It Started With An Idea

TL;DR Why not create a full color edge-lit display, so that you can convert any image into an awesome full color edge-lit lithopane. Also, I made a lot of mistakes, and learned some things. No easy access to laser cutter so bothered friend to cut them. Skip to the next step for the instructions.

I always thought Edge-lit signs were really cool. Just etch a piece of glass or plastic and light it from the edge using some leds. You could make the sign as intricate and detailed as you want, as you don't have to rely on other limiting factors of led signs, like the diameter of the leds. You also don't need to worry about the power consumption like you would for a large led display or sign. They also just look really awesome!

One thing about edge lit signs however is that you can usually only use one color (based on the color of leds around the edge). Doing some research I have found some versions with multiple colors, but they usually print logo's on the plastic and light them up with white led's or use 2 pieces of plastic for 2 specific colors in a logo. I wanted to go further!

Why not separate a photo into it's Red, Green and Blue colors. Then combine them inline to create a full color light up photo. Since White light can be created with only Red, Green, and Blue colors, we should only need those 3 colors, plus Black. For the Black layer, we will use some black paper or maybe some plasti-dip on the very back.

So how to go about this. Red, Green, and Blue will be easy to create, but what about all the other colors? Well if you have ever played with some RGB Leds or Neopixels, you know that by adjusting the level of each channel, you can create many different colors. I wasn't sure how it would actually turn out though, so I had to just give it a try.

I had alot of trial and error, but I will show you my mistakes and assumptions, so you don't make them. This is very much an experiment, so if you think you can make it better, then please do! I would love to know if anyone else has success with this! Share your results!


Since this is a bit of trial and error, I was bound to have some problems with my theory, but here are some questions and problems that I faced from the start.

How do I manipulate the photos? (I found alot of useful information and tutorials on GIMP)

How well will the other colors turn out? (I decided that even with my limited access to a laser cutter, I should probably start with a test image to see what colors show up more than others)

Will the colors from the back pane still be visible from the front? (I wasn't sure, but eventually found a method that seemed to work, and some that didn't)

Will the Red, Green, and Blue colors blend together? (Sorta, but we have to use some special filters. White was a little tricky however)

Parallax......How will the image and colors look with gaps between each pane of acrylic? (This method is very sensitive to the viewing angle, but it looks awesome from all angles!

No Laser Cutter! (This is a big one!!! I don't own a laser cutter, and my Makerspace doesn't currently have one either. Luckily I have a friend who built his own, but it is fairly hard to get access to, especially when you are doing many iterations and making many mistakes. Overall, it took 3 months from idea to this being posted)

Step 1: Tools and Materials


  • Access to a Laser Cutter/ Engraver
  • Access to a 3D printer (may be optional. Be creative!)
  • Soldering iron and solder
  • Wire Strippers
  • Computer (kind of a given, but just making sure)


  • Gimp (image editing software) Download Here
  • Inkscape (May be optional. I used it for creating the outline for each acrylic panel. You can use my template if you prefer.) Download Here
  • Arduino (May be optional, but based on my experiments, I eventually needed to use an arduino) Download Here
  • Laser Cutter software (This varies based on your laser cutter. Use whatever is compatible for the laser cutter you use.)


  • Clear Acrylic sheet 1/8" (Also known as plexiglass. You can use a different thickness, but this is what works with my 3d model for the base)
  • Plastic for 3d Printer (any plastic should work)
  • WS2812B Led strip aka Neopixels (I recommend getting Neopixels. 1 Meter will be more than enough.) You can buy Neopixel led strip here
  • Wire (this is to connect the led strips together)
  • Double Sided Tape (only needed if your led strip doesn't have adhesive backing)
  • Arduino Board (any arduino should do, but I only had an arduino mega, so that's what I used) This Arduino Uno will work great.
  • 2.1mm Female power jack (needed for connecting power to the arduino and led strip) I used this one
  • 5V power adapter (to power the arduino and leds) This one will work
  • Aluminum Tape *optional* (In case you want to coat the inside of base with something reflective. I didn't, but it's an option)
<p>Great job on this, I'm glad someone pointed it out to me. I was able to work with the skimmed version and am ashamed to admit that I've never read the steps start to finish in a single sitting. Thanks for including some of the trial and error information to help us see the methodology. I have actually closely followed this and almost have a good copy of my own thanks to this instructable, I've read alot, made none and created this account so I could thank you for getting me this far.</p><p>I opted for the 4channel option but am currently held up with one problem, the WRGB Version Stl's zip contains both bases 3 &amp; 4 but no 4 slot top. I am good at making small adjustments to simple parts but before I put my own skill to the test I was going to see if you might be able to share the final top you ended up using on the WRGB set.</p><p>Thanks again for a great post!</p>
Oh wow. Thanks for letting me know! Sorry about that. I will upload it later today. Glad you are having success! I would love to see a photo of the finished piece!
<p>That would be great! can't wait to complete this, ultimately it will be tied into a raspberry pi based door bell as a visible ring indicator as well. I may run the laser cut once more on a new sheet depending on how well the first attempt looks. Without the full image, looking at each color individually I feel my raster might have been too shallow.</p>
<p>Ok, I fixed it. The correct stl's should be in there now. Awesome idea! With my first attempts my raster was way too deep, but you might be surprised how well even a really shallow raster shows up.</p>
I reran the acrylic, didnt have the proper top model yet so thats a temp polystyrene top. you can also see the line where I restarted the raster with higher power settings. I cant wait to print the full top with better color channel isolation.
That looks awesome! Better than my first attempt. Are you using neopixels as well? I am kind of curious if the colors of yours will take as much tweaking as mine did.
<p>a row</p>
<p>Nice job, I'm wondering couldn't it be separated into a cymk like photos in magazines etc. essentially using the halftones of each color, so when edge lit the prominent the dot the more color highlights to shadow areas. You got me thinking</p>
<p>Couldn't you use exhange the ws2812 for three strands of <br>normal RGB-strips, and only use one colour for each strip with a <br>transistor and PWM (if you're going to use a microcontroller anyway). <br>That way you can easily trim your colours separately. You could even do <br>this with three bipolar transistors and three pots. Or do you need to trim all the colours for each of the three strands to look right (it's unclear if that was what you failed with)?</p><p>Otherwise, very nice tutorial, I'll most likely build one like this.</p>
<p>So, that's what I did first actually. What I found is that it is actually really crucial to tune each color not by only the brightness, but by the other colors in each led. You could technically do that with a standard rgb strip, but you would need at least 16 pwm drivers. 3 for each segment, not including white. Since I had some neopixels plus an arduino laying around, I used them instead. You could certainly try, especially if programming is foreign to you, like it is to me. It is also kind of fun to play with the colors overall. So instead of using Red, Green, Blue, and White, you can change it to Red, Violet, and Cyan, to get some cool &quot;instagram-like&quot; filter effects. Using an arduino helps put an exact number to the brightness of each pixel, instead of just eye-balling it with potentiometers. I would ultimately like to add 3 pots and a button to the analog pins on the arduino, to allow you to fine tune it with the knobs, and then set it with the button.</p>
<p>Very cool idea! :)</p>
<p>Excellent ! Having seen some of the single and two colours work of many others, I was certain a near full colour version could be possible using three panes. You just proved it along with working many of the bugs out, like adding a fourth pane for the white and suggesting a solution for black.</p><p>Do you think engraving using a CNC router would work out as good or better than a laser engraver ?</p><p>Have you &quot;played&quot; with the distance between the panes ?</p><p>I need to mount the laser module to my CNC router and give your method a try ...</p>
I don't think a cnc router will work. Essentially the images are converted to a bunch of very small dots, that when looked at from the correct angle, look like a color image. The problem with a router is that you can't get the resolution needed for those &quot;dots&quot;. It may work using a very small bit and a very large display, but in order for the colors to &quot;blend&quot; together, you would also need to stand very far away to get the effect. Maybe using a V shaped bit, like you use for routing pcb's, and a very accurate router could get the results. It would allow a very small &quot;dot&quot; size if you program it right. If you manage it though, let me know! As for the distance between the layers. The limiting factor for that is the width of the led strip. I didn't want the &quot;baffles&quot; to have a steep angle towards the bottom of the acrylic panes. You could probably get away with the panes closer together though. I also thought about filling the gaps with a liquid, like mineral oil or glycerin, to see how it would affect the way it looked. I never got around to experimenting with that though, but I don't think it will really help at all. I also never ended up using something for the &quot;black&quot; in the end. I found that the colors contrasted well without it. Plus it looks much cooler!
<p>Really super amazing job. Im very attracted to LED vibrant lighting and the project turned out very nice. I would like to try and build the same. Just need some laser cut pieces ha! </p>
Thanks! Yeah, the laser cutting is the toughest part of the project.
Such a cool idea! Very inspiring. Bonus points for using a pic of Fry :) you got my vote!
Thanks, I appreciate it!
wow this is really awesome! nice job

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