The Letters

When our first son was born we dec­o­rat­ed his room with the let­ters of his name by order­ing a set of mod­ern, wall-mount­ed let­ters online. When we were expect­ing our sec­ond son, we also planned to put his name up on the wall, but instead of buy­ing the let­ters, we decid­ed to make them ourselves.

My ini­tial idea was to use a laser to cut the let­ters out of lay­ers of wood and acrylic. The wood would be against the wall, paint­ed white, with key­holes hid­den and cut out of them so they could be hung on the wall. A thin piece of translu­cent acrylic would be adhered in front of 2 or 3 lay­ers of ¼ inch sheets of wood. The acrylic would give the front sur­face a glassy look just like the old white iMacs, or EVE from WALL-E.

I real­ly want­ed the edge of the acrylic to be cut flush to the edge of the wood, but I real­ized the chal­lenge would be to get the acrylic to stick to the paint­ed wood. I don’t have much expe­ri­ence using acrylic and my guess is that even with some­thing like acrylic cement, get­ting it to stick to the paint in a clean and attrac­tive way might be an issue.

I dis­cussed this idea with my friend, Ian from Roc City Laser, and we came to the idea of using epoxy as an alter­na­tive to acrylic. I hadn’t cast epoxy before so I real­ly liked the idea of test­ing it out for this and future projects.

Part I: Mate­r­i­al Test

Easy Cast­ing

My first step was to get some expe­ri­ence mix­ing and work­ing with a two-part epoxy. Because epoxy is very expen­sive I picked up a small kit of Easy­Cast for my first test.

The two-part kits usu­al­ly con­tain the epoxy in one bot­tle and a hard­en­er in the oth­er. When the two com­bine, the chem­i­cal reac­tion hard­ens them and cures into a sol­id piece.

Bwr 1943

I remem­ber hear­ing a tip about reduc­ing wast­ed epoxy by mea­sur­ing out the vol­ume of your mould using water and mark­ing your mix­ing con­tain­er for both parts. I was plan­ning on using a sil­i­cone mould of some LEGO-like fig­ures, so I start­ed by fill­ing it in with water, then I poured that water into a mea­sur­ing cup. It came to about 3.5 oz., so I round­ed up and mea­sured out 2 oz. of water and poured it into a mix­ing cup, marked the cup with per­ma­nent mark­er, mea­sured out anoth­er 2 oz., added that to the cup, then marked the cup at the new level.

Bwr 1939

I fol­lowed the mix­ing instruc­tions to ful­ly com­bine the epoxy and poured it into the mould.

Bwr 1946

Because I’ve seen mak­ers embed things in epoxy, I grabbed a cou­ple of actu­al LEGO pieces and used a bam­boo skew­er to low­er them into the mould. What I found was that the pieces did not float or stay sus­pend­ed, but they did stay put once they sank to the bot­tom of the mould. I’d still like to fig­ure out if there’s a way to hold the items in place, but this wasn’t an impor­tant part of this par­tic­u­lar test.

Bwr 1945

I picked up a heat gun and used it to pull up as many bub­bles as I could. It was dif­fi­cult to get the bub­bles from the bot­tom of the mould, but I won­der if it would help to only pour a thin lay­er, use heat to pull out the bub­bles, fill in the rest of the mould, then remove the remain­ing bubbles.

Bwr 1941
I had to take a moment to appreciate the glow of the UI on the heat gun. This looked just like a light-up effect from a movie.

The epoxy took about 24 hours to hard­en enough where we could pop them out of the mould. I popped out the first one, then had my assis­tant pick out the rest.

Bwr 1974
Bwr 1981
Bwr 1985
Bwr 1989
Bwr 1995
Bwr 1996
The figures standing on top of a performance of Radio, Radio by Elvis Costello and the Beastie Boys.

My first impres­sion is that these looked great. I can see where I had poured too much or too lit­tle and how the menis­cus from each affect­ed the backs of the fig­ures. The Easy­Cast did not seem to com­plete­ly hard­en, but instead it’s almost like a very hard rub­ber. The bub­bles in some of the cor­ners were notice­able on the larg­er fig­ure, but not as much on the small­er figures.

Mould Test

At this point I was con­vinced that the epoxy would work, so the plan was this:

  1. Use the laser to cut three lay­ers of let­ters out of the wood
  2. Glue up and paint the three inner pieces for each letter
  3. Glue up and seal the out­er pieces to cre­ate moulds to pour the epoxy into
  4. When the epoxy would dry, slide the epoxy out and wet sand it to a per­fect, shiny finish
Bwr 1998

Ian used his Glow­forge to cut out the let­ters from ¼ inch ply­wood. We cre­at­ed two vari­a­tions of the let­ter W”, and one rec­tan­gle that might rep­re­sent the thick­ness of one of the letters.

Bwr 2001

I glued up the let­ters into stacks of three, and glued the moulds into stacks of two. After a quick sand­ing I paint­ed the let­ters with spray paint and let them dry.

Bwr 2278

I used sil­i­cone to seal every­thing up. At this point it might have been a good idea to test the moulds by pour­ing water through, but at the time I didn’t think about doing that.

Bwr 2284

I ordered a big kit of two-part marine epoxy and hard­en­er. I fig­ured I would use it all for this project or if I had extra I could use it for future projects.

I also ordered a blue, glow-in-the-dark pig­ment for fun. I wasn’t plan­ning on using it for the let­ters project, but since I’d be test­ing out the new epoxy I thought I would play around for some oth­er projects I have in mind.

Bwr 2281

I mixed the epoxy to test my moulds, but I also want­ed to do a test for sand­ing the epoxy, so I poured anoth­er round of the LEGO-like figures.

Img 0805

I planned to wait about 24 hours for the epoxy to hard­en, but they were dry enough to take out around 18 hours later.

Img 0806

I took out the fig­ures and had some fun test­ing out the glow-in-the-dark look. The pig­ment worked real­ly well!

Img 0808

The larg­er fig­ure looked awe­some and after a good charge in the sun­light or with an LED, it can glow for hours.

Img 0809

Unfor­tu­nate­ly the moulds were anoth­er story.

A lot of epoxy leaked out of the let­ter moulds and they became very messy. Also, I wasn’t con­fi­dent I would be able to wet sand the epoxy with­out mess­ing up the lay­ers of paint.

My plan relied on the pour to go smooth­ly as it would be very hard to repair issues with the paint after the fact. I could have kept work­ing towards a solu­tion, but we were get­ting close to our due date so I decid­ed this wouldn’t be the way we would do the final build.

This still might not be a ter­ri­ble idea, but if I were to try it again I would look into mak­ing my own rub­ber mould from the laser-cut let­ters, pour­ing the epoxy down into the mould, then find­ing a way to place the let­ters on top of the epoxy in the moulds.

Part II: Pivot

With time run­ning out, I decid­ed to go much sim­pler for the final solution.

Design

The idea of using the Glow­forge to cut lay­ers of ply­wood into the let­ters was still the plan, but I want­ed the do some­thing unique for the top sur­face. Ian had sug­gest­ed doing epoxy inlays and I real­ly liked that idea, but it still had its own set of chal­lenges that would need to be test­ed out.

Bwr 2424

I was look­ing through some of my old pho­tos for ideas and came across the sur­face of an object that had a halftone pat­tern cut into it. It’s super sim­ple, but I real­ly like the tex­tured look and since we were plan­ning on using the Glow­forge for the cuts, adding an engrave step to the top lay­ers would be super easy to do.

I designed the files and sent them along to Ian with one cut lay­er and one engrave layer.

Bwr 2427

Pro­duc­tion

I picked up a large, 4×8 sheet of ¼ inch ply­wood and got it to Ian. He brought me back a cou­ple of test let­ters so we can see how deep the engrave should be and to see if the size worked. They looked fantastic.

Bwr 2428

With a few minor adjust­ments, the plan was mov­ing for­ward and Ian put togeth­er a quick test piece to see how every­thing would come togeth­er. I used this to test out the spray paint to make sure the engraved pieces would fill in correctly.

Bwr 2480

Ian cut out and engraved all of the let­ters and dropped them off. The engrave looked great and the let­ters all stacked nicely.

Bwr 2442

Between Ian’s sug­ges­tion and hear­ing a tip about buy­ing wood glue in bulk, I bought a GlüBot and a gal­lon of wood glue. Ian also rec­om­mend­ed sil­i­con brush­es to apply the glue. The cool thing about these is that you can just let the glue dry and peel it off very easily.

Bwr 2444

I did a quick dry run to make sure all of the let­ters lined up and that I had them all right side up.

Bwr 2446
Bwr 2465

My orig­i­nal plan for the key­holes was to use a key­hole router bit to cut into the back of each of the let­ters, but Ian had the idea to use the laser to cut the key­holes into the bot­tom two lay­ers. This design worked per­fect­ly when it came time to hang the letters.

Bwr 2467
Bwr 2469

Most of the let­ters were made up of flat edges and cor­ners so lin­ing them up was very easy. The O” on the oth­er ̦ was a lit­tle hard­er to line up and this would have been an issue when get­ting to the glue up step.

Img 0893

When cut­ting out the O” the laser left a small mark on the inside piece in the same spot for each lay­er. This was super help­ful lin­ing up the lay­ers in the dry run.

Bwr 2472

I used a tech­nique I see in a lot of table­top glue up where I took a pen­cil and made a squig­gly line on the out­er edges. Between the squig­gly line and the marks on the inner cut I was able to put the let­ter back togeth­er quick­ly when it came time to glu­ing the lay­ers together.

Bwr 2477

After glu­ing all of the lay­ers of the let­ters togeth­er and wait­ing for them to dry, I sand­ed down all of the edges. While the Glow­forge cut the edges very flat and accu­rate­ly, I want­ed to remove a lit­tle bit of the burn mark to make it eas­i­er to apply white paint lat­er on.

Bwr 2486
You can see the burn mark coming off when sanding with 150 grit paper

I applied a thin lay­er of wood filler around all of the edges. This filled in a cou­ple of gaps that the ply­wood had, but it also flat­tened out the very small gaps between each layers.

Bwr 2490

After sand­ing down the wood filler, I paint­ed the let­ters with spray paint and let them dry over night.

Hang Time

I want­ed to make sure the spac­ing and align­ment of the let­ters were cor­rect before putting them up onto the wall, so I found a large piece of paper and laid the let­ters out on top of it.

Bwr 2491

I start­ed by draw­ing both the ascen­der line and base­line guides onto the paper.

Bwr 2492

My wife, who is the res­i­dent design­er, kerned the let­ters and helped me line up the key­holes on the backs of each let­ter. We did this by trac­ing the let­ters, hold­ing the paper up, and pop­ping a hole into the top of each keyhole.

Bwr 2506

With the key­hole mark­ers in place, I lev­eled and taped the paper onto the wall. I marked the wall and used a screw­driv­er to cre­ate some pilot holes. With screws in the wall, the let­ters were ready to hang.

Bwr 2504

Fin

Bwr 2534
Bwr 2540
Bwr 2542

Even though the orig­i­nal plan for this piece turned out to be very dif­fer­ent from where I start­ed, I’m hap­py with the final outcome.

Work­ing with the epoxy real­ly sparked some ideas. With all of the extra epoxy I now have, I’ll prob­a­bly get start­ed on them soon­er than later.

The Glow­forge real­ly helped make this hap­pen in that it allowed me to exper­i­ment and come up with sev­er­al options and quick­ly see how they would work before spend­ing hours com­mit­ting to one solution.

I just hope my son enjoys these let­ters as much as I enjoyed mak­ing them for him.