Introduction: Backlit LED Lightbox Sign
This time around we're going to make a professional LED backlit lightbox for whatever logo, business name, or design you can imagine. Has this been done before? Yes of course, it's an old concept that can be created in many ways. Why did I take the time to create this instructable if that's the case? I searched the website forever and scoured the many tutorials, but found most to be a bit pedestrian. I don't mean this in a negative manner, anything that someone creates is worth tipping your hat at. What I do mean is "the difference between ordinary and extraordinary, is that little extra". So with that being said, let's make something that will stun your clients and elevate your hand work!
Step 1: List of Materials
Sadly I didn't take photos of all the things needed for this so I'll try to be thorough. I know it seems like a lot, but I built this project for under $100 in supplies (it's worth noting I did have many of the tools already). Feel free to message me if you need advice or have further questions, I love to help out!
1/4" x 2' x 4' pre-cut mdf sheet from Home Depot x 1
1/4' x 2' x 4' pre-cut white tile board mdf sheet from Home Depot x 1
3/4' x 4" x 10' pine board from Home Depot x 1
5 meter 5050 LED light strip/controller/power supply from Amazon x 1
1 can of primer (I suggest the following, it goes on clean and smooth if you take your time)
1 quart of flat black paint (or whatever color you require for your project)
1 can of white spray paint or 1 quart of white latex (high gloss)
1 can of clear coat lacquer
1 paint roller handle and covers (4" or 9" depending on the size of your project)
1 plastic paint tray
1" finishing nails
1/2" low profile wood screws
2 saw tooth hangers (plus hardware) for mounting
1 flexible putty knife or scraper
1 sander handle
a few sheets of sandpaper (I think I used around 160 and 280 grit) numbers aren't so important, just 1 rough and 1 a lot smoother!
A small dowel rod to smooth out the round edges with sand paper or small rounded wood file
heat-shrink to fit your LED strips
1/2" velcro with adhesive (less than 12" total)
1 white roll of electrical tape
1 light duty staple gun
a bunch of 5/8" staples
3/4" wood chisel
large T square
jigsaw (with small, smooth cutting blade)
Printer and paper for your design
1 power drill with a variety of bits
finishing hand saw
Step 2: Decide on Design and Layout
It's time to figure out the final design. I had an existing high res file of my work's logo. I used Photoshop to separate the letters and print (you don't need Photoshop) and I carefully cut them out with my exacto blade. Then I laid them out on my plain mdf sheet. I used the T square to create a line near the bottom to make sure everything lined up cleanly. With a pen I traced the letters out staying true to the design's dimensions and spacing. Take your time and get it right, it's important! Once you're confident that all looks well move on to the next step.
Step 3: Drilling and Cutting
This is by far the hardest/most rewarding part of the project.
I know you can send a file to a CNC shop and they can bang this out for you cleanly and for a cost. That's not the point, you get to test your hand skills and see if you have what it takes to keep your lines clean! I started by clamping the piece down to my sawhorses. Next was to pre-drill as many relief points as possible for the cut outs. I always defaulted to the inside of my lines and error-ed on the side of caution. Remember, you can take away but you can't add back! On the radiuses cut small straight lines very close together for relief cuts, then you can make the angles a lot smoother when chipping away at them.
Look closely at the photos and you'll notice I have some floating "islands" in my design. You can approach these 2 ways. The 1st being creating "bridges" similar to the style done with stencil artwork. The 2nd (and my chosen method for this project) was to cut them out entirely, and support them from the back of the project so as not to alter the original design in anyway. The wood gets very wobbly in weak spots with a jigsaw, so I cut the islands out before anything else. Afterwards I slowly and carefully cut the remaining pieces out, paying special attention to stay within my lines as I mentioned before.
Step 4: Create Your Frame
The next step is to cut out your frame from the 10' piece of pine. Depending on your design, the dimensions will vary. It's worth mentioning I had an even 3" border across my logo after cutting the left over wood from my original piece of mdf. With that being said, I made my frame slightly smaller (1/16" on each side) less than the front piece. By doing this, I can sand down the overhang to create a flush smooth edge.
I used my chisel to create an overlap rabbet edge in the side pieces of the frame. This was cut to 3/4" wide, and 3/8" deep to accommodate the top and bottom pieces of the frame. Don't forget to cut your top and bottom pieces an extra 3/4" wider to bridge the gap. This type of joint will help secure the piece into a very solid frame.
I used my wood glue and spread it evenly on all edges to be joined. Then I clamped the pieces together making sure to keep it square and lined up with front mdf piece.
Step 5: Layout, Cut and Paint the Bridges
I wanted to make sure the "bridges" coming from the back to support the islands were lined up correctly. So I laid the front and back cutout pieces on top of each other and mocked up the design. I marked on the back piece my points of interest. Next was to cut small pieces from the remaining piece of the board you used for the frame. Then I spray painted the pieces white to blend into the background.
Step 6: Glue Your Front, Sand, Wood Fill, and Sand Again
Next on the agenda was to glue my front piece on. Make sure to apply the glue to BOTH SIDES of the wood to be attached. I spread the glue on liberally, then set the top down and clamped carefully to ensure even edges all around. After it dried I hammered a few brad nails into the edges of the side pieces to secure the frame a bit more. I then used my nail setter and hammer to knock the nails into the frame a bit. This will hide them once you apply the wood filler.
I used my orbital sander to take the down the edge to flush it up with the frame. Once it was smooth as a baby's bottom I used the putty knife to smooth over wood filler to clean up all the rough edges and gaps. Be generous with the filler, the goal is to create a nice square box with no visible cracks, edges, nail holes, or gaps. If you do a good job there will be no visible light leaks from the completed piece. You will need to sand down all sides with the orbital again afterwards and make sure everything is clean, flat, and square. For the letters/design, I used my the dowel rod (for rounded edges) and sander handle (for flat portions) to clean all the inside edges.
In the last photo you'll notice I used white caulk on the inside of the frame, this was just to save time and effort as it was the closest thing to me and super easy to apply to an edge no one will see.
Step 7: Pre-Drill the Back
I carefully laid out the back piece and drilled pilot holes. This will prevent the thin material from splitting or cracking when you insert screws. I might have forgotten to mention the back piece was cut to the same specs. as the front (1/16" overhang on every edge). Be cautious and line it up right. I put a few screws in and sanded it down (with the orbital) to flush it up with the frame.
Step 8: Attach the Unseen Bridges to the Back
I mocked everything up and glued the bridges for the islands to back piece of tile wood. This was a slow process as I wanted to make sure things lined up and were flush with the front. Even though I cut them from the same piece as the frame, I still needed to sand a few down to keep it all clean. Take your time to get it right!
Step 9: Paint the Inside of the Frame
Next I painted the inside of the frame white to help reflect as much light from the LEDS as possible.
Step 10: Prime and Sand
You must prime the entire project to ensure a clean, smooth paint job. You can tell from the second photo that mdf sucks up the prime/paint very aggressively. To help keep the edges clean, I first sprayed them with a clear coat lacquer to seal, then I primed on top of it. Make sure to sand down in between coats to keep things smooth.
Step 11: Paint Your Box (I Failed Bigtime)
Your biggest fears can come true here. I decided to use a spray can initially, which was a very bad call in the end. You can see from the photos the 1st coat was a wreck, and although they got progressively better; they were still unacceptable and splotchy in the end. After 4 coats I decided it was time to just use the roller and latex paint to keep things clean and smooth.
Regardless of your method of painting one thing is for sure, use the sandpaper to smooth out after each coat. Less is more, and use light coats frequently to keep things manageable. If you skip this step you will regret it! Take heed.
Step 12: Drill and Prepare Your Electrics
Now everything is painted and ready for you to add your electrics. I started by drilling a small hole in the center of the bottom on the frame to make room for the power cord and LED infrared sensor. I then wrapped it all with white electrical tape to make sure it stays hidden and reflective inside the box.
I used velcro to secure it to the frame and dropped my cables through the hole in the bottom. Since the LED cable was originally white, I painted it black and taped it to the power cable.
Step 13: Add and Secure Your LED Strip Tape
Next up is to connect your LED strip tape and secure it properly to the frame. I chose to use an even strip across all sides to ensure the light would spread evenly inside the box. I used the staple gun to secure it every 10 inches or so and took extra care to secure the corners on the sides. Be careful not to put a staple through the actual strip, this could kill your strand and be a big pain to remedy.
Once I wrapped the box I cut the strip where indicated (usually by a scissor icon) and used heat shrink to seal the edge. In typical cautious fashion I also added e-tape to close the loose end.
Step 14: Test Glow
Now that the electrics are powered and secured it's time to make sure everything glows correctly. Luckily enough mine did, and worked like a charm. You can see in the 1st few photos I tried it without the front islands in place. The video will show the islands in place and doing their job beautifully.
The photos have some weird shadowing from my overhead lights. On some pics it even looks like there are different colors or like it casts an uneven light. In person this is not the case. She glows bright, evenly, and without any noticeable difference in the lighting.
Step 15: Secure the Back, Fill, Then Paint
Next up is to add the back piece and clean up the edges, similar in fashion to the front. I inserted the remaining screws, then filled with wood putty on all edges except the bottom. If the LEDs ever fail, I wanted to know where a seam was so I can break the filler with a razor and remove the back (which is why I screwed it instead of gluing it like the front). When it dried I once again sanded down to a smooth surface, then finished rolling on the black paint.
If you're wondering why I added the back after I painted the front of the box it's because I didn't want to risk dripping any black paint onto the back reflective white surface. It would be very noticeable and not worth dissembling to fix/replace.
Step 16: Add Your Mounting Hardware
Last step to a completed piece is to add the mounting hardware. I used these typical saw tooth hangers. They were pretty flimsy, and in the end I drilled them out and used bigger screws to secure them to the back and frame. You'll most likely notice from the photos that I have a nail and a screw in each of them (another fail). This is an important lesson to drill pilot holes and use high-quality hardware (because I broke 2 screw heads while installing). I didn't want to make things messy so I just used some nails to finish securing the hardware.
Measure twice, and drill/screw once. They were evenly spread and leveled to help with the wall mounting. I know they're not pretty, but thankfully they hold tight and are unseen.
Step 17: Attach to Your Wall
Last thing to do is add screws to your wall and attach the final piece. Even though it's surprisingly light, I added drywall anchors to make sure she won't come down unexpectedly. Play with the LED controller, find something amazing; and make sure to remind everyone that it used to be a tree until you created a masterpiece!
Good luck in creating your own!!!