Introduction: Build a Star Floor

About: Tinker: verb /ˈtɪŋ.kər/ us /-kɚ/ › to make ​small pointless ​changes to something to ​repair or ​improve it, knowing that one day, someone will break it.

Where it all started

I wanted something a bit geeky for the house, and I found fibre optics! Using them is very simple, but the results can be great - so once I'd completed my star floor in the bathroom I got hooked, and you'll see at the end of this Instructable some of the other things I've made using fibre.

It is all based on this project by a nice bloke call Andy:

Fibre optics sound fancy, but what I've used here is just a rod of plastic (PMMA) that looks a little like fishing line. If you shine light in one end, it comes out of the other. The useful bit is that you can bend the fibre, and the light still comes out of the end - creating a point of light - or use several and you have stars!

In just a few simple steps I'm going to show you how I built the star floor. Before starting on the actual 2.5 x 4m bathroom floor I decided to do a trial, and would highly recommend this step, as it gives a good idea of what you are going to have to do (and why) in terms of grouting and fibre management. I used an offcut of MDF as my sample floor, and the smallest cheapest adhesive and grout I could find, along with some fibre, and a makeshift light source. The demo took a few hours to build, with all the fiddling, as well as time in between for the grout and adhesive to set.

You'll also see a capacitive switch I tested, with a view to hiding it behind a wall tile to control the floor by waving your hand in front of the switch.

Step 1: Gather Your Equipment

To complete this project you will need:

  • A floor
  • Fibre
  • A light source
  • A gland
  • Scissors
  • Hot knife
  • Sparky tape/cable ties
  • Everything you need to tile a floor - Tiles, tile adhesive, grout, a float, a squeegee, etc

And lots of time.

Step 2: Make a Plan

First thing's first, you need to decide where your light source is going to be, because all of the fibres need to run from this point.

The light source you use ( )

) is likely to be mains powered. For safety reasons, place your light source somewhere outside of the bathroom. This should make the whole bathroom installation safe, as all you've done is weave a bit of plastic into the grout, there is no electricity required inside the bathroom for the floor. In my bathroom, I fed the fibre bundle under the doorframe and up through the floorboards of a hallway cupboard, so I could put my light source in there.

Once you know where they're starting from, you can begin to run your fibres.

Step 3: Don't Lay Tiles Like a Pro

Conventionally, to lay floor tiles you're supposed to start from the centre line, and head toward the walls. However, for this floor each fibre needs to end up at the same place, so tiles need to be laid from there. This is unlikely to work with a conventional centre line floor tiling method.

Bundle your fibres

The first thing you need to do is decide how many fibres you want per square metre of floor and create a bundle of fibres, making sure each strand is longer than the path to the furthest point you want it to reach. So if the furthest fibre from your light source is 4m away, cut the fibre at least 30cm longer. Cable tie the bundle tightly, or use sparky tape (more secure, but harder to remove) at the end near to where you'll attach the light source.

If you're covering quite a large expanse of floor, you might need to use smaller bundles that then come together to meet your light source. For my floor, the fibres are in bundles to cover about one square metre with stars - so we have several bundles made from fibres of a single length (i.e. 4m), as they'll all be cut anyway.

Place your fibres under the tiles

The first tile that goes down will have to be the one nearest the light source. This is because when you float the adhesive onto the floor, you'll be scraping the floor, so you need it to be clear of fibres. Start laying your tiles, spreading your bundle of fibres out underneath the tiles as you go.

You'll see that even for a relatively small area, the fibres become a noticeable lump. To keep the tile height even, spread the fibres over the floor, roughly in the directions they'll need to be heading. You have to be very careful about the entry point for each area of fibre, as the first tile will have every fibre in the bundle underneath it, which could mean it doesn't have much floor to stick to! As my floor was so big, we routed some of the fibres around the edge of the floor, so our bundle of fibres split into three before it entered the tiles, to make sure there weren't too many fibres under one single tile.

Step 4: Peel, Adhesive, Fibres, Tile.

Once the first tile is down, lift all the fibres up, and peel them back out of the way, keeping hold of them (this is where I found a friend particularly useful!). Adhesive the floor for the next tile. Lay any fibres that are heading under the next tile back down, being careful to leave plenty of floor exposed. This gets easier as you get further from the main bundle. We found it easier to spread the adhesive this way, one tile at a time, because of the fiddliness of managing the fibres too.

Anywhere you want a star to appear, stick a fibre up between the tiles. I used tape to hold the fibre roughly in place whilst I continued to lay more tiles, although it was only mildly effective and did come unstuck - but this doesn't matter so much once the next tile is down. Try to make sure that the route of the fibre means that when it surfaces, it is perpendicular to the tile edge, sticking up as vertically as possible. This will mean the fibres will be easier to hide, as well as grout and lay.

This process of peel up fibres, adhesive floor, lay fibres on adhesive keeping back intended stars, lay down tile is repeated over the whole floor.

Bends in the fibres cause light to escape, making the stars less bright, and this is especially true of the tight radius of the flat run across the floor, to the sudden upturn between two tiles. For me, 0.75mm fibres seemed like a good balance between light and bend radius.

Tiling was done with a dim light source attached, as it helps to find the fibres, but doesn't blind you when you look at them! It also highlights the inevitable damage to fibres, keeping you aware of how delicate they are. The most important thing to remember during this process is to be careful with your fibres - any breaks and you've lost that star!

Step 5: Don't Grout Like a Pro

Once you have all the tiles down, the floor will look fairly hairy. Grouting can now begin (make sure you leave enough time for your adhesive to cure as per the manufacturer's instructions).

To grout floor tiles, use a good flat float (not a cheap squeegee thing) and work the grout into the floor area. Each fibre is both delicate and will move, so treat them with care - a conventional floor grouting method is likely to break them.

Trim any long ends of fibre to a manageable length with a pair of scissors - I left around 10cm sticking through the tiles so I could see where the fibres were for grouting. Grout the tiles between the fibres as you would if they weren't there. Then, using a combination of the proper float, the cheap squeegee, and your fingers, grout the fibre in place. It will move, leaving a hole in the grout wherever it was. Try to keep the grout neat, but don't worry too much about small holes. As long as the grout is holding the fibre in place, and there isn't excessive grout to remove, leave it. After you have done this with each fibre, you can carefully grout around each fibre a second time to fill the holes.

Create your stars!

The final trim, which will turn your fibres into stars, is the only important one. Using a hot knife (cheap soldering iron with a scalpel like bit), trim the fibre as close to the grout as possible. As the fibres are below the tile height, they won't be felt with bare feet, and as they're transparent, they're almost invisible - as long as they're short enough, and emerge perpendicular to the tile edges. Once this process is complete, grout again to be sure there are no holes. Grout is hydrophobic, and so any holes are unlikely to be big enough to actually leak, but a no holes in the grout policy is definitely the way to go.

Step 6: Light It Up

The floor should now be fully fibred, and when it is off, should look look any other tiled floor. So it's time to go back to the start of your bundle and light it up!

You can get ferules for terminating the fibre to the source efficiently, and the light sources designed for fibre optics have many effects to make your floor look great. Unfortunately they were out of my budget, so I used a cheap torch, running a 3W Cree LED, that focused down to a very narrow beam (with a PSU tacked in to replace the batteries). This is enough to light my entire floor, which uses about 1/2 mile of fibre in total. There are no effects, colours or twinkling, but it cost me £3 for the torch. I haven't installed the capacitive switch, but I reckon the floor costs less than £6 a year to leave it on full time.

To terminate the fibres, use the smallest gland you can get away with. A metal gland allows you to cut the fibres with a hot knife very close to the gland. Polish with a bit of with 240 grit sand paper and once dusted off, the light should be able to enter all the fibres well and evenly. Switch it on - and you have stars!

Step 7: A Floor! (and a Table) (and a Speaker) (and Some Stairs)

There you have it. A fairly unique floor, that looks great, and is really hard to photograph.

It may have taken two of you two weeks of extra time to lay the floor, and you've broken so many fibres that you've not got the pattern you were hoping for, and people think you're strange when you beckon them into your bathroom, but it looks cool.

And if you get hooked...

I also hacked a coffee table, which is equally hard to photograph. This time the stars are arranged in the shape of the constellations visible when my son was born. Whilst off, again, the stars are pretty much invisible.

The guitar was converted into a speaker, and was also fibred. I've roughed up the fibre strings with sand paper to make them side emitting (as i didn't have any proper side emitting fibre).

The stairs are simply LEDs behind the carpet. Again, embracing the invisible when off theme.

Let us know how you get on.