One Method Of Fabricating Translucent Faceplates


Enclosures are the bane of electronics engineers (or so says [Dave Jones] of the EEVblog and The Amp Hour). But fabricating a case that looks great has been getting easier lately. [Eric Forkosh] produced this professional-looking translucent face plate with a minimum of effort. He found a way to use a laser cutter to etch icons in acrylic.

Admittedly, this is not very involved. But just look at the quality he achieved. The secret to his success (aside from having a quality laser cutter on hand) is to use high-temperature spray paint. The acrylic is coated in paint and allowed to dry before heading to the laser cutter. By using the rasterize setting under low power he kills two birds with one stone; the paint is etched away while the acrylic is left a little bit rough to act as a diffuser for LEDs behind the panel. [Eric] cautions against using regular spray paint. In his write up he shows off the unsightly results of doing so.

This makes a great addition to some of the case options out there. One that we have been keeping our eye on is the Sick of Beige initiative being spearheaded by [Ian Lesnet].

41 thoughts on “One Method Of Fabricating Translucent Faceplates

  1. Rather meh if you ask me. The special paint is only to make it stick to the acrylic better, the high temp does not occur. I guess I was lucky to pick a random paint that happened to stick well to acrylic.
    I would be more impressed if he did multi color panels by painting over the engraved areas and engraving those again. Extra points for tweaking the laser settings to selectively removing paint layer to make translucent colored logos.
    (yes, if you work with lasercutters they are not as special anymore…)

    1. Could you theoretically get a similar result by doubling-up a black laser transparency mask (like the Blondihacks method of PCB exposure) and a color copy printed onto thin or translucent paper, all behind a piece of glass or clear acrylic? It wouldn’t look as professionally done as the method in this post, of course, but it wouldn’t require access to a laser engraver or any particularly expensive equipment.

      For a somewhat more professional result, you could have vector art printed onto translucent vinyl stickers by a sign or print shop, leaving blank spots where the icons shine through.. (You might need to have the background done in metallic to help block light better.) Then all you need is a few strategic holes in the front of your case and some plastic dividers (or even small pieces of opaque tubing) to prevent light bleed.That’s all Dell does for status icons on the front of their OptiPlex business PCs.

  2. There are plastic sheets that come premade sheets with a plastic “cap” that are designed to be used for this type of thing. In the engraving world, these are 2nd surface engravable plastics.

    1. Huh I’ve seen those plastics before, but I didn’t know they came in translucent varieties or that they were fit for this purpose. Hmmm. We have a laser at work; I’ll have to pick up some material and try it.

      1. The translucent varieties are slightly more expensive than solid colors, but they will be more consistent. Only thing is, if using a laser, make sure to get laser compatible plastics. The versions that are designed to be routed tend to have a thicker cap, but are less expensive. These also tend to have more unpleasant effects when lasered, such as smoke or fire.

      2. Additionally, if you don’t directly have access to a laser engraver, check your phone book for awards or trophies, or check with jewelry shops. The former will usually be a direct link to find your local engravers, the latter will usually will know which ones are around, and be able to refer you to one that will be able to do a good job.

    1. Now THAT is pretty. The military control panels of the 1950s through 70s were truly classy, but horrendously inefficient. These were basically edge-lit acrylic panels with masks silkscreened on their front surfaces. The lighting generally came from incandescent lamp fixtures that were twist-lock mounted on the front of the acrylic (for easy replacement of the lamps.) The particular equipment I worked on in the 70s (and made in the 60s) used gray masking paint and RED lighting, and was spectacularly cool. Except that the lamp fixtures were hot enough to burn your fingers on. The linked project perfectly captures the look of those panels. And if I read between the lines right, he’s using incandescent lamps, so he even has the horrendous inefficiency part down pat. Impressive.

      The project described in this article captures a whole different effect, which also achieves a very different but also very professional look. One of the holy grails of hacking is making or modifying things such that LOOK like professionally mass-produced items. Kudos to [Eric Forkosh] for a big win in this respect.

      Not having access to a laser cutter, I am NOT going to say “oh, if only I had a laser cutter.” Instead, I am encouraged by both of these projects to try something similar using a process within my reach, like a CNC router. This would ALSO do mask cutting and diffusion in a single operation. And no, a CNC router isn’t out of most hobbyists’ reach – too many people have built these out of the scavenged parts from laser printers and scanners for anybody to call these capital-intensive.

      Think HACK. If you have a laser cutter, use it. If you don’t have a laser cutter, figure out how to use something you DO have.

  3. I love seeing posts like this but sadly they remind me how far out of reach a laser cutter, cnc machine, and many other awesome tools are for most of us. Luckily, a steady hand and vinyl paint/etch mask can come close to this level of detail for a small fraction of the cost.

    1. If you think a basic 3D printer is affordable, a laser cutter only costs about twice that. I mean, unless you want a Zing or similar high-end model. But you can have a basic model for under a thousand.

  4. [quote](X) produced this professional-looking translucent face plate with a minimum of effort.[/quote]

    Neat, tell me more!

    [quote]He found a way to use a laser cutter to etch icons in acrylic.[/quote]


    Hey, I found a way to dig your own Olympic size pool with a minimum of effort. Just take this ubiquitous Caterpillar digger out of your garage.

    1. Worst comment ever…a Caterpillar digger was actually designed with digging in mind…whereas a laser cutter was not actually designed with etching acrylic…wither come up with a better analogy or leave well enough alone!

  5. Putting the opaque layer behind the clear plastic works as long as the plastic is *not* used as a diffuser – otherwise your indicators get blurry. If you’re layering the other way, put a diffuser under the opaque masks, so that you don’t get an icon-shaped projection on the far wall.

  6. I’d like to add this:I have absolutely no problems whatsoever seeing hacks published involving kit that maybe 5% of us has, but instead of posting like this:

    Neat stuff you can do, easy peasy as pie, bla bla bla ………………………. bla bla vbla using your laser cutter.

    I think it would be better to post this way:

    Neat stuff you can do with a laser cutter bla bla bla bla bla…..

    1 – No hint that could lead the reader to think his grandma could do it in her kitchen (i.e. no “fabricating a case that looks great has been getting easier lately”).
    2 – Mention of special equipment involved right off the bat.

    That way, I could read through half the first line and skip instead of having my hopes up for something neat I’d really want to do only to find out later that I can’t do it because of uncommon requirements. Also applicable with waterjet cutters, CNC, etc.

  7. Excellent. My laser arrived today, I have some clear extruded acrylic that won’t mill well, and I found some high temperature paint on the garage. Great timing. I must give this a try.

    Small 40W Chinese lasers aren’t that expensive on eBay, and can be improved (I hope) fairly easily.

  8. Wow, I have been all bummed that the closes hackerspace to me is a 45 minute drive away. All these posts by people about not having a laser cutter, maybe I am lucky to have access to one that close?

    Or are people just not willing to travel that far? When a group of us tried to start a more local hackerspace we found tons of people ‘interested’ on the internet but few that would actually get out from behind their computers and show up!

    I guess with no hackerspace in a reachable distance just about any local engraving shop could probably do this for you. If there isn’t even one of those around then lucky you! Unless you live in the wilderness, or a third world country, buy one of the Ebay cheap laser cutters and open your own engraving shop. Apparently the market for that in your area is untapped!

    1. I was thinking the same thing. My thought, wifi device that does some sort of injection (Hence the syringe) A lot of wep cracking devices on the net these days, maybe it’s his cheaper version.

  9. Here’s your laser cutter!!!!

    Go to your local hackerspace or tech shop. If you aren’t lucky enough to have one then go to an engraving shop. If you don’t have that either then buy this: It’s ok, you can make the money back many many times over since apparently nobody has thought to open an engraving shop in your market. That is unlikely.. Don’t be so lazy and just go check again!

    1. The two hacker spaces most local to me couldn’t be more different.

      Last time I investigated the Oxford UK hacker space that is perpetually trying to start up, they’d found premises borrowing from the coop cycle shop, however, due to “fire risk” the would be no projects allowed that involved any kind of heat etc (no soldering)

      Most people discussing it believed that we should all just show up and play with our arduinos.

      The other hacker space would be Northampton UK, that’s partnered with a model railway enthusiast society and so has access to lathes and mills owned by the society.
      but still no laser cutter.

      Neither have a laser cutter.
      the comments above are true, for the time being Laser cutters are still in the “just outside reach” realm of most people’s tooling.

      as for engraving shops.
      sure there are engraving shops.
      those that engrave trophy plaques and bench plaques, or watches and jewellery.
      except they don’t use lasers in the one near me, then do it by hand.
      To say that you’ll easily make the money back is also stupid, I already work a full time job, when am I meant to make them money back? by selling trinkets on Etsy? in what time am I going to do that. and after I’ve considered my time and effort, even producing a couple of things a day it’s going to take me a long time to pay back the machine (yes even at a $500 price tag).
      the only way you could possibly quickly and easily make back your money is if you don’t have a job already, or don’t value your time at all.

      1. Are you in Oxford then? A quick search on finds the Reading hackerspace. They have a laser cutter. Google maps says Reading is 47 minutes by car or 23 minutes by public transportation from Oxford. (how that time difference works I don’t know but things are probably different here) I travel about 45-50 minutes by car to my nearest hackerspace and use their laser cutter on occasion. Unfortunately there is no public transportation option available to go any farther than I could just ride a bike anyway but I’m hardly going to let that stop me!

        There are no decent electronics stores near me either. There is an ok one just a bit farther than the hackerspace that I make it to now and then. A couple of times a year I drive 2 1/2 hours to get to one shop!

        My point is that I really really doubt that anything is out of reach in the developed world if you are willing to make the effort. And yes, it is worth it! Maybe you have to travel a bit. So save up a few projects, bring what you need to work on them all and make a day of it! Whining about it on some internet forum isn’t going to get you what you want.

        1. And, even closer than hackerspace is an engraving shop that could do this, and even provide materials that are guaranteed to be compatible with laser engraving, likely for less than the cost of gas to get up to the hackerspace.

          1. Reading is faster by public transport because that’s a train, the main road between oxford and reading at the reading end is locally known as 13 bends if death as it’s a small windy road.

            But you miss the point. Sure I can send out to a shop, but we can all do that. There is nothing new here.

            And sure there is a laser cutter. It’s 50 miles from me right now, 1h 20 minute drive, I mean I can join the reading hacker space for it’s laser cutter, and maybe join the Northampton one (20 miles from me but 70 from reading) to use their lathes and milling machine. Then I can pay subscription fees to two hacker spaces that I’d visit rarely because they are inconvenient. To maybe use advanced tooling. If it’s not already in use when I get there…

            the point is that laser cutters _are_ rare for hobbiests sure maybe not rocking horse shit or hens teeth kind of rare but hardly ubiquitous…

            Which is what i was trying to say above and what others tried to say above, cool case, cool project. But involves some very expensive tools that not everyone “just has” access to.

        2. You are welcome to come and use our laser cutter without a subscription. If you arrange a time on our google group to make sure someone is around to fire it up, theres a drop in fee of £5 (Weds night is open to all) and laser time is £5 with some acrylic (our stuff is prolly too thick for these purposes though)

          We just got these babies, at some point we will be able to do serious machining.

          More to the point, if you want your local hackspace to have a laser cutter then you need to get involved and make it happen rather than expecting other people to do all that for you. There *are* other people in oxford who will want one, it is just a case of bringing them together and clubbing together to buy one off ebay. There are plenty of people from reading or london hackspaces who can give you advice on what to get and how to set it up.

    1. Indeed. THAT’s what I’m talking about — maybe you don’t have a laser printer, but now that you’ve seen that what you REALLY need is a way of making a mask and also making your clear acrylic translucent, you can think of other solutions. Like rub-on decal paper.

      That said, I think the challenge with decal paper would be getting enough ink on it to make it really opaque where you want it opaque. But on my roomie’s Epson Artisan 730, if you play with the print settings enough, you find the ones that print REALLY slowly and use a LOT of ink. Costs me nothing but occasionally pitching in for ink.

  10. The problem with the oxford hacker space wasn’t so much enthusiasm as finding a place to host it. As I said nothing considered dangerous, no soldering…

    When I could have more tools and accomplish more projects at home than I could in a hacker space something is wrong with the hacker space.

    Good to know about the reading hacker space though. As I said reasonably far from me so I can get there all the time, but the ability to drop in is priceless!

    1. I do understand. Like I said, the hackerspace I go to is just about as far. (I’m a little jealous that you can get there by train!) I’m not a member but they are great about having a lot of open public time and letting people use the equipment. Arent most? I do donate monthly but that’s because I want to see them, hackerspaces and the maker movement in general succeed. It’s not because they make me pay to get in the door.

      I understand we aren’t all lucky enough to live in the same town as a space but… this world today is so much different from the one I grew up in! I grew up in a suburban village and was the only kid I knew with any kind of real interest in making things. My resources were a RadioShack, which never seemed to have the particular parts I wanted and priced them out of my reach anyway (ok, some things never change) and the local library which had electronics books so old they still talked about buying vacuum tubes at the local drug store!

      Now I can drive less than an hour and have access to a sophisticated machine that pops out parts per my designs that look to be the equal of something I bought in a store that came from a factory! Should I complain that I have to drive? Really! And, as for a kid growing up where I did now, that village is closer to the hackerspace than the city I moved to!

      So, my point is, quit complaining. Be thankful for what we have because man, it is awesome compared to the recent past! If you have to travel, then just save up a few projects (really just the parts of the projects that require the special equipment) and make a day of it!

      If you want it more local, make it happen! I was part of a group that tried to start a local hackerspace here. Ultimately we failed but we met regularly for about a year, showed off our projects to one another, got to meet other makers in the area. Ultimately we failed but we had fun trying! Eventually I think it will still happen.

      Sorry if I seemed to pick on you specifically Dan, you happened to mention where you were so I could do some internet searching!

      Oh.. and if someone does have to pay an engraving shop. Yeah, that sucks. It’s not quite the same as doing it yourself… but… cheer up! You still get to design it yourself! And assuming your project isn’t just a panel but rather something larger that happens to have a panel on it (like the original article here) you can still build everything else!

      Or… maybe use the same method but substitute some carving with a sharp knife for the laser cutter part. It won’t come out as neat but then it will be more home made looking and maybe even a bit more personal. It’s still a good idea!

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