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Method to Make Project Panels (Warning: Detailed Info!) 2010-01-05

When laser printers first came into coomon use (in the workplace anyway), here's a technique I came up with to make fairly professional looking equipment panels. The nice thing is that it's a pretty simple process and uses only commonly available items and thus doesn't require you to run exotic materials through your printer. It also works well with ink jet printers.


I lay out my panel (always black with white markings) using either a CAD or paint program. The layout is then printed 1:1 on a good quality bond paper. The white-on-black looks really good but, black-on-white looks like Xerox'ed paper stuck on the panel and really amatuerish.

Next, I take some clear plastic tape. For smaller pannels (one dimension less than 2") I use a good grade of the clear packing tape. But, I also found a huge roll of 6" wide tape (about 100 lifetime's worth for me) that I use for wider panels. I carefully lay the tape over the image on the paper, making sure to work out any possible air bubbles as I go. I don't know a good work-around for wider panels if you don't have the wider tape. Maybe, sheet laminating plastic?

On the back side of the paper, I make alignment marks that will be used to position the paper as it's stuck to the metal, plastic or other-material panel. A light table or small flashlight, that you can shine up throught the paper, is a good aid for ding this.

Using either 600 or 800 grit emery paper, I lightly sand the gloss off the surface of the plastic tape to give it a matte finish thad I tend to like. Sometimes I'll also dampen a paper towel with acetone (like fingernail polish remover) and wipe the pastic to enhance the look.

Depending on the project, I'll either plan to trim the paper the exact size of the panel it overlays or cut it larger to wrap around the edges. For this description I'll stick to only the simpler method of making the overlay the same size as the panel.

It's important that all the holes in the panel alreay be made prior to putting down the paper overlay but, don't try to cut out the holes in the paper.

To stick the paper to the panel, I have had success with two different methods. One is to use double-sided cellophane tape. The tape is stuck to the back side of the paper overlay and then the paper is carefully aligned with the panel edges (using the alignmnet marks made earlier) and then smoothed onto the panel (avoiding any air bubbles). The second method uses an adhesive, like the 3-M spray adhesive. I've found the spray adhesive to be better but, you have to be very careful and do the spraying away from everything that you don't want adhesive on! I do it outside. Also, spray on just the lightest mist. You can also spray a light mist on the panel, too but, if you do, make sure to mask anything you don't want the adhesive on! Apply the paper the same way as with the double sided tape but, it's even more important to get the alignment perfect as you start to smooth down the paper. It's virtually impossible to lift the paper to reposition it without ruining it. After the paper is stuck to the panel, burnish it down good.

Take a sharp X-Acto knife (I like the #11 blade) and, using a scissors type shearing action between the knife blade and the edges of the panel, trim the paper to the panel. Where the panel has a bend in it, you may have to use techniques that are used for wrapping the paper around panel edges (cut or formed edges). The holes and other cutouts are made the same way. Use the knife blade in a scissors action to cut the holes.

The paper is not as resistant to twisting as paint so it's important to use washers under nuts and screws to avoid having the nut or screw head twisting and marring the surface of your panel.

The photo shows a typical example of a project made with this type of panel overlay. The project is a general-purpose comparator that's set up to switch the AC power line. Right now it's operating with a thermistor, as the sensor, to cycle an electric space heater in my back bathroom.

I know there's really nothing here to "respond to" here but, if you haven't done this sort of thing before (or if you have) and try this procedure, I'll be interested in your experience/results and especially any tips or tricks you might have as I'm always trying to fine tune.
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