Introduction: Solar Powered Digital Picture Frame

Here is a neat little gift I made for my wife last Christmas.  It would make a great gift in general though - birthdays, anniversaries, Valentine's Day or other special events!

At the core is a standard off-the-shelf keychain digital picture frame.  It is mounted in a fancy enclosure, in this case a flower that is modeled after a chrysanthemum.  On top of that, a solar cell has been added so that the picture frame will run indefinitely when placed in a sunny window!  Or, you can simply plug it into any USB port and let it run from there.

It can be made using basic tools, including an X-acto knife, soldering iron, wire strippers, and a drill.

Step 1: Materials and Tools

All of the materials should be pretty easy to find, and most can be substituted or completely changed if you want to. I had to buy the two most important pieces, the digital picture frame and the solar panel, but everything else was just lying around.


1.5" Digital picture frame -
5V, 160mA Solar Panel - (or equivalent)
Small flower pot
Some pieces of craft foam - available at any craft store
A mini USB cable - online or in stores
A 0.3V Germanium Diode - to protect the solar panel
Some bits of wire
A chunk of wood, between 0.5 and 1" thick
Some hard plastic drinking straws (or equivalent)
White glue


A Soldering Iron
A Glue Gun
A Scroll Saw or Band Saw (optional)
A Drill Press (or a hand drill, in a pinch)
An X-Acto knife with a fresh blade
A computer and printer
Wire cutters/strippers

Step 2: Create a Frame Design for the Digital Picture Frame

The great thing about this project is that you don't have to hack the digital picture frame itself in any way. All you need to do is build up a frame around it, so that the cable running to it is hidden and the frame is disguised.

I decided that since the project was going to be solar powered, it only made sense to stick the picture frame in one of the most recognizable solar-powered objects in the world: a flower! You can choose whatever form you like of course, and any flower, too.

If you are using the same digital picture frame that I did (and I highly recommend it, it's absolutely perfect for this project!) then you may go ahead and use the templates I created for it. I chose to create a sort of cartoon-y chrysanthemum. There are five layers of petals which the frame is set into, and a few layers behind to which the "stem" attaches.

The petals were created in Adobe Illustrator, though any vector processing program would work fine. You could even work freehand, though it's easier and faster using a computer. It make lining up the layers very easy.

I started with a circle, then applied a very elongated ripple effect.

The top and second layers of the petal design are meant to reveal just the display, so I measured the size of the display using a ruler and transferred those dimensions onto the petals using the square drawing tool.

The next layer has a sort of bezel that is larger than the display, but smaller than the body of the digital frame. I measured that with a ruler as well, and transferred it to the next largest set of pedals. Note that the bezel is offset from the display, so it is placed offset in the pattern - this will keep everything centered.

The next two layers have a hole cut to fit the body of the digital frame. These too are offset from the display, so be careful when lining them up.

The rear of the flower is much simpler. Using the same technique as the front, I drew two simpler petal designs, with cutouts that match the body of the digital frame. There are also three layers of rectangular frames that act as spacers (you'll see why, later).

There are a number of flower designs that would work well for this - the runner up for this project was a sunflower. Perhaps I'll make another one in the future. By all means, go wild with your design and get creative.

Step 3: Cut Out the Frame

With your frame design complete, you can print it out on your printer on regular paper.

You may have noticed that the border of the cutout for the digital frame gets awfully close or even overlaps the edge of the petal design. That's OK! With a pen, draw a new path for the petal around the cutout, so that you have at least 3mm spacing. This will be hidden (or not noticeable) when you stack the layers on top of each other. (You may also do this ahead of time in the graphics program.)

Select a piece of craft foam in the colour you'd like, and tape the pattern onto it. It should lie as flat as possible on the foam. With the X-Acto knife, cut along the lines of the pattern and through the foam. I found it easier to start by cutting out the holes in the middle of the petals. Once the holes are cut, you can wrap another piece of tape around the hole to keep the pattern from shifting.

The petals themselves are harder to cut. Start at the inside and cut towards the tips. Be careful and patient, the paper may want to snag. Once the flower petal is cut out, gently test it to see if it will come out on its own. If it doesn't, don't tear it out! Use the knife to gently cut any corners that don't meet up.

Repeat for all of the petal patterns.

Step 4: Glue the Frame

You will need the digital picture frame for this step to help you line up the petal pieces.

Start with the first and second layers - the smallest patterns. Stack them up so that the cutout for the display lines up, and the petals are staggered. When you're satisfied with the alignment, lift off the top layer and apply some glue to the underside. Stick it back down exactly as it was before. Wait a little while for the glue to dry, to make handling easier.

Lay the digital frame on its back, and set the petal pattern that fits around the bezel in place. Dry-fit the top two layers on top, and arrange alignment for a good fit. You may have to remove the bezel-layer petal and place it upside down, depending on the top two layers. Again, make sure the display is lined up properly and that the petals are staggered. When you're satisfied, glue the top two layers in place onto the bezel layer. Try not to get glue on the digital frame itself, in case you need to remove it later.

Once the bezel layer is dry, flip the flower face down and line up the next largest body layer. As before, line everything up so the petals are properly spaced and staggered. Glue this layer and the next in place.

Now you can glue the back pieces on. Take one of the back pieces, and as before, glue it in place around the digital frame. It's OK if part of the USB connector is starting to be covered up - this will be cut out later.

Stack up as many of the rectangular spacers as are necessary to completely cover the thickness of the digital frame. I needed three. Glue them in place and set aside the flower for now.

Step 5: Modify the USB Cable

The digital picture frame probably came with a little mini-USB to regular-USB adapter. You won't need it. Instead, grab a cable that has the same mini USB plug on one end, and a regular USB plug on the other. Most digital cameras will come with a cable like this; look for one online or at electronics stores.

In order to fit the mini-USB end into the tight confines of the flower, you'll need to cut away the plastic body of the plug. Using an X-Acto knife, CAREFULLY cut away the plastic. Be sure not to cut the cable itself, or your finger. Eventually, you should be left with a much smaller metal-shrouded connector with a cable crimped onto it.

You will now need to decide how tall your flower will be. The stem should be a narrow, hollow piece of plastic. I used a reusable drinking straw, since it was lying around and looked nice. You can use whatever you want, but you may need to wrap some green foam around the stem to complete the look. The cable will run through the stem and into the base of the flower pot, where it will be connected to the solar panel.

I decided to use the entire length of the straw. Holding the flower roughly on top of the stem, I estimated how long the cable should be. I added a bit of slack for the cable to make a loop where it enters the straw, and another extra bit where it exits the straw. When you're satisfied with the length, cut the USB cable. Need I remind you to double-check your measurements? No? Good. :)

Step 6: Add the Stem to the Flower

You may now be wondering how the cable is going to actually plug into the digital picture frame. Fear not! A path will be cleared.

Note the position of the connector on the digital frame, and put two small marks on the rectangular spacers on either side. Using the X-Acto knife, cut the two spacers underneath the top spacer, so that a hole is created for the plug to pass through. You may also have to cut down into the first back petal layer. Plug in the connector, and make sure the digital frame isn't squeezed to one side. Everything should fit without being stressed.

Slide the cable into the stem so that the opening of the stem is about midway along the body of the digital frame. Note that the frame will actually be mounted sideways so that we still have access to the buttons on the side. Squeeze a curve into the cable so the stem stays in place. Make sure the stem is in the middle of the flower, and not the frame - then, glue it in place with hot glue. Be sure to hold the stem until the glue has hardened. Put dabs of glue on the case of the digital frame and on the rectangular spacers.

The final back piece is then laid on top of everything. Hold it in place, and make note of where the buttons are on the back of the digital frame - a hole will be cut later. Glue the back piece in place with hot glue, sticking it to the rectangular spacers first, and then moving out to the tips of the petals. The petals will be stretched slightly, so you'll have to hold down each one until the glue dries. Make sure the back piece is firmly glued to the stem as well.

When the glue is hardened, use the X-acto knife to cut a small access hole for the buttons on the back. Start small and enlarge the hole until it's just large enough to fit a finger.

Step 7: Build the Solar Panel

The solar panel provides enough power to charge the digital picture frame in bright sunlight. The digital picture frame will think it's plugged into USB power all the time!

Connecting the panel is easy. Start by cutting two pieces of wire about 8 inches long. Strip about half a centimeter off the ends, and solder them to the back of the solar panel. On my solar panel, two bare pieces of copper were exposed on the back of the panel for me to solder onto. You may want to stick with convention and make the positive side red, and the negative side black - it will make connecting them easier later on.

Use a drinking straw similar (or ideally identical) to the one you used to make the stem for the flower. This one will be shorter; just long enough to elevate the solar panel above the lip of the flower pot. Measure carefully, holding the solar panel in approximately the position you'd like above the pot. The straw should extend down below the lip of the pot about 1.5 to two inches. Cut the straw with a saw or knife.

Thread the wires into the straw, and as with the flower squeeze a bend into the wires. Hold the straw against the back of the solar panel with the end in the very center. It should be at an angle, so that when the solar panel is installed it points to the sky somewhat. Glue the wires and the straw in place with hot glue, and be sure to hold the straw in place until the glue has hardened.

Lastly, cut a piece of craft foam to fit the back of the solar panel and hide the wires. Glue it in place with hot glue, and press down firmly until the glue is hard.

Step 8: Form the "Flower Bed"

The flower bed, in which the flower, solar panel, and USB cable are mounted, is made of a piece of scrap wood. A piece of half inch to 3/4 inch wood of any type should work fine.  Alternatively, you could use several layers of foam-core poster board, which can be cut with a knife.

Start by measuring the inside diameter of the planter, about half an inch to 3/4 inch from the lip. Transfer this measurement to the wood using a compass. It's important to be very accurate, or it won't fit properly in the planter.

The edge of the "flower bed" must be cut at an angle so that it wedges in place. This angle can be easily set on the scroll saw or band saw. Simply set the planter on the scroll saw table next to the blade, and adjust the angle of the table until the blade is parallel to the sloped edge of the planter.

Now, cut out the circle you drew on the wood, following the line as closely as possible. Make sure the wood is being cut so that the bottom side ends up being narrower than the top.

Test-fit the wood flower bed in the pot - it should fit snugly about a half inch below the lip. In fact, it may even take a few whacks to get it back out!

When you're satisfied with the fit, move on to the drill press. Select a bit that matches the diameter of the flower stem as closely as possible, but not smaller. Drill one hole in the very center of the wood for the flower, and one about 3/4" from the edge for the solar panel. Then, drill a third, smaller hole that matches the diameter of the USB cable close to the hole for the solar panel.  (this is optional - you can hide the USB cable inside the pot if you want to)

Test-fit the flower stem in the hole. It should be snug. If the stem doesn't go through, widen the hole very slightly using a file or some sandpaper wrapped around a nail.

Now, stick the flower and the solar panel into the flower bed, so the plastic stems protrude about 1/4" below the bottom of the wood. Adjust the angle of the flower and solar panel, and then glue them in place on the underside of the wood with hot glue. Thread the USB cable through its hole, so the plug sticks out of the "ground", and glue it in place as well.

Step 9: Wire Everything Up!

Almost done! This is probably the trickiest part, especially if you're not totally comfortable with a soldering iron just yet.

Start by stripping back 2" of jacket and shielding from the USB cables. Be very, very careful when you do this, because you don't want to nick or cut the wires inside. With the shielding removed, you should see four wires: red, black, green and white. The red and black are power, and the green and white are data.

Strip about 5-7mm of insulation off of every wire, including both USB cable ends and the wires coming from the solar panel. Give the wires a bit of a twist and pre-tin them with solder.

You must now install a protection diode on the positive wire coming from the solar panel. When the Flower is plugged into a proper USB port for charging or transferring pictures, this diode will prevent voltage from going the wrong way into the solar panel. You can use almost any regular diode, but a Germanium diode will work better because its forward voltage is lower (0.3V instead of 0.7V) - thus allowing the solar panel to charge the digital picture frame in lower light.

Begin by soldering the diode's anode (the side without a stripe) to the red wire coming from the solar panel. Be careful not to overheat the diode or the wire. Slide a piece of heat-shrink tubing past the diode and onto the wire, and leave it there for now. Next, solder the two red wires from the USB cables onto the other lead of the diode. Wait until the joint has cooled, then slide the heat shrink back over the diode and joints to cover them.

The black wires are next. Slide a piece of heat shrink over the solar panel black wire first. Then, solder the three wires together. When the joint has cooled, slide the heat shrink to cover the connection.

Lastly, solder the two green wires together, and the two white wires together, covering them with heat shrink as well.

Everything should now be functional - if you hold the solar panel up to a light source, the display should turn on and the little "charging" icon will appear. If you're satisfied that everything is hooked up properly, tuck the wires into the pot and slide the wood base with attached flower and solar panel into the pot. If it's snug then you won't have to glue it in. Otherwise, put a few dots of hot glue here and there to keep it in place.

Step 10: Add Fake Dirt

The flower pot won't look real without some fake dirt. Well, I suppose you could use real dirt if you wanted to...

Take a piece of black craft foam about 2.5 times the surface area of the wood "flower bed." Lay it on a cutting mat, and with the aid of a ruler cut it into strips about 2mm wide. You should have a dozen or more foam "strings."

Now for the long, annoying part. Cut each string into 2x2mm pieces. Make a few hundred. Fill a small container with them. Your hands will hurt. But they look good, so keep going.

With all the pieces cut up, lay a thick layer of white glue on the surface of the wood flower bed. Crumble the foam pieces onto the glue, and spread them out so they're even. Press them down into the glue, so that as many as possible get stuck down.

And that's it! The assembly is done when the glue is dry - now it's time to load up some pictures.

Step 11: Load Pictures Into the Digital Picture Frame

The digital picture frame I used is pretty neat - it has built-in software that automatically re-sizes pictures to fit on the display. Here's how to use it.

Plug the flower pot into your computer (sorry, PC only). Nothing will happen at first. Hit the "menu" button on the digital picture frame, and select "USB Connect," then "Yes." The picture frame will show up as an external device in windows, with the option to run a program called "DPFMate." Run it.

A single window will pop up. In the top left is a browsable directory of your computer, in the bottom left is a preview pane for basic edits. Another pane on the right shows the pictures currently loaded into the picture frame.

I deleted the three pre-loaded pictures, pretty as they were.

Browse to the first picture you'd like to load up. It will appear in the lower left window, with dotted lines showing what part of the picture will appear on the display. But wait! To compensate for the fact that we rotated the picture frame onto its side, you will need to rotate each picture. Hit the "Rotate Left" button on the side. Then, drag the dotted lines to center the image you wish to display. Hit "Add" and the picture will be added to the pane on the right.

Do this for every picture. This little frame has room for an amazing 138 pictures! Once you are finished, hit the "Download" button. This will load all the pictures onto the digital picture frame. When the download is complete, hit "Exit." Then, from the sidebar, choose "Safely remove hardware." You may now leave the frame plugged in to run from USB power, or unplug it to run from solar and/or its own internal battery.

Oh! One other thing. The digital frame I used has an option to turn off the automatic power-off feature. I recommend doing this, so that the pictures continuously display all day. After all, with enough light, the battery will never drain!

And there you have it - a solar powered digital picture frame disguised as a flower. It makes a great gift and looks super displayed in a sunny window or next to your computer.
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