There exist numerous techniques for DIY production of front panel legend for either individual panels in a modular setup or with some ingenuity, larger panels. I have tried a couple of methods over the past eighteen months since I have been constructing font panels. There is lots of information to be found on the web, and with new materials being produced all the time for inkjet printers and laser printers the future could lead to more professional looking panels within the reach of DIY’er. A FAQ discussing numerous methods people have used for panel legend construction can be found here front panel legend
Here I discuss the methods I have used and found to give good results
with care. Before that is worth mentioning that the best solution to front panels..is to have them made and engraved by professional companies like schaeffer-apparatebau of Berlin. Many synth DIY’ers use this route. The panels are high quality and come in a variety of finishes. The neat thing about this method is that you can use the free software FRONT PANEL DESIGNER which is available from their website, to design your panel and then simply upload the file to the Schaeffer website. This is an excellent program for designing front panels. I have used it in all my designs.
The only negative side of this method is obviously the cost. For a basic panel with not too many engravings its pretty reasonable, but start adding dials for all your pots and the price does shoot up. This is ultimately why I chose to make my own panels and the legend. The other main reason was that in my modular project I wanted to go for painted front panels rather than usual black or aluminium finish since I wanted to add a bit of colour to my synth!
So onto the two methods I have used most:-
METHOD 1: TONER TRANSFER METHOD (DYNART PAPER)
‘Dynart’ paper has a special heat-proof coating that when used in either laser printers or photocopiers produces a copy of original artwork by fusing the toner to the top coating. The paper is pretty expensive. In the UK you can obtain it from Milford Instruments (its about 10 pounds for 5 sheets) and in America checkout the DynaArt website.
The idea then is to create a sort of large decal by lifting or transfering this image onto a carrier layer, which is created by spraying the surface of the paper with clear lacquer. After several layers of lacquer have been build up, the whole artwork is placed in water for 2-minutes. Since the toner/lacquer is waterproof, the backing paper loosens and then one can slide the whole artwork off and onto the front panel. The advantage of this over other methods (see below) is that the carrier layer can be made extrenely thin
(perhaps 10 microns or so). The advantage of this is that when the ‘decal’ is placed onto the fron panel and air bubbles have been removed by VERY CAREFUL BURNISHING OF THE TRANSFER (see below) the result can be really excellent..quite close to silk-screening. Because the carrier layer is so thin, it is more or less invisible and does not produce the distracting ‘sheen’ that e.g. legends produced from transparency acetate often suffer from. Also whilst it might seem that legend produced in this way might peel off in time, my experience has been that it is very syable. In fact when I was trying the paper early on I inevitably made mistakes and on one panel I had to remove the legend and start again. This was pretty difficult! I had to work quite hard with wirewool.
Well what are the disadvantages? Here are a few which I have found
I have discovered (the hard way!) some tricks to lessen these problems.First the instructions that come with the paper say to apply a few light coats of lacquer to produce the decal. I tried this and each time my decal broke into a million pieces even before I could get it from the water! I am not sure what lacquer they use in the US but the stuff one can by here from car accessory shops just didn’t work. I would recommend at least 9 coats of this kind of lacquer (make sure its matt finish as this produces a much better finish) be used.
This obviously produces a thicker decal, but I didn’t find this affected the final finish too much. Certainly the decal is far easier to handle..and is much stronger. This is very important since the key to good results is to burnish the decal onto the panel in order to remove air bubbles and aid adhesion.
Another thing to avoid is applying lacquer and leaving the lacquer to harden. This will almost guarantee that your decal cracks all over the place when you put in water. Far better to wait until the lacquer is just dry (and still flexable)
And then put into water. This way you avoid cracking all together.
BTW if the decal cracks only in a few places..its still usable. Just carefully align the pieces and after drying the joins are essantially invisible.
To strengthen the panel legend on the panel, it’s crucial to add a few layers of lacquer ontop of the decal. Don’t make too large a decal that ‘overhangs’ the panel edges. If anything make the decal slightly snaller than the panel area. Then when over-lacquering..the decals edges are completely sealed. The results is a very durable finish.Here are some pics of panels from my modular synthesizer that were made using this method.
METHOD 2: INKJET(LASER) ADHESIVE FILM
In the past I had tried making front panel artwork from inkjet transparency film. Whilst the artwork was fine and stood out nicely against the painted background of my panels, I found a problem with gluing the ‘decal’ to the front plate. Even using clear epoxy there was a tendancy for the edges to lift from the panel..even after overcoating with clear lacquer. I put this down to the thickness of the film. Also even though the artwork is clear, the clarity is worstened when you look at the panel from an angle as you get the usual problems with sheen.
Recently I discovered an inkjet film called Safmat Inkjet Film made by Letraset(the company who make dry transfer decals). This is very thin (30 micron) very clear matt finish self-adhesive film. It can take quite high resolution artwork easily and its very easy to apply to the front panel (and can be repositioned). After the final position is achieved, you have to burnish the decal quite vigorously to the panel. This removes any airbubbles and aids adhesion. Even though the film is thin its quite strong so you can burnish quite hard without fear of tearing. I made a panel using this method recently..see pics below of the results. I was pleasently surprised by the resulting finish. Because the film is quite thin, it becomes practically invisible after burnishing,so that the resulting finish is quite close to silk-screening in appearance. It is important to overspray first with inkjet fixative (available from camera shops, art stores etc) and then a couple of coates of matt clear lacquer. Again its better to cut your decal slightly smaller than the front panel. Then the lacquer coat produces a hard sealed finish. The clarity of the final artwork is very good ..even when viewed at angles.
A plus point compared to the toner transfer method discussed above is that you can get higher resolution legend. This is because the toner inevitably spreads slightly in that process and degrades the resolution slightly.
Here are a couple of pics of a module I made with Safmat film. The panel consists of two
Modules . The top is a Noise&Filter module by Tony Allgood and the second (yet to be build) is a Sample&Hold module designed by Juergen Haible.
METHOD 3: WATERSLIDE DECAL (LAZERTRAN PAPER)
A while back I discovered a really excellent product that does essentially the same job as Dynart paper ..only the results are really superior and it's far easier to work with.
water-slide decal (ie graphic transfer on a transparent plastic substrate)
paper called Laztertran and can be bought
in small quantities (A4 or A3) from
There are several advantages this paper offers. First the coating for the water-slide decal is already on the paper. Secondly it is a very thin decal (about 15 microns). The result of this is that the clear part of the decal is almost invisible when its dried on your panel. Also it's pretty strong and doesn't easily break when you are placing it onto your panel. Thirdly, these decals were made so that on heat proof surfaces like metal, you can heat the panel+decal in an oven so that the decal melts onto the surface..making a very hard waterproof finish.
Once you have produced the panel artwork file you print ‘master copies’ onto photoquality inkjet paper or colour laserprints or what have you. Then the idea behind lazertran paper is to colour photocopy (or colour laserprint) your artwork, in mirror format,
onto the lazertran paper. Since I used A4 sheets of lazertran (A3 is also available) in my projects..I had to split my panel graphic over several A4 sheets. Then being very careful..its possible to cut each piece exactly so as to allow perfect registration of them onto the front panel. Each sheet is soaked in cold water..then you can slide off the decal after 1 minute.
This is then placed on the top panel in reverse (ie toner side down)..thus producing a correctly oriented image of your artwork. Do this for all remaining sheets of the artwork and carefully register them to form a seemless final image on the frontpanel.
Now the magic begins! The reason you have toner side down is that you can now bond the decal to your top panel by heating in a conventional oven. The heating process literally melts the decal and it bonds to the painted surface (or even bare metal if you wish). This process takes about 1 hour. Check out the lazertran website for tips on this process.You have to do it slowly to get best results. One word of warning! If you are using a painted surface..take care not to overheat the paint otherwise you get paint bubbles forming! I had this problem to some extent in my
front panel..the temperature was a little too high. Best thing is to keep monitoring the panel . As soon as the surface becomes very shiny..its done. You may still se tiny bubbles in the
final finish. No problem..these are removed by the process I discuss below.
After leaving your panel cool down..you should find an amazing bonding of the decal..its very hard and the toner is complelely protected from scratches etc. The finish is very close to silkscreen.
Since the finish is very glossy…I prefered to remove this gloss. One easy way is to use ultra-fine wire wool and some abrasive cream ..and very gently rub the gloss finish down to a ‘satin’ finish. This may sound crazy..but the toner image is protected (remember you reversed it!) by the clear plastic base of the decal..so there is no danger of
damaging it with this process. This process also removes small bubbles in the decal that can sometimes remain near the surface, leaving a smooth surface. You might also find some little pinholes hear and there in the finish. If these are visible on the coloured parts..simply
spot them off with a permenant ink pen of matching colour. You can then add a final transparent matt lacquer overcoating if you wish.
Eventually I got a perfectly satin finish this way..its really an amazing method, and the only one I know of that can produce a near-silkscreen finish for artwork that you simply could not do eg using Shaeffer made panels..because engraving has its limitations!
Here is what you can achieve with this method:-