This started out as part of another project to make a brake light for my bike. I was experimenting a bit and found success with making fairly clear characters on plastic. Once I saw how cool the characters looked when lite with LEDs, the brake project was on the back burner. Since Father's day is coming up, I think this will make a good present for my Dad.
The really cool part that I enjoyed about this project is that you could create any combination of color themes and styles. This also looks as sharp with the LED off as on. I think you will really enjoy building and showing this project.
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Step 1: Parts and Tools
- 1 5mm RGB LED, ( red - 2.6v 6000 mcd, green 2.8v 5000 mcd, blue 4.2v 4500 mcd) more than
- 1 plastic picture frame from the dollar store (I used one with a base of 6 x 1 1/2 x 1/4)
- 1.5 feet length of wood, 1"x 1/2" (I'm not sure what kind I had, but any will do)
- 1 100 ohm resister
- 2. 3v coin cell 120 mAh batteries
- 1 mini SPST switch (optional)
- flat black paint and/or red mahogany stain
- If your buying some rgb LEDs for the first time, look for some with 1 anode and 1 cathode vs. 1 anode per color (3 anode and common cathode). They are much simpler to work with.
- Rotary tool with small diamond wheel point (1/16 little ball)
- 1/4" butt chisel
- soldering iron (optional)
- 15/64" drill bit
- drill press or hand drill.
- a computer with internet and printer
- Bench vise (recommended)
Step 2: Preparing Plastic and Template for the Etching
To make the template, decide what you what to etch into to the plastic. I went online, looked around and found the below Kanji (Japanese symbols) design. Try not to be temped to go with anything too complicated or detailed unless your a ex-tattoo artist or something the like. Your going to be 'redrawing' this on the plastic, so keep that in mind when selecting your image.
Once you've found something you like, save it image to your hard drive. WARNING: This next step can be a bit frustrating. Open the image in MS Paint or whatever image editor you're comfortable with. Re size the image to fit over the plastic surface. Check print preview to get an idea of scaling. Once comfortable with image, print and check against plastic base. Adjust as necessary. Now, invert the image horizontally in the editor, print again*. Cut around your image, with enough space to secure the template with scotch tape to the 'glue side' of the plastic base. Make sure the paper is tight on the base.
Before trying to etch on your good piece of plastic, I strongly encourage you to practice on the two extra pieces broken off before. Try different strokes, directions, pressures and engraving bits to get an idea of how you can control the rotary tool and the final image. Once your comfortable with this, put the good piece of plastic in a bench vise if you have one. Put on some safety goggles 'cause the little shards of plastic are really sharp when they're in your eye! You will find that tracing/etching right to left will produce a clearer image due to the direction of rotation of the engraving bit.
- the image has to be inverted horizontally. You will be etching the image on the 'back' of the plastic piece. I found the LED highlighted the characters much better when the etching was on the back. So to make the image appear right, I had to etch it on reversed.
Step 3: Let the Engraving/etching Begin!
The engraving part is done over the paper. 'Trace' the image on the plastic, one section at a time. The paper will come off where ever the rotary tool touches. Don't worry about this too much as you are just creating an 'outline' to give you an idea of where you will be putting more detail and evening out later. The actual engraving part I can't explain, you just have to do it. But by now you've practice a bit, right? Hope the pics help. You wont get to make a good image at first, just concentrate on keeping that paper in place to finish each character.
When you're done engraving the outlines, tear away the paper and go over the characters. Now you can add the detail and smooth/straighten out the characters
Once finished, drill a 15/64" hole in the center bottom deep enough to insert the LED. (Drilling up from the bottom so that the LED lights up underneath and through the characters vertically).
Step 4: Building the Frame
As you'd imagine, there are four sides to this frame: top, two sides and bottom. The top and bottom should be cut to the following dimensions:
Sides - length, shorter side (inner frame) 5 1/2", longer side (outer frame) 6 1/2"
Top and bottom - length, short side 2 1/4", longer side 3 1/4"
I had a chop saw to cut the frame components at 45 degree angles. If you don't have a chop saw, you could use a miter box or just mark the wood and cut it with a saw.
Next, mark the areas (on the inner top and bottom) that you will be carving out to make space to hold the plastic piece, make sure everything will lines up properly. You can drill holes in these areas to aid in the carving process. Either the top or the bottom will have to have to have a deep cavity to 'hide' the LED once in the frame. If you used the bottom for this step (like I did) , then the top will just need a shallow recess in the top frame to hold the plastic piece in place. Which ever side (top or bottom) you use to hide the LED will need a hole drilled through to the back of the frame. This is to route the wires back and out of the frame.
The depth of cavities will vary depending on what components you are using. Ie. if your planing to use two AA batteries instead of the coin cells that I used, then logically you'll have to adjust as necessary to hold bigger batteries.
You will need to carve out small 'veins' in the back of the frame to run the circuit wires to the batteries, switch (if your using one) and resister
Once the cuts, cavities, and veins are made, sand the inner, face and outer sides of the pieces smooth. Get your paint out (this is my favorite part) and paint away. I decided to use flat black paint spray paint on the face and outer sides and stain the inner side mahogany red. Keep in mind the color of LED your using when selecting the paint/stain color.
I put some silver tape in the holes that will hold the plastic piece to increase the light reflectivity.
Step 5: Assembly and Finishing Touches.
Glue the wires and resistors down to the veins carved out earlier. I covered the wires with electrical tape after.
Notice in one of the below pics, the separate anodes from the LED. I left these there (despite not currently using them) to be able to change the color later if I get bored with green.
Once ready, glue the frame together form the bottom up. Start with the side that is holding the batteries, then the other side. Put your plastic piece in the bottom cavity and glue in place if necessary. If you do use glue, ensure the plastic piece is not leaning forward or backwards. Finally glue the top on. You could use small finishing nails instead of gluing it, but I just used nails to avoid having to cover the nails after. You should be done now, and have something similar to the cover pic...
With regards to etching on plastic though, almost any image can be made with enough practice. I know I have a whole bunch of ideas, using different styles and colors of framing, or adding black backing to the whole thing, etc. Some really cool, sharp looking pieces can be made fairly cheaply!