And: I have tried etching/fabrication services like Front Panel Express but find their CAD tools difficult to use and their services expensive for one-offs.
The good news: I have been using a water slide decal process to get me close to silk screen type front panel finishes using something called "Lazertran".
That's what this post is about. No, I don't work for these guys. This isn't an ad but is the best way to do this I have found to date.
So if you already have your metal work and want to get close to professional looking, one-off front panel art, for about $1-$2 USD per panel, please read on.
Still with me?
First, go out and get this stuff: "Lazertran." You can find it online direct, also at Blick Art, Amazon, and several other online suppliers. Your local art store may also have it, or maybe can order it for you.
There is one Lazertran version for laser printer and another for inkjet. I only have tried this with the laser version. You can get legal sized sheets or 11 x 17 but here I use 8.5 x 11. I'm interested in knowing if the inkjet material works the same way as described below, if you know I'd be grateful for comments.
Before we go on: be safe! This process involves putting metal into an oven and cooking it for a few hours. I probably don't need to go over safety tips but will anyway--you have to be sensible or you wouldn't survive a week of DIY.....So please, don't be a bozo about this.
E.G.: Don't clean the panel with gasoline then put it in your oven. Don't touch really hot metal with bare fingers. Don't use a chainsaw or small explosive device to open your stove door--just pull it open. Don't put plastic front panels in your oven (they will melt, burn, and stink up your house). And above all, never, ever listen to Barry Manilow's "I Write the Songs" in spite of how damn catchy it is.
You will also need:
- The metal front panel you want to use, ready to go. If you've painted your metal panel, make sure it will withstand a 300+ degree oven bake. So, high temperature paints, like those used for car engines, are best. I leave figuring out the right kind of paint to you.
- You'll need an oven that goes to 300-350 degrees F. Most of us have those, or use mom's? Whatever. I imagine toaster ovens will do as long as you can control the temperature.
- Scissors to cut out the decal.
- Computer software to design, modify and flip your decal--Adobe Illustrator is what I use but there are lots of programs for two-dimensional artwork.
- Tongs or BBQ implements to handle your panel when it's hot.
- A credit card for smoothing out tiny bubbles
- 800 to 2000 grit wet/dry sandpaper.
For Lazertran to work, the front panel has to be extremely smooth--the decal with tear and hang up on any burrs or rough edges, form bubbles, and look crappy. Also, make sure your panel is clean; the decal won't stick to oil and dirt.
Next this may be obvious, but: take careful measurements of your cleaned up panel. If you mess up your measurements you will have printed a $2USD Lazertran decal that won't fit your panel, and we don't want that.
If you really don't want to measure things: I have used a Ricoh flatbed scanner to scan a 1:1 image of the front panel(s) in question; then used the PDF output from the scanner as a background in Adobe Photoshop. Before printing I hide the background layer. As long as the original scan is really 1:1, this will work.
Another way: I first draw the front panel in a CAD program (Eagle in my case) to create a down-to-the-millimeter drawing of anything that needs panel art. Save it as PDF and then use that as the background in Illustrator or whatever graphics program you use.
|Eagle BRD file of a Fracrack 2u panel|
Illustrator will open PDFs and allow additional artwork to be easily added on top of the PDF background. I figure other graphic art programs will do the same? If so, the PDF background becomes an easy way to make sure the decal lines up with the panel since it's a 1:1 match. As long as the elements you see in the background are holes, drills, dimension layer outlines, and mills, they won't show up in the final panel, but can be used to design and align the decal.
About color decals: If you are doing a color panel you're in territory unfamiliar to me, I only do B&W, but keep in mind that almost all lasers and inkjets can't print white. They assume the background is white and treats white artwork as clear so it can "show through". I imagine from model making that other colors may appear a bit faded or washed out if it's like other water slide decals I've messed with. Just a guess.
For this tutorial I am fabbing a new one-off panel for a Triple Moog-like VCA clone for which I did a PCB board design, as well as the GCS/EFM/everyone-else Norton 3900 amp based Serge Waveshaper (hence the Serge logos--give 'em credit where it's due--this is a really cool bit of electrical engineering on Serge Tcherepnin's part--you can get details, boards, gerbers etc. for it everywhere, my version is here
Here's what I ended up with in Illustrator for the Serge module: