Art Tips: Recycle Boxes into Art Panels

Art Tips on Tinkerlab.comWe love art tips. Click here for more tips from this series.

This is a favorite tip for the economical folks in the room: recycle your cardboard boxes and turn them into art panels.

How did this all start? Well, we had a yard sale this past week. Can you hear my sigh of relief? I used to love having yard sales, but since having kids it’s always been easier to take our long-loved belongings directly to the thrift store. My kiddos have been eager to have a sale, however, so that’s what we did. And you know something? Not only did I survive, but we cleared out a walkable path in our garage and I also uncovered my trusty old-fashioned paper chopper that was previously covered with boxes and cushions.

Along with getting reacquainted with my old paper-cutting pal, I uncovered a bunch of cardboard boxes. And with that, I spent a jolly twenty minutes chopping those boxes up into panels that my kids and I can paint, collage, and otherwise attack with our art.

Art tip: Save cardboard pieces for art making | TinkerLab

Cardboard boxes are wonderful for so many reasons. When I have them in the house they often get recycled as…cardboard boxes. I’ll use them again to ship things to friends and loved ones. But when I have a few piled up, I like to chop them into smaller pieces that we can later use as art panels.

Throw that box on the guillotine and create some incredibly enticing art substrates.

Art tip: Save cardboard pieces for art making | TinkerLab

There are a few ways to cut cardboard into panels

  1. Cut the box with heavy duty scissors. Don’t cut yourself. Obvious, I know, but I did this the other day.
  2. Cut panels with a box cutter on a cutting mat
  3. The quickest way is most likely an art-grade chopper like this Guillotine Paper Trimmer.

Art tip: Save cardboard pieces for art making | TinkerLab

And now we’re ready to use these as bases for painting, collage, gluing, etc. Here are some examples:

Art tip: Save cardboard pieces for art making | TinkerLab

Two questions for you

How do you like to recycle or upcycle cardboard? What are your favorite art tips?

More Art Tips:

Clean up (and reuse) your paper scraps

Low-cost Stamps made from Cosmetic Wedges

Set up a “Bits and Pieces Box”

Tips on how to clean up after a creative session

Make a Milk Jug Shovel

I spotted a milk jug shovel online. Gasp! Given that I adore all things DIY, especially if they involve my recycling bin, I had to try this.

I dug and dug (pun intended…I love puns) for the original source of this spiffy idea, and nothing came up. So, as a public service to my amazing readers, I pulled this very simple tutorial together for you, with the help of my trusty 3-year old assistant.

Make a Milk Jug Shovel |

Thank you, little R!


  • Milk Jug
  • Sharpie (or other permanent marker)
  • Scissors

Make a Milk Jug Shovel |

Draw a shovel shape onto the milk jug with the permanent marker. Use the photo (above) as a basic guide.

Make a Milk Jug Shovel |

Cut along the marker lines (simple, right?) until the shovel comes out of the jug.

Make a Milk Jug Shovel |

Take the shovel outside for some digging fun.

Shovel Tips

  • As you might imagine, the shovel is somewhat flimsy, which makes it a better tool for dry sand. The shovel will have more trouble digging up soil and wet sand.
  • Following up on the last tip, this shovel is great for emergency digging but I wouldn’t recommend this in lieu of a regular shovel since it’s not super-sturdy. Like, if you’re on vacation at the beach and you forgot a shovel at home, you might want to visit a local coffee shop and ask them for a milk jug.
  • Although it’s not the greatest shovel in the world, making one of these is still a fun exercise and introduces children to recycling cast-off objects into something new.
  • Try making shovels from different kinds of plastic bottles. How will they vary from one another?

Make an Easy Milk Jug Shovel |

How to Felt a Wool Sweater

Have you ever wondered how to felt a wool sweater?

Today we’ll show you how how to felt a wool sweater and how to make felted wool flowers to use as pins or barrettes.

The inspiration for these instructions and post came from one of our favorite new books, This Book was a Tree by Marcie Cuff (Perigree, 2014). We reviewed the book here (and there are links to other reviews) in case you’d like to check it out!

How to Felt a Wool Sweater – Step 1

Collect your 100% wool sweaters. They should be 100% wool, and the thicker they are, the better. Alpaca is wool, and felts beautifully! I’m not sure if you can tell much about the weight of the sweaters from the image below, but the one on the right felted MUCH better than the other three, which were on the thinner side.

How to Felt Wool Sweaters |

How to Felt a Wool Sweater – Step 2

This step may be a little painful at first if you’re using a sweater that you kind of love.

Cut the Sweater at the seams. Cut off the necks, arms, and slice right up the side seams. Cut off the edges so that the sweater has a better chance at felting. The following pictures give you an idea of what you’re after.

Use sharp scissors. I LOVE my Gingher scissors. These were recommended to every costume design student at UCLA (and I won’t even tell you how many years ago I was there!). Suffice to say that these last FOREVER. These scissors are not cheap, but if you want really great sewing scissors that will last, these are the ones.

Anything with ribbing is probably destined for the scrap bin. You’ll notice a few squares of ribbed cuffs in the bottom of the stack of the last photo (below). I was hoping that these would felt nicely, but they were a mess.

How to Felt a Wool Sweater | TinkerLab

Toss your scraps. See those scraps in the bottom right hand corner (above)? Those get tossed. The ribbed cuff pieces should be tossed too.

Wash on HOT. Put all your sweater parts into a hot water wash with some detergent that will help agitate the fibers. Wash and then dry on hot. Marcie suggests doing this two times, so I washed and dried mine twice to maximize the felting.

Now you should have a mad pile of felted wool that you can turn into all sorts of wonderful things. Are you ready to make something now? Let’s get started with a felted flower!

Felt Wool Sweaters into a Felted Flower


  • Felted Wool Sweater Pieces
  • Strong/thick needle
  • Thread
  • Ruler (optional)
  • Scissors
  • Hot or low-heat glue gun
  • Barette clips. We used alligator clips like these, but your favorite type of clip will be great.

How to Felt a Wool Sweater into a Flower | TinkerLab


  1. Gather Supplies
  2. Measure and cut a piece of felt to be the center of the flower, about 15 cm (5″) long x 4 cm (1 1/2″) wide. Marcie’s instructions of 15 cm long x 1.5 cm will make for a flatter flower.
  3. Roll the piece of felt up
  4. Secure the felt with needle and thread
  5. Cut another piece of felt, about 10 cm (4″) long x 5 cm wide (2″). Cut loops or zigzags at the top of this second strop to look like petals. Wrap this second piece of felt around the center piece. Secure with needle and thread.
  6. Cut another piece of felt, about 10 cm (4″) long x 5 cm wide (2″) and wrap it around the flower. Secure with needle and thread.
  7. Cut two 6 cm x 3 cm leaf shapes and stitch them to the bottom of the flower.
  8. Wrap a small piece of felt around the top part of a barrette and glue it in place with a glue gun (no photo – so sorry!). The idea here is to cover the shiny silver barrette with felt. Then, glue the flower to the felt that’s attached to the barrette. Voila!

How to an old wool sweater and turn it into flowers | TinkerLab

We made two felted flower barrettes, and now I have an enormous amount of felt just waiting for the next project. Any ideas for us?

More Felted Wool Sweater Projects

Felted Bird Ornaments

Felted Alpaca Purse

Recycled Wool Throw Pillows

Felted Wool Snowflake Pin

Felted Wool Blanket

Note: This post contains affiliate links for your convenience!


Recycled Art Sculpture | Mystery Box Challenge

Do you have a box of recyclables with a plan to turn them into art or something amazing? Today we’re sharing one of our favorite recycled art projects using found objects, inspired by this project at the Boston Children’s Museum. and the Random Challenge Boxes from Matt Jervis at Make it Creativity.

Recycled Art with Upcycled Materials

Recycled Art Sculpture |

I recently led a fun maker station for the California Museum Association’s (CAM) annual conference that we called the Mystery Box Challenge. While we often share child-led projects here on TinkerLab, the participants in this challenge were all all museum professionals. To see how my children interpreted the same prompt, click here. This project was inspired by the Art Studio at the Boston Children’s Museum.

Mystery Box Challenge

For the Mystery Box Challenge, I prepared a bunch of boxes by filling them with all sorts of interesting found objects and trinkets: pieces of wood, surplus plastic, cupcake holders, pipe cleaners, pom-poms, etc. Each participant received their own box with a prompt to make a critter from any or all of the supplies in the box.

I found the boxes at the craft store, some of the supplies came from RAFT (Resource Area for Teaching, a non-profit that sells low cost surplus materials for education), and others were found at the craft store and a local party store. We were also lucky to receive a generous donation of low heat glue guns and glue sticks from Blick Art Materials.  Thanks Blick!!

My colleague and art buddy Danielle and I set everything up, and then we waited for people to show up.

TinkerLab Mystery Box Challenge |

The table got busy and it was amazing to see the high level of focus from our incredible makers as they cut, glued, assembled, and invented their characters.

TinkerLab Mystery Box Challenge |

TinkerLab Mystery Box Challenge |

Once their critters were done, we invited everyone to have us take a photo of their inventive designs. Those who were on Instagram tagged their images with #tinkercritter. One of the best things about an open-ended prompt like this is to see how differently each person interprets the invitation and materials.

We were blown away by the creativity and ingenuity in the room!

Recycled Art Sculptures with Found Objects | Mystery Box Challenge |

Recycled Art Sculpture |

Margie, Director of Education and Public Programs, Sonoma Valley Museum of Art

Mary, Graduate Student, University of Washington

Tyrena, Camp Coordinator, Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History

Recycled Art Sculpture |

Jamie, Mutual of America

Elizabeth, Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History

Carl, Director of Education, Curiodyssey

Recycled Art Sculpture |

Maria, Museum Studies Student, San Francisco State

Elise, Long Beach Museum of Art

Dawn, Curator, Heidrick Agricultural History Center

Recycled Art Sculpture |

Conny, Graduate Student, San Francisco State

Kristine, Community Education Director, Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History

Mandi, Exhibit Envoy

Invite us to your School or Event

Thanks to everyone who played with us in Napa at the CAM Conference. It was so nice to meet each of you. If you’d like to have us come out and lead this or another maker project at your school or event, shoot me an email at rachelle at

Buy a TinkerLab® Mystery Box

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Found Object Art | Junk Critters

I’m a huge fan of breathing new life into long-lost materials, and I’ve been making found object art pieces like these since I was a kid.

Last weekend my friend, Danielle, and were in Napa to lead a fun, fast-paced Maker Session at the California Association of Museums annual conference.

For our workshop we brought these cool hands-on mystery boxes that my kids oohed and ahhhed over before I headed off to play in wine country.

Tinkering Kits

The tinkering kits carried similar materials, but the nature of collecting found objects meant that each maker box was unique. I’ll share images from the workshop with a close-up on how adults interpreted these materials shortly, but I thought you might be interested in seeing what kids made of these.

My kids were my prototype testers, after all.

Found Object Art - Make a Junk Critter |

Collect your junk supplies

Before the boxes were even filled, we experimented with some basic materials like ribbon, wood scraps, fabric swatches, paper baking cups, markers, and plastic party beads.

You’ll need:

  1. Junk
  2. Something to cut the junk (scissors)
  3. Something to attach the junk (glue gun – Amazon link to our favorite one)

Found Object Art - Make a Junk Critter |

Invest in a low-heat glue gun

There are always people who gasp when they see kids handling hot glue guns (maybe that was you…no worries) and I’m here to tell you that kids are capable of using glue guns.

Here are a few glue gun tips for kids:

  • Use a low-heat glue gun like the Cool Shot (Amazon link). I’ve been using this model for years, and it’s fabulous. If you spend more than a few seconds touching the tip you could theoretically burn yourself, but I have yet to see this happen.
  • Explain the glue gun rules to your child ahead of time: don’t touch the tip, try not to touch the hot glue with your bare hands

Found Object Art - Make a Junk Critter |

Add some eyes

My 3-year old worked on this one. She added goggly eyes to make it come alive, but of course you could draw eyes on or cut eyes from paper. Googly eyes are an awesome invention, and truly animate anything they’re stuck to. We have a pair on our stapler, and “he” looks like a little alligator.

Found Object Art - Make a Junk Critter |

We foraged the recycling bin for more objects and had some fun with building blocks and pom-poms: all stuck on with the miraculous glue gun.

Found Object Art - Make a Junk Critter |

Share your found object art critters

When you’re all done creating, put your critters on display, play with them, take photos of them, carry them on a walk and take photos of them in different places. The options are endless. More sharing ideas:

Share on Facebook

And if you’re really brave, snap a photo and share it with me on my Facebook page!


When I was at the conference we asked participants to take a photo of their critter and tag it with #tinkercritter. Here’s on example. I love it! Go check out their critters and upload your own to Instagram. Don’t forget to tag it with #tinkercritter!

More Found Object Art

This cool Pinterest board from Mary Briden

Louise Nevelson painted on assemblages made from wood scraps in the 1950’s.

Joseph Cornell made these gorgeous diorama boxes that were filled with all sorts of curious ephemera.