PROJECT: Backlighting

September, 2012

So backlighting my panels has been a desire ever since I started this project.  The ability to have a dark cockpit and only see the switches and labels makes it much more immersive when flying, especially night flying.  Plus it's just cool!  But it wasn't a simple thing to figure out.  It really starts with pit and panel design.

I'm Not Afraid of the Dark

After trying all sorts of ideas (rope lights, LEDs, luminescent strips, glow in the dark, even Christmas lights) that failed for any number of reasons, I realized that I needed a more intense light source behind each panel to make it light up the way I wanted. 

Just to catch you up, I create each one of my panels out of 3/16" white cast acrylic that I get from a local plastics supply house.  These I cut into 15" x 13" blanks for loading into my Carvewright CNC machine.  I do the panel design in the software that comes with the Carvewright, laying out the exact panel size/shape, all of the switch holes and edge cuts.  Then I take those measurements and recreate the panel in Adobe Photoshop.  Here is where I add in all of the lettering and any special graphics.  You'll see why I do the design twice in a second.

I then load the white acrylic blanks into the CNC, and let it carve the panel.  Most panels only take about 30 minutes to carve.  Once it is carved I paint the front side of it with a couple of coats of black primer paint.  The back side stays white.  So at this point I have a panel cut to size with all of the holes and such, but no lettering.  That is because the Carvewright just isn't precise enough to cut the lettering small enough to label the panels.  The letters are only about 3/16" high, and the Carvewright struggles with anything below about 5/16".  The machine will make cuts, engravings, and all sorts of wonderful things down to the hundredth of an inch, but it struggles with very small letters. It will do it, but sometimes it comes out just a bit off or fuzzy, and I wanted really crisp lettering, so I found a better way.  I take the CNC'd and painted panels, along with the Photoshop drawings, down to a local trophy shop, where he loads them into his laser engraver.  This thing does a BEAUTIFUL job of the lettering, and only costs me a few bucks per panel.  All the laser does is zap away the paint wherever the letters are, exposing the white acrylic beneath it.  Viola!  White lettering on black panels... and if you put a strong light source behind the panel, the letters light up, but the black primer paint blocks the rest of the light from coming through.

Green with Envy

Okay, on to the backlighting.  I found a great way to light these panels... wait for it... Cold Cathode Lights (CCL).  PC Case modders and car entusiests have been using these for a while now, and they are great.  I find mine at  They have low power requirements, are easy to install, generate no heat, and are BRIGHT! 

They come in different colors and sizes so you can do just about anything you want with them. They normally come in sets of two, with a little transformer, power connection (same as what you use for an old IDE hard drive) and on/off switch.  You can daisy chain sets together.  I'm not sure what the max number of sets you can string onto one chain is, but I kept it to three sets to a chain.

I repurposed a cheap power supply out of an old PC and dedicated it to run the panel lighting, controlling it all through a toggle switch in the pit.  You can run the CCLs off of any available 12v rail from your existing PC power supply, but I had the other one sitting around and figured I might as well put it to use. 

If you look here, you will see the CCLs laying about on the pit as I prepare to install all of them.  I was also rerunning some USB extensions and doing some things like adding pen and paper holder, moving the cup holder (Very Important Item), and moving one of the panels to a new location... why do I always worry when the project starts out looking like this?

It Only Takes a Little

For each panel I make two small brackets out of some strapping material you can find in the plumbing section of your local hardware store, then simply attach the CCL to the brackets.  You could use velcro or zip ties, or plain old clear scotch tape.  I used electrical tape on the first couple, but it masks some of the light coming from the CCL, so I for now I have switched to the clear tape.  I will probably go to zip ties when I'm sure I have it all the way I want.

I actually would like to attach the lighting directly to the panel at some point, but that will likely require some redesign on the panels, so that is going to be a project for a later day.

It's Alive!

And this is what they look like turned on.  Told you they were bright!  And because they stay cool in use you don't have to worry about their proximity to wiring or the panels.  I ran a 12" CCL for 24 hours with some wire, paper, tape, and velcro laying directly on it as a test... no problems what so ever.  The CCL never got hotter than body temperature.

I am going to use the green for all the aircraft panels, and possibly red or blue whenever I do the car dash panel.

Deja Vu...

In a couple of places where I had two panels close together, I used one 12" CCL to light both panels rather than a couple of 4" or 8" tubes.

All Over Again

Like I said... bright!

Please Fasten Your Seatbelt

Here it is in all it's glory.  It really is cool to sit in the pit at night with the panels all lit up.  Even if I am flying a day mission in one sim or the other, I still prefer the room to be dark and the panel lights to be on.  

Yeah, I know you get it!