Collapsing borders in CSS with box-shadow

Collapsing borders in CSS with box-shadow

Thank god nobody uses tables for layout anymore but we can't collapse borders using regular CSS elements, unless...

Box-shadow as a border

If it looks like a border and works like a border then it might be a box-shadow. We're using CSS, stay sharp.

Box-shadow (opens new window) uses the following syntax:

/* offset-x | offset-y | blur-radius | spread-radius | color */
box-shadow: 0px 0px 0px 2px black;

So in the example we're using here(0 0 0 2px black) you're getting a border with:

  • Offset (x, y): 0 0, meaning it sits right behind the element without any vertical or horizontal offset.
  • Blur (r): 0. Meaning the box-shadow is a perfect un-blurred silhouette of the DOM element.
  • Spread (z): 2px, scaling up the shadow so it is expanded 2px from the element border to the shadow border.
  • Color (n): black, the color of the box-shadow, pretty straight forward.

As you can probably guess, visually speaking, this gives us the exact same effect as a plain border: solid 2px black border.

How box-shadow differs from border

The thing that makes this so useful is that box-shadow doesn't have any effect on the layout of the element it's applied on, it just draws a border around it, not caring about its own visibility or position.

How to use it with grid or margin

I'd say there are two ways to use this trick properly. Either with grid or/and with margin. I strongly recommend to primarily stick with grid and only use margin if grid makes no sense. Mainly since margin itself has weird collapse rules (opens new window).

Using grid it's super simple, just apply grid rules to the parent, and a box-shadow to it's children.

.parent {
  display: grid;
  grid-gap: 3px;
  grid-template-rows: 2rem 2rem auto;

.children {
	box-shadow:0 0 0 3px black;

I'd use margin primarily for the box-in-a-box look with collapsing borders which you can see in the header image of this post:

.box {
	box-shadow:0 0 0 3px black;

.box-in-a-box {
	margin: 6px 6px 0 0;
	box-shadow:0 0 0 3px black;

For some more examples you can check out this codepen (opens new window)!