Letter boards are an item that, for many of us, we haven't had much exposure to. They may have helped us find the correct doctors office or the price of a hot dog at a bowling alley, but not much else. While they've seldom been used in the past for entertainment, these simple items have recently begun filling up Instagram accounts doing just that. Felt letter boards are now in style baby.
Sadly, the prices companies charge for these boards (about $100) made the prospect of buying one for my girlfriend this last Valentine's Day pretty slim. So instead of taking out a loan or selling all of my Arduinos, I figured I'd save some money by making one for her. Engineering students at the University of Texas like myself have access to a Maker Studio where we can use their Full Spectrum Laser cutters. Those machines are what made this project successful by making a far-fetched idea transform from a digital design to a physical item.
So, lets gather some tools and materials and get building. My intent here is not to give you a detailed set of instructions to make one specific board. Instead, I'm giving you a basic technique for working with these materials to make almost any size or shape letter board you can imagine. This does not detail the creation of that first one, but rather a scaled down version I made when I decided I needed one for myself.
- Laser Cutter(Possible with a table saw using awesome measurement and spacers)
- Plywood 1/4" at least 10"x10" for the inners and another piece of similar dimensions in 1/8" for the frame
- MDF or another type of board that can be easily glued to
- Craft Felt
- Wood Glue
- Table Saw, could be done with a number of other types of saws
- Rotary cutter or X-acto Knife
- Thin tool to push felt(I used a hacksaw blade, you could also use tongue depressors or something else)
- Paint or stain to finish the frame
- Clamps to glue up
Step 1: Design
The first thing you must do is decide on the design. Fortunately, due to the thickness of the felt, you don't have a whole lot of choice in the matter.
The design constraints are simple:
- The felt is held snugly in each slot
- The size of the board matches the size of your literary prowess(make it as big as you want!) For another one that I made, I combined two full 20x12 sheets.
As long as you're sticking with common craft weight felt, slots size of 90 thousandths of an inch (.090") will do. Common felt board letters have pegs spaced in increments of 1/4" so that is what I designed mine to have as well. You can buy lots of different types of letters for embellishments and style so I figured it would be the best option to stick with the common spacing.
I designed the pattern for the laser in Inkscape, a free vector editing software. I set a grid to the width of my board (1/4") and worked off of that. Also, I set the width of the slots to .090 manually in the numerical controls. The final .svg file is attached for any of y'all to download/use/edit. I used this file to make the one that you'll see in the rest of this instructable, but I've also enlarged it to make a big one for a wall as well! Let those creative juices flow!
Step 2: Laser Cut
Make sure you have your laser's software. The University of Texas Maker studio where I'm working on my project has three FS Lasers so I have the Full Spectrum Retina Engrave Software
When you've got all your ideas ironed out in Inkscape, click print, select the FS Engineering Driver, and click print. Your file will open up inside of the laser software.
You'll need to do a few more things to operate your laser:
1. Connect your computer to the laser via Ethernet cable
2. Fire up the laser and supporting water chiller, air filter, and air assistance.
3. Home your laser by clicking the home button. This will bring it to the top right where it can reference.
4. Get your material. Make sure its flat, otherwise you'll risk the laser focuser catching and moving the board. Pro Tip: You can tape down the edges with painters tape to keep that from happening.
5. Move the head in Fast XY Mode to the highest point of your material. Once you're there use the Fast Z & Test to perfect the height of the laser head focus.
6. Move back over to find a starting point at the top left of your material, and run the job perimeter, watching for the laser to run out of bounds.
7. Set the laser head speed and power. The Maker Studio provides a handy cheat sheet for the FS lasers, and it told me that for cutting through 1/4" Birch Plywood I would need to run the job at 30% speed and 100% power.
Once you're confident in all of the above procedures, close the lid, put on your safety glasses, click run and watch your design come to life!
Step 3: Support
MDF makes a great backing for this project. Its flat surface and ease of gluing lend itself well to what we're about to do.
Measure your laser cut piece. The kerf of the laser often alters the final dimensions of designs, so it's better to be safe than sorry. This one turned out to be 9 and 1/4" by 9 and 7/8".
Go over to the table saw and set up your piece of MDF. Cutting MDF will create a lot of sawdust, so a dust collection system like the one shown is a nice luxury. Lower your blade to about a quarter inch above the material's upper surface. Slide your fence over to your first dimension, lock it down, and cut away. On your second cut you'll want to use a sled instead of a fence to guide your MDF. Measure from the edge of the blade to the edge of your piece setting your second dimension.
Step 4: Add the Felt
Here comes the tricky business.
The felt needs to be much longer than I originally thought. I made a mistake on my first board by cutting a piece of felt too short. You have to consider how the folding of the felt will add up and shorten the piece. I think a good rule of thumb is to use a length of felt thats about 4x the length of your board(measures vertically across the slots) My design is about 10" and I used about 40" worth of felt. Width wise you'll want to add a little fudge factor for misalignment.
Start at one end by folding the felt over and pushing it into the first slot. Progress slot by slot making sure that you have enough material to fill the new one without pulling material from the previous one. This is tricky because while you'll want enough material to reach the other side to glue, you also don't want too much material where it appears as billows on the upper side. Try to push the material down to the surface of the table. When you're threading the felt into the slots you'll notice that if you use the same technique every time, you might end up with more material on one side than the other. Reverse your technique to begin pulling it in the opposite direction. Don't be afraid to restart some sections. I sure did that a few times. It took me quite a while to master this finicky process, but with some patience you'll end up with a professional looking product.
You should notice the overhangs that we've created. You'll want to trim those down. You can also cut off the excess at the two ends. I found that a rotary fabric cutter and a ruler did a wonderful job. Trim down the sides to the point where the slots just start. Repeat on both sides. Next, pick back up that trusty tool you've been using, and begin to tuck the edges of the felt into the slots. Now, lift the piece up off work surface and run your tool down each slot with firm pressure. Our goal is to reach all of the felt folds evenly down to the opposing surface. You can visually inspect the reverse side of the board to make sure you've achieved that.
Now that you have the felt all prepped and pretty, get out the wood glue. Any wood glue will work, I used the Gorilla brand wood glue just because that is what the studio had. Apply glue liberally to the reverse side of the felt. Use a scrap of something to spread the glue and make sure it gets into all the crevices. Apply glue to the MDF and spread that around as well. Mate the pieces and clamp. One little thing I noticed was that the outer edges of the lasered frame were bowing out, so I clamped those horizontally.
When the glue sets, remove the clamps and admire your beautiful work. Time to frame!
Step 5: Frame
There are so many different ways to frame this guy. You've got creative license - make it your own and make it awesome. The first one I made I actually framed with scrap metal that I found in the dumpster behind the engineering building. It gave it more of an industrial look. I was thinking it'd be cool to buy a fancy ornate frame from a thrift store or something. For this one though, I decided to show off the abilities of the FS Laser and cut a 3-D frame myself. The file is attached.
I took my measurements back to Inkscape, and started creating essentially a box with one side missing. I matched up all the dimensions, and added tabs to have the pieces fit together. I goofed though and neglected to factor in the kerf of the laser so the final product wasn't perfect, but it was pretty dang close. The glued up frame looked great and fit over the felt board stupendously.
I sanded the whole thing down a bit just to remove any scratchy stuff that was already on the plywood. Then with a little bit of creative cardboard cutting I made a little device to suspend the frame over the painting area. I taped that down, added the frame, and got to painting. I used what the studio had, which was white latex paint and some clogged brushes. It honestly turned out to be pretty nice, giving the frame that sort of painted wood grain look. When it was all done drying, I pulled it off and pressed it down onto the felt board. The laser cut it to such a perfect dimension that i didn't even need any hardware to attach it. With a little help from the shop-vac, this felt board is clean and ready to be filled with as much irony as my heart desires.
Step 6: Get Your Letters
For the sake of simplicity, I bought a used pack of Quartet brand letters on Amazon. I was pleasantly surprised with how well the letters fit into the slots. They stay snug on most slots, but have a little bit of trouble on the slots where I didn't quite press the felt deep enough.
I hope you enjoyed this Instructable, and thanks for reading. Happy making!