Introduction: Light Tablet

Picture of Light Tablet

Any serious or not serious artist needs a lightbox. Lightboxes are used to illuminate a picture from behind so that you can trace the image on to an overlaying sheet of paper. In a pinch, you can also use this to look at x-ray film to see how your bones are healing after that Knex or bicycling mishap.

Many others have constructed lightboxes or light tables before. My design was inspired by the new Mac aluminum keyboards. They are sleek, look pretty cool, and does it job in a minimalist package. This is my entry into the Let It Glow contest. A frugal investment for a professional tool costing several times more.

Step 1: Get the Essentials...

Picture of Get the Essentials...
This time we will dig into the wood scrap, although it is possible to make this out of laminated cardboard or formed metal. You will need :

  • 1" x 2" wood stock
  • 1" x 4" or 1" x 6" wood stock (1" x 3" was used in this prototype project)
  • 3/4" #8 wood screws
  • white paint
  • wood glue
  • jig saw (hand saw works also)
  • sandpaper (orbital sander or other power sander)
  • drill, screwdriver
  • ...if you are lucky enough to have - pocket hole jig/drill or plate joiner or dowel jig

And purchase these at Big Orange if you don't have anywhere to scavenge:

  • 23 inch undercabinet slimline plug-in flourescent light - $19 USD

This long light is pretty compact and has a built-in on/off switch and has a diffuser cover for the bulb. It does output a fairly white light even though it has a "warm white" bulb.

  • 18" x 24" Lexan clear polycarbonate plastic sheet -$14 USD

The difference between the "good" grade acrylic and the "best" Lexan plastic was only a few dollars. The Lexan is a bit more scratch resistant and stiffer which is better since it will be our drawing surface. I opted to use this instead of glass since this is a portable unit that can be put to the side when not in use. Try to keep the protective cover on the plastic as long as you can to avoid scratching it inadvertently.

Step 2: Frame It Up!

Picture of Frame It Up!

We will make a wooden frame to support the sheet of plastic. The light is attached under the header part of the frame below. This is an open box design so we should have no problems with heat buildup.

You don't really have to get out a tape measure to do your measurements. For the header piece, just put up the 1 x 4 to the long edge of the plastic and mark the length which should be 24". Cut that piece.

Measure the 1 x 2 and mark the same way for the 2 side pieces which should be 18". Cut those pieces.

Lay the two side pieces together on one of the edges. Place a 1 x 2 perpendicular to them and mark at the end of the plastic. This will be the filler piece for the bottom part.

Take one of the 1 x 2 and trace its profile onto both top ends of the header like in the picture. Cut that out with a handsaw or a jigsaw. This will be use to join our side pieces to the header. The header piece is our "support leg" for the light tablet. The 1 x 2 are attached flat to the header to form out frame for the plastic.

Glue the side pieces to the header. You could strengthen these joints with various woodworking techniques. I have a pocket hole jig which lets me drill an angled hole into the wood for a screw to go in. The filler piece is then glued between the side pieces at the bottom. Again, I have used pocket screws to pull them together. You can experiment with tenons, dowels, a long screw or nail through the end, etc. in order to reinforce the joint.

Try to make everything square or fit to the rectangularness of the sheet of plastic.

Once all the glue is dry, round over all the edges and corners. Do this outdoors as you will have a lot of sanding dust. It is much easier to do with some sort of power sander.

While you are outside, sand one side of the plastic to make it cloudy in appearance in order to diffuse the light. The plastic came with a label saying that the unprinted side should be exposed to any UV. I kept that side as my "good" side to use as my drawing surface. I scuffed up the backside with my orbital sander. I used a medium 100 grit which did a good job. Wear a mask to avoid breathing in the plastic particles. Take a file to round off the sharp corners of the plastic.

Prime and paint the frame in any color you think is cool.

Step 3: Final Assembly...

Picture of Final Assembly...

Mount the light to the underside of the header according to manufacturers directions.

Position the Lexan over the frame with the scuffed side down. You can glue it down with maybe a silicone caulk or GorillazMiko glue but I didn't want a wierd glue line showing up under the plastic. I opted for screws at each corner.

Drill and countersink the screws so they are flush with the surface. Don't tighten too much to allow for any plastic expansion and contraction. The surface does flex a bit but it still provides enough support for comfortable drawing on.

Step 4: Lights, ...

Picture of Lights, ...

So, how does it work?

Just plug it in and use...

It seems to do better when the table or surface under the light tablet is a light color to help diffuse the light. I recommend that the header be made of a 1 x 4 or 1 x 6 to elevate the tablet higher so that the light diffuses better on the angled tablet. I guess you could make a back with a reflective surface as a diffuser but that would turn it into a clunky light box. Also, a little deflector or opaque tape on top of the light source would help to diffuse the hotspot strip of light. The light tablet is actually brighter than the pictures show and is quite useable. And the ambiglow on the sides is pretty cool.

For all of those budding artists out there, go make one and enjoy.


MonicaO (author)2015-06-22

I added a light tablet to my cart then decided to look around first and I found you. What an awesome idea, didn't even think about making one. I have all the materials except the Plastic. I purchased a piece of glass from Michaels a couple of weeks ago for my craft table and it's really thin and light, so I might go ahead and place glass. I will follow the instructions and suggestions to see what will work for me. Thank you!!! Any suggestions for a light therapy?

caitlinsdad (author)MonicaO2015-06-22

If you need such a device for light therapy, I suggest you get an Ott-lite lamp to use behind the screen. Those offer the full spectrum of light. You could also probably make do with some kind of back lamp that has the "daylight" 5000k color bulb, LED or compact fluorescent to cut down on the heat. But you could also get into microprocessors like an arduino to control LEDs to flash and blink in patterns like the Brain Machine. Good luck.

MonicaO (author)caitlinsdad2015-06-28

Thank you, I will look into those items!!

I am almost done with my light box, will post a pic as soon as I complete it. I was looking through your forum and it looks like you have a great relationship with your daughter, keep up the great job!!

bvulgarin (author)2009-07-22

Congratulations! It's a nice work!

Keith-Kid (author)2008-07-28

NOW, I need one of these. So, I'm actually making one. Thanks caitlinsdad!

webster32 (author)2008-07-01

2 simple improvements that will increase the light output of the panel significantly -- 1. Place the light in the middle of the table -- your light tube allows light out both sides and the top. 2. Use aluminum foil and some cardboard or another bright reflector on both sides of the light tube. The best way to do this is to make a panel that will run (along the length of the tube) from the top edge of the table, right under the glass, down to the long side of the tube. Then make another panel for the opposite half. This will reflect the light evenly up to the table surface. Provided your diffusion layer is even enough, there shouldn't be any "distracting" glaring lines from the bulb. If the diffusion from paint and sanding isn't enough, consider applying a sheet of thin paper to the bottom side of the table top.

caitlinsdad (author)webster322008-07-01

Thanks. Welcome to Instructables. My design thought was to make something sleek that you can just grab and throw in the corner when finished. Placing the light in the middle adds bulk to the design and having diffusing panels makes it just a slim lightbox. I was hoping it would turn out like an electroluminescient flat panel that would evoke the feel and something that Apple would design. As you can see, everyone is trying to perfect a lightbox or try a light tablet.

Keith-Kid (author)2008-06-22

LOL at the second picture!!!

Thornburg (author)2008-05-25

These things are so awesome. We used them in my graphic art class (it also had this projector so we could explain are drawing) and they are so easy to trace.

creative zen (author)Thornburg2008-06-19

hey im in a graphics arts class too at my high school. Its nice to see people with the same attributes as you once in a while.

Thornburg (author)creative zen2008-06-19

It was a great class, and thanks.

caitlinsdad (author)Thornburg2008-05-25

It sure beats holding your picture up to a lampshade or the window and waiting for the sun to hit it just right. This design works well because it is big and is like a big sloping art desk so you can rest your elbows comfortably and draw, and it's relatively inexpensive to make. I hope you make one to use.

Thornburg (author)caitlinsdad2008-05-25

Although, you could add another light to the other side. Looks kinda dark.

caitlinsdad (author)Thornburg2008-05-25

It actually is very bright in use. I think the camera exposure is thrown off by focusing in on the hotspot. A small strip for a lightshield/reflector/better diffuser on the top of the light source would make the light even out. Seems like diffusing the light has always been a problem in building a light box and there are all sorts of creative solutions.

Thornburg (author)caitlinsdad2008-05-25

Must have been. Anyway looks like a store bought one (which are expensive).

caitlinsdad (author)Thornburg2008-05-25

Thanks. Closest thing I have to a Mac is my kid's Ipod. They always design cool stuff.

Thornburg (author)caitlinsdad2008-05-25

Your welcome. This is also random but I don't have a Mac, but an Ipod. Macs are only worth the price half of the time.

Xellers (author)2008-06-12

Wouldn't it be easier to modify a scanner to do this? Just remove everything but the gears, pulleys, light, and inverter and hook that up directly to a power supply. Then, all you would have to do is move the light to the desired position.

caitlinsdad (author)Xellers2008-06-12

You could but: 1. You need to find an old scanner to scavenge. 2. Many do not have the skills to rewire a scanner. Not that there is anything wrong with that. 3. You want the biggest surface area that you can make and work on. A lot of artists need room to work, tape up designs, and have references about. You may even need to trace a poster sized drawing. 4. The building materials are easily found in any home center/hardware store. Thanks for thinking about it.

Xellers (author)caitlinsdad2008-06-13

1) I have a recycling center near me and I've found several scanners there. 2) That's true, but many instructables here require a bit of soldering. I guess people will be able to. 3) That's true. But it might still work for smaller works. 4)Although this is true, building something useful from trash would feel much more rewarding than from bought materials. I've actually done a scanner rewiring, and found that it does work. But since the costs of this project are so low, you're right, building it would be a great idea. I'll try it!

caitlinsdad (author)Xellers2008-06-13

I would be happy if you put together an ible showing how to rewire the scanner. I actually have an old one lying around that is no longer supported with drivers so I could use that to build another light tablet to pass on to another budding artist or school. I too am a firm believer of free and frugal, I had scrap wood to use and would have preferred to find a sheet of plastic to reuse.

Xellers (author)caitlinsdad2008-06-14

I just posed a slideshow on the matter here is a direct link:

thermoelectric (author)2008-05-31

You could use EL panels instead of the light altogether Flexible, very energy efficent light box

There is the EL panel lamp project here. It looks like EL panels are tough to get and are $20 USD for surplus small 4x6 panels. It would cost $360 USD to cover a 18x24 light tablet. You would still need to diffuse the electric conductor border around these things and create a power supply to wire them up. It would be cool but wouldn't qualify for a cheap quick hack. Thanks.

GorillazMiko (author)2008-05-19


caitlinsdad (author)GorillazMiko2008-05-20

uh...would you like fries with that too?

Yes Send them to 123 fake street,Fake suburb, Fake land

Patrik (author)2008-05-19

Cool - this is definitely one of the lighter designs I've seen. A diffuser from a broken LCD screen would even out the lighting a bit more...

caitlinsdad (author)Patrik2008-05-20

Thanks, I did test it out with the white protective film on the plastic but it was too opaque and dimmed the light source too much. I guess you could add another film coating or try a piece of tracing paper glued to it but it would spoil the look. Luckily all of my LCD screens are still intact and working.

helifino (author)caitlinsdad2008-05-22

light diffuser panels are cheap and readily available at your local home improvement warehouse. Just make sure the "pointy side" faces the light source.

caitlinsdad (author)helifino2008-05-22

You could sandwich in a cut piece of those diffuser panels but the grate type would pose a problem of where to mount the light and to get that aimed to cover the entire tablet. The panels that have a pattern built-in seem to discolor after a few years as I have seen them in use as part of residential suspended ceiling lights since they are made of a cheaper acrylic. Frosted glass is probably the best way to go but I wanted to make something not as fragile.

helifino (author)caitlinsdad2008-05-22

A large part of the discoloration problem is that they trap dust and never get cleaned. In this case, the dust-trap portion would be pointed down, and should mostly alleviate the problem.

caitlinsdad (author)helifino2008-05-23

I may try the diffuser layer if I make another one. Add a couple of bucks to the project. I did see a spray-on glass frosting that maybe could be used on the back of the Lexan.

martymunch (author)2008-05-22

This is a great idea, if only I'd known this fifteen years ago. I will probably make one of these for my kids. Thanks!

caitlinsdad (author)martymunch2008-05-22

Welcome to Instructables. You can click on my highlighted orange username Caitlinsdad to see other fun stuff for kids. Enjoy!

martymunch (author)caitlinsdad2008-05-23

Thank you! Yeah I have done that already. I also liked the giant magnet and your other robo 'ibles. You are an inspiration, and ya make me laugh.

GorillazMiko (author)2008-05-19


Keith-Kid's real name is Bryant.

Anyways, nice job, I will vote for you, along with a +5/5 stars.

Thank you for not making too much fun of me this time. ;-)

bumpus (author)GorillazMiko2008-05-20

its just Yant, drop the "Br" :D

GorillazMiko (author)bumpus2008-05-20


bumpus (author)GorillazMiko2008-05-21

its a chat room thing

caitlinsdad (author)GorillazMiko2008-05-20

Are you sure that is water?

I think I should be a collaborator on all the 'ibles you post. WITH ME.

LinuxH4x0r (author)2008-05-19

Nice! I usually just use my scanner

bearshark (author)LinuxH4x0r2008-05-20


Keith-Kid (author)2008-05-20

ooohhh......I saw it.

Keith-Kid (author)Keith-Kid2008-05-20

Not so Famous?!!!!!!!!!

caitlinsdad (author)Keith-Kid2008-05-20

Eh, comme ci, comme ca...

OK, so-so famous...

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