Intro: How to Design and Laser Cut a Lit Display Board for War-gaming Miniatures
If you've ever been to a war-gaming convention, you will have seen that participants like to display their lovingly painted miniatures on display boards between matches. Some of these boards are simple, and some are elaborate and include terrain that showcases the models in an ideal setting. My laser cut display board has engraved edge-lit acrylic as both the base and backdrop, with colorful LEDs run by a remote control. The engraving is drawn in Adobe Illustrator, as is the design of all the board components, and is inspired by Gothic ruin terrain that coordinates with my Circle Orboros Hordes army. The base is embedded with a grid of rare earth magnets that hold the miniatures in place as the board moves about the room!
Step 1: Tools and Materials
Plywood: 1/4" and 1/8"
1/4" clear acrylic
Receiver and remote control
9 volt battery pack
Gray paint and Wipe-on Poly
Liquid electrical tape and regular electrical tape
Rare earth magnets
Access to a laser cutter (I use one at my makerspace)
Access to vector drawing software (I use Adobe Illustrator)
Weights and clamps for gluing
Step 2: Draw Your Base and Backdrop Images
I drew a cobblestone courtyard using a vector design I found on the internet. It is a continuous design that you can copy and paste and it fits together seamlessly. Make sure to eliminate any duplicate lines, to speed up the laser engraving process.
I drew my backdrop by selecting a reference photo from an image search - I picked some Gothic ruins terrain - and drew over it with the Illustrator pen tool. I would create an element, like a door, and then copy and paste it in several places. My army is a nature oriented one, so I used lots of vines and trees, but it is also a Hordes army, so I incorporated skulls and bat wings! The end result is inspired by the reference photo, but it is my own unique creation.
If you don't want to draw your own, there is a lot of free vector art online and the cost of vector art can also be very reasonable, as long as you are using it for personal use and not reselling it (those licenses are significantly more expensive).
At the base of the backdrop is a piece of cobblestone I drew using Illustrator's perspective tools. This connects the backdrop to the cobblestone courtyard visually.
On my laser cutter, blue lines are vector engraving lines, so these images are done in blue. I added a red rectangle (red is for cutting on my laser cutter) around each for the cutting lines of the base and backdrop.
Step 3: Design the Display Board Components
My first step is always to measure any preexisting components and create reference objects to use in the design. I created shapes to represent the magnets, the battery pack (top and side view), the LED strip and the bases of my models.
The most complex layer of the board is the middle, where the magnets will be. I put a cutout in the back for the LED strips (one flat, one vertical in one shared space). I laid out a grid of circles the size of my model base reference (in green, which does not affect the laser cutter) and put small red circle cutouts for the magnets in the center of each. [The circles only look blue in the image because they are currently selected and blue is the layer color.]
Beneath this layer is the bottom layer, which has two cutouts toward the back for wires to run into the back legs.
Above the middle is a top layer that frames the courtyard acrylic.
I designed a bracket that attaches to the back of the top frame, and holds up the backdrop acrylic. I will cut four copies of this piece and glue them together into a laminated back stand.
The bottom of the back stand needs to be a little different, though, because the courtyard acrylic will be sliding into it. It has a detachable strip that will be slid into place after the acrylic is down. This strip will block the glare of the LED strips and direct the light into the acrylic.
The legs are sized to be able to hold a battery pack, and I will cut five copies for each leg to be laminated into a 1.25" tall leg.
Step 4: Laser Cut and Engrave Components
The Illustrator drawing is used to cut and engrave all the components. Some laser cutters are able to use the AI drawings directly, and you can use the cloning/multiples function on the cutter to lay out the multiple copies of the back stand and legs.
Some laser cutters will require that you create your own 'cut sheets', where you layout the number of copies required manually.
The longest part of cutting this design is engraving the backdrop, because of the complexity of the design. The second longest part is cutting all the magnet holes in the middle layer.
The middle layer is cut from 1/8" plywood, because that is the thickness of the rare earth magnets. The rest of the wood pieces are cut from 1/4" plywood. The acrylic pieces are both 1/4".
I always dry-fit my pieces while I'm still at my makerspace, to make sure everything fits together. If not, I can make adjustments and recut pieces if necessary.
Step 5: Paint the Components
I like to paint all my parts before assembly, it's just easier.
I use gray paint for the middle layer to blend with the magnets and to make the courtyard acrylic lighting pop!
I use Wipe-on Poly for the top framing layer.
Step 6: Assemble the Display Board
I like to glue up my sub-components first so they have a chance to dry. I glue together the legs, which have small nails holes so I can use brads for both alignment and strength. I do the same for the back stand.
Then I glue the middle layer of the board to the bottom layer, and when that is dry I glue on the top frame.
Then I glue the legs to the bottom.
The last assembly step is to turn the board over and glue on the back stand.
Step 7: Solder and Test the Electrical Components
Now to prepare the lighting components.
RGB LED strips require four wires to work, and when you cut the strip into segments there will be four small copper pads at each end.
Since I don't solder everyday, I use a test board to warm up for the challenge of connecting these strips together and to the connector that the receiver will plug into. There are devices you can buy that clip on the ends of strips, but they add too much bulk to fit into my design; I need to solder them.
After some practice, I add small solder pools to each of the four pads. Then I tin my wires. In this way, I only have to hold the wire in place and touch it with the soldering iron, and the solder melts and makes the connection.
After testing to make sure the connections are good, I paint the pads and wires with liquid tape, and then wrap with actual electrical tape to make the connection strong. I also test the receiver and remote to make sure it is working as expected.
Step 8: Install the Lighting and Magnets
I used a six inch section of wire to connect the two sections of LEDs; this gives me the flexibility I need to make the sharp 180 degree turn at the end of the lighting cutout. I lay one section flat in the bottom, pointing up to light the backdrop. I feed the wire connection through the hole and down into the leg, to get it out of the way. I put the second section vertical against the back of the slot; this will light the courtyard base acrylic sheet. Both strips come with adhesive on the back to help hold them in place.
I feed the beginning connector down through the hole and into the other back leg, and plug in the receiver. The receiver has a connector that can be plugged into a battery pack or a small transformer plug. A 9 volt battery will drive the LEDs quite well but it is a little brighter when using a 12 volt plug. I use the battery pack when I need the board to be portable.
Now to install the magnets. The trick here is to be consistent in orienting them with the same polarity, and the magnets look the same on both sides. If you get this wrong you will eject your models instead of holding them in place! I stack the magnets together in a tall stack, and then just slide one at a time off the top and put it into its hole. The fit is snug so it isn't necessary to glue them in, but glue is a good idea because then you can remove the acrylic lid without worrying about them popping out of their holes and turning into one big ball of magnets (this happened to me, so I know!)
Finally, slide the courtyard acrylic in place, put the backdrop in place, and slide the detached wood bar under the back stand and against the backdrop acrylic. This last step blocks the direct glare from the LED strips and focuses the light where you want it: into the edges of the two pieces of acrylic.
Step 9: Arrange Your Models! and Watch the Video...
The grid of magnets gives you a lot of flexibility for arranging your models, and the LED remote lets you pick your color based on your army's colors - or your mood. You can even pick one of the pre-programmed lighting sequences and have an even more dynamic display!
To learn more, watch this video of the whole process.