Making A Panel

Since the very beginning of my project I use the method described below to make panels. It is very flexible, fast, cheap and the result can be quite stunning. These are the steps to follow:

1. Design

I use Corel Draw to make the design. I find it easy to learn and well suited for this purpose. Other programs such as AutoCAD will do as well or perhaps better. I will not go into details of how to design. Use fotos of real cockpits or just set your fantasy free - it is up to you.

Once the design is complete, I usually generate several files:

This is the full version, containing all design elements. All knobs, switches and nuts are drawn to create a detailed image of the final product.

Move the cursor over the image to see it in wireframe view.

This file goes to the engraving shop. The image contains all the openings needed for later installation of switches, buttons and bolts.

This file contains the outline of the minimum opening needed in the wooden support structure, onto which the panel will be mounted.

I usually print this file and fix it on the support structure with removable glue. Than I just cut along the line, and the finished panel with all its components should fit like a glove!

Last, but not least, the final print version. From this file, the actual panel cover is produced.

 

2. Cutting

Locate an engraving shop in your neighborhood. The well equipped ones have Computer Controlled Laser Cutters that will directly accept the file produced in step 1. Even though my first panels were from aluminum, I found that acrylic glass works just as fine (and is cheaper and easier to handle). Select either 2 or 3 mm thickness. Depending on the panel, use either transparent or white acrylic. Whenever displays are mounted behind the panel, transparent is the obvious choice. For backlit panels, white is better, because it helps to distribute the light more evenly.

Once you receive the acrylic plates from the engraving shop, make sure to compare them to a test print of your panel. I found that the dimensions are not always exact - maybe because of bad adjustment of the Laser cutter. But since cutting happens before printing, it is quite easy to adjust the dimensions in your design program to match the actual panel. Usually, the differences are only 1 or 2 mm on a panel 30cm long. Still, if they go unnoticed, they will mess up the alignment of holes for switches, lamps or bolts.

3. Printing

I use a laser printer, or when color is required, an ink jet. There are different choices for the printing medium for backlit or non-backlit panels. I have decided not to use backlighting in my cockpit (...yet!). For this reason, I print on a LaserJet printable, self-adhesive aluminum foil. This results in silvery letters and symbols on a black or gray background that look very nice. After printing, the aluminum foil is covered with a transparent self-adhesive foil (mate surface) for protection.

Since I don't have a color laser printer, I use an Ink Jet instead if I need color. In this case, the printing is done on plain, heavy paper. The paper is covered with the same protective foil. The bond to the panel is achieved with a dual side adhesive foil.

For backlit panels (color or b&w) normal paper has to be used, because the aluminum foil is not translucent.


4. Joining the printed foil and the acrylic panel

Since the glue of the self adhesive foil is very strong, you have to get it right at the first try. This is how I do it: The print contains a small white cross in the center of the holes for the bolts that later hold the panel in place on the wooden structure. With a needle I pierce through the sandwiched foils right in the center of this cross mark. After that, the protection on the self-adhesive side is removed and the foil is put on a flat surface, sticky side up. The piercing clearly show. Now I take the acrylic plate and slowly lower it onto the foil, making sure the holes in the plate are well aligned with the piercing.

Use a sharp cutter to cut away the excess foil around the acrylic panel and covering the holes.

 

5. Installation of buttons, switches, lamps etc.

Well, this is self explanatory, I suppose. Once everything is installed, start heating the soldering iron!

 

All materials used to make the panels can be ordered online from Conrad Electronik, Germany at www.conrad.de . For easy reference, here is a list of all items, with German translation and part - #:

Laser Printable Aluminum Foil, Self Adhesive
Frontplattenfolie Alu 532568 - 14
Transparent Protective Foil, Self Adhesive Transparente Schutzfolie, selbstklebend, leicht strukturiert 529443 - 14
Dual Side Self Adhesive Foil Klebefolie beidseitig, transparent, 125µ 529478 - 14