How to Make Edge-Lit LED Signs

Modern Exit signs are often edge-lit signs.
Modern Exit signs are often edge-lit signs. (Image: Jupiterimages/ Images)

Edge-lit LED signs are an attractive, high-tech way of advertising your business or products. They are energy-efficient and are easy to assemble from acrylic panels and LED tape. The key to a good sign is how you engrave the image or lettering on the acrylic plastic and how you mount the acrylic panel so that the edges are brightly lit with the LEDs. Colored LEDs or multi-colored LED tapes enable you to choose the color of the light in the sign. The engraved parts will light up while the rest of the sign stays dark, producing the illusion of floating letters or images.

Things You'll Need

  • Aluminum frame
  • LED tape
  • Glue
  • LED power supply
  • Acrylic panel, 1/2 inch thick
  • Washable marker
  • Fine sandpaper
  • Router or engraver

Prepare the Design

Decide on the size and design of your sign. Prepare the text and image using a computer graphics program. Choose a design that looks good in black and white, since the engraving can't give any shadings.

Get a mirror image of the design, using the horizontal flip feature of the graphics program, so that it can be engraved on the back of the acrylic panel and viewed from the smooth front. If the design contains color or shading, change it to black-and-white format.

Print out the design in full size. If the design is larger than your printer can handle, take a copy to a print shop to have it enlarged, or take the file and have it printed out full-size.

Engrave the Acrylic Panel

Mark design features and guidelines for a router on the acrylic panel, using a marker. Use a triangular, 1/4-inch bit and set a router to a depth of 1/4 inch. Use a straight edge clamped to the panel to guide the router where straight lines are required. Wash off the marker guidelines and sand the cuts lightly with fine sandpaper.

Engrave the design in the acrylic panel with a computer numerically controlled (CNC) router if you have access to one. Use the image file for the design to set up the CNC machine, and it will complete the routing according to the design. Sand the cuts lightly with fine sandpaper.

Take the design file, design printout and the acrylic panel to an engraving shop that uses a laser engraving machine for the most professional look. Specify the depth of the engraving as 1/4 inch.

Assemble the Sign

Obtain white, colored or multicolored LEDs, depending on the effect you want. Measure the thickness of the LED tape, usually about 1/8 inch. Get the aluminum frame pre-cut to the size of the acrylic sheet, plus twice the thickness of the LED tape, plus 1/8 inch. Assemble the frame.

Glue the LED tape along the inside of the frame. Drill two holes for the leads to exit at a corner. Connect the power supply according to the manufacturer's instructions and switch the LEDs on and off to check operation.

Place the engraved acrylic panel inside the frame with the smooth surface toward the front. Tighten the frame clamps to hold it securely. Clean the back and front with a soft cloth. Switch on the LEDs to view the sign.

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