Plexiglass Acrylic Ething – Edge Lit Display

Image 0 - Brainplexi
Image 0 – Brainplexi

Hello World!

What makes a successful first blog post? Hell if I know.. I decided to include the Hello World tagline as part of this post in hopes to be blessed by the techno gods.

A while back, struck by boredom I decided to try my hand at acrylic etched displays. I was happy with the end results so I have decided to write about it. I call it “brainplexi” and it lights up in different colors. Scroll through the image reel below to check out all the funky colors.


To quote the adorable gallbladder from the Awkward Yeti comics, “I maked these”. The main principle behind edge lit displays is the concept of internal reflection. Let’s find out what that means.

Internal reflection

Edge lit displays work by utilizing a property of light called “internal reflection”. The following is taken from Wikipedia:

Total internal reflection is the phenomenon which occurs when a propagated wave strikes a medium boundary at an angle larger than a particular critical angle with respect to the normal to the surface.

Simply put at certain angles in certain material light doesn’t get reflected outwards but rather inwards. So in the case of acrylic, when it’s illuminated from the side, light will travel from edge to edge and not shine through the surface. By etching the acrylic, we create controlled gateways for the light to escape from and make cool looking illuminated displays.

Now if you’re wondering how to make your very own edge lit display like the one above I shall attempt to outline the process below as simply as possible.

5 Step Program to Kick-ass Displays

There are several ways to etching acrylic sheets. You can use a multi-tool with an engraving bit attached on to it or use certain chemicals that will accomplish the job as well. I decided the multi-tool route and it gives a pretty decent result.

Step 1 –  The Plan

For any successful build, what we need first is the design. Decide whatever it is that you feel the need to immortalize onto a slab of acrylic. Once you have decided your favorite thing, it’s time to decide what kind of size you want to make your build.

For the build above I decided to purchase a square of acrylic with the dimensions of 200mm x 200mm. It’s of course up to you how big you want your build to be.

The design for this build is an image I had found on google images by simply searching “brain”. For your own design, try getting an image that doesn’t contain too many details, especially if it’s your first time etching anything. Preferably something with nice straight lines.

Step 2 – Essentials

Following is a list of things we would need to complete the build.

  • A sheet of Acrylic (Obviously).
  • Drawing of the design.
  • Masking tape to secure the design onto the acrylic sheet.
  • LED Strip, either multicolored or a single color. You can also alternatively use small LEDs and wire them up together but an LED strip is far easier. Image 1 below is an example of an LED strip. You can purchase them from several places.
Image 1 – LED strip
Image 1 – LED strip

Image 1 – LED strip

  • Some solder and soldering iron to wire everything together.
  • Hobby knife to etch the initial design onto the sheet & a ruler to help cut straight lines.
  • Rotary multi-tool with an engraving bit.
  • Electrical tape or heat-shrink to insulate any wires and exposed solder points.
  • A hobby mat if you have one or a towel if you don’t. This will help protect the acrylic sheet from unnecessary scratches.
  • Spare pieces of wood to build a stand.
  • Self adhesive patterned vinyl sheets.
  • Glue gun and Glue sticks to be used to secure the LED strip onto the acrylic sheet.

Step 3 – Preparation & Pre-etching

You now have two options to engrave the acrylic sheet. Either tape the design on to the back of the glass and engrave on to it looking through the sheet, approximating where you are engraving, however I found by attaching the design on to the side that you want to engrave and by using a sharp hobby knife you can pre-etch the outlines of your design onto the acrylic for a neater finish.

So go ahead and attach the paper with the design onto the acrylic sheet and tape it securely so it’s nice and flat against the sheet with no room of movement. Use masking tape for this so it doesn’t leave too much sticky residue.

When you feel that the design is securely in place, go ahead and cut the design out using the hobby-knife and pre-etch onto the acrylic sheet.

Image 2 – Pre-etch stage
Image 2 – Pre-etch stage

Image 2 above shows the first stage of pre-etching the design onto the acrylic sheet. I am using a sharp blade with a ruler to help me go in straight lines.

Important: While going through the image with the blade make sure not to apply too much pressure when etching into the sheet. You will end up cutting too deep into the sheet. So keep a steady hand and be patient.

Image 3 – Pre-etch complete
Image 3 – Pre-etch complete

As seen from Image 3 above, the result of pre-etching. Ready for engraving.

That’s all for the preparation step. Remove the tape and the remainder of the design paper and give the sheet a quick wipe.

Step 4 –  Engraving

I purchased the following engraving kit from Ebay (Image 4) and the bits that I mainly used were the round heads ones.

Image 4 – Engraving bits
Image 4 – Engraving bits

After firing up my trusty multi-tool and attaching the round head engraving bit (as highlighted above by the highly artistic circle in Image 4 ) onto it I proceeded to slowly and carefully engrave the pre-etched design trying to stay well within the lines. It’s best to go lightly and go over the image multiple times, this ensures that the material is engraved evenly and there are no bumps present. Also during engraving, a lot of debris will come off the acrylic sheet so it’s best to pause, clean and repeat to keep things nice and tidy. Have a look at Image 5 below for an example.

Image 5 – Etch Example
Image 5 – Etch Example

Important: Similar to the pre-etching with the blade stage, try not to apply too much pressure with the engraver bit. The acrylic sheet is softer then it seems and you will end up with ugly valleys which will let through light with different brightness.

When you finish with the engraving step, give the acrylic sheet a nice thorough wipe with something soft. Make sure all the debris has been slowly wiped away and none of it ends up leaving scratches on the acrylic sheet.

Step 5 –  Light it up!

After you have finished engraving you are now ready to build a base and attach the LED strip to the acrylic sheet to finalize the project.

First step is to prepare the LED strip by cutting it to size and soldering some wires onto it. Important: Make sure to keep the wires slightly longer then needed. You can always trim the wires to make things neater at a later time. If you are using a multi colored LED strip then you can go ahead and solder the RGB connector to the LED strip that comes with the kit. Take a look at Image 6 below:

Image 6 – RGB Connector
Image 6 – RGB Connector

Second step is to build a base/stand for your design. I ended up using a pretty simple stand design with two pieces of spare wood I had from other projects. The acrylic sheet would stand in between while the wood pieces are to be placed on either side to give it stability. Have a look at image 7 below:

Image 7 – Design Side
Image 7 – Design Side

I then proceeded to drill two holes through the acrylic sheet and the two wood pieces to accommodate two wood screws to hold everything in place securely.

Important: When drilling through acrylic, make sure to go slowly or else it can crack pretty easily and you would have to start all over again. Have a look at Image 8 below:

Image 8 – Design Top
Image 8 – Design Top

After securing the acrylic sheet into place it was time to attach the LED strip onto the bottom of it with the LED’s facing upwards towards the acrylic sheet. Have a look at image 9 below:

Image 9 – Design Bottom
Image 9 – Design Bottom

I used some hot glue gun to secure the LED strip onto the acrylic sheet itself. When you use a multi-colored LED strip, it comes with a specific control unit. Take a look at image 10 below:

Image 10 – RGB Controller
Image 10 – RGB Controller

The connector that we would have soldered onto the LED strip in the previous steps will plug into the white female counterpart on the control box. This way you can easily disconnect everything if needed.

Optional Step

The last thing that remains is to make the build look pretty for when it sits there during the day and not lit up. You can create any type of base stand for the build and have it displayed in any number of fashion. It’s up to you to be as creative as you want.

To decorate the base stand for this project, I used some self adhesive vinyl to wrap around the base. Take a look at image 11 below:

Image 11 – Vinyl
Image 11 – Vinyl

This gave the illusion that the two wooden pieces I used were a single piece. This also allowed  me to hide away all the wires and make everything really neat.

Optional Step 2

After I was done with the entire project I found that something was missing from the design. After staring at the display for a while I realized I needed to have some sort of wording on there as well. At the time I was watching a TED talk by Amy Cuddy about body language and something she said was very profound.

“Fake it till you become it”

Link to the Ted Talk

I decided to engrave the words “Become it” onto my acrylic sheet as well as some additional design onto the brain structure as well. The following is what the end product evolved into at the end:

Image 12 - Final Evolution
Image 12 – Final Evolution

That is all for this post, I hope you enjoyed learning about edge lit displays and leave me comment if you have any feedback.





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