Front panel design article

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Front panel design article

Post by Lenp »

The recent front panel design article in N&V made for some interesting reading and I can offer some additional tips and comments.

For years I have made panel overlays using a color laser printer and any media desired. Colored paper, card stock, whatever size and type media that is laser compatible. I then use a self adhesive pouch, available from USI. ... x=0&go.y=0 Laminators are available from many sources and most are capable of doing this job as long as they will accept the sizes needed. There is no reason that inkjet would not work but be careful that the paper is completely dry. Laminating damp paper will cause a blister and poor adhesion of the film. I run any paper through the laminator a couple of times before I laminate it just to be sure it is dry.

I use a CAD program for the panel artwork, and for all holes, like for toggle switches I use a circle and a center cross hair target. This is for locating the center punch before drilling the panel. Also make any circle that locates a component smaller than the actual hole. If it is the same size, and if the panel overlay is just a bit out of alignment, the overlay hole may show around the misaligned hole in the panel. If the hole is large enough, add the hole dimension information in the hole area to be cut out so you will not confuse holes and drill the wrong size. If the holes are too small, just create a duplicate of the CAD overlay and add the hole sizes next to the holes, and use this drawing for the drilling guide. Most CAD programs will print the drawing to full scale, but be careful of using a copier. Some may not be exact to scale. Test it first by copying a ruler and then measure the copy to see if it is to scale. Some copiers allow adjustments so it may be a bit of a trial and error.

A lamination pouch, has a hard plastic film on the outside and a softer plastic layer inside that melts and adheres to the media. The self adhesive pouches also have an adhesive layer on the back side for mounting. Normally these are used for signs and can be trimmed to any desired size. The media to be laminated is inserted into the pouch, then the pouch is placed in a special carrier that comes with the pouches. This is then, fed through the laminator where the heated rollers compress the pouch and seal it. When it exits the laminator it is hot and flexible, so lay it flat so it cools without a curl.

USI only has the self adhesive pouches in a gloss finish, but a quick scuffing after lamination with a soft wet cloth and some scouring powder will give it a matte finish. Just be sure if you are going to do the matte finish that you do it after the overlay is laminated and before any holes are cut or the overlay is trimmed. Cutting and trimming exposes the raw paper edge and it will wick the water into the paper and stain the paper overlay.

Do not drill through the overlay! Just print the overlay on plain paper and adhere that to the panel with a water based adhesive. Leave it on until all machining is done then remove it with water. Thinned Elmer's white glue usually works well.

If you need a mounting stud on the panel back, just use a countersunk hole and a flat head bolt through the panel and the laminate will hide it!
Also be sure that the panel is free of any burrs or bumps. They will definitely show through. Maybe not at first but as the adhesive bond improves with time they may become obvious.

To align the finished overlay before adhering it onto the panel, first cut a few of the smaller overlay holes with a craft knife and a pointed blade. Place wooden dowels, nails or other rods that match the holes into the panel, align the overlay holes, and let the rods be alignment pins.

I make a product with a large metal panel that has mounting holes on it's outside edge. I fabricated an acrylic sheet with 4 studs pointing up matching these holes. I punch the same holes in the laminated overlay with a hand punch, peel the backing and place it on the 4 studs adhesive side up. Then the machined panel is placed onto the alignment pins. Perfect registration each time!

The adhesive is pretty aggressive so the overlay can not be slid after application but if it must be removed it can be peeled off with some effort and some heat from a heat gun or hair dryer. Once the overlay is properly positioned, to improve the bonding I heat it with a hair dryer and use a rubber roller salvaged from a junked typewriter to press it tight. Other means would also work like rubbing it with a soft cloth or using a photographic hot mount press.

After the overlay is mounted, use a sharp utility knife to trim any excess overlay from the panel edges using a cutting board and sharp utility knife. Then use the craft knife to cut the other overlay holes, from the front, using the panel holes as a guide for accurate cutting. If at all possible, try to tighten panel components with back panel nuts or fasteners. Even though this lamination is pretty tough and will not easily damage, it can twist if a fastener on the front surface is turned.

I'm not sure what type of plastic is used but cleaning of panel dirt or marks is successful with denatured alcohol or mineral spriits. Again, keep well away from any exposed cut areas since the liquid can wick into the paper.

Last thought,
There is a continuous roll label stock for the Brother QL series printers available that is a white film tape 1-1/7" wide. It is the right size for a 1RU blank rack panel filler. With their software a white text on black background label can be made and the software also can import graphics. The film is DK-2211 and the same size in paper label is DK-2210. I use the paper for the drilling guide, and the more expensive film for the finished overlay!

Maybe you won't be tempted to use typed or Dymo labels any more :razz: !

“To invent, you need a good imagination and a big pile of junk.” (T. Edison)
"I must be on the way to success since I already have the junk". (Me)
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Re: Front panel design article

Post by cpprioli »

I too use my laser printer to print front and rear panel overlays for my projects. I use translucent self-adhesive sheets from Online ( for those chassis with white face panels, and I have also used white self-adhesive sheets such as Avery 6465 when the chassis face panels are dark. As to the self-adhesive laminating pouches, I use plain white paper and the 3-mil SA pouches from Jackson-Hirsch ( ... -size.html), available in matte or gloss surface finish in various sizes.

Because I am printing a label to fit the entire face size, I can include any legends, dial scales, and logos that may be needed or desired. I use CorelDraw! and Front Panel Designer v6.3 (free software from Front Panel Express -- somewhat interchangeably. However, for those not having CorelDraw! or not wanting to spend the bucks, any vector drawing application will work as well. In the original article (N&V April 2013 -- ... pg=43#pg43), Gordon McComb discussed using the freeware vector drawing application Inkscape -- an excellent tool in and of itself.

Front Panel Designer is fully-featured and has a relatively gentle learning curve. it allows the production of custom dial scales, notches, slots, D and double-D holes, and so forth. If you don't already use it, it is well worth looking into. Of course, it is geared towards having FPE produce your panel for you, in a similar manner to that employed by ExpressPCB -- provide the software and the production work will follow...

To add further to the OP's procedures, I have a gasket punch set (TEKTON Hollow Punch Set (12-Piece) | 6588 -- hollow punches: 1/8, 5/32, 3/16, 7/32, 1/4, 5/16, 3/8, 7/16, 1/2, 9/16, 5/8, 3/4 in. -- $17.46 at Amazon) that I use for punching the holes in the overlay, working on a small piece of clean scrap plywood. I also have a set of wooden dowel rods of various popular control bushing diameters (e.g., 1/4", 5/16", 3/8", cut to about four-inch lengths that I use for aligning the overlay, inserting the proper size dowels into a few of the front panel round holes. Each dowel rod has an oversized washer (fender washer) attached to one end with a small; screw. The washer sits up against the inside of the front panel, ensuring perpendicularity of the dowel, and is held in place with wide masking tape.

Any which way you go, there is no excuse today for not having a professional-looking and functional front panel on your project. If the project merits that nice enclosure, why not go one step further and complete the process?

Getting there is half -- hell, make it three-quarters -- of the fun... but don't let the magic smoke get out!

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