Introduction: How to Create a Fiber Optic Starfield Ceiling

About: I tend to start really big projects and then walk away for a few years. My MAME box took 10 years to build, all while I hauled an empty Centipedes arcade cabinet between 3 apartments and two houses. "But, I'…
Hi everyone,

This is a quick instruction guide on creating a fiber-optic starfield ceiling. The stars have a very natural twinkle & glow. My fiber optic illuminator also features a handy remote for turning the stars on&off, as well as controlling the twinkle speed.

This is my very first instructable, so I hope everything comes out well. I'll try to answer any questions that readers may have. The finished product is very pretty and everyone who has seen it in person has thoroughly enjoyed it.

My wife and I are expecting our very first baby in about 4 weeks. I can't remember in which baby/new-parent/scared-daddy magazine I read this, but - newborn babies can't see very well. Apparently, anything past about 2 feet is incredibly blurry. Contrasting colors and blinking lights are supposed to stimulate their senses and assist in early development. Don't quote me on all of that because I might have just dreamed this all up one night. Anyway, that's what I've told everyone that asks...

I've seen instructables and "how-tos" on creating high-contrast mobiles and decorations, but the 'blinking lights' part escaped me. A local movie theater has a beautiful starfield ceiling above their concession stand, and this inspired me to create my own. The home-theater crowd has been creating these star-ceilings for years... but I never saw these in baby-nursery settings. So... here we go.

I made a small video to summarize most of the starfield features.

The effect is much prettier in person and it's a very simple process. The way I did it takes a little bit of work, but I think it's definitely worth it.

Step 1: Required Parts & Tools

First off, you'll need to do some research on the type of lighting that you want to use, as well as the surface area you wish to cover. There are several home-theater packages that come with everything you need to deploy lit fibers into a ceiling. There are basically two primary items that are required: the light-source and the fibers. Illuminators primarily fall into two categories: halogen and LED. The halogen rigs almost always use a flicker-wheel to produce the twinkle effect. LED light-sources can use both the flicker-wheel setup as well as a timer-controlled 'blink'. I found a few videos of these on-off LED illuminators and they did not appear very natural.

I chose an LED light-source with a flicker wheel. This has two-light barrels, which allows for a more random twinkle than the single-output light-boxes. I ordered two bundles feet of fiber, in three different sizes. Twelve feet was enough to cover the area in which I was working.

You can purchase these illuminators all over the internet. I found a really good deal at a local lighting company, which also has a web store.

The unit that I purchased actually comes in kit form:

You get two bundles of fiber, along with the illuminator and remote. They have a nice selection of light-sources for all sizes of ceilings.

Another option... I didn't go with this company, but he has excellent products and is well reviewed on home-theater forums:

The moon is pretty simple - it's a finished product. Moon-in-my-room by Uncle Milton. Pick one up at Amazon:

Step 2: Cut Your Illuminator Port-holes

The next step is to drill and temporarily mount your illuminator.

I placed the light-box at the top of the nursery closet. It runs off of a 12v supply, which I'll *eventually* run through the attic.

Find out exactly where you want to place it and turn it on. You'll see the two powerful LEDs create a spotlight on the ceiling. This is where you will need to drill. My bundled fiber required 1/2" holes into the ceiling. After drilling, run the fiber into the ceiling. This helps if you have two people... at least, I can imagine it would. My pregnant wife was... erm... unavailable to assist.

After all of the fiber is safely coiled inside the attic, we can begin with the meat of the project - drilling, filling and gluing.

Step 3: Drill Baby Drill

The next step is to create the holes for your stars. But first, you have to clear away insulation from the top of the ceiling. I have the blown-in insulation, which is a little harder to move around than the sheet-style. It also breaks up easier, gets in your skin and lungs and causes death. Or at least... you'll itch really badly and have a nasty raspy cough. So, do this when your attic is somewhat cool so you can wear jeans and a long flannel. I started this during the hottest July that North Texas has seen in decades. My first trip up there (120* heat) was brief, which also describes my attire. Hoo hah! Anyway, 30 minutes later, I was drenched in sweat and had 11 stars finished. Brillo pads couldn't ease the itch covering most of my body...

What I'm trying to say here is, do not attempt this during the summer. If you are like me, you'll wait until a freakishly cool September rolls around and you can work in a cool 75* attic. SO much more effective...

Assuming your attic is nice and cool, and you are in proper insulation garb, you can begin. I started in the furthest corners of the room, so that I got the tricky spots out of the way first. To cover as much of the ceiling as I wanted, I had to get REALLY deep into the crevices of the attic, where the roof-line (along with rusty exposed roofing nails) is barely 2 feet above the drywall. This was really cramped, so I was glad to get it out of the way first.

Clear the insulation in whatever method suits you. I tried scooping it into other areas, and filling trash bags for temporary space.

Once you have exposed drywall, you can either mark your drill-spots out with a sharpie, or just drill randomly like I did. Like I said, constellations are great if you want to take the time to do it. I kept messing up the scale so I gave up. I guess I could just tell my daughter that this what the constellations are on the planet Xebo7. Anyway, drill straight down with a 1/16" bit. Count the number of holes that you drill, because you don't want to leave any unfilled. I typically worked 5 at a time.

After drilling, you can thread the fibers into the holes. Thread them almost all the way... you'll have a lot of fibers hanging from the ceiling into the room. This will eventually be scrap fiber. Leave yourself a little bit of slack, for cable management and to provide a little give once you re-insulate.

The next step is to apply a dab of glue into the hole and around the fiber. This keeps the fiber secure, and plugs up any gaps around the fiber - preventing air leakage and loss of insulation. In theory...

Move onto the next area and continue drilling, filling and gluing. I worked in batches, typically in areas divided by the ceiling joists. Try and stay completely random, while ensuring even coverage for each section. You'll want to have at least a few stars right near the edge of the joists, so you don't have giant horizontal gaps in your finished ceiling. Clusters also work well... 2s and 3s typically, but occasionally throw a bunch in a small area. Naturally, this all depends on the amount of fibers you purchased.

When you are done with your area, we can move onto the next step.

Step 4: Time to Re-insulate.

After the glue has dried, fill in the insulation that was moved. You might skip this step if you are doing constellations and want to do some quality-check first. Either way, you can't leave areas of your ceiling exposed without insulation.

Step 5: Cut the Scrap Off

So, you've installed a bunch of stars and now have strands of fiber hanging into your ceiling. Before you cut it, turn the lights out and play with your squid... it's pretty trippy. Once that fun is over you can resume. For me, this was 5 hours of GLEE.

Once this euphoria has passed, grab your nail clippers... which, dangit, I didn't show in my 'tools required' picture. I really hope that finding nail clippers in your house shouldn't be an issue. Anyway, grab the clippers, stand up on your ladder (dangit!!) and start cutting. You should clip the strands fairly close to the ceiling, but change it up as you go.

Also - they actually make a little cutter specifically for this purpose. It's $50. I checked it out at the store and the cutting mechanism looked VERY MUCH like nail clippers. The difference is that it's heated. The professionals will tell you that you get a much cleaner cut and therefore transmit more light if you use the right tools. I know from my own experimentation that cutting it in this way still allows for a lot of light. As I mentioned before, these 268 fiber optics provide enough light to read by. If I lost 10% due to my... improvised cutting, I can deal with that. $2 nail clippers or a $50 'diamond cleaver'. It's up to you.

For my installation, I worked in batches. Besides the ill-advised trip into a 120 degree attic, I knocked this out in 3 chunks. I took my first video after the first third was completed. Compare this to the final video and you can see what a difference a couple hundred stars makes.

Step 6: Check for Errors

Finally... you should double-check for any problems.

I chipped up the ceiling texture in a few spaces, leaving a few brown spots of cardboard around the lights. This was only noticeable if you were staring straight at it, on the ladder, 6 inches from the ceiling. I'm talking about SPECKS of brown. This bothered me, so I 'fixed' it with simple white-out.

Step 7: Enjoy Your New Starfield Ceiling

Turn the lights out... flip on the illuminator, and enjoy nature's majesty. Or, something like that...

Also, for those that are interested... I added a video of the illuminator with the color-wheel installed instead of the flicker wheel. I definitely like the flicker much better, but it's a nice (free) option.

Also, I colored 3 stars with simple highlighters. These pictures make the lights appear to be all different shades, but they are mostly just 'white'. There is a very slight variance between the 3 star sizes, but the 'white' is pretty even. I wanted to have 3 'special' stars, so I found 3 that were fairly long and colored the ends with pink, blue and green highlighters. They are noticeably colored when viewing from an angle, but disappear completely if you lay directly underneath them.

That's it... all done. I hope you enjoyed this instructable. I will be more than happy to answer any questions.

Step 8: Cost Analysis and Thoughts

Just a few notes from the comments and questions:

Cost analysis:

I think that if you had the required tools like the fancy nail-clipper, this could be done with a ready-made light-source for under $100. A larger ceiling would cost more.

This project probably cost around $250. The double-barrel illuminator with remote & flicker wheel should be around $200 (though some sites think this is worth $1,000!) and the fibers were $50. You can do better with the cost of the fibers if you bundle them yourself. Most sites have bundles ready to go in 2 styles: identical sizes, and 3-sizes. It would have been pretty cool to go TOTALLY random and put 11 sizes into a bundle =p. Though, some of the biggest fibers are really freaking expensive.

DIY option:

As for making a DIY light-source... I don't think that would be too hard. I was tinkering with making an arduino-controlled LED with a remote & flicker-wheel... but the costs came out about the same. Lighting up fibers isn't too hard, but focusing the light specifically at the point of entry takes a little more engineering than I'm capable of. I wouldn't think it would be too hard to create a flicker wheel with a low-RPM motor.

Ceiling thoughts:

Most home theater setups install this using a drop-ceiling. You basically add a sub-frame under your existing ceiling with 2x4s. That way, you can install the stars directly into foam-core or drywall, and then pop that up into the frame. That sounds a lot easier to do than monkeying around in the attic. I didn't want to do this because of the fan and the a/c duct. However, we ended up replacing the fan AND changing the duct because it was so dirty. So... maybe I should have gone with the drop-ceiling. That would make it possible to 'take with me' if we left this house. However, I really liked the 'stealth' aspect of installing it through the popcorn. You have no idea there is anything special about the room when the stars are off. Adding a drop-ceiling and re-texturizing the surface would have been just as much work as what I did in the attic. Plus, you'd spend more... and your ceiling is 4" lower. Most theater installations go with the drop-ceiling because they want to paint the ceiling black. Fine and dandy, but that didn't fit in with our idea for a baby girl's nursery =).