Introduction: Fiber Optic Panel Star Ceiling

About: By day I'm the lead developer of Starfish ETL and I perform CRM data integrations. By night I enjoy building things - robotics, my home theater, flying quadcopters and finding other geeky things to do.

For my wife & I, a dream of ours has always been to have a home theater to watch movies with our family. This past winter we've finally been able to make it a reality. We had our basement finished and in doing so, I planned a good sized room to be our home theater. In the planning phases, my wife found a number of pictures online with home theaters featuring beautiful star ceilings.. These were in homes where people paid tens of thousands of dollars for their home theater - we were on a budget and I thought there was no way I would have the time or money to pay for something that cool... But the DIY'er in me wouldn't let me give up that soon! I researched these ceilings and found out it may actually possible.. However, most of the information I found online were for building these ceilings in rooms where you have attic access, like this article. The manufacturer's site gives some ideas about building the ceiling with standard drywall - but lifting heavy drywall into place was not my idea of fun.. nor did it seem the most appropriate method for a basement. So with a little determination and experimentation I was able to build a beautiful star ceiling that really sets this room apart from anything you've seen. And it's really something you have to experience - no picture or video will do it justice. The version of the fiber optic kit I got makes the points of light twinkle like real stars. It creates the perfect ambiance for a home theater, but you could also install these in children's rooms, game rooms, or wherever you want to create a truly impressive area.

So did I mention I did this on a budget? I won't say it's a cheap project and it'll depend on the size space you're looking to do. I did the inside area of a rather large tray ceiling.. it's only 6.5' wide but it's about 26' long - coming to about 169 sq ft. Because of the size, I went with the largest star ceiling kit available, 600 strands. All together, I estimate the entire project costed between $500-550. If you're planning on doing a smaller area, you may spend less depending on your materials and the fiber optic kit you chose. Considering the kit manufacturer also resells pre-made 4'x6' panels at $816 each, (I would have needed 6 or more),I think I made out pretty good.

However that does not take into consideration the amount of time this project took. I didn't exactly keep track but I am estimating the build was somewhere in the 30 to 40 hour range. It was definitely fun, certainly painful at times but totally worth it!

Step 1: Materials

  • Fiber Optic Star Ceiling Kit
    Perhaps the most important (and most expensive component of this project) is purchasing your fiber optic star ceiling kit. I purchased mine from Wiedamark. Use their suggestions of which kit to use based on the size area you're doing. Based on the size of my area, I went with one of their largest kits - the 600 strand 3-size star kit. This kit has 3 different sized "stars" giving a more realistic feel to the starfield. It also comes with a remote, which is nice for dimming the light output. I paid the price you see on the site, $369. Throughout this process I had a number of questions and I can't say enough nice things about the guys at Wiedamark - they are very knowledgeable and spent quite a bit of time with me on the phone giving me ideas on how to build these panels. So if you have any questions about their products don't hesitate to call.
  • 2" Foam Insulation Board
    This stuff is very light and easy to work with. You could use either the pink kind or the white kind. The pink kind may have been a little easier to work with but costed almost twice as much. I found these 4x8 sheets of expanded polystyrene on sale at Menards for about $12 each. I used 6 of them in total. You may get by with the 1 1/2" thick boards if you're careful handling them - but knowing I can be clumsy at times so I didn't want to take any chances.
  • Black Felt
    This is what will be used to cover your panel and give it a nice pitch-black night sky look. I had to use about 13 yards, which was about 1 1/3 bolts. Make sure to take your time doing the math to ensure you get the right amount. This is standard craft felt that I purchased at Jo-Ann Fabrics. They also sell a "premium felt" which was more expensive but I couldn't tell a difference. This is 100% opaque, so none of the white from the foam board bleeds through - which is what you want. I think the normal price for this felt was $5.99/yard but I found this 50% off coupon online and was able to purchase all my felt for under $40.. I thought that was a steal. The added bonus of covering your panels in felt is that it doubles as an acoustic panel - perfect for areas where you want to control sound like a home theater!
  • Spray Adhesive for Foam
    This is what you'll use to attach the felt to the foam board, giving it a nice permanent hold. You don't want your fabric to sag so this will ensure a smooth finish. Make sure to get the 3M 78 spray adhesive! It's specially made for working with polystyrene foam. Any other type of adhesive will dissolve the foam. Don't believe me? I had a can of the standard 3M Super 77 spray adhesive in my garage and sprayed a leftover peice - take a look at the picture.. It ate away at the foam and that area was not sticky at all. I also had a can of Loctite spray adhesive - it says right on the can it's safe for foam. Guess what? It's not! It did the same thing.. So please save yourself some time & frustration and just get the 3M 78 spray - I used 2 cans, they're at Menards for about $12 ea. I couldn't find it on the shelf at Home Depot.
  • White Elmers Glue
    Yep, nothing fancy here - just like the stuff you used in elementary school. This actually does create a nice strong bond for holding the fiber optic strands in place inside the foam. This is what was recommended by the folks at Wiedamark, other types of adhesive such as super glue could eat away at the strands and that wouldn't be good.
  • Paint Marker
    You want something that will show up on the black felt, this will be used to mark where your stars will go. I had a metallic Sharpie that worked just fine. You'll just want something with a fine tip, too so you don't have to try to hide those marks later.
  • Fire Retardant Spray for Fabric
    Felt is flammable & think about it - you're hanging many yards of flammable fabric on your ceiling. I don't even want to think about what would happen if it caught fire! So pleasebe responsible and don't skip this step.I only needed 1 bottle, and for only $17.99 on Amazon - I now also have peace of mind.
  • 3 1/2" Black Screws & Washers
    You'll use the screws to attach the panels to your ceiling. The washers will help create more surface area to hold the panel in place - you don't want your screws to sink into the foam and potentially have falling or uneven panels.
  • Toenail Clippers
    Pick yourself up a shiny new toenail clippers - you'll use this to trim the ends of your fiber optic strands. You'll want to make sure it's as sharp as possible to get a clean cut. This is the method recommended by the manufacturer.
  • Various Other Things
    A few tools you'll need along the way are a small screwdriver for poking holes, a saw for cutting the foam, a knife (X-Acto or box cutter), and a drill. You may also need a lint roller, scissors, a bunch of nylon zip ties, cable staples and a few pairs of disposable latex gloves.

Step 2: Trim Your Panels to Size

As the saying goes - measure twice, cut once. Really, take your time here because you want to have a nice tight fit between panels. What's nice about covering these panels with felt is that you can use it to hide small mistakes, but it's better to have none to begin with. So measure each part of your ceiling where a panel will go. Don't just assume your ceiling is perfectly square or even at both ends, most likely from one end of a room to the other things will be off by 1/4 or even 1/2 of an inch. If you don't want gaps, it'll be important to get your measurements right.

Get yourself a black Sharpie to draw your cut lines. I used a table saw with a metal blade to cut the foam. It made a bit of a mess but ultimately made a nice clean cut. You may come up with a different method for cutting the foam, this is what worked for me.

My tray ceiling width was 6.5' so I first trimmed about 1.5' off each board. I mounted the panels sideways, so 4' long. My overall ceiling length was 26' which doesn't divide evenly into 4. So rather than making another 2' panel, I took one my panels and taped a 2' wide piece to the end. The standard duct tape you see in the picture above didn't end up holding well enough. It tended to just want to peel off instead of sticking good to the foam. I instead picked up some Gorilla Tape and that did the trick.

Step 3: Wrap the Panels With Felt

Make sure you have a nice big work area and a helper - you'll definitely need a second person to help with this step to make sure you get the felt to lay nice & flat on the foam board. You may also want to wear a pair of disposable latex gloves, as this adhesive is very sticky and you don't want black felt fuzz permanently attached to your hands!

  1. First prepare a length of felt that will cover the entire board, including wrapping around the sides and then partially around the back. You want to have about 2" extra that gets wrapped around to the back. Don't use more than that or it'll cause more problems when you go to mount in your strands later. In the picture above you'll see I had an overage of closer to 8-10" - this was too much and I had to go back later and trim this off. That was not fun, so take my advice and cut it accurately before sticking it on.
  2. Now prop your board sideways like up & down. Holding your adhesive can vertically, spray the entire surface evenly. Don't be afraid to use a good amount, you don't want any bare spots or your felt will sag in those areas.
  3. Now lay the board flat with the glue side facing up. With the glue still wet, quickly take your washers a put them in all 4 corners and 2 in the middle. This number of washers worked well for me - if you're doing a full 4x8 board you may want to use more.. like another 2 in the middle of the board. The washers will get covered with the felt.
  4. With the help of a friend at each end, take a pre-cut length of felt and hold it out - stretched taut above the board. Working together in one motion, bring the felt down evenly onto the foam.
  5. Working quickly, both people should reach to the center and begin stretching the felt out to the outside edges. Work from the center out and back towards yourself until there are no air pockets, creases or bumps in the fabric.
  6. Now flip the entire board over on your work surface so that the board is upside down. Spray the sides of the board and the back around the edges. A little bit of overspray on the back is fine - this adhesive dries pretty quickly. This is the part where you want to be wearing gloves. Wrap the felt around the sides and pull tight so the felt is held nicely in place on the back.

You should now have one wrapped panel with a perfectly smooth black finish. If the areas where you placed the washers look like they're protruding a bit, feel free to push them into the foam so they are level with the rest of the surface..

Repeat for the rest of your panels.

Step 4: Separate Your Strands Into Bundles

OK - I'm just going to come out and say it - this step SUCKED more than anything else involved here. This process took me probably 4 or 5 hours. I tried a number of different approaches, and each method sucked just as much as the last. However it is necessary so here's what worked "best" for me.

  1. First figure out roughly how many strands you'll need per panel. Since one of my panels was larger than the other, it wouldn't be the same amount per each panel if I wanted to have a even disbursement of stars across the ceiling. Since I started with 600 strands, I ended up doing about 95 on 5 panels and 125 on the larger one. I say about because a few strands were broken in the process. It's going to happen. Try not to let it happen, but don't worry if you lose a few strands.. No one's going to know because it's still going to look awesome when you're done.
  2. Get yourself a large work area - each strand is between 12 and 17 feet long, depending on the kit you go with. Most of the kits come prebundled with 300 strands. Wrap the whole bundle with several zip ties to keep that grouping together and stretch them all the way out.
  3. Begin one or two at a time pulling the strands out and separating them into a new grouping. Use clamps or books or whatever you have at your disposal to keep them in a nice straight line throughout this process.
  4. It works best to pull from one end and just get one at a time all the way out, then put it in the other bundle line. Take your time and have patience. Put on some music and try not to curse too much. You'll get there!
  5. As soon as you can, start putting zip ties around your new bundle. I even opted to put zip ties on during the process, about every 20 strands or so and just cut them off later. Believe me this could save a lot of time if something happens and you don't want to have to start a bundle all over.
  6. When you're done make sure there are zip ties about every 8-12" around the entire bundle.
  7. Get a piece of tape, wrap it around the end of your bundle and write the number of strands you managed not to break on the tape. I think out of the 600 strands, I probably lost about 8 or so..
  8. Now get a drink and start on the next set.

You may be saying "geez man, it can't be that hard".. Your first instinct may be to count out 95 strands or how many ever you need in your hand and just begin pulling & yanking. Well, when you have hundreds of little strands, all nearly 17 feet long and each one wanting to go their own way, you'll quickly see yanking isn't going to get you anywhere. They immediately bind up and you can't separate them. If you devise a better method than the one I described, I'd love to hear about it!

UPDATE: Read the comments below - user "dalesql" offers a great suggestion on hanging the strands and allowing gravity to help separate the strands. This strategy may work much better!

Step 5: Install the Fiber Optics

Back to the fun stuff! Now it's time to insert each "star" into foam board panel one by one. Ok, maybe not so fun.. but anything beats separating strands. :)

First, you have to start with a starfield design. I thought about modeling my design after a shot of the Milky Way. I quickly decided that'd be too difficult. Then I thought maybe I'd set a projector to display a computer-generated random disbursement of stars on the area and put dots on the surface where they belonged. I even wrote an app to randomly generate the starfield, it was pretty fun way to teach myself about the HTML 5 Canvas object.

Then I got the board in front of me and realized I was totally overthinking this. Why not just place the dots myself at random? That's just what I did..

  1. Lay your panel down flat on top of a table and take a moment to clean the panel. No doubt by now your panel is full of lint, foam bits and dust. Take a lint roller and go over the entire surface, it worked really well on mine to clean the panel of debris.
  2. Next, grab the bundle of strands that you're going to use for this panel. Check the # of strands that you wrote on the piece of tape for this bundle.
  3. Take your marker and count off the same number of dots over the surface of your panel. The good part about this method is you'll get a truly random pattern. Don't worry about spacing them perfectly evenly or anything. In fact, go ahead and put a few right next together. When you look up at the night sky you'll often see groupings of stars like this - so go ahead & make it look authentic.
  4. Now stand your bundle up vertically. For this process, it works easier if have access to both the front & back of the panel at the same time. Tape one of your ends of your bundle to the center back of the panel. This will hold the strands in place while you're working, giving you easy access to the strands. Leave about 3 or 4' outside of the tape.
  5. It may save you time if you have a partner help you with the next few steps but I did it by myself. Take a small screwdriver or a nail and puncture a hole from the front, straight through to the back. Leave the nail in as a temporary marker to easily see from the back side.
  6. Grab a single strand, now remove the nail and feed the strand through from the back of the panel out of the front, leaving at least about 4" of slack sticking out.
  7. Repeat this process for all of your holes. It works best if you start a few at each corner first, this will make sure your bundle is positioned in the right place and you won't have to spend a lot of time unraveling stuff later to make it reach.
  8. Now go through top to bottom, place a good dab of glue right at where each strand goes into the board. Push & pull the strand a few times to make sure to glue gets in there. Within a couple hours that glue will dry and you'll have a complete panel.
  9. You may want to throw a few pieces of tape across the back to hold all the strands down flush to the back of your panel. Regardless, it's going to look like a total rat's nest back there.

Take a moment to appreciate how far you've come! It's pretty fun to shine the illuminator into the other end of your bundle and actually see your panel light up for the first time!

Now repeat these steps for each of your panels.

Step 6: Hang Your Panels

With your panel's assembly complete, now it's time to install them. Hopefully you've been paying close attention to the lengths of your strand bundles and have everything laid out in a way that will allow your bundles to reach to where your illuminator box will be.

  1. First locate your washers under the felt, and use an X-Acto knife or box cutter to cut a slit on the top of each washer in your panel. Leave enough room on each side of the slit to allow you to insert a screw and screw it into place. DO NOT attempt to screw directly into the felt without first cutting the slit. Your felt will twist around the screw and rip off from the foam board. Don't worry about about the hole - it can be easily concealed later.
  2. Now push a screw through the center of each washer until it pokes out a little bit through the back of the board.
  3. Lift the board into place, making sure it aligns flat against the wall and/or other panels around it. You want no gap between the panels, creating as seamless of a look as possible. A partner would be helpful with this.
  4. Tighten each screw directly into the drywall ceiling. You don't have to worry about hitting studs or anything, considering how lightweight these panels are. However, don't fasten these panels all the way up against the ceiling. You'll want to leave about a 1/2" gap between the ceiling and the panel. This will allow room for your strand bundles to run behind the panel.
  5. One nice thing about using screws like this is it allows you to adjust the height of each panel at different points. Adjust the board up or down to make everything level and even with surrounding panels.
  6. As you go, nail your strand bundle up in a straight line towards you illuminator using cable staples.

Repeat process until all panels are hung.

Step 7: Connect Your Strand Ends

The placement of your illuminator is going to depend on your room size and layout. You'll want to place it somewhere where it's concealed. Since I have a tray ceiling, I knew there would be plenty of room in the soffit of the tray. So I placed it directly in the middle of my room and concealed it with a 'faux' vent cover. This looks natural in the room, but I do plan on painting mine red to blend better into the wall. Just make sure you plan ahead on your illuminator placement to ensure all your strand bundles will reach it - you'll want to have at least a foot of slack.

  1. Gather up your bundles and disassemble the compression couplers that came with your kit. If you have a total of 600 strands then you'll have to divide them into half - each coupler is designed to hold about 300 strands.
  2. Feed the strands through each piece of your coupler assembly in order, tightening each piece about half-way as you go. This can be a bit of a time consuming process, just keep working at it until they're all in there. Leave about 1-2 inches of extra strand sticking out the end.
  3. Using your toenail clippers, begin cutting the ends flush with one another. You can do this about an 1/4" past the end of the metal tube - just make sure they're as even as you can possibly make them, then pull the whole bundle back until it's perfectly flush with the end of the tube.
  4. Tighten down all the parts of your coupler to ensure nothing comes loose. Attach the couplers to your illuminator and conceal it.

Step 8: Treat the Panels With Fire Retardant

Felt is flammable. Please take this precautionary step to ensure it doesn't become fuel for a fire in case of the unthinkable. This is relatively inexpensive and takes barely any time. While fiber optics themselves don't conduct any heat, I do have a projector mounted just a few inches below the panels and that does get hot. That's why I started thinking that just as a precaution, all of the panels should be treated.

I tested burning both treated and untreated felt. You'll see in the first picture, it will catch fire and spread. It kind of sparks as it burns.. kinda of pretty - but you don't want this to happen in your home. In the 2nd picture I am trying to light a treated piece of felt. However, it will not catch fire. It does melt because of the heat of the fire - but it will not become additional fuel for a fire.

With your panels in place just evenly spray the felt and let it dry. That's all there is to it! Just make sure you don't get it on anything else or in your eyes.

I recommend doing this step after you have the panels in place. I didn't do it this way, in my case I treated the panels before hanging them. What I didn't realize is that the fire retardant contains some kind of alkaline salts, and after handling the black material, you could kind of see whitish powdery handprints all over the felt. So I would recommend handling the panels as little as possible after treating them to avoid having to try to clean them later.

Step 9: Trim the Strands

While it looks pretty cool to have these hanging lighted strands, it gives more of the impression of stars once they're trimmed. My daughter said they look like "shooting stars". :)

Just take your toenail clippers and go along trimming each one. You want to leave it sticking out about 1/16 to 1/8 of an inch from the surface of your felt. This way you ensure the tip it won't get covered by felt fuzz, which would dim the light. This process can be a bit tiring on the arms, but didn't take me more than an hour to do the whole ceiling. Be prepared for cleanup though!

Don't worry about cutting them perfectly straight either - a recommendation from the manufacturer in fact says go ahead and cut them all at slightly different angles. This gives more of a "3D" effect when you're done.

Step 10: Enjoy Your Place Under the Stars!

Sit back & relax - its time to enjoy a movie under the stars!

I hope you've found this Instructable helpful. I'll be writing up an article soon about my whole home theater so check back if you'd like know more about how I built it.