Introduction: Custom Nameplates: Glowing Alien Pods

It is a bit of a custom I started, to create nameplates for children of family and close friends.  The first ones I made were very simple, just wooden letters cut out on a scroll saw.  With each new nameplate I create, I get a bit more ambitious. 

This is a custom nameplate I made for my nephew Owen when he was born.  It has a sort of  "alien pod" theme, due to the choice of font and use of glow-in-the-dark paint.  The design can be easily modified for almost any name, by changing the letters and adding or removing "pods" as necessary.

This project makes a great gift for kids or adults - it could even serve as signage in a shop.  It's also a decent project for a shop class, if you're in school and looking for something to make!

Step 1: Materials and Tools

Here are the materials I used to make the nameplate.  Note that you can easily substitute almost any wood, though I prefer to use Baltic Birch because it's dimensionally stable and easy to work with.  Plus, the stripe pattern on the edges looks really cool.  Note that this material list is for making four "pods," adjust as necessary if you need to make more.

- about 1 square foot of 3/4" Baltic Birch plywood (Home Depot)
- about 1 square foot of 1/4" Baltic Birch plywood (Home Depot)
- about 1 square foot of 1/4" lexan sheet (Home Depot)
- about 1 foot of 1/2" acrylic rod (Ridout Plastics)

- glow in the dark paint or glow in the dark powder  (Glow Inc.)
- epoxy
- white paint
- clear acrylic finish (I prefer Minwax Polycrylic)

The tools are pretty basic.  I did everything "by hand" but a lot of the cutting could be done on a laser cutter or CNC machine.  Use what you've got!

- a variable speed scroll saw (I use a DeWalt 788)
- a drill (preferably a drill press)
- a small vertical sander
- skip tooth scroll saw blades (for cutting wood)
- crown tooth scroll saw blades (for cutting plastic)

Step 2: Design

I designed the nameplate in Adobe Illustrator, though any vector-based drawing program will work.  To design the letters I used a cool font I found online called "Eclipse".  I knew I wanted the "pods" to be about 3 inches in diameter, with the first letter being a bit larger at about 3.5" diameter.  Based on that, I scaled the letters to fit, and drew an extra outline around each one.

Three copies are required: one for the wood letters and bezels, one for the lexan sheet, and one for the "pods" themselves.

Once printed, the patterns can be cut out and affixed to the various materials.  I glued the patterns to the wood using a light coating of spray-on adhesive.  Since the lexan must remain smooth and unmarked, make sure the protective film is not removed until the cutting and sanding operations are complete.

Step 3: Cut Out the Pieces

Cutting out the pieces is fairly straight forward, though there are a few tricks and tips.  Of course, these only apply if you're using a scroll saw:

- cut out the pods slightly oversized (ie. outside the line).  Later, once the pod is glued to the bezel they can be sanded "to the line" as a single piece for a perfect edge.

- cut the outside edge of the bezel oversized so that it can be sanded "to the line."  Cut the inside edge "to the line," as accurately as possible.  Leave the pattern on the bezel until after it has been glued to the pod and sanded.

- Cut the bezel and matching letter from the same piece of wood.  Drill a pilot hole and cut out the bezel first, then cut out the letter inside.  Cut the letter as accurately as possible, so that only a trace of the line remains.  You may also opt to cut the letter oversized and sand to the line, but this is a waste of time if you can avoid it.

- Cutting the lexan sheet can be tricky.  Use a crown-tooth scroll saw blade (which cuts on the upstroke and the downstroke), and turn the speed of the scroll saw down to about 33% of full.  This will reduce the amount of heat generated by the blade , and should prevent the lexan from fusing together again where it was cut.  Cut the lexan "to the line."

- You will also need to cut out three 1.5-2" long pieces of acrylic rod (for a four-letter design).  The acrylic can be cut on the scroll saw, with a hack saw, or with a band saw.  Be careful not to scuff the surface of the plastic.

Step 4: Glue, Sand and Drill the Pods

Chances are, not everything will fit perfectly.  Sand the pieces made of 1/4" wood and 1/4" acrylic until they fit together.  The fit should be tight, but not so tight that you need to use excessive force to fit them together.  A powered belt sander will help a lot with this, but be aware that you'll be doing inside edges and small details by hand!  It's a good activity to do in front of the TV...

Once sanded, test-fit everything.  Obviously, it should all fit!  Remove the letters and sand the faces with a fine-grit sandpaper.  Set them aside until the painting stage.

Remove each bezel "ring" and glue it to its corresponding bottom with carpenter's glue.  Wipe off any glue squeeze-out right away.  When the glue is dry, sand to the line using a belt sander.

With a machinist's square, or just a ruler, mark out the centers where the holes in the sides should be drilled.  Remember, the holes on the middle letters must be exactly across from each other, or the whole nameplate will be wavy or curvy!  Of course, you may want that...

Using the scraps of wood (you saved them, right?) as supports, drill the holes in the sides.  Measure carefully; the bit must not go beyond the inside edge of the bezel!  I used a 1/2" forstner bit for this; I recommend you do the same.

When the holes are drilled, test-fit the acrylic rods to check for proper depth and alignment.  Give the pods a final sand with fine grit sandpaper.

Step 5: Painting

It's time to move on to painting.

To increase the brightness of the glow-in-the-dark paint, paint all the "inside surfaces" with white paint.  This includes the recessed area on the top of each pod, up to the bezel, and the holes drilled for the acrylic rods.

Also paint the exposed wood with some sort of finish.  You may choose to use a clear finish like I used (Minwax Polycrylic), stain the wood a different colour, or paint it with an opaque paint.  It's up to you!  Paint any of the exposed wood, including the sides and top of the pods, and the letters.  For a clear finish, two layers should be enough.

If you're using glow-in-the-dark paint, wait for the other paints to dry.  Then, paint a few layers of GITD paint anywhere you already painted the wood white.  If you're using a powder, as I did, move on to the next step.

Step 6: Glue the Pieces Together

As I mentioned before, I used glow-in-the-dark powder to make the letters glow.  This makes assembly a bit harder, since you have to spread the powder evenly before gluing.  If you can, order the equivalent glow in the dark paint, and simply paint a few layers anywhere the pods were previously painted white.

Once the glow-in-the-dark paint is dry, test it in a dark room to make sure it's adequately bright.  If you want it brighter, add another coat or two of paint (though remember there is a maximum amount you can add before it doesn't get any brighter!) 

Start by gluing together the pods.  Mix together a batch of epoxy, and glob a bit inside each hole - enough for a secure joint, but not so much that it squeezes out.  Press the pods together, and flat on a table top.  This will ensure the nameplate sits flat on a wall.  Wait for the epoxy to dry before continuing.

Then, move on to the letters.  You may want to press the wood letters into the acrylic and glue them as one piece.  As with the rods, mix up some epoxy and spread a coat on the inside of the pod.  Press in the letter, ensuring that the alignment is good (ie. not rotated)  Remember, you won't be able to rotate the letter once it's in there, so get it right the first time!


OK, the process with glow in the dark powder is a bit different.  On three of the four pods, pour in a bit of glow in the dark powder, enough to cover the bottom of each side hole.  Apply glue to the matching rod, and push it in as far as it will go.  The rod should stay in place.  If not, the glue wasn't able to seep past the powder - pull it out and quickly add more glue, then reinsert.  Keep the pods separate for now.

Inside of each pod, spread a thin layer of powder.  Check in a darkened room, that the illumination is even from side to side.  Now, spread glue on just the plastic, and press in place observing proper alignment.  Immediately clean off any glue that squeezes out, or the wood letter will not sit flush.  Pour out any excess powder from the middle.

Now, glue in the matching wood letter with regular carpenter's glue.

When the letters have dried, glue the pods together using the same method as the individual rods.  Each time a letter is added, press the new assembly onto a table to the nameplate sits flat.  Wait until the glue is dry before attempting to move the nameplate.

Step 7: Mounting and Other Design Ideas

The completed nameplate can be placed on a desk, or can be mounted on a wall or a door.  I suggest using that stretchy removable 3M double-sided tape for wall mounting.  Or, you can install a pair of picture hangers on the back of the nameplate and hang it that way.

The glow-in-the-dark paint will charge up in a sunny room, and glow a bright green for hours.  The effect is really very cool, very sci-fi.  It makes a good night light for a child's room.

Other Design Ideas

- Green isn't the only colour of GITD paint available.  You can get blue, red, yellow, purple, pink, etc.  Note that some colours do not glow as bright or as long as green and blue, though.

- Use different fonts!  There's no reason you can't use any other font, and cut it out the same way.

- Use different pod shapes!

- Connect the pods in different ways!  Assemble them in a wave, curve, or zig-zag.

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