Theatrical "ON AIR" Sign




Hello and thanks for checking out my instructable! This is my fist guide for the site so sorry if anything is unclear. First some background is in order. As part of my campus theatre job, I was tasked to make a working, 1970's style "ON AIR" sign for an upcoming production. The sign needed to be able to be dimmed along with being able to be controlled by our existing lighting system. In this instructable, I will be guiding you through how this project was created from start to finish. The guide is a bit long, but I wanted to give you guys as many details as I could.Hope you enjoy!

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Step 1: Supplies

This project is somewhat supply and resource heavy. I used quite a few different types of power tools when I was completing the project. However, if you are missing some of the tools listed below, with some ingenuity you can surely get the desired product. I will be breaking the supply list into tools and materials that I used when completing this project.


  • 3/4" Plywood
  • 1/4" Bendy board (bendy mdf sheet, if you are unfamiliar with the stuff, just imagine flexible luan)
  • Polycarbonate panel
  • Luan
  • Vinyl Lettering
  • Wood glue
  • Light bulb sockets
  • Wire
  • Pneumatic staples
  • Brad nails
  • Sandpaper
  • Wood putty
  • Screws
  • Paint


  • Pneumatic Stapler
  • Brad nailer
  • Putty knives
  • Palm sander
  • Drill
  • Spade drill bit
  • Wire cutter/ stripper
  • Tape measure
  • Paint brushes
  • Trammel point
  • Table saw
  • Jig saw
  • Router

Step 2: The Plans

Since this was a project for a theatrical production, the design of the sign came from the theatrical director who is much more artistic than I am. While usually I enjoy having a bit more creative freedom, getting the plans allowed me to focus on the actual construction and ensuring this sign look as best as possible. The plans are shown so you can get both the dimensions, and get a better idea of my process.

Step 3: Laying Out the Design

Using the measurement and layouts provided, I drew out the measurements on the 3/4" plywood for the top, bottom, and back of the sign. In order to get the rounded corners, I used the trammel points to get the correct sized radius. During this step I also traced out the hole that will act as the access point for the light bulb and wiring installation. This will be cut out in a later step once the three pieces are assembled.

Step 4: Cutting the Frame

This step is fairly self-explanatory, for all of the straight cuts I ran the plywood through the table saw and the two rounded corners I used the jig saw. After the three pieces were cut, I quickly sanded them just to remove any sharp splinters that may have formed during the cutting process. While I had the table saw out, I also ripped down the bendy board to the correct height for the sides and the narrow strips. I set these off to the side to be used later.

Step 5: Assembling the Frame

During this step, I applied a generous amount of wood glue to the top and bottom pieces before assembly. I used the pneumatic staples to finish attaching the two pieces to the back of the sign. I tightly clamped the unit together and let the glue dry overnight. Unfortunately, I did not get a photo during this step so I made a mock-up to demonstrate how I assembled and clamped the frame of the sign.

Step 6: Cutting the Back Access Panel

During this step a hole in the back of the sign needed to be cut. This hole will allow the electronic mount to be installed into the sign and future maintenance that needs to occur after the polycarbonate panel is in place. The first step in making this cut is to use the spade drill bit to create a starting point for the jig saw. Make sure that you drill the hole far enough away from the edge of the traced line to ensure you get the straightest cut as possible. Once the hole is finished, you can use the jig saw to finish the cutting the hole. Quickly sand the edge of the hole to remove sharp corners.

Step 7: Attaching the Facing

Now that the frame is securely assembled and the back is cut for light installation, the bendy board facing can be added. During this step, I once again used a decent amount of glue along the side of the frame to ensure a durable product. For the best result, be sure to start attaching the bendy board at the back of the sign. Use a line of brad nails along the back of the frame. Slowly work forward, gently bending and nailing the facing to the top and bottom of the sign frame. For best results, ensure that at least one side of the facing is flush with the top or bottom, this will help to the framing as square as possible. Repeat the process on the other side and fill in the center of the sign with the strips that were cut earlier.

Step 8: Prepare the Sign for Putty

If your sign facing is not completely flush like mine was, it is important to remove the excess material from the facing. This step may vary depending what tools you have access to; sand, grind, or use a router to make the front of the sign match the top and bottom as evenly as possible. For me, I used the router to do this task. No matter what tool you use, take some time to remove the dust from the entire sign to have the best adhesion for the putty.

Step 9: Putty Time

For my purposes, this sign needed to be as sealed as possible to prevent any light from leaking out of the sign. My solution was to seal all seams where pieces are attached with wood putty. I also used the wood putty over the entire surface of the sign focusing on any areas where the wood was damaged or where I put in any staples. This will create a uniform, high quality finished product.

Step 10: Sanding

Once the wood putty is completely dry, use the palm sander to sand away the excess putty. The more putty that you sand away, typically the better the sign will look. I applied a second layer of putty to the entire sign and sanded the sign once again. This second layer of putty is optional, however the more layers of putty you apply and sand off, the smoother and more uniform the final product will be.

Step 11: Add Decorations (Optional)

At this point, the sign was nearly completed. However, the designer wanted more detail on the facing. Using bendy board strips, additional material was added to the facing using the same procedure as before. I applied a layer of putty and sanded the excess. After this step, be careful working on the interior of the sign as the exposed brad nails may be sharp and can cut you if you aren't careful.

Step 12: Wiring

For this step, I attached the light bulb sockets to a scrap piece of wood to allow for future maintenance. I used an old extension cord and exposed the wires and ran the cord through the socket leads. The bulbs are wired in a parallel circuit to ensure that all the bulbs received enough electricity to be properly illuminated. Finally, each of the contacts was covered by electrical tape to prevent any potential arcing. The lights were installed and screwed into the bottom of the sign frame. This photo was taken after the sign was completed, but it shows both the wiring and an example of the light bulb installed in the sign. Also for your viewing pleasure, the initial test!

Step 13: Painting

This step is self-explanatory; two coats of paint were applied to the exterior of the sign. The spaces in between the decorative strips were painted a darker color to create contrast. Finally, several layers of spatter paint were applied to give the sign some texture. During this step, feel free to get creative and decorate the sign however you want!

Step 14: Add the Vinyl Letters and Install Polycarbonate

The final step is what turns this plywood light-up box into a functional sign. Using a tape measure, I centered my vinyl letter sheet on the middle of the polycarbonate and gently pressed the letters from the sheet onto the panel. Once I was sure that they had stuck to the polycarbonate, I slowly peeled the sheet the letters were on away leaving only the "ON AIR" I went over and briefly ran my hand over the letters pressing gently to make sure they had all stuck properly. Finally, the polycarbonate panel was inserted into the sign, and secured by using luan strips screwed into the plywood frame to wedge the panel and preventing any movement.

Step 15: FINISHED!!!

Thanks for reading my instructable! If you are looking for a unique light to put in an entertainment center, man-cave, etc, I highly recommend making a vinyl letter sign. While the project took about 10 hours' worth of work, I couldn't be any happier with the final product. If any parts of the guide were unclear, go ahead and leave me a comment and I will do my best to answer any questions you may have. Happy building!!

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    12 Discussions


    3 years ago

    Great job thanks


    4 years ago on Step 15

    I was excited to see this project, but I need to scale it down a little; I want to create a tabletop sign. Okay, guess I get to roll my sleeves up and do some work!

    1 reply

    Reply 4 years ago on Introduction

    This project should be fairly scalable. The vinyl letters come in all sorts of colors and sizes. Rather than bulbs you can use led strip ribbons to illuminate the frame. They are quite bright and take up almost no space so a desktop variant is easily within the realms of possibility!


    4 years ago on Introduction

    Nicely done! Great instructable .. I'd like to have seen a bit more detail in the bendy part.. but otherwise beautiful. if you get the budget, you might want to think about swapping out the bulbs for LED strips. Same light and no heat!

    1 reply

    Reply 4 years ago on Introduction

    The bulbs themselves are led bulbs as heat was a concern from the get go. No heat and great light output and color temperature!


    4 years ago on Introduction

    Is it possible to make the stripes on the side of the sign illuminate red as well? I feel this would have been appropriate as anyone walking down the hall toward the sign would see the red strips lit up and know ahead of time the stage is in use. Seems possible to me anyways :)


    4 years ago on Introduction

    Wow! Very thorough instructable and fantastic project. You did a beautiful job on this project. I've been wanting to make a "Recording" sign for my office space, both as a joke and to alert family members to "pipe down" when I'm in the middle of recording a tutorial video. Your project has given me some good ideas on how to pull it off! Thank you!


    4 years ago on Introduction

    This would be a great to put outside my room when streaming to Twitch!


    4 years ago on Introduction

    That turned out brilliantly! This is a great first instructable! I'm excited to see more from you in the future!