Introduction: Awesome LED Edge-lit Desktop Nameplate

Picture of Awesome LED Edge-lit Desktop Nameplate

You'd be hard pressed to an office with a desktop that doesn't have a nameplate. This DIY project transforms the classic engraved vinyl nameplate into a high tech piece of art. It’s the perfect way to spice up anyone's desk at home or at work.

The concept of this project is simple; engrave a name on a piece of clear plastic sheet then shine a light on the edge of the plastic. The letters and edges are vividly illuminated whilst the clear material remains completely transparent.

To add a touch of color, use multicolored RGB LED's in conjunction with a microcontroller. This combination allows hundreds of different colors to be achieved. With just the touch of a button, transform the work piece from red, to green, to blue and anything in between.

This Instructable requires basic knowledge of wood working, hand tools, electronics, programming, and soldering.

Step 1: Gather Materials

Picture of Gather Materials


1 - Polycarbonate Sheet - 10.75in x 2in x 0.25in - local plastic supplier, $3
1 - Oak Board 24in x 5.5in x 0.25in - menards, $3.31
1 - Wood Glue, 4 fl. oz - menards, $3.88
16 - RGB LED's w/diffused lenses -, $1.99ea
32 - 100 Ohm, 1/4W, 5%, Resistors -, $0.02ea
16 - 180 Ohm, 1/4W, 5%, Resistors -, $0.02ea
1 - 1K Ohm, 1/4W, 5%, Resistor -, $0.02ea
1 - 560 Ohm, 1/4W, 5%, Resistor -, $0.02ea
1 - 0.47uF Monolithic Capacitor -, $0.12ea
1 - PICAXE 8 Pin Microcontroller -, $2.95
1 - PICAXE 8 Pin Proto Kit -, $3.95
1 - PICAXE USB Programming Cable -, $25.95
1 - Darlington Driver 8-Channel ULN2803 DIP -, $1.95
1 - 18 Pin DIP socket, -, $1.50
1 - Mini Push Button Switch -, $0.35
1 - 2.1mm DC Power Jack, Male -, $1.49
1 - Break Away Header - Straight, $1.50
1 - Rocker Switch, DPST, ON-OFF, Black -, $1.49
1 - Break Away Header - Right Angle -, $1.95
1 - Wall Adapter Power Supply, 5VDC 1A -, $5.95
4 - Multipurpose PC Board with 417 Holes - Radioshack, $1.99ea
22AWG Solid Jumper Wire, Various Colors -, $6.95/100ft
5 - Hex Socket Cap Screws, 4-40 x 1/4in -, $7.50 (100)


Wire Stripper
Side Cutter
Needle Nose Pliers
Dremel High-speed Rotary Tool
Dremel Engraving Bit
Needle File Set
Sandpaper (600/800 grit)
Utility Knife
Mini Vise
Digital Multimeter
Third Hand Tool
Soldering Iron/Station
3/32 Drill Bit
3/32 Hex Driver
Vernier Calipers
Metal Ruler
Small Bar Clamps
Safety Glasses

Step 2: Design Graphics

Picture of Design Graphics

The number of characters in chosen name will define all of the other parameters of the nameplate, so it is important to design this element first. 

Layout characters. Use a text editor or CAD software so that changes in font and size can be realized immediately. Note: Any font or handwriting style can be used. I designed my own font in CAD software, where each character was approximately 0.7in wide and 1.13in tall with 0.05in of spacing between each character.

Measure the total height and width. Record the maximum height and maximum total width of the string of characters you have laid out.

Calculate size of polycarbonate sheet. Allow for a small border around the text. On the top and both sides of the text an approximately 0.25in-0.5in border is usually appropriate. The bottom border should be a bit larger to allow the light from the LED to spread out. A border of 0.5in-0.75in would be appropriate. Add the border dimensions to the text dimensions in the previous step.


Step 3: Engrave Polycarbonate

Picture of Engrave Polycarbonate

The engraving of the polycarbonate can be carried out in a couple different ways. For the average do it yourselfer the best option is to use a Dremel high-speed rotary tool with some type of engraving bit.

Cut polycarbonate sheet. Size specified in the previous step. In my case this is 2in. x 10.75in.

Transfer the outline of the graphics. This can also be done in a couple different ways. The first, place the graphic under the clear sheet and look through it free handing the graphic onto the sheet. The second, use Grafix Rub-onz sheets (hobby Lobby or Dick Blick) to transfer the image to the top of the polycarbonate.

Engrave graphics. Use dremel to grind away material inside of the text you have created. Remember the area where material is removed or scuffed will shine in the light of the LED’s. Try not to mill a slot with a rectangular cross-section into the sheet. A groove with a semi-circular or triangular cross section will transmit the most light.

Clean edges. Remove any burs or melted polycarbonate from the sheet.

The second and slightly fancier way of engraving it is to use a CNC machine. A CNC machine is the fastest most accurate way to engrave, but requires CNC knowledge, can have high cost and can have limited availability.

I chose to have the name plate machine engraved. Since, I have the knowledge and machine availability this was the fastest and highest quality option to choose.

Step 4: Polish Polycarbonate Edges

Picture of Polish Polycarbonate Edges

Polishing the edges serves a dual purpose. Polishing the top and side edges is aesthetically pleasing and on the other hand polishing the bottom edge will allow more light to be transmitted by the LED’s.

Sand edges. Use progressively finer grit sandpaper starting at 220 ending at around 600. For best results finish with 800 grit sandpaper. Be careful to not scuff the front or back sides of the sheet with the sandpaper and try to maintain an edge that is perpendicular to the front and back sides.

Clean edges. Gently wipe with wet towel and dry.

Heat edges until clear. Use a concentrated heat source to heat the edges of the polycarbonate to a high gloss finish. Heat sources can be heat guns, lighters, or mini blow torches. You can over do this! Take your time working slowly along the edge close enough to barely melt the sheet.


Step 5: Design LED Circuit

Picture of Design LED Circuit

The LED circuit consists of three microcontroller switched loops: one for red, one for green, one for blue. Each LED has four different leads: red, green, blue, and ground. Each of the color leads is connected to its respective loop via a current limiting resistor in parallel with the other leads of the same color type. The ground leads are all connected together.

Determine how many LED’s will be required. The high brightness RGB LED’s must be spaced approximately 0.5in-0.75in apart on center. Divide the total length of polycarbonate by a number in the range given (10.75 / 0.7 = 15.36). In this case use 16 LED’s.

Determine supply voltage, Vs. 5VDC is a good number because the microcontroller can run of 5VDC without requiring a voltage converter.

Determine required resistor values. Check the LED’s datasheet for the FORWARD VOLTAGE, Vf and the MAX FORWARD CURRENT, If. The resistor value is determined by the following equation: R = (Vs – Vf) / If

Red -> Vf=2.0V @ If=20mA  =>  R=150Ohm
Green -> Vf=3.2V @ If=20mA  =>  R=90Ohm
Blue -> Vf=3.2V@ If=20mA  =>  R=90Ohm

Note: The resistance calculated is the resistance required to hold the LED at 20mA of forward current. Remember that exceeding the max rated current will significantly decrease the life of the LED. Also, remember that common resistors have a tolerance of 5%. To avoid accidentally exceeding the rated max current, select a common valued resistor value greater than 5% of the calculated minimum resistance. I chose a 100Ohm resistor in place of the 90Ohm resistor and a 180Ohm resistor in place of the 150Ohm resistor.

Determine resistor power rating. Resistors have a MAXIMUM ALLOWABLE POWER, Pmax rating. If you exceed this rating the resistor will incur permanent damage and inevitably fail. The maximum power dissipated each resistor is as follows: Pmax = R x If^2

100Ohm @ 20mA  =>  P=40mW
180Ohm @ 20mA  =>  P=72mW

These are both under 1/4W so 1/4W resistors will be adequate.

Determine total power dissipated in each loop and total current in the circuit. The sum of the total power will determine the current rating needed for the power supply. Furthermore, the microcontroller can only source 20mA of current per pin; so, a Darlington Driver IC is used to allow the microcontroller outputs to control high current loads. This IC has a max current rating of 500mA per channel. Pmax = #LED’s x [( Vf x If) + (R x If^2)]

P(red) = 16 x [(2V)(20mA) + (180Ohm)(20mA)^2] = 1.792W <------- Pmax
P(green) = 16 x [(3.2V)(20mA) + (100Ohm)(20mA)^2] = 1.664W
P(blue) = 16 x [(3.2V)(20mA) + (100Ohm)(20mA)^2] = 1.664W

Max Current = Pmax/Vs = 1.792W / 5V = 358.4mA
Total Current = [P(red) + P(green) + P(blue)] / 5V = 1.024A

The Max Current in any loop is less than the max rating of the Darlington Driver so it can be used. The Total Current is very close to 1A. Sparkfun’s 5VDC 1A Wall Adapter Power Supply is rated for well over 1A so it will be suitable.

Step 6: Assemble LED Circuit

Picture of Assemble LED Circuit

The total LED circuit is composed of four identically constructed circuits. First, assemble the four individual circuits. Then, wire them together to form the completed LED circuit.

Cut Radioshack circuit board in half. The Radioshack circuit board is not symmetric, so both sides cannot be used in the same project. The half to be used is 8holes x 25holes (shown in pictures below). To cut the board in half, score both sides of the the board with the utility knife along the terminal strip that runs length wise on the side of the board that is to be discarded. Use the edge of a table to break the board along the scored line. Then, use a Dremel high-speed rotary tool to grind the edge flush to the remaining lengthwise terminal strip.

Trim sides of board. In order to maintain an even distance between the LED’s the short sides of the board need to be trimmed. With a utility knife, score both sides of the board along a line parallel to the edge that intersects the center of the mounting hole. Use two pliers to break off the unwanted edge.

Solder resistors in place. Bend the Leads so that they will fit between the locations shown in the CAD model pictured below. Place the resisters in their respective positions as indicated, solder in place, and trim the leads.

Solder jumper wires in place. Cut to length and strip the insulation from the ends of the 22AWG solid copper wire. Solder in place bridging specified nodes. Trim extended leads.

Solder LED’s in place. Place LED’s in correct position observing the correct polarity of the diode. The names of the leads are indicated in a picture below. Solder in place maintaining the vertical axis of the LED perpendicular to the top of the circuit board. Trim extended leads.

Join Subassemblies. Cut to length and strip the insulation from the ends of the 22AWG solid copper wire. Solder in place bridging specified nodes. Trim extended leads.

Step 7: Assemble Microcontroller Circuit

Picture of Assemble Microcontroller Circuit

The microcontroller circuit is very simple. The basis of the circuit is the PICAXE 8 Pin Proto Kit. Three output pins pass through a Darlington Driver to the three LED loops and one input pin senses the state of a push button switch. The entire circuit is built directly on the proto kit’s development area. Please note this microcontroller circuit is appropriate for any situation in which each LED loop consumes less than 500mA.

Solder kit components in place per kit instructions.

Solder 18 pin socket in place. Remove the four of the pins closest to the notch in the short side of the socket. Solder socket in the offset location indicated in the picture below.

Solder in place mini push button switch and debounce components. To solve the problem of switch bounce, I have included a hardware debounce element consisting of a 560Ohm resistor and a 0.47uf capacitor. Reference the schematic and the pictures below for correct placement. Trim leads.

Solder jumper wires between components, microcontroller pins, and supply rails. Reference the schematic and the pictures below for correct placement. Trim leads.

Solder headers in place. Place the 2x1 90degree header and the 5x1 straight header in locations specified below.

Step 8: Design Base

Picture of Design Base

The base box is constructed of a series of 1/4in solid oak panels. The pattern for the panels is pictured below. Only the length and spacing between ribs will need to be modified if using different text.

Step 9: Assemble Base

Picture of Assemble Base

Assembly of the base is quite simple given the drawings generated in the previous step.

1) Cut all components.

1) Glue sides to top.

2) Glue Ribs in place.

Step 10: Assemble Nameplate

Picture of Assemble Nameplate

Final Assembly is composed of connecting all of the individual components produced in the previous steps.

Solder jumper wires between proto board supply header, on/off switch, and supply jack.

Solder jumper wires between proto board and LED circuit assembly.

Screw proto board in place.

Screw LED circuit assembly in place.




JavaProgrammer (author)2015-03-03

I got to hand it to you, that is an awesome third hand. a+

CrystalB01 (author)2014-01-02

wow! what a wonderful creation i'll have to make one of these now haha thanxs alot

ASCAS (author)2013-12-28

Bloody genius! I'll make one right away! :D

Ryan Hebron (author)2013-08-05

verry good i will make one of these when i grow up

Jorick14 (author)2012-07-05

You could also buy some LED strips from Ebay, that's a lot easier.

imthatguy1125 (author)2010-09-17

The US. this is at LOWES

I got a huge square for less that $10.. You might be looking at Lexan which is more expensive.

At Lowes?

coopgrl88 (author)2010-10-11

Fantastic presentation! This is a great example of How to do a How to. Clear pictures and great outline and descriptions :) Thanks! You made this project even easier.

rcisneros (author)2010-10-06

I'm not that skilled with the heat source. I just used acetone (not nail polish remover) and carefully wipe down the edges over and over. They'll come clear. The best is methyl chloride, but it's very hard to find.

ninjanody (author)2010-10-05

very nice instr..

pantalone (author)2010-09-19

How bright (mcd) do the LEDs need to be to make this look good? The LEDs you link to at Sparkfun are rated 2800, 6500, and 1200 mcd for the red, green, blue, respectively. Will the result be just as pleasing if using cheaper LEDs in the 600 mcd range?

pilotniq (author)2010-08-13

Is it possible to share resistors between the LEDs? If not, why not?

klbrockmann (author)pilotniq2010-09-17

It is possible and would certainly be much more efficient. I didn't optimize the circuit because I was short on time.

handyman29 (author)2010-04-24

What program did you use to create the 3D image of the circuit board?

klbrockmann (author)handyman292010-09-17

Autodesk Inventor 2010

ampeyro (author)2010-03-03

good drawing, what have you studied?

klbrockmann (author)ampeyro2010-03-03

 I currently study Mechanical Engineering.

ogama8 (author)klbrockmann2010-03-04


hintss (author)ogama82010-08-31

Iowa state

ampeyro (author)klbrockmann2010-03-08

now i understand, it's not comon to find quality in this webs

Creativeman (author)2010-08-25

Very impressive instructable! Beautiful work. It gives me ideas as I like to make signs as well. I picked up on a very un-nerving sight, though, when I looked at picture 4 in step 3. It looks like the saw is running in this photo, and your left hand is in front of the blade! This is extremely dangerous, and should never be done in this manner. That piece should have been ripped, using a rip fence. NEVER, NEVER, NEVER place a hand ahead of a blade as you have done here. Had that piece got in a bind and kicked back, your hand would be more like ground hamburger. And plastic is a non-standard material to be cutting on a table saw. I hate it when the "worried about your welfare police" chime in like I have just done, but this picture screams at me: NO NO NO.

jds311 (author)2010-03-31

 Do you have a schematic, as I need to down scale the board size?  Thank you

vinniekins (author)2010-03-11

 Nice project!

Wondering what software you used to draw out your circuits.  Is it NI Multisim?

mathman47 (author)2010-03-05

Wow, great idea and great execution.  Can't wait for the code, since I'm just learning about microcontrollers and it would take me awhle to do it myself. Ideas, ideas, ideas.  Thanks for a great instructable.

imthatguy1125 (author)2010-03-04

 were do you buy your plexiglass

 I purchased a scrap piece of polycarbonate from a local plastics distributor called Country Plastics. There are are countless other places to get it though. Often stores like Lowes, Menards, or Home Depot carry some type of acrylic sheet and there is no shortage of online distributors. I suggest trying to find a local place that you can find a scrap for cheap as online and retail stores can be expensive.

 ok because the plexiglass at my lowes charges 20 bucks for a 2 by 2 foot sheet 

Robot Lover (author)2010-03-02

you could just use tape and a sand blaster. Good instructable!

klbrockmann (author)Robot Lover2010-03-03

 Great idea!

thepelton (author)klbrockmann2010-03-05

You can also engrave glass with an Epilog laser.  I would probably use one of those rectangles of antique glass with the beveled edges for something like this.

thepelton (author)thepelton2010-03-05

one additional thing.  I would probably use an antique lettering font to match the glass.

jeff-o (author)Robot Lover2010-03-05

When I engrave plastic, I print out the pattern and place it under the plastic.  Then I go at it with a dremel and fine tip sanding/grinding bit.

Robot Lover (author)jeff-o2010-03-05

when i engrave glass i used a sandblaster

tcase (author)2010-03-04

This is neat,

Now, I have an idea.. I want the pizza guy to find my house in the dark without turning on my light... what if we took this idea, put it to a small solar panel, with a small battery system, and added house numbers instead of a name?
This way with the solar panel, small rechargeable battery system, and a light sensor, it should charge during the day, and light up at night. showing the house number in place of the name....

I like your idea... thanks for giving me

jeff-o (author)tcase2010-03-05

I've seen commercial products almost exactly like this.  So yeah, your idea should work fine.

shaneomacmcgee (author)2010-03-04

 Very cool. Great project, great ible, just great.

lucasicecream (author)2010-03-02

haha that circuit is wayyyy more expensive and complex then it needs to be:)

ogama8 (author)lucasicecream2010-03-02

 Yup [solders switch, led's and batteries together]


I guess it's kinda cool to do this with a push button but the micro controller is always on so that justs sucks your battery life.

ironsmiter (author)ogama82010-03-03

There HAS to be something more to the uC part, doesn't there?
  Like chasing lights, multi-color fading, timer-to-off, or something? ANYTHING?
  Since the led circuit is already set for 5Volt...then all you really need to do for "on/off" is to feed it power from a usb port, or cell phone wallwart charger, or as ogama8 says, batteries.

We'd like to hear from klbrockmann on this, before we dismiss it as a case of wildly over-engineered technobabble.

klbrockmann (author)ironsmiter2010-03-04

I'll add the exact details of my microcontroller schematics and code soon. Right now I have the uC setup to send each color loop (red, green, blue) a unique square wave pulse with a predefined duty cycle and period, thereby mixing the different colors to make new color combinations (white, purple, yellow, etc.) The push button is my method of scrolling through the different colors which have to be defined in the program code.

I think my biggest issue with this project right now is power consumption. Ideally, I would like power to be sourced from batteries or possibly USB. Right now the circuit running with all colors on (white) draws a little over 1A at 5VDC. 1A rules out USB and AA batteries won't last more than 1.5 hours. I haven't figured out the best way to cut down yet, but I'm working on it.

klbrockmann (author)ogama82010-03-03

I know the micro adds complexity and consumes power but it does give you the ability to adjust the color to just about anything you can think of.

 Agreed. I'll call this one a prototype. I had a dead line to meet for this project so unfortunately I didn't have the time to really nail down the best solution. I'm working on making it better. I would really like to make battery power a reasonable option.

dunnos (author)2010-03-04

tsss. cnc, you're such a show-off :P

r-philp (author)2010-03-02

That looks great!  Do you have any information on programming the microcontroller?

klbrockmann (author)r-philp2010-03-03

 I'll have more on that soon.

dboone628 (author)2010-03-03

Impressive job on the third hand tool.

klbrockmann (author)dboone6282010-03-03

Thanks! It took less than 30min to make and has been one of the most useful tools I have. I got the idea from this Instructable: Third Hand++

geoper2 (author)2010-03-02

wow nice job with the wood !! well done really nice project but it requires some tools, which are hard to find , so that it can be done correctly

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