Introduction: Mass Effect Scrollsawn Light Box

About: Engineer by trade, amateur woodworker and author in the off-hours. Most commonly, I build flag boxes for retiring military members and occasionally gifts and furniture when the opportunities arise. Outside of …

"I’m Commander Shepard, and this is my favorite project on Instructables!"

Time for a fitting tribute to everyone's favorite galaxy-annihilating, semi-immortal, mechanical lifeforms! You still remember your first encounter with Sovereign and now you can bring our soul-crushing fate into your home with some fancy fretwork and judicious application of LEDs.

The scrollsaw holds a special place in my heart as it was one of the first tools I had access to while still in school. Although I’ve moved on from the combination of simple construction and exhausting patience required by most scrollsawn projects, I still look back on those days fondly and brainstorm on how to apply those early techniques into my modern plans. Fretwork images are great by themselves but I think there is a significant amount of room for using scrollsawn components as accents on larger projects. Likewise, using multiple layers together to build a single picture can add an unexpected dimension to an otherwise average project.

Traditionally (okay, I’ve attempted this once before), you’d use fine veneered plywood, stain each layer a different color, and stack them with no spacing inside a frame to complete the project. That looks good but it’s not going to be good enough for all of my fellow Spectres out there; instead, we’ll be cutting away a fair amount of the hidden layers, painting them all different, adding spacers between each one and wrapping the whole assembly with LED light strips. When properly accented, the lights will shine over the layers, reflect through the cuts and show off the whole picture... In theory, anyway...

The RGB LED light strips are a pretty versatile accessory, running off of 12v power and capable of emitting a wide range of colors. I sourced mine from Amazon, along with a few spare cables, connectors and a soldering iron. All told, I used:

2x 5m RGB LED strips

1x 10m RGB LED strip

1x 3' connector wire

1x Small Project Accessory Kit

So why did I choose the scene from Mass Effect? As an unrepentant scifi geek, I’ve been a huge fan of the series and I'm always looking for excuses to meld my hobbies together. Sure, you could use these principles on any subject, but why?

Let's get started!

Step 1: Planning

If I haven’t scared you off and you still want to give this a shot, you’ll need a couple tools in your workshop. Not as many as some of my projects, but it’ll be hard without a scrollsaw and drill (for the pilot holes). I also got some mileage out of a rasp and palm sander to remove the glued-on-patterns after cutting each layer. To build the frame to house everything, I used a table saw, miter saw and Domino joiner although a commercially-available shadow box would likely work as well.

As my subject, I chose a shot from Mass Effect 3 which contained a number of components that I felt would translate well to the pattern. We have a landscape containing a foreground building, a close area of the city, a skyline, rolling hills, and the sky above. Oh, and Reapers. Where would we be without Reapers? The four in the original image will be individually placed on their own layer, with the one front and center floating above the rest and accented with more LEDs.

Bring the picture into Photoshop, duplicate the layer and apply the Glowing Edges filter to bring out its details, more or less turning the render into a line drawing. After playing with the sliders in the tool, see what looks best and will translate well to wood. If your image is dark, invert everything so you get dark lines to cut and you don't kill off your printer. You’ll notice I also made a layer where I masked off roughly where I thought the layers would be separated. If you need more of the details of the original image, you can adjust the Edge layer transparency until you have a useable product. Adjust the Image Size to reflect the correct dimensions and print it out; I saved it off as a PDF and used Acrobat to print it as a multi-page poster about 29"x16.25".

Step 2: Scrollsaw 102

I’m going to make the assumption that if you’ve made it this far, you’ve used a scrollsaw before; be warned that we’ve got upwards of 500 internal cuts to make so this probably shouldn’t be your first project. No, there’s no easy way to do this. You just need to take it one step at a time.

There are a number of scrollsaw blades on the market, each sized by number, from #0 being small to around #7 being large, with #2/0 and #3/0 being super-super tiny. There’s a trade-off here since a smaller blade gives a cleaner cut and can take tighter curves but cannot remove enough sawdust to cut a thicker piece of wood; the smaller blades are also delicate and break more often. As this project will be using ¼” plywood underlayment (its cheap and doesn't need to be pretty since we’re gonna paint it anyway), I can get away with a pretty fine blade (~#2 seemed to work well).

There’s an additional problem: my pattern is 29” wide, while my saw only has a throat of 24”. i.e. for the last few inches in on each side of the pattern, I’ll be unable to spin the board and complete the cuts without hitting the back of the saw. Rather than suffer through this, spinning the boards the opposite way or completing cuts with a coping saw, I went with Spiral blades. These are tightly twisted so they cut in every direction so I only need to move the boards in X and Y without rotation in order to complete the pattern. This also makes the cuts significantly faster. The downside is that the kerfs are a little thicker and the blades round over the corners of cuts but those can be fixed with a pin file if they distract from the rest of the work. Since most of this project is fairly organic, I don't think this is an issue. If I was making a very geometrically-regular pattern, I'd definitely go with traditional blades.

Cut the pattern down to separate each layer. Start with a large piece of plywood and use permanent spray adhesive to place each one to the board. If the board is too big for your scrollsaw, you can rough cut it with a jigsaw and refine the edges later. Drill pilot holes in the areas you've decided to remove and get into you zen-scrollsawing zone. There's a regular pattern you can get into between releasing the blade, moving holes, restoring tension and resuming the cut. Put on some soft music and just get started...

After cutting the layers, remove the pattern by lightly running a rasp over the surface and finishing up with an orbital sander. Don't worry about removing 100% of the white spots since those will be covered by the paint. Clean up any jagged edges and get ready for painting.

Step 3: On Painting

Most of the spray paint variants that I used were 2x paint/primer blends which had fairly good coverage. I ended up applying 2 coats to each layer, with the last one fairly thick to smooth out the wood texture. Since the parts were lying flat, I didn’t need to worry about drips. The first 2 small layers in the picture were a light gray, with each successive layer becoming a darker shade of blue, with the exception of the Reapers, which I kept gloss black. Additionally, the backboard got a coat of glitter paint which adds some extra shimmer. I also used a small amount of the glitter paint on the sky layer to enhance the effect.

Step 4: Assembly

I decided to separate each layer with 3/8” thick standoffs which would allow enough space for light to pass behind but not make the entire project so thick as to render it bulky. Using scrap hardwood, mill a few strips to 3/8” in thickness and trim them down to pads approx. ½” per side. Mark the outside of the back where the picture should stop, ~1” from the edge and use it to align the layers. Beginning with the sky, attach ~10 of the standoffs to the back, in two lines across the length with glue or epoxy… thinking back, epoxy would probably be the better solution so as not to worry about glue reacting poorly with the painted surfaces. Add weights to the top of the layer and let the assembly dry on a flat surface, garage floor, etc.

With the first layer down, continue with the second by adding another line of 3/8” standoffs, and making a second set of standoffs which extend all the way to the backboard. Attach and weight this layer as well. Continue this pattern all the way through the project, taking care to line up the standoffs when possible and not adding so many as to obscure the lights.

For the Reapers in the distance, attach them directly to the hill layer since they are traipsing through the city in the distance and don’t really need much separation.

Sovereign up front will need a long, wide standoff that will attach to the sky layer and reach the front of the foreground. The size of the standoff will allow us to wrap several layers of lights around it and get enough light to set it apart from the rest of the scene. We can also use some of the space behind it to mount the LED inverters.

Step 5: The Frame

Well we’ve made it through the hard word! Breathe a sigh of relief and it’s all downhill from here. The project still needs a frame that will hide all the lights plus the inverters. We all know how to make mitered picture frames, right? This is the same thing, except we’ll make it in two stages.

Mill some paint-grade wood (I used some spare poplar) to the same width as the scene, which for me ended up being around 2”, and a little longer in each dimension. Since I started with 5/4 stock, I resawed it down to 1/2” in thickness to keep the weight manageable. Add a 1/4x1/4” rabbet to the back and miter the corners to fit the box.

After dry-fitting, use your jointing solution of choice to glue everything up. As usual, I used some Festool Dominoes (Parents, talk to your children about Festool before someone else does) although biscuits or dovetails would work just as well. Glue this up with a band clamp, using the final assembly to keep everything lined up.

With another similar set of parts, build a matching face frame to cover the gap in the front, with ~1/4” of overlap. Again, I used a normal 45 degree miter with a spline to keep things aligned. Glue the parts in place and let everything dry.

Once the frame is dry, clean up the glue, lightly sand the outside and paint everything gloss black to match the rest of the project. As an extra effect, I added the classic red/white N7 stripe to the right side of the box because how could I not?? Set two lines of masking tape 1/2" in from each edge and spray a few layers of white. Let that dry for at least a day and move the two pieces of tape in another 1/2" and add a layer of red. Again, let it dry completely so you don't rip the paint away with the tape.

Step 6: Frame Lighting

As already mentioned, I used a few spools of standard RGB LEDs to add the lighting effects to the box. After some deliberation, I went with 2 channels, one Blue for the background and the other Red, for the Reapers. Although I didn't realize it when I got them, the LEDs ended up having self-adhesive backs which was a big time saver.

For the background, start with a 10 meter strand of LEDs and begin laying them down from the lower right corner of the frame, working your way around until you've completed 3-4 circuits. I used 2 full 5m strands for the operation and had to connect them together at the bottom but I'd recommend simply getting the longer strand.

With a small handsaw, cut a notch in the backboard to slide the 4-pin control cable through, and attach the power supply to the back of the box using double-sided tape.

Step 7: Reaper Lighting

For the second lighting channel, we'll begin much like the first. Be mindful that we'll need to use as many lights as we can fit behind each element as we'll need to overpower the entire frame's worth of LEDs.

With a second strand of LEDs, wrap the Reaper's mounting post until all of the wood is covered, then extend the line down to sit behind its center leg. Pre-drill and attach the Reaper to the backboard with a pocket-hole screw and carve a notch like before to get the control cable to the back of the box.

From here, you can repeat the process to add more strips of LEDs behind the other Reapers. Add the patch cables and trace them to the rear of the box as before. From here, solder the individual leads together to create a set of branching strips powered by the single control box.

... And that's about it. Cover the IR receivers and dial in each color until you hit some shades and intensities you like; I found that a low power, light blue worked well for the sides along with a pure red for the Reapers. You've now got a one-of-a-kind accessory for your game room or swanky Asari abode.

break/break: I had a great time putting all of this together and I hope you enjoyed it as well. If so, and if you agree with Commander Shepard's assessment, I'd really appreciate your votes for the Lighting/Untouchable/Power contests. In either case, thanks for reading! -WMD

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