How to label a custom device case?
April 15, 2010 1:21 PM   Subscribe

I am building an electronic device which will be housed in a black ABS box. I want to label the buttons and knobs on the front panel. I don't want to stick anything onto the plastic - I want to apply the ink directly to the plastic. What are my options?

Anything based on black ink is out, obviously; the ink should be silver, white, or red. I am imagining some kind of process where I print the design on paper, copy it onto some special transfer material, then apply it to the plastic and heat or rub or something to attach the ink. Or maybe some kind of fancy label printer machine. Or maybe a laser-cut stencil that I carefully brush ink through - but such tiny details! I don't know. Anyone done anything like this before?

Looks really are important here. I play live-PA improv electronica, using a custom-built console that holds all my gear and arranges it in a convenient control panel. It's a unique system and people love watching me twirl the knobs ("how do you remember what they all do?"). The device I'm building is a new kind of sequencer, and it needs to look like it fights right in next to all the other devices.

I've gone to a fair bit of trouble ordering just the right knobs and buttons, and I don't want to spoil the effect with a bunch of cheap plasticky taped-on labels, or smudgy hand-lettered ink, or whatever. If it comes down to it I'll just leave the controls blank - I know what they all do, after all! But I really want it to look polished and perfect, and that means it needs panel graphics, and I have no idea where to start. Help!
posted by Mars Saxman to Media & Arts (13 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
How about custom water slide decals? I haven't used this company, but that type of decal can look GREAT - and you can get lots of detail in a small space without much waste.
posted by dirtdirt at 1:32 PM on April 15, 2010

This is a better link - the one above is to sheets of letters. This is to the custom price list for them to produce sheets based on your design.
posted by dirtdirt at 1:35 PM on April 15, 2010

One other option that comes to mind is silkscreening, but it would be more trouble and less slick than dirtdirt's suggestion.

You could also have the entire thing "wrapped" the way you see some ad-covered buses or cars done, where vinyl is run through a giant printer and then adhered to your box. That would give you the flexibility to cover the whole thing with whatever look you wanted. Look up "vehicle graphics". Probably expensive.

Of course, I think punching out text on an old-school Dymo labelmaker and slapping those on a black box covered in knobs would give it a certain atomic-age NORAD appeal, but that's just me.
posted by adamrice at 2:06 PM on April 15, 2010

Pad printing is used in small runs for such things. Whether it will work or not is dependent on the graphics design of what's printed, the ink, and the surface curvature and roughness of where it's placed.
posted by jet_silver at 2:12 PM on April 15, 2010

How about a custom laptop skin? You would of course have to approximate the size and be willing to cut the skin down to size.

However, if you mapped out the control scheme and then place the skin over the top panel the affect could be pretty nice.
posted by oddman at 2:34 PM on April 15, 2010

You could get tiny stencils then airbrush the paint. A reasonable quality internal mix airbrush will run you about $80USD.

However, it might be hard to find stencils of letters less than about 3-4mm tall.
posted by Netzapper at 3:03 PM on April 15, 2010

Have you considered getting it laser engraved?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 4:45 PM on April 15, 2010

Maybe you can't do nice hand lettering (I can't either), but there are people out there who can. Sign painters, faux painters, nail artists come to mind.

I usually use nail polish to label black things, smearing isn't an issue after it drys. If you want to try it yourself, use a tiny brush instead of the one that comes in the bottle.
posted by yohko at 10:55 PM on April 15, 2010

Maybe this will help?
posted by dubitable at 11:27 PM on April 15, 2010

What yolk said, except a hot-rod pin striper or truck letterer.
posted by fixedgear at 7:13 AM on April 16, 2010

Sorry, yohko.
posted by fixedgear at 7:13 AM on April 16, 2010

Thank you all for the suggestions. Lots of ideas I had never considered.

So far I'm leaning toward either the water slide decals, or just having the box laser engraved. There's a small hacker shop nearby with a laser cutter, so it's easy to see how I could make that work.
posted by Mars Saxman at 7:10 PM on April 17, 2010

adamrice: I actually went out and bought a Dymo label printer after you mentioned it. I don't think I'll use it on this project, but you're right, it is a classic look and I'm sure I'll find something interesting to do with it.
posted by Mars Saxman at 7:45 PM on April 17, 2010

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