Introduction: Fiber Optic Ceiling Starlights
Ceiling Starlights for a home theater can cost up to $1,000 for a meager 4 square foot panel and countless hours of time and effort to construct this modified ceiling. Additionally, since this will be most people's first and last time building this, uncertainty of what to do when problems arise looms over our heads. I have seen many "do-it-yourself" articles on how to make the starlights, but they teach you in a way that assumes that nothing will go wrong. If you're like me, you may just be an amateur when it comes to working in construction and other crafts; consequently, things tend to go wrong. I aim to take the uncertainty out of building this gorgeous ceiling by providing a guide that analyzes and amends the problems that I encountered and what most other builders may encounter. Before we begin, I highly recommend taking a look at an article by Aron Hoekstra who provided me the knowledge of which materials to select and guided me in the basic methods of building this project ( https://www.instructables.com/id/Fiber-Optic-Panel-Star-Ceiling/ ).
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Step 1: Supplies
The primary unit for the fiber optic starlight can be bought through amazon. They are very high quality (unless you buy a ridiculously cheap unit) and mostly affordable. The unit I bought had 800 stars containing 3 different sized fiber optic cables and a whole range of different colors ( https://www.amazon.com/CHINLY-4-Speed-Twinkle-Ceil... ). This one costs about $245 for 800 cables that are over 13 feet long. Based on what I have seen, that is the best deal I have seen when considering how reliable the unit is. If you plan to buy a different unit, I recommend you check the reliability of the seller and customer reviews. Most importantly, make sure it says it has a "twinkle function" because it is the coolest thing about these starlights.
For the remaining supplies, I used a 2" 8 x 4 pink foam insulation board (SKU 1631291) from Menards and also bought standard 3" construction screws and washers to attach the boards to the ceiling. I prefer the pink insulation boards because they are much more durable and less likely to break when you work with them, as opposed to the more fragile white insulation boards. Also, the strongest and most appropriate glue for this is a can of 3M78 (https://www.amazon.com/3M-Polystyrene-Insulation-A... This glue is extremely strong and specific to bonding foam with anything. Additionally, it does not bleed through the black felt.
The last majorly important item you will need is black felt. Normal black fabric will not suffice. The reason for this is because the other fabrics have some degree of shine that reflects a little bit of light that you may not be able to notice right away. On the other hand, the black felt absorbs a lot of surrounding light which allows you to fix your eyes upon the stars that will look even brighter. Additionally, the best part of using felt is that its darkness makes the starlight ceiling look two-dimensional which makes the stars look like they are in random places in space and it makes the black ceiling look like a cool portal to space. It is easiest to see this in the pictures I have attached at the beginning of the article. Generally, the black felt is cheaper than the other fabrics anyways (Item# 407288)(https://www.joann.com/craft-felt-fabric-72-solids...).
Step 2: Assembling the Panels
I recommend that you make a blueprint of the area that you are adding the starlight to before you buy anything. Not only does this ensure proper planning, but it also lets you make the process more efficient. For example, the orientation of your panels should be in such a way that you minimize the number and length of cuts to the foam board. This guarantees that you have enough long, pre-cut straight edges instead of edges that you cut that may not be exactly precise. I used a hacksaw because it is straight and more precise. I made my plans to that I only had to cut a couple feet off the 8 x 4 board which in turn left me with 3 crisp, clean, and untouched edges.
The next step is wrapping the felt. This has to be done on a hard, flat surface. I laid out the felt and I first ironed out all the wrinkles. This is important because wrinkles cannot be removed later. To apply the glue, I placed the board down on the felt, then turned it up on one side. After that, I sprayed a generous amount of the glue to the side of the board that will face down onto the felt. This spray glue is very precise, so there is no need to worry about getting it everywhere. However, it is important that you spray the glue on the board and place the board down onto the felt within 1 minute. Waiting any longer allows the glue to prematurely set and adhere to virtually nothing. Also, one thing I was worried about was the glue bleeding through the felt, but it does not happen no matter how much glue you spray on. After the one side was glued, I sprayed the edges and the top of the board one side at a time and applied pressure for 10 seconds to achieve the final product that can be seen in the second picture. This is the first panel that I did, and I do not recommend having that much felt wrap around to the backside. The reason for this is that it will be a huge pain when inserting the fiber optic cables later. To see how much is appropriate, look at the picture of the empty panel that I attached below.
Step 3: Inserting Fiber Optic Strands
The next step is inserting all the fiber optic cables. I cannot even explain how much of a pain this was to accomplish, especially on the first panel where I thought I knew what I was doing but really did not. I had 4 panels total and 800 stars, so that means that I will need 200 stars per panel. At first, I thought that it would be a good idea to separate the strand of 800 cables into sections of 200. This seems ideal, but please understand that no matter how hard you try, it will not work. All the cables will just get jumbled up together and it will cost you another few hours to untangle everything. I recommend putting zip ties around all 800 cables every 1-2 feet. To extract the cables, the most efficient way is to have two people holding opposite ends of the bundle tightly, and just pull strands out of the bundle one by one. Each person should pull out 12-4 at a time until you have 25 fiber optic strands each. It is best to just pull out the strands and throw them on the ground. This will let you compile 50 strands in a pile. I recommend only working with 50 at a time because they are less likely to tangle, and if they do, they are easy to untangle because there are only 50. Then you can slowly make the zip ties tighter for every 50 you take out to make sure that the bundle of 800 stays intact. (If you do not have access to a helper then you can use Aron's method of extracting the strands by yourself)
The next part is making the holes. I approached this with several methods that were recommended to me by other builders; however, none of them worked so I made my own. I found that the best way to poke holes in the board is to first have the board set on tables that are placed in the corners (as pictured above). Then you will want to turn the panel so that the black felt side is facing you (opposite of what is shown above). Next, you will want to estimate how many stars you will need per square foot. For my 26 square foot panel (and 200 cables per panel), I estimated roughly 8 stars per square foot. Next, I used a long wooden skewer and poked holes. I prefer wood because the metal skewers slip easier and the wood ones have much more friction so your hand does not slide. It is important to poke the holes by inserting the skewer from the felt side and not the open foam side. This is because if you insert the skewer from the foam side, the skewer will not pierce the tough, black felt and it will rip it off of the glue. Then the panel will not look flat, but bumpy. When using the skewer method, you may not be able to see where you poked the holes at from the front, so what I do is poke at the hole with a black sharpie. This allows you to see the hole up close but remains invisible at a distance. Also, make sure you are counting how many you are poking to ensure you have 200 total. I space my stars out at first, making sure to fill the whole panel, then I poke holes in the gaps with the remaining number of stars that I have.
Now you can turn the panel around and you will be able to very visibly see where you poked the stars. Applying the black sharpie on the front of the panel was only there for you to see the stars on the front side as a guide to know where there are big gaps of blackness. It is time to insert the fiber optic cables. I start on one side and work my way to the top. All the cables lay on one side of the board. For example, in the second picture above, I lay a cable and let it hang on one side of the board, then I insert it into the hole that I made and pull out a few extra inches. To finish it off, I place a piece of black tape (as shown above) to prevent the strand from slipping out. The nice part is that since the holes are already made and counted, you do not have to keep track of how many strands you are putting in. Since you poked 200 holes, all 200 strands should go in so you can focus on inserting the strands. Now you have to do this for the remaining 49 strands, then pull out another 50 strands and finish that and repeat until all the holes are filled. It is also important to gather the 50 strands after they have been inserted and tape them up with duct tape. The purpose of doing this for 50 strands at a time is to prevent the strands from slipping through when you bundle up the four bundles of 50 to make one bundle of 200. I did not take a picture of this, but you can kind of see that in the third picture above, the end has 200 strands taped together and then splits into four taped bundles of 50.
An issue I ran into is that sometimes the hole was not clearly made, and the strand did not go through. This happens very often, so it's okay to be annoyed, because when inserting the skewer, the foam board splits to let the skewer through, but then sometimes contracts back after the skewer is removed. When this happens, just reach for a skewer and re-poke the hole again and then try re-inserting the cable.
Step 4: Installing the Panels
Now that the hard part is over, it is time to finish this project once and for all. Hanging the panels is quite simple. The easiest way to do this is to create small boxes out of scrap 2 x 4 wood studs (shown above) and cut them all to the same height, then install them into the ceiling so that the boxes capture every corner of each panel. It is only necessary to have the panel attach to the wood at the corners because this is lightweight foam and does not sag. While my family was holding the panel up to the ceiling, I used a small knife to cut a slit and insert a washer. The purpose of the washer is to prevent the crew from going straight through the foam. I used 3-inch construction screws to screw into the wood on the other side through the washer and foam. Now you do this to the rest of the corners, and the remaining panels until the job is finished.
When inserting the last panel, make sure you have the unit up near the panels plugged in and ready to go. When inserting the last panel, have some people hold up the panel almost all the way while you gather all the bundles of 200 strands and tape them together to make the final 800 strand bundle. Now you can insert it into the unit and finish installing the final panel.
Step 5: Finishing Touches
The slits from inserting the metal washers will still be there, but after you cover up the washer and screw with the felt, then it is virtually invisible.
There may be some gaps between each of your attached panels. To make this look a little better, I took some extra felt that I had, rolled it up into a long roll and inserted it between the crevices to make the whole ceiling look a little bit smoother. However, I had 0.5-1 inch gaps between panels and was not able to notice them unless I closely examine the ceiling. In the pictures of my final product above before I added extra felt, you cannot even tell that there are gaps.
There are other ways to do this, but I find that the method I used was the easiest. If you plan to take on a project as serious as this, I highly recommend that you do thorough research with other builder's strategies. Good luck!