Cheap DIY Front Panels

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I wanted a way to be able to design my own front panels for some synth builds and other modular stuff that was affordable. I will eventually get myself a CNC milling machine, and drill and engrave them that way for a much more professional finish, but in the meantime i feel i have come up with a decent enough solution that is of an pretty good standard given the time and cost.

Just to add, anyone interested in the compressor, it is the Gyraf SSL clone (google) but with my own 'Eurorack' sized panel.

Step 1: Design and Print Your Panel Graphics

This may not sit well with some because it essentially involves using free software intended for people that wish to design and purchase front panels from this company, but this is the internet after all. Front Panel Express allow you to download their programme and come up with your own designs, all done to scale. There is a print option in the file or edit menu i think where you need to print your design onto plain white paper initially. There is also the option to include the markings for hole centres etc, which it would be wise to do for this initial copy.

Step 2: Prepare Your Panel Material

This material that i used is actually used for etched signs that you may see in the workplace on doors and the likes. It's basically like a plastic inner with a thin aluminium sheet laminated onto each side. This is silver on one side and white on the other with a black inner but it comes in various colours. I think it's supposed to be used by etching directly onto the thin aluminium which then exposes the black plastic, causing it to look like it has been infilled, but i won't be using it for that.

I 'acquired' a sheet of the stuff and thought it would be perfect for this type of application as it is light, easy to cut and drill, yet rigid. This step basically just involves cutting a piece of whatever material you are using for your panel down to the correct size ready for drilling.

Step 3: Drill!

Tape the design onto the panel and drill all the holes. Mine look a bit jagged in places but its mainly where I've cut into the aluminium with a knife when removing all the burrs left after drilling. Plus it won't be seen once the pots and knobs are fitted.

Step 4: Print Design Onto Clear Plastic

I bought a roll of this stuff on eBay, £13 for a roll 5m x 600mm or something like that, which will last me ages. Obviously you could buy any colour you like if you wanted to design a coloured panel, but i stuck with clear so that the aluminium fascia would be on show. Worth bearing in mind that if you did buy another colour, you would still need clear stuff as well, as you will see in the next step.

As i don't have a laser jet printer at home, i printed another copy of my deign onto plain paper using a heavy ink setting, the darker the better. I then photocopied the design at work using the laser copier, as this will only work with toner. It took a bit of experimentation getting the design aligned correctly in the scanner, but this stage can be done initially copying onto plain paper. Once you are happy you have aligned the design fairly central to an A4 sheet, you need to cut a piece of the clear plastic and stick it (with the backing still on, stick it with sellotape) to a piece of plain paper, and load it into the correct tray for the photocopier to take it through. Make sure you tape across the full edge that will be entering the copier head on as it could get jammed otherwise.

If you have a laser printer you could print directly onto the plastic rather than photocopying, but you'd have to do a test to see how well your printer takes the sticky back plastic into the printer, either fixed to a piece of paper as above, or just on its own (i never tried this).

Step 5: Align and Stick the Design

This part takes a bit of care. I found the best way to do it is to firstly peel back some of the adhesive backer from one side and cut right across it with scissors so it separates from the part thats still stuck. Then i stuck it back onto the plastic so it was back in its initial place, but was not attached to the other half. Be careful not to touch the sticky side of the plastic while doing this, it makes sense to leave some excess round the edges so you can handle it without worrying. Now you need to align the design over the light box as the light shines through the holes making it fairly easy to get right. Once you are happy, sit something heavy on one side and then carefully lift the other side of the design up enough to be able to peel away the one half of the backer (cut earlier) and allow the design to smoothly return to its flat position, now stuck on the panel. Repeat in similar fashion on the other half, safe in the knowledge that the already stuck side is ensuring the design is aligned correctly.

Given that there are so many holes in the panel, the plastic was quite forgiving in that any air bubbles are fairly easily worked away. This plastic stuff is also able to be stuck using washing up liquid and water, but for a design this size, i was confident doing it dry.

Once it was all flat and bubble free, i trimmed the edges and then the holes. Finally, i played another piece of the same material with no printed design over the top to 'seal in' the toner. I left this piece slightly bigger and wrapped it round to the underside to give it a smooth edge and hopefully stop it from peeling away in time.

And thats it! It's not a professional finish, but in a cost vs outcome i think you'll be happy. Cheers.

P.S Still waiting on the knobs, ill add another pic when they turn up.

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    22 Discussions

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    e5frog

    Question 8 weeks ago

    I'm wondering, doesn't the plastic film wrinkle when you tighten the nuts?
    What kind of film is that exactly? Seems worrying that it will clog up a laser printer, if you use transparent films that are meant to be used for drawing or for an inkjet printer they can melt in the laser printer and mess things up.

    1 more answer
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    dankly1e5frog

    Answer 8 weeks ago

    It won’t wrinkle if you’re careful, plus I have used washers so the pressure when tightening is flat as opposed to twisting, if that makes sense.
    It says on the listing it is 70 micron monomeric adhesive vinyl, and is described as being used for professional sign making amongst other things.
    You can order A4 sheets which you could potentially just load into the tray and have it print straight on. I ordered a better value large roll, which as you can imagine is not perfectly flat in the same way wallpaper wouldn’t be. For this reason, I decided it would be better to cut a piece larger than my design and tape that onto a piece of paper to get taken through the printer/copier by the paper. I experimented with a small piece and it printed fine, stuck to my material fine, and then came out looking great with the extra clear plastic stuck over the top so I decided to run with it. Another concern with just feeding in an A4 sheet of stickyback on its own is that the backer could come away from the sheet while in the printer and get caught. Taping it onto another sheet seemed the most sensible option.

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    Killawhat

    8 weeks ago

    Wouldn't it have been easier just to copy the design to clear laser or inkjet paper? I thought you were going to use the toner.

    I used to use old label backings and print toner on them for circuit boards by printing out a reverse image of the design onto the smooth backing, heat up the circuit board with an iron, then place the circuit design facedown and iron it on. I'd imagine you could do the same thing here and just put either a sheet of clear over it or spray it with some clear varnish.

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    dankly1Killawhat

    Reply 8 weeks ago

    How would I have stuck the sheet down to the panel? The stuff I printed onto is adhesive backed.
    I did use toner, toner is just the ‘ink’ in a laser printer. If I would have printed using inkjet it would have just rubbed off.
    I’ve tried the toner transfer method with the iron and never achieved good results.
    This is what worked for me.

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    Killawhatdankly1

    Reply 8 weeks ago

    You can buy adhesive backed A4 clear printer paper, either for laser or inkjet (get the right one for your printer). Avery do some and come in a pack of 25 I believe. And if you're going to put a clear film over the top anyway it shouldn't make much difference if you use inkjet paper as the ink dries pretty quick onto the printer paper and doesn't smudge.

    The trick with transferring toner is to get the surface hot, then put the transfer on and heat that for a 30 sec or so to melt the toner. It also helps if what you initially transfer it onto has a slippery surface (like the backing to adhesive labels)

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    FlorinJ

    8 weeks ago

    You can also print the panel on paper, laminate the paper on one side (just put two sheets into the laminating foil, and cut the edges off afterwards - each sheet will be paper on one side and plastic on the other, after that), then glue it to perspex, cardboard, plywood or aluminum, and then cut out the holes.

    You can do the drawing in anything that lets you print with sub-mm precision - like inkscape, for example, which is also free software. Dia also has a lot of predefined shapes/stencils which you might find useful, and from which you can export svg, then import it in inkscape and do the precise sizing there.

    Less risk of damaging the printer. Also no concerns about the ethical use of proprietary software.

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    ve6cmm

    8 weeks ago

    I have done in a very similar way but I have printed onto thin aluminium foil with an adhesive backing. After I have applied the foil, then I drill the holes. After it has been done, I spray a artists fixative to the panel. The process is quite fast and looks great.

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    رضاع

    8 weeks ago on Step 5

    Hi,......I'M glad for your engineering & desainer, thank you very very nice......

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    throbscottle

    8 weeks ago

    I was hoping you were going to show a way to etch the aluminium layer and expose the black underneath! Still a nice looknig panel though. Good work!

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    TimothyJ999

    Tip 8 weeks ago

    Drilling rounf holes in thin stock is tricky. There are a couple easy ways to improve the outcome. One is to clamp the thin material between two pieces of plywood and drill through the resulting sandwich. The wood will constrain the drill and make the holes round, and you won't have as many burs and snags. The other way is to use a step drill like this:

    https://www.amazon.com/Set-Titanium-Nitride-Drill-...

    These work great on thin stock.

    Hope this helps.

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    Carl Van Wormer

    8 weeks ago on Step 5

    I noticed the holes in your sheet-metal panel showed the typical "chatter-wobble" edges you get when drilling thin metal with a standard drill bit. The stepped bits (conical with the cutting notch, cheap at Harbor Freight) will perform a much cleaner hole edge, but there is a trick I learned from a machinist that almost always works with a standard drill bit. Using a drill press is essential to help with the aiming process.

    1. Get the panel lined up so the bit-tip touches the desired hole target.

    2. Back the bit up enough to put a small (1" square) piece of folded paper towel (3-4 folds, 8-16 layers) between the bit and the panel.

    3. Press the bit down onto the paper stack and into the panel.

    The paper will spin around with the bit and helps to center the cutting edge in the hole and almost always makes holes without the chatter-wobble marks.

    Thanks for the neat panel design process.

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    tercero

    2 months ago

    Ow, wow. I can't thank you enough. I built an enclosure to house my cnc controller about 2 years ago, and have been using printed label tape ever since to label input x,y,z, and limit switches. I've always wanted to do something custom and the aluminum panel idea is perfect. Thanks again.

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    gm280

    2 months ago

    I actually design and make all my panel designs for everything I build. I use most any program that allows you to do a layout for your project. I use Visio only because I am very comfortable with that program, having used it for many years. But any program can be used. Then since I have a large bed LASER engraver, I transfer my design to Corel Draw and send it to the LASER. And you can pick any color, texture, and finish you could imagine. Just search on the net for Engravable laminates and see all the options available. Then LASER cuts the design into the laminate material. Your method almost copies that idea. And if you don't have a Large Bed LASER Engraver, no problem, just take your design to most any local trophy shop and they will do it for you. So any custom panels you could even need are your imagination. I attached a few panels I made for myself. Thanks you for a great post and project. I like your designs.

    Plates - (1).JPGPlates - (16).JPGPlates - (14).JPG002.JPG
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    dankly1gm280

    Reply 2 months ago

    Thanks for the message, and great work on those panels! I basically see myself progressing to a method like you are using once i'm ready, but i like the idea of the trophy engravers in the mean time! Ill check out Visio too. Cheers.

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    gm280dankly1

    Reply 8 weeks ago

    Ha dankly1, I don't see anything wrong with your approach. I think you did a great project. I just wanted to show you another option as well. I'd like to see your project when you get it finished with knobs on it. I bet it looks great. We all are here to learn different ideas and such and I do like your ideas for panels. Thumbs Up sir!

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    Alex in NZ

    2 months ago

    Really neat solution. Thank you for sharing this. I only have pretty poor printer at home, but I've found that the local copy-shop is very helpful with doing odd things (like printing to plastic) and it's not expensive for one or two sheets.

    Also, do you have a source for that moving-coil meter? I've been trying to find some recently but haven't been able to source any which I liked.

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    dankly1Alex in NZ

    Reply 2 months ago

    Hi mate, yeah use whatever you need to and when you get a chance to get hold of a laser printer at home you can do it all in house! In terms of the meter, i honestly can't remember where i got it as this is a project that i started about 7 years ago and shelved for one reason or another. It is only a basic version though and will only have been from one of the typical uk electronics retailers such as mouser or farewell or something like that. If you go on the gyraf site (google it) the forum page for this project (SSL compressor) has loads of info and you should find what you need on there. Cheers