My Halloween box isn't four months late, it's eight months early

Back in September 2016, inspired a bunch of cool looking projects I found on Instructables, along with access to a laser cutter, and some stock art, I decided to fully embrace this whole maker thing by making a project of my own.

The art on the front is based on a stock image of a silhouetted monster with a girl. I figured if I were to swap the polarity of the image, so everything other than the monster was a silhouette, it would look really cool to have the monster glow different colours.

If you'll allow me to be all pretentious for just a moment, I always imagined the monster as the girl's imaginary friend. I could go on to talk about his non-existence being represented by the fact he's transparent, and that his changing colour represents his ability to adapt to her needs - but frankly, that's all bollocks. I just figured it would look nice.

Anyway, the only reason this project exists at all is because of community access to the maker equipment at the Barclays Eagle Lab in Birmingham on Friday afternoons. At first, I started playing with their 3D printers and was successful in fabricating a smart watch stand and a tentacle phone holder for my flatmate - although my attempt at printing a Make bot failed.

But it was their laser cutter that I was most in awe of. The guy running the lab, Dan, said the laser cutter was quite popular as it's something which let people really explore their creative sides. Sure, 3D printers give a lot more options, but to do anything unique with them (rather than just printing models from Thingiverse) you need to learn 3D modelling software. The laser cutter is far more accessible, however, as it feeds off 2D images, which are a lot easier to produce.

My project consisted of three main parts:

  • An opaque acrylic front panel, with the transparent monster design carved into it.
  • A matrix of multicoloured LEDs to shine through the transparent design.
  • A box to put it all into.

The box turned out to be the easiest part of the project. I was able to design a laser cutter compatible template from MakerCase and convert it into the required coral draw file. The design included a hole in the front through which you'll be able to see the acrylic panel.

I don't think the laser cutter was configured correctly, as it took several passes for the laser to fully penetrate the wood, which resulted in a lot of burn marks on it, but this didn't bother me too much it was going to be painted anyway. Plus, mmmmmmm - burning wood smell.

After throwing a frame clamp set and some wood glue into the mix, I soon assembled five of the six sides of the box. I left the back panel off as this was my access point for inserting the front panel and LEDs.

Talking of LEDs, they're next. Although I had played with Neopixels before, this didn't require anything nearly so complex, so I went for some regular 12v RGB LED strips. I mounted these in a grid on the back panel (a process which required a lot of soldering and hot glue).

The last bit was the acrylic front panel, which turned out to be a massive pain in the arse.

It's made out of a material called TroLase Reverse, so called because:

[It] comprises of a transparent acrylic fascia with a coloured coating on the reverse side. By reverse engraving your image into the coloured layer you expose clear text/image which can either be infilled with your choice of acrylic paint or backlit for an effective contrast.

The first issue I had was obtaining the stuff, which, for one reason or another, took a very long time to arrive in the lab, and is why I've only just finished the project - four months after the original Halloween 2016 deadline.

The second issue was the design itself. As such a large area of the acrylic needed to be etched away, it was impossible to do so without the heat of the laser warping the material. It took three attempts to get something halfway decent, but even then it was still massively warped, and had to sit in my oven for a couple of minutes to flatten out.

Anyway, some further assembly, paint, and glue later, I'm happy to say the project is finished. It's far from perfect, and very obviously produced by someone that was making it up as he went along, but I am proud that I was able to finish it, and seeing as it's something I've never done before, I think it's turned out pretty good.

That said, if I were to do it again (which is something I really would like to do at some point), there are a few things I would change.

In the first instance, I think I'd opt to simply buy a shadow box rather than build my own. Before I started this project, I didn't even know they were a thing, but now I know they exist, I can see myself using them for a lot of projects.

One other thing I'd change is to use a CNC router to fabricate the front panel design, rather than a laser cutter. At this point, I don't even know if that's a realistic prospect, what I do know is whatever awe I once had for laser cutters has been replaced with an awe for CNC routers, and really hope that I can own one one day.

Finally, I think I'd find a way of dispersing the light from the LEDs better. It's very obvious there are multiple LEDs behind the acrylic, and I'm finding it quite distracting from the detail of the monster design. Maybe some strategically placed tissue paper would do the job?

Anyway, as much as I would like to provide a full visual history of the build, I'm nowhere near that organised, but I might be able to gather together a gallery of the work in progress images that I sent to my friends over the past 6 months. Watch this space.