Intro: Cheap DIY Front Panels
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.