described in this tutorial series.

When time permits, I will turn to another tutorial on “fitted” containers and consider turning both series into PDFs. I may even add more illustrations and a panel art template. For now, I must get back to other projects around F.D., including finishing off Talisman Tales 3.0 and refitting the site for a coming adaptive and responsive layout. (Hence some of the site’s quirky layout changes of late.)

Bear with me a little longer, as my work schedule is heavy. And thank you for stopping by.