Introduction: Custom Nameplates: LED Star Power!

This is one of my favourite nameplates, which I made for the daughter of some close friends.  Will she still like it once she's in school?  I hope so!  The letters of the name are glued onto a back panel of five connected stars, illuminated with white LEDs.  The back panel is made of Baltic birch plywood, laminated board, and Lexan sheet.  The letters are made of maple.

This design is easily modified for almost any name:  simply cut out different letters and arrange them on the same back panel.  Of course, you may also change the LED colour, and stain/paint the wood a different colour to match the room.

Step 1: Materials and Tools

You should be able to find most of the materials at any hardware store.

- One 12x24" piece of 3/4" baltic birch plywood
- One 12x24" piece of 1/8" white-laminated fiber board (or unlaminated board, painted white)
- One 12x12" piece of 1/8" transparent lexan or acrylic sheet
- One 4"x1"x24" piece of quality maple (or almost any hardwood)

- Clear finish (I use Minwax Polycrylic)
- Oil or Water-based stain (I used "Cabernet" - a deep red colour)
- Two-part epoxy
- Carpenter's glue

- Five white LEDs  (I buy mine on eBay)
- Five 510 ohm resistors (minimum) - for use with a 12V adapter
- Some bits of wire
- A 12VDC "wall-wart" adapter  (minimum 200mA)
- A matching DC jack

I made this nameplate by hand on a scroll saw and band saw, but you might be able to do some of the parts with a CNC machine.  I'd only recommend using a laser cutter for the plastic parts, since the wood is too thick to cut with a laser and I dislike the burnt edges that result anyway.

- a variable speed scroll saw (I use a Dewalt 788)
- a bandsaw (optional)
- a drill press
- an overhead router (I used a dremel with a router bit, mounted in a drill press stand)
- a vertical sander
- an X-acto knife
- a small chisel
- skip-tooth and crown tooth blades for the scroll saw
- soldering iron
- sandpaper
- paintbrush

Step 2: Design

I designed this nameplate in Adobe Illustrator, but any vector drawing program will work.  It is designed in layers, so that the base can be separated from the letters and cut out separately.  It can be scaled up or down, but remember that a larger nameplate will be more difficult to cut out, and a smaller one may look too small hung on a wall or door.

Note the base has two sets of interior lines.  The innermost line is the inner boundary; it will be cut straight through.  The next line indicates the boundary of a ledge that the lexan stars sit on, so that the plastic is flush with the wood.  The base is intended to be cut out as one single piece, so when printing out this pattern it will span two 8.5x11 pages.  Make sure when taping together the pages that they are aligned properly!

In total, you will need to print five pages of patterns:  two for the base, two for the plastic stars, and one for the letters (more, if there are a lot of letters).

Step 3: Cutting

I glued the patterns to the wood using a thin layer of spray-on adhesive.  If you let the glue dry a bit before sticking on the pattern, then it will peel off later without much fuss.

Hopefully, the plastic came with a layer of protective film attached.  You may glue the patterns directly to the film using spray adhesive.  If there is no protective film, lay down a layer of masking tape first.

Rough-cut the wood for the base, slightly outside the lines of the pattern.  Then move on to the interior cuts.  Drill a pilot hole inside each star, and cut to the inner line.

Trace the outline of the base onto the laminate and cut it out as well.  Set aside for now.

The letters can be tricky.  Carefully cut out each letter in turn, following the lines precisely.  The blade is much smaller than a piece of sandpaper, so if you can avoid sanding all the tiny crevices by cutting properly, then you'll save a lot of time.

Sand the letters by hand using 220 grit sand paper.  I gave the top edges a bit of a bevel.

Step 4: Routing and Completing the Base

For the plastic pieces to sit flush with the wood, a small ledge needs to be removed.  To do this, I used a Dremel with a 1/8" router bit, mounted in the Dremel drill press stand.

To start, cut along the line that marks the ledge with an x-acto knife.  Feel free to cut deep into the wood, it'll only help get a cleaner edge.  Peel off the thin sliver of paper, but leave the rest of the pattern on the wood for now.

Set up the Dremel with a 1/8" router bit.  Mount the Dremel in the drill press stand, so that the bit cuts about 1/16" into the wood.  The Dremel is really only powerful enough to cut that far; it needs to be done in two passes.

Cut the ledge, following the edge of the paper pattern.  You'll need to raise and lower the dremel into the center of each star.  When the ledge has been cut to 1/16" depth, do the cut again to 1/8".

Now, the cut edge might be a little wavy, since a Dremel is far from a precision tool (at least in this case.)  I had to clean up the edges a bit with an X-acto knife.  The corners of each star will also need to be finished, either with the knife or with a small chisel.  Using the plastic inserts as a guide, trim and sand until the plastic fits in perfectly.  This part can be fiddly, but take your time. 

The wires for the LEDs need to pass between the stars.  On the back side of the stars, cut a channel between each star using the Dremel, in a similar method to cutting the ledges.

At this point a hole for the power jack needs to be drilled as well.  To accommodate the 1/2" wide jack I used, I drilled a 1/2" hole in the bottom edge of the right-most star.

The back panel can now be glued on.  I used carpenter's glue.  Clamp or tape the back panel until the glue dries.

Finally, sand the stars.  I used a belt sander for the sides, and did the top by hand.

Step 5: Painting

The letters were painted with two coats of oil-based stain.  Not much to say here; simply choose the colour you want (I used "Cabernet") and apply as many layers as you need.

I also painted the letters and stars with two layers of finish.  Minwax Polycrylic, to be specific.  I recommend it; it gives a nice glossy finish, it's relatively low-odor, and it cleans up with water.  Between coats of finish, sand with fine grit sandpaper or scrape with a small cabinet scraper.

Step 6: Electronics

In the middle of each star is a single super-bright white LED.  I have a whole drawer full of 12V DC adapters, so I chose a resistor to suit - in this case, 510 ohms; one for each LED.

Since the LEDs will end up being so close to the plastic, they need to be diffused a bit, and the viewing angle widened.  I did this by sanding down the domes of the LEDs until they were flat, using a belt sander.

Using a set of "helping hands," solder five LED-resistor pairs.  Try to make sure the resistor goes on the same lead of each LED (say, the anode, or positive) so you know which way to install the LED later on.  Bend and trim the leads as shown in the pictures.  Finally, glue an LED into the center of each star - the LED itself should be in the center, the resistor can be off to the side.  I used hot glue for this - be sure not to get glue on the bent ends, since you still need to solder to them!

Start with the LED closest to the DC jack.  Identify which lead on the jack is positive, and solder a wire between that pin and the resistor (which connects to the anode of the LED).  Solder another wire from the negative pin on the DC jack to the cathode (negative) of the LED.  At this point, test the LED by plugging in the DC adapter.  The LED should light.  If it does not, check the polarity of the LED and your solder connections.

Next, run a wire between the first LED and second.  The wire will pass through the channel you cut earlier, before the back panel was glued on.  Again, observing polarity, solder a wire between the two resistors, and second wire between the cathodes.  So yes, the LEDs are connected in parallel.  If you'd like to try a series/parallel combination instead that's up to you.

In this way, connect up each LED in turn, testing them each time.  By the time you're done all five LEDs should light up happily.  The last step here is to glue in the DC jack.  I used hot glue for this as well.  If the wires stick up too much, you may also glue them down with hot glue.

Also, if you want to include a switch, you'll need to find a suitable location for it.  It should be wired up between the positive pin of the DC jack and the resistor of the first LED.

Step 7: Diffusers and Plastic Inlays

Unfortunately, the flat-top LEDs aren't quite enough to diffuse the light, so additional diffusing is required.  I added two diffusers; a layer of ordinary printer paper, and frosting on the underside of the plastic.

To frost the glass, I used Rustoleum "Frosted Glass" spray paint.  This is entirely unnecessary; sanding the plastic will work just as well.  Whichever method you use, make sure you spray/sand the underside of the plastic.  That is, the side that will eventually be glued down.  The shiny side of the plastic should be visible.

To make the paper diffusers, I simply traced the outlines of the plastic pieces onto white paper, and cut them out slightly smaller than the plastic.

With the frosting and paper diffusers complete, everything can be mounted onto the star frame.  Glue the paper diffusers in first, by applying a thin layer of white glue to the ledge and then carefully placing the paper in place.  Glue in the plastic inlays next, by applying glue to the edge of the ledge only and carefully placing the plastic.  Use white glue or epoxy for this; it doesn't really matter which.  Just don't use too much - ideally, the glue should not be visible, and should not squeeze out.

Step 8: Glue on the Letters

OK, last step!

The letters may now be glued to the star panel.  Start by laying out the letters, playing with spacing and rotation.  It's important to get it right the first time, because you won't get a second chance.  You won't even be able to move the letters once they're glued down, without leaving a nasty glue smear.  So, lay them out, and even take a picture for reference if you're really paranoid...

I used 5-minute epoxy to glue down the letters.  Mix up a small batch; it won't take much to glue them all down.  One at a time, lift the letters taking note of where the letter was, and what parts of the letter were in contact with the star panel.  Apply a few dabs of glue only there, then place the letter back down exactly where it came from.  It's not necessary to put glue on the whole back of the letter.  When all the letters are glued down, leave the nameplate alone until the glue has dried.  Avoid moving it if possible.

And that's it!  The nameplate may now be mounted to a wall.  You could nail picture hangers to the back of the nameplate, or simply stick it to the wall with 3M removable double-sided tape (available at hardware stores).

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