My objectives were that the sign had to be one piece in the end, that it had to run on A/C power, that it had to have lots of lights in it, and that it fit in the space I have, which is above my bookshelf.
It took a while to figure out exactly how to design the letters so that they could look like a theater or arcade marquee sign with the deep edge rim but be cut out without too many complicated machining operations. I also had to work within the limits of my tools and my skills.
I decided to make each letter in 3 parts. A front, a back and an insert. The trick is that the back piece would have a thicker wall, so when they’re assembled, there’d be a ledge for the insert to sit against.
Knowing that I’m going to be gluing the front and back pieces together, I want the mating surfaces to be as coplanar (or flat relative to each other) as possible, so I’m going to use my jointer, which has a 6” width limit. That means my wood will be 5.5” wide, so my letters can’t be taller than about 5” and that if the sign ends up being more than 12” wide I’ll have to cut out only a few letters at a time.
I picked a font that’s nice and thick, looks like something you’d find at a carnival or arcade.
I convert the letters to Outlines so that I can work with them as shapes.
Next I’m going to use the “Offset Path” tool to create a new path inside my letters at a specific distance.
I need two offsets here, 1/4” and 3/8”. This will give me that 1/8” ledge for the insert to sit on.
Now I need to draw the circles that will hold the LEDs. I decided that each letter should be 4 LEDs high, so I started there, and just used the Align and Distribute tools as well as the pen tool to arrange the circles into shape. I’m using 4.7mm circles for a snug fit on the LEDs.
Once I have all my shapes laid out, I can save this file as an svg and bring it into Easel for some more work.
There’s a lot going on here, so I wanted to first make a “mother file” that would have all the letters and offsets in it, from there I save copies and rename them for each of the 3 parts per letter. I’ve got Movies and Games in this file. I did the Games sign first as a way to iron out the wrinkles before making this tutorial for the Movies sign. I also worked on just 1 letter as a prototype to make sure the methods I chose worked well enough to proceed with the rest of the project.
Now, I’ve got separate files for the Front Wood letters, the Back Wood letters, and the Plastic Inserts.
Because I can’t fit all the letters on one piece of wood, I have to work with them separately. I’m going to be using the Inlay Generator in Easel to make the inner walls of the letters and the plastic insert pieces match.
First I will switch to the “Front Wood” file I created. I run the Inlay Generator on each letter, in this case I’m using .015 tolerance, because I’m going to be painting the wooden letters so I want there to be some play.
I’ll use the female or fill shape for the inner walls of the letters and the Male or outline shape for the plastic inserts. For each letter, I just select the original inner wall and the new one and align them to each other before deleting the original. I like to make one shape or the other a different carve thickness so it changes color. That way I know which one to delete. I do this for each letter.
I’m ignoring the male outlines the Inlay Generator is making for now, because those will be copy/pasted into the Plastic Inserts file, where I do the same alignment trick.
The last thing to do is make the bottoms of any round-bottom letters flat. I did this by making a rectangle and then using the “combine” function in Easel.
Now I’m pretty much done with the design part of it so it’s time to talk more about materials.
I’m using 1×6×6 pine and easy to work with.
For a base I’m going to use this 2.5” by 1/4” by 4’ poplar and some 1×4 pine. It seems tall because it needs to be higher than the trim on the top of the bookshelf.
I bought all the lumber, paint and glue from the local big-box home center.
For the plastic I’m using this silver mirrored acrylic I bought from Inventables
I bought most of the electronics from Ebay.
I’m going to be using these 5mm 3V 20mA warm white LEDs,
This 5V LED controller with RF remote,
A great big honkin’ resistor (5W 2?),
Some copper tape I got from a luthier supply company
Some cardboard strips. I used leftover gift boxes because one side is white and the other side is dark. This will come in handy later.
Some hookup wire I had leftover from building my X-Carve
A 5V, 1A USB charger I bought from the electronics store
A USB cable
Now on to the fun part, the construction!
A lot of this can happen in any order, but I’ll start with the wood, move on to the plastic and then talk about the electronics.
First, I’m going to cut the 1×6 into roughly12” pieces.
Then I’m going to put each piece through the jointer. This makes the face incredibly flat. I’m doing both sides so I don’t have to worry about mating them up later.
Now I Cut out the wood shapes from the Easel files.
I’m using a 1/8” straight-cut bit because I like the finish it gives me on the top, and it’s also got the right cutting depth for the ¾” stock. I’m using a combination of carpet tape and masking tape here to give me good adhesion to the wasteboard and easy cleanup later.
I’m going to make the base now. First I put masking tape on my work table so I can mark everything up. Next I lay out the letters, mark the left and right outer edges as well as the feet of each letter and where I want the holes for the wires to be. I also make a line that’s 3/8” away from the edge of the tape. This is the centerline of the backs of the letters.
I cut the 1×4 to length minus half an inch on the miter saw, then use the table saw to rip it down to 2” wide. Now I cut 2 pieces of poplar to length, and 2 pieces at 2”. I’m going to use some glue and some brads to stick this all together, and then once the glue is dry I’m going to run the top and bottom through the jointer to make them flat.
The next thing I’m going to do is drill the holes for the wires.
I take the masking tape from before, and put it on the base, lining up the edge with the center line I drew and the left and right lines with the sides of the base.
Next I put some double-sided tape on top of the masking tape, put all the letters back on the masking tape and drill up through the base into each letter. I’m also going to drill a hole in the back of the base for the power wire to come in.
At this point I recommend hand sanding the inside walls of the fronts of the letters. They’ll show, and it will be very hard to get sandpaper in there once they’re glued up.
Now I can glue all the fronts and backs of the letters. It’s important here to make sure they line up as closely as possible. I’ll use scrap boards as spacers, stack the letters up and put some weight on them while they dry.
While they’re drying I can switch to the plastic. For cutting plastic I’ve had good luck with single and 2-flute upcut spiral bits.
Once everything is cut out, do some test fits to make sure everything goes together the way it should. Put the plastic inserts somewhere dust won’t get to them and sand all the wood smooth, ready for paint.
For paint I’m just using cheap-o gloss black rattle-can stuff. You can spend a lot of time on the paint finish, but the sign will be in a dark room so I’m not too worried about it.
Each sign took about 50 LEDs, so I decided to wire them in parallel. Using an Ohm’s law calculator I found online, I figured out the value of the resistor I needed to drop 2V from the 5V supply which was 2? at 3W. At full power it gets pretty hot, but I’m never going to power the sign anywhere near that.
To connect everything, first I lightly inserted the LEDs into the holes in the letters, taking care to keep the positive lead facing OUT, but rotated at about a 45º angle. I cut the cardboard into strips about 3/8” thick by the length of the box, then I fed the cardboard between the leads of the LEDs. I cut each strip to length, then lined each side with copper tape. Now I put the cardboard back into the LEDs. I rotated each LED so that the leads were tight against the cardboard. This makes them easier to solder. Then I pushed them all the way into the hole with a pair of pliers. Since the cardboard is different on each side I can very easily verify the polarity on all the LEDs before I solder anything, and even once the leads are clipped off. It keeps the leads from shorting out, and it’s a lot easier to solder than using wire.
I’ve made a fixture here out of 2 clamps so that I can hold each letter steady. I solder about a foot of hookup wire to the + and – sides of the cardboard, making sure it’s in the same area where I drilled the holes in the wood letters. I also test each letter before moving on to the next one.
Soldering 50 LEDs will take some time, so put on some good music and strap in for a while.
Now that I have the letters glued up, the LEDs soldered and the base built, it’s time for painting and final assembly. I’m using super glue as I needed to paint the letters and the base separately to make sure I could get all the surfaces.
I’m going to line up the letters using the holes I drilled earlier and some long screws as posts. I’m still using that metal ruler as a guide to make sure they’re all straight. I can’t really clamp these down without squishing them, so I’m just going to let the glue dry as-is. This won’t be a stressed joint or anything so it doesn’t have to be super tight. While the glue is drying it’s a great chance to set up the circuit and test all the electronics. I built the circuit using a breadboard and left it running at full brightness for a while, just to stress test the LEDs and see if there was a weak one while they’re still relatively easy to change.
Once the paint is dry, it’s time to peel the plastic off the acrylic, fish the wires down into the base and insert the plastic into the wood letters. Since the O has a separate middle piece, I have to super glue that into the plastic insert.
The only thing left to do is connect the wires together, solder in the remote, resistor, and power wires with some heat shrink. Plug it in and set the brightness. There you have it!
One remote-controlled LED marquee sign.