This is awesome project, and the results are spectacular!
This is what I call a lightbox. It is made with etched plexiglass and is lit up by multiple leds. Though there are some great folks out there doing these light-up etchings, there are a couple of things special about this one:
- It utilizes slow color-changing leds which are modified for this project
- Images are spread across multiple planes of plexiglass
- each plane of acrylic sheeting has its own led string which is controlled by a switch
- It is powered by a common micro USB phone charger (5v) and can run from a portable charger
- My designs always utilize artistic elements in the outer casing, often with special papers and frames.
I would consider this to be of moderate difficulty- it requires multiple skills and it takes a good amount of time to complete...but It is worth the effort!
When all is said and done, this can be a piece that you will be hard-pressed to part with, and depending on how much you put into it, you can end up with something you might consider passing on to future generations or as a gift that really makes a lasting impression.
I call this TheLightbox for obvious reasons, but also it was created with an opensource mindset, as opposed to a blackbox technology that is build with a profit motive.
So if you would like to take this journey with me, let's continue!
Step 1: Gather Your Tools and Supplies
For some of these items I have mentioned also where they can be found and about how much they had cost for me
- Soldering iron
- Etcher (or Dremel with diamond tipped bits)-Hobby and craft stores and hardware stores- $25
- Small nippy cutters (for wire)
- Small pliers
- scissors or paper-cutting guillotine
- Box cutter (or any sharp razor)
- Third-hand tool
- Hot-glue gun
- Multimeter (optional,but helpful at times in the case of this project
- Straightedge ruler
- Sharp razors
- painter's tape
- electrical tape (preferably black)
- Aluminum tape (or any good and sticky tape that looks good)
- acrylic sheet (Also known as "plexiglass")-Can be found at most hardware stores-$11
- x2 Piece of special paper (or print you own designs!)-Can be found from hobby and craft stores-$2
- x36 Slow color-changing LEDs-Can be found on Ebay in packs of 100- under $8
- x36 82 Ohm Resistor-Ebay in packs of 100- under $6
- x3 Micro switches, SPST- come in packs of 50 or 100 on Ebay-$8
- Micro USB port (often used to repair phones)-Ebay- $3 each or under $10 for 100
- Magnet wire-Ebay- over 800ft for about $9
- Picture Frame (and in my case, supplies to modify this frame artistically)
- Micro USB phone charger(or charger block and wire separately)- approx.5 volts any amperage
- Portable cell phone charger (optional)
- Screen cleaner
- Hot Glue sticks
- 4 2032 batteries (or other buttoncell battery)
* always try to stay aware when soldering or using small power tools such as the soldering iron and dremel, and take extra care when cutting with razors...take a break from time to time to maintain higher levels of awareness!
- Safety glasses
- Dust Mask is helpful when etching
- Solder sucker or other ventilation-especially for when soldering and if burning coating off wire
- Cutting gloves are a good precaution when using Razor for cutting acrylic sheets
Step 2: The Etching
Usually you will purchase the acrylic sheet as one piece. Some helpful store workers may be willing to cut these down to the right sizes if you need. At first, when I did not have much money I would grab a sheet that had a crack in it and ask for a discount...this can work from time to time and seems to me as being mutually beneficial.
If you choose to cut this sheet down yourself then you will need a good straightedge if possible and a good sharp cutting tool. It doesn't matter too much the exact size as long as you leave some room inside the frame for circuitry. I believe i gave myself about 3/4 inch on each side worth of space which is more than enough. Its seems best if the three squares are close in size so that the LEDs are able to butt right up to each panel when they are stacked.
Just measure out and holding your straightedge down really good, give it a few smooth strokes for each cut. Not to go through, just to make a nice line. its good to now take this and break it apart across something solid and square like a sharp table. Not every time will it break perfectly and this has to do with the cut and the break. It doesnt need to be perfect and its easy to cut the extra chunks off or try again.
Now, I left the pattern i used, but i encourage you to try something of your own choosing and maybe stick with it if you make a few of these. This is good because it helps you learn easier from one to the next. In choosing the design, try to find something that lends well to multiple layers.
Once my pattern is printed and taped down to the work surface, I can center a square of plexiglass over it, and tape down the corners with painters tape. This helps to not leave a gunky residue on the acrylic and saves cleaning time later. I stick an led to a button cell battery to get it lit up and tape one to each side, running light straight through the glass. Whatever I etch will light up. I turn down the lights in the room and I paint with light!
Etching is a skill that seems to come with practice, there are a good deal of techniques out there and it really is an artform. In my case, I used to use a Dremel rotary tool with diamond tipped bits, but now I use a Dremel etching tool. It cost less and I like the effect it leaves on the plexi. I would suggest try practicing on some scrap pieces first for a while and do your best. Its simple to get a good picture and fun too! Over time, I'm sure I can make nicer pictures.
Once the first sheet is done, I put a little mark in the corner to mark it in case they all get shuffled up later. I place another one centered atop the first, tape it down, and try to set my LEDs a little higher up. Then we go for the third. Even with just 4 LEDs this looks neat, but imagine 36! It seemed like overkill to me too, but it is not too bright in dark settings and does well in bright lights, though not so much in the full blown sunlight.
This one took me quite a while...getting used to this etcher still and it's settings and I just took the time to make a beautiful image. It really does show in the final results.
Step 3: The Frame and Paper
Good to go with a larger frame, if you can, to allow space for the circuitry
You can buy nice frames all over, but in my case I had an untreated wood frame, so I gave it a little extra love.
I mixed ModPodge, Gold Flake paint, and graphite powder...hey, it's what I had!
I brushed it on and let it sit for a minute.
With a cloth and some rubbing alcohol I rubbed the paint mixture into the wood, which gave it a sort of used and rustic effect.
I touched it up in certain spots and repeated this process.
But that's what i did...I would say if you can, pretty up your frame a bit for a unique piece.
A word of warning: these come with a piece of glass that you may want to replace with a piece of acrylic sheet for safety, because people like to use these lightboxes to help them fall asleep.
The paper is also an integral part of the design and is a great opportunity to add your own unique expression!
For the back paper which goes under the etched acrylic, I used a sheet which was black with multiple colors of light glittering-sort of a trippy cosmic look. Some papers for the backing are better than others; I like to use darker colors because it seems the etched image appears more crisp. But try different types! Experiment!
For the front paper which goes under the top glass and covers the circuitry I used a gold reflective paper.
But it's up to you! Try designs printed on photo paper! or sheets or aluminum maybe...go wild!
I cut these papers to the right sizes to fit and measured liines onto the back of the gold paper and cut with a razor, using a straightedge ruler as a guide for my knife.
You'll notice later that i had measured incorrectly somehow and I will show how I adapted to account for this 'mistake'.
Usually these frames come with a cardboard backing. I Used hot glue to affix the black paper to the inside facing part of this cardboard backing. This will be seen through the etched acrylic.
Step 4: The Circuit
*If you do not know how to solder, there is an excellent primer here in another instructable: https://www.instructables.com/id/How-to-Solder-Basic-Soldering-Guide/
(insert circuit diagram later)
So here we make basically 3 strings of lights. These each have a switch of their own and between the three, it allows for an interactivity with the lightbox. These three strings are powered by the same source, and so are all connected to a single micro USB each LED has its own resistor. If all goes well, when a charger is plugged in and the switches are flipped, we will have a dazzling array of bright lights!
In order to power all of these lights with only 5V and with a limited amount of amps, the LEDs are wired in parallel. This means that all of the anodes(+) are wired together and all theCathodes-) are wired together, instead of it being cathode to anode to cathode to anode, etc. I think of it as railroad tracks compared to a trail,,,
I give each LED the special treatment. First thing I do is cut off the top off the led which flattens it out. Otherwise, light shoots like a spotlight, but we want a diffused light, which shoots it off in a more wider range. This helps to get more of this acrylic sheet lit up. In order to flatten it out, I usually use a nippy cutters. I have tried razors and it does work but not as easily. I've also used a jewelers saw, but it does fog up the light a bit and so needs more treatment. Be careful to just lob off the rounded end and not too much of the led because it can damage the led. Use a battery to test after the cut just to make sure it still works.
From there, I bend the led wires carefully to the sides as pictured. These are going to wrap around the outer edge of the sheets. I use pliers to do this, being careful not to damage the insides by pulling the wires out a little from the led itself. I usually test the led again to see if it is still good. Now i wrap either one of the resistor sides to the Cathode-). I use pliers to tighten this up a bit if I am in a perfectionist mood. Then I solder the joint. Then i cut the access wire. When i do all of this, I try to get things somewhat tight and have as little extra wire hanging around anywhere in there-the more metal, the more resistance in your circuit...this can possibly dim your overall brightness. You might notice that cut the LEDs after soldering the resistors and LEDs together. I usually do it the other way around, but either way is ok.
Now you have 36 treated LEDs with resistors attached. We need to wire these together now and over time I find the best stuff to use is magnet wire. The reasons are 1)it is thin so it allows for slimmer designs 2) it has a good insulating paint that keeps wires from crossing over and shorting the circuit and 3) it can carry the normal 5v efficiently without burning out and causing a safety hazard.
Best way to go about stripping the wire is with a razor. It is tedious and best to strip a bit from most sides of the portion you solder to. I have tried sandpapers and files, but to each his own. You can burn the acrylic of a bit with a flame, but I'm pretty sure it gives off a bit of a toxic fume, so do that at your own risk and have proper ventilation.
I just work from the spool the wire comes on, with out cutting. At first, just a 1/4 inch section or so i strip off the acrylic...just enough to wrap around the anode of the led, without leaving any bare copper wire. Then I solder the joint. (Some acrylic from the wire will get in with the solder and it will have a bit of black coloration and gunk up the tip of your soldering iron. Remember this stuff may have some toxic fumes to it, so have good ventilation!). Then I measure how much wire i will need to reach the next anode, considering that in this case I have three LEDs on each of the four sides of each sheet. In order to streamline this, i made two marks on my table to continuously measure my wire as I go. Now i get to that measured out point in the wire and strip a bit off. I don't cut, just wrap that around the next anode and continue to the next anode as well...kind of reminds me of sewing somehow...
I now connect three led/resistor combos together this way and then using the same method I connect all of these resistors. It will even be the same length of wire as marked out for the anodes. The reason i do three LEDs at a time instead of all twelve is because i do not want to be bending these wires around too much. They can break this way. but if you choose to do all twelve at once it is no big deal. I had in this case done 12 sets of three LEDs. I measured how much wire i needed to get around the corner to the other side, and marked this on my table. Then i took this amount of wire and connected 4 sets of these 3 LEDs and resistors. doesn't matter which way you go, as long as all your anodes are connected together and all your resistors are connected together. So here you have 12 LEDs in a row. I set them aside and do the other two sets of twelve.
I used a little tape to hold the ends of these wires up and so they would not get tangled up, which can happen, but with carefulness you can untangle them gently. on the other end now I have these three lines of wire...on the negative end-from the resistors I will have a section of wire that connects to a switch. Good here to make a determination as to how much space you want to give yourself to get that wire from the inside of the frame to wherever you decide to mount your switch. I suggest giving yourself a little extra slack just in case. Best to solder the end of one of these wires to the middle post out of the three possible posts of the switch. Reason to this is it is easier to solder from inside to outside. I do the same thing with the other two strings of lights.
The positive(anode) ends will each need a similar length of wire if you are choosing to mount your micro USB port near the switches.I strip these wires and twist them together. I twist to these another small length of wire. This is to help get it soldered to the port without too much bulk and to cut down on how much wire is exposed later in the finished work
On one of the other posts of the switches i add a section of wire. These will then twist together, connecting all your switches to the main power source, but first I add another small strip of wire just as I did before for the anode wires.
Now all these 36 LEDs and resistors and wire all comes down to two small wires. I clamp the micro USB port into the third hand tool so i can really get this right. This is a small solder point. I strip down the ends of these two small wires and for each one I fold the end over itself a little bit. I even use my pliers to crimp it a little. This I add solder to, and it helps the tiny wire to collect a bit of solder so that when i do make the joint it will be a matter of touch and go.
On the port you will usually have five possible points to solder to. If you have a multi-meter, try and double check which ones are positive and negative for your own understanding. If the points are at the bottom and facing towards you, then the one furthest to your left is the negative and the fifth one, furthest to your right is positive. You can even solder a couple of the two on the right and the two on the left that is fine as long as positive and negative are not touching and the solder does not fuse either point to the outer metal of the port. This gives you a little wiggle room and can serve to make a stronger solder point. Just get it on there really good and try to not mess around with it too much between now until the time you mount the port to the frame.
Now! If you made it this far without losing your mind from all these details and all the work, then this is the moment of truth...plug in your charger really carefully and it all lights up!
If not, don't panic...sometimes i get the positive and negatives backwards after all this work and that might just be it...inspect your port and give your wire a quick look over. If none of it lit up and your switches are flicked on and your charger is known to work and is in good order, then it's most likely the port. Possibly use your multimeter to check if there is power moving around in there. Switch your wires around and solder to the opposite ends from where they were first soldered. That should do the trick. If not, it must be in the charger for some reason, possibly it is connected to a plug strip that got flicked off or something ridiculous...we've all been there.
If your lights are all lit up, its time for assembly!
Step 5: Assembly
I hope you took a break like I had done when I was working on mine. In fact, I took a bike ride and had seen a rainbow along the way! This was a good sign, I thought.
First thing we have to do is give these pieces of Plexiglass a quick cleaning. I usually use screen cleaner and a good cloth once to get a bunch over the dust off and another cloth to touch up and get rid of any fingerprints. It might not come perfectly clean and it may get a bit scuffed...but hey, that's OK, especially with that glitter type paper and the black background and all those lights just taking up all the attention of those that see it. So give yourself a break with that. One way to help this is to spend less time cleaning and less time moving them around during the whole build. They usually come with a plastic on the back and I leave that on when etching until this point.
From here i make sure i know which piece will go where in relation to each other. I cut a strip of electrical tape the entire length of one side and stick it underneath the first sheet about 1/8 inch in, just enough to keep it stuck on, but not invade the end screen size. then i stick a piece outside of that, so that its a little less that the width of two pieces from the acrylic sheet. This gives me space to mount the LEDs and then end up folding a bit of the tape over itself, holding the lights in place a bit. I stick this tape like this across all sides, one side at a time.
I determine where are my switches going to be, and since we are going all the way around the square, that's where i will begin dropping the LEDs in, lining them into place all around. I'll set them a little better in and begin folding the tape over just a bit...not so much to cover the circuit, but to keep the lights in place. I try to get them pointed in the right directions, attempting to cover the whole sheet in light. Now just another piece of tape to cover and set these in and seal them in place. Ideally the led will be butted right up to the side of the sheet. this black tape is good at keeping the light only going into the sheet and not very much else. I like to think of it as a good protective layer as well just in case...
After centering this first sheet on the top of the backing board, i put a good little glob of hot glue under each corner to get it fairly secure. We can now move on to the next sheet. Take care not to get the strings of lights tangled-mine were still taped on one end so they were mostly okay. Pay a little attention to the switches and charger port and make sure they are mostly tangle free. After doing the same wiring with the second sheet and lining up the images, lift a side and secure the corners and the other side with a little glue on those two corners. It might not be a perfect lineup of images and seem a little off...with mine it really does look good, even with the pictures a little off and gives it more dimension. So Now with the third sheet and you can see a great deal more that this is really a neat thing!
So the switches and port are hanging there and hopefully you have been handling that power port with kid gloves and it is still in good shape. I apologize for the lack of Images on this part...I guess i was quite excited and pushing forward pretty hard after having spent some 24 hours in a row on this, not counting the little ride I took when I took a break and seen the rainbow. Probably best to break this project up over a couple of days if I were you...but I digress. Its good to just get your bearings on where these switches and the port are going (I ended up gluing mine nicely to the side and towards the front so that people can interact with this piece. I also ended up nailing down the micro USB port with a sort of staple this time and it has done well thus far). Good to plan this ahead. Each switch is pointed up for "on" and the port is below them. before i go ahead and glue and nail these down, I get the rest of the slack wire straightened out while its still easy.
Before i set this into its frame though, I line up the top paper and cover the black tape and edges of the etching. In this case, I cut the paper too big, exposing the tape to the worlds view. That would have been OK maybe, but I just sliced up some paper into odd cuts and glued a few of them along the inner edges of the tape. Now i lined up the top paper and glued it just a bit. Remember that it has to fit the frame, so give it some care. Now we can put the frame over top this etching and fit it on a little. How's it look? Give it a bit of nudging around and if it's okay as it is, put some tape around the three sides that the switches are not present, connecting the frame and its backboard. I'm sure you know now this is worth getting the tape stuck down as straight and as clean as you can.
This time around, I tucked the wires into the frame a little and just glued down my switches and nailed in the port to give it the extra strength to withstand usage.Finish off your backing with a little more tape along the fourth side.
I'm considering just running a wire out from underneath in the future so as to make the whole thing last longer...just not sure yet. I like having a wire that is separate from the charger block, because that allows me to install a portable cell phone battery charger, which gives the piece portability, and allows people to even fall asleep with this. If this is something you would like to have as a feature-as I mentioned before-it's a good idea to replace to front glass with a stronger acrylic sheet. There are even thinner sheets of acrylic out there that can do well for this usage. I will next be experimenting with this design with a friend who does water-etching on tampered glass. Hopefully I can update you all with that.
The last picture is from when I put it on display for a while at a local coffee shop, "Spot Coffee". I love to share this with those who notice and also it is great field testing they have allowed me to do. From the first generation when it was thick and had big wire and ran on button cell batteries and all the LEDs were in series and the thing would need new batteries after two days...
I'm really glad to have been able to do this project and share it with you. I've been perfecting it over the past couple of years in between all the other projects, and it really is something I am very proud of. I share it with you freely with just the request that you share any pictures you can of your versions if you get to making this...Thank you!