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Electronics Using photos for project front panel labels/artwork

  1. May 31, 2018 #1
    There are many web sites and videos about various methods for producing one-off labels/graphics for our DIY project front panels. Most of the ideas I've seen involve printing on a laser or ink-jet, and transferring this (laser), or applying it (ink-jet) to the front panel with adhesive or varnishing it in place. They seem like a fair amount of work and questionable results. I don't want to go the chemical etching route.

    I'd like a professional looking panel for a project that I'm working on now. An alternative I'm trying is to create the 'artwork' in LibreOffice Draw, then convert to .png or .jpg format for printing at a local photo lab (I'm using Costco, but there are many places with probably similar quality/cost). My panel is 9.25" by 7.25", so an 8" x 10" will do, and costs < $2.

    I will cut holes (more on this below) for the pots and switches, and the nuts/washers (plus maybe some adhesive) will hold it in place to the underlying panel (I'm using a thin sheet of plexi-glass, but aluminum sheet would work well too. I'll have mechanical support posts every few inches to keep deflection low.

    I haven't seen anyone else doing this, but maybe my searching skills are failing me, I get a lot of hits using printers as above, so maybe this method just gets lost?

    Any recommendations for increasing the durability of the photo? I'm not sure how it will hold up to handling. I could laminate it, or maybe spray with lacquer or poly? Ideas for reducing glare? I have some test prints done, they are pretty good as far as glare ('lustre' finish), I'm also doing a test with a slightly less black background to see if that will help. I'll try to upload a sample pic.

    I could cut the holes manually, but the switches I'm using have only a small lip ( ~ < 1/16"), so it needs to be fairly precise. Fortunately, my wife wanted one of those craft making kits that is an x-y plotter with a cutter head (Brother Scan-N-Cut), and it takes .svg files ('outline' types of drawings), and I've generated that file from my drawing - a test run on plain paper worked great. They aren't exactly cheap machines, and she was a little sheepish to ask for it, but I kinda figured I'd come up with a use for it for myself!

    My first real attempt looked great (even got a "wow" from my wife), but unfortunately, the scale was off. I tried again, this time in Draw, I set the printer paper size to 8.00" by 10.00" with 0.00" margins. The program threw out a warning, but allowed me to continue. This appeared to be accepted into the photo lab program correctly, I haven't picked up the photos yet though. But I also couldn't seem to get Draw to convert to jpg and keep high res (it seemed stuck at 100 DPI), so I had to export as pdf, then import into GIMP, and that would let me export as a 1200 DPI (overkill?) png file. Using minimal compression (#1) got me to a reasonable 3.2MB file size (lossless compression was 422MB!). Hopefully, I can find a way to avoid the multiple import/exports.

    If I get the pic uploaded, the 8 'stars' are where pots will go, so most of the radial lines will be covered by the pot knob ('chicken-head' style, for better visual and tactile feedback), and the 13 smaller circles are where 1/2" momentary switches (with center ring indicator LEDS) will go. I'll upload a pic later, right now I can't seem to get the file small enough to be accepted here (update, heck a pdf was only 19KB - smart compression).

    Anybody use this method, or see any references to it?

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  2. jcsd
  3. May 31, 2018 #2


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    If you use a clear plastic then you might try reverse printing on the back side for durability.
  4. May 31, 2018 #3


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    Talk to a sign shop. They can print anything on sign vinyl, then just peel and stick. Sign vinyl is available in many colors. It is roughly the thickness of electrical tape.

    This sign is printed on sign vinyl. It has been outside in the sun for 2.5 years now, with no noticeable fading.
  5. May 31, 2018 #4
    Yes, but I don't want to print them myself. I'm doing a solid black background with white text/lines (were you able to view my attachment?), and I know any consumer grade printer like I have will come out with bands on it. When I have a photo printed by a local photo lab (with < 24 hour turnaround, and < $2), large areas of black are black.

    OK, but the sign shops I looked at on-line are based on large sizes (> 1' in each direction), and price looks to be a lot higher than a than an 8" x 10" photo. My wife has access to a laminator at work, I'll have her laminate a sample of a photo to see how that goes for glare, clarity and durability. I may also be changing things up as I develop this project.
  6. May 31, 2018 #5
    Check up on 'heat transfer print'. Thats the one used for mugs.
  7. Jun 1, 2018 #6


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  8. Jun 1, 2018 #7
  9. Jun 1, 2018 #8


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    Not tried this but....i think some ink jet printers will print onto quite thick card stock. Presumably you have to remove a rear panel or something like that. Perhaps they can also print straight onto aluminium? When dry spray with a clear coat?

    Edit: I'm thinking the ones that can print onto CDs might also handle similar thickness card/aluminium.
    Last edited: Jun 1, 2018
  10. Jun 1, 2018 #9


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  11. Jun 2, 2018 #10
    What about clear contact used for covering library books etc? This stuff can be very durable, and you should be able to find a low-sheen variety. You'd have to make sure it's applied perfectly the first time, which is not hard with some practice.

    Otherwise, I would just sandwich the photo in some thin clear acrylic and call it a day. No glue required since the panel would hold it in place.

    Just curious, how do these posts help minimise deflection if the label sheet is supported by the (presumably metal) panel behind it?

    I know you've already gone down the path of printing, but the standard DIY method of PCB etching with FeCl2 is quite easy, and probably works for other materials if you don't want your front panel to look like a PCB. Just an idea.
  12. Jun 2, 2018 #11
    To some previous replies - some of those look very expensive for a one-off, and one that I might change up over the life of this project.

    And I really am not thinking in terms of ink-jet printing - I don't have (and don't want to buy) a high quality ink-jet printer, and remember, this panel is almost all black (though I guess you can get white ink?).

    Yes, that's the kind of thing I need to try with some samples, to see if I can get the right blend of low sheen and clarity. And I might just go with thin acrylic. The flexible contact sheet is maybe a little more attractive to me, because it would be easy/cheap to replace if scratched/damaged/worn, as I can easily cut them with my wife's craft cutter. An acrylic panel would need to be drilled which is a bit time consuming.

    Because I had it handy, I used a thin plexi sheet for the front panel instead of metal. I don't really have good metal cutting tools to get a nice edge, so the plexi needs a little support. No big deal.

    Yes, but I really want a black background with white text/graphics. This is going to be an 'expander control panel' for an existing piece of equipment, and I want it to match the style of the panel on that equipment. Etching looks cool, but is very different from what I'm looking for (at least the examples I saw on the web).
  13. Jun 2, 2018 #12


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    Spray the panel with black paint. Make a stencil with the cutter/plotter. Spray the white part with white paint.

    When things change just wash with paint remover and repeat with the new design.

  14. Jun 2, 2018 #13
    Thanks, but the trouble with stencils is you can't get a nice looking "A" or "p" or "O" or "0". You need something, like little fingers, to hold those 'island' parts of the mask. That doesn't look great, and these letters are probably too small for that machine to cut.
  15. Jun 2, 2018 #14

    But I think you really should ask around the mug-printers in the neighbouring streets...
  16. Jun 4, 2018 #15
    Thanks, I researched the mug printing process a bit. They use special paper that holds the ink, to be released with pressure/heat to the object. They said the same process is used to print to metal plates.

    When I saw 'metal plates' I looked it up and saw that Costco offers that service. But the smallest is 11 x 14 or 12 x 12 (inches), $34 and ~ one week turnaround. So not really a good match for my project, which might involve a few trial generations of the front panel screening, and I might re-use the panel itself. Compared to < $2 for an 8 x 10 print, and 1 day (or less) turnaround.

    I got a usable print back the other day, and am in the process of assembling it. The scale was off slightly, but still very usable (an 8" reference line ended up ~ 1/8" longer, about 1.56%). I was careful to specify 8 x 10 in my drawing program, with 0" margins, and this imported into the Costco system w/o any crop warnings or anything. What I suspect is that since I'm asking for no border, they enlarge the print slightly to assure printing just over the edges (like over-scanning on an old TV). I think that is called "bleed" or "full bleed" in the printing industry. I'll see if I can account for that on any future orders, maybe the Costco people can tell me exactly what % is used. But by centering it, the error is split, so it only means the labels towards the outer edges are at most ~ 1/16" off from perfect centering - not really noticeable, even for me being aware of it.

    It was also a little tricky getting it aligned on the Brother Scan-n-Cut cutter. That machine also did some auto-magic re-aligning of my imported cut file. My first attempt, it seemed to completely re-zero my drawing, which I didn't understand. So next, I added a feature right at the 0-0 point and each corner, but it shifted it by ~ 1/8th inch, as that appears to be a 'keep out' zone for the cutter (shows as a red dashed line in their app). Instead of fighting it, I just offset my photo by a -0.125 x and y on the cutting mat, and it did a really good job with that.

    I need pretty precisely located circles cut for the switches, they have only a small lip over the front panel, and since they are wired and held by a nut on the back, if I want to replace the photo-label, it has to slip right over the switch. For the pots it's easy, just remove the knob, and the nut/washer from the front, put on the new photo-label.

    Here's the switches I'm using, LED status indicator built into the ring - so you can see...


  17. Jun 5, 2018 #16


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    I was wondering if you could take the blank panel and scan it to get an image; used for making it easier to scale your photo to?
  18. Jun 6, 2018 #17
    Thanks, but that's not really the source of my issues, I'm not sure what 'problem' that solves? The scaling issues come between my drawing and the final product from the photo lab.

    I created a drawing program with very exact dimensions, and I drilled the panel to match that. So those are in very good registration. The 'problem' (very minor at this point), is that when I convert that drawing to an 8" x 10" jpg for the photo lab, and request a border-less print, the photo lab zooms in ~ 1.0% ~1.5% (I've since seen this discussed on other forums), to get the 'bleed' over the edges, so they don't run the chance of printing something with a tiny sliver of a border on a border-less print, which would happen if the paper wasn't registered perfectly in the printer.

    1.5% isn't really a problem, it is accurate enough, it's just the labels in relationship to the pots/switches. But in the future, I'll try adding a second full 8 x 10 background (with no labels) to the 'canvas', then shrink my 8 x 10 image with the labels to 98.25%. I might also check what they do if I order a print with a border. Seems like I'd have the opposite issue, do they shrink the picture down to something like 7.5" x 9.5" for a 1/4" border all around? Hmm, maybe if I set my canvas to that size, it would all work out?

    It's also interesting for this, that the cutting machine I bought for my wife has scanning capability (Brother Scan-N-Cut). So I do have the option of scanning a drilled panel, or making a drawing to scan for cutting. That might be a little easier, as I could then just place the final photo in the same spot on the cutting mat as that scanned drawing, and all this dealing with how the cutting machine treats the border would be a non-issue. Ahhh, for anyone else trying this, I did have one other minor issue - the cutting knife dragged across the photo in a couple places, leaving a minor, minor scratch. I may have had the knife set a smidgen too deep. But in the future, I think I'll cut with the back side up.
  19. Jun 8, 2018 #18


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    The usual way to get a properly scaled image is to place a fiducial mark next to the long axis of the image, outside of the active image area. This requires the use of a larger piece of paper for the copied image. But also gives you an easy way to verify correct sizing before paying for it!

    Code (Text):

                            SCALE TO 10.00 INCHES
  20. Jun 8, 2018 #19
    That is not the issue. I have an index line as you describe. But the photo lab prints it slightly larger to produce a 'bleed' as I describe above. I needed to have it printed and measure it to determine how much they expand it. If that is consistent, I should be able to compensate by resizing the elements of my drawing, but keeping an 8x10 'canvas'.
  21. Jun 9, 2018 #20


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    So far, you are specifying a process to the lab; to print on a given paper size and be sure not to have any border. That is what they are doing.
    Even though I failed to explicitly state it :sorry:, my point was to tell the photo lab to print on whatever size paper is needed so the fiducial mark is the dimension you need. Then you trim the excess paper away during your other cuttings. To make this trimming easier you can include trim marks at the four corners of the active area. These marks could also be used as reference point for setting up the Scan-N-Cut.

    Code (Text):

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