Panel/Enclosure Design and Materials

Every couple of years I get an itch I need to scratch, and that’s building a funny/strange Lunetta style synthesizer. I built my original system between 2013-2017 but eventually disassembled it. My original build used acrylic laser cut panels. This proved good and bad. Good: accurate, no drilling, etch control labels/designs directly to panel. Bad: Expensive, not readily available, acrylic brittle not suitable for hand drilling. I used mostly perf for the circuit boards, which again cause problems down the line with old cold-solder joints I didn’t spot when I was first putting it together.

I eventually disassembled it with the idea, I’d revisit the project in the future when my building skills had increased. And now in 2019, I’ve started making plans to work on it again.

I’ve experimented with a couple different panels materials. Metal (aluminum) panels “feel” the best, imo. sturdy, dont have to worry about the material degrading or chipping when attaching components. I got a slew of blanks cut at metal-supermarkets that I then hand drilled. I highly recommend a “stepped” drill bit (https://www.amazon.ca/…/ref=lp_7205619…/145-7124568-7205504…) if you are going this route. It helps enormously, and you don’t have to switch a million little drill bits back and forth. Drill press is necessary as well, especially if you are using standard vector rails. the hardest part is drilling out the mounting holes. What I usually do is drill three (M3) holes close together then with a rasp grind it down to a roughly oblong circle shape.

For designs I used this aluminum etching method https://diy-guitar-effects.tumblr.com/etching it works quite well. One tip (can be applied for other things) transferring images to aluminum, you need a particular kind of paper. I found that magazine paper (what you’d find in an Ikea catalogue) works best. Just be careful if you attempt this method, it isn’t mentioned in the guide explicitly, but always where a respirator and work in a well ventilated area when working with caustic soda.

The obvious downside of metal panels, is the sheer amount of work, and tools required to make one. grinding holes for the panel mounting takes forever, and aluminum etching generates a ton of nasty chemical waste that’s not easily disposed of. Maybe some work could be reduced if a screen print, or spray paint design was used instead.

I’ve experimented with 3D printed panels in the past but always felt them a bit lacking. Maybe it’s from working with printers all day, but 3D Printed panels feel a bit cheap and flimsy to me. They can be quite accurate, if you get the tolerances just right. But again, big downside is you need access to the tech for this to even be a viable option.

PCB panels are another material I’ve tried. The best, but also most expensive option is getting them fabricated. Especially if you choose a thicker density board this can be quite nice. You can add holes, designs, different material finishes simply. The big downside, at least for the kind of DIY I am attempting, is that there isn’t a lot of room to improvise.

I’ve tried cutting panels from bare FR1 boards, but that has proved pretty imprecise. Readily available boards, the kind I find in DIY tech shops, also tends to be pretty thin flimsy stuff. I’ve only seen the thicker (same kind used in bug brand modules) PCB material available directly from the manufacturer.

Will Schorre wrote this interesting post about creating fast prototypes with FR1 board and a linoleum cutter. components are soldered up dead bug style with enamelled copper wire http://lorre-mill.com/2018/02/02/Prototype-techniqe.html?fbclid=IwAR3ru5SGwxy3KlfVzDX5rJg93LXyptXdN6xF404uYfLFoQblEIqqoTWfSMQ

There’s also Peter B’s methods as well using wood and embedded circuit boards, but again he uses a personal CNC machine, so access could be a problem for most.

One technique that I think is interesting are stompbox synths. Like the Grackler, which looks like it’s built into a 1590dd. I think it’s cool, these ready made enclosures. Hammond boxes are easily drilled by hand too. Downside for me is price per-unit, and space. Bunch of synth boxes spread out all over a table takes up much more than modules built into a rack. Probably require longer cables, and some kind of distributed power supply design.

The last material I have looked at are pre-cut HDPE sheets. This is the same material used in Lorre-Mill synths. It’s a kind of tacky plastic material that’s less brittle than acrylic or plexiglass. It can be milled easily by hand with a drill press or electric handheld drill. Manufacturers offer it in a wide variety of colours and sizes, but most I’ve seen are semi-industrial outlets so you might have to do a large minimum order. It’s a material that bears further investigation!

Curious to know if there are any techniques out there I might have missed!!

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I think you’ve hit on most of the approaches to this problem.

If you have access to a DIY Hackerspace/Makerspace then laser cutting acrylic wood, or other materials can also be an option.

I recently had some aluminum panels laser-cut by a shop in portland. It’s a $75 minimum order, but that’s not really too much to meet if you’re getting a few panels made.

The only issue with laser-cut aluminum is that it’s “unfinshed” and depending on the thickness, the edges are sharp/rough with left-over material. 1/16th in panels were mostly OK, but needed a touch of sanding. 1/8in really needed edge cleanup.

There’s also some various ways to laser-etch aluminum and other materials if you’re going that stompbox route.

FWIW - the etching process you mention (using caustic NaOH/Lye) is not really toxic in terms of chemical waste. The resulting solution is then NaOH and Aluminium hydroxide. NaOH is the primary ingredient in most drain cleaners - so this is dumped down bathroom pipes all over. More info here

EDIT - Ha! I didn’t even notice your username when I replied. The 16n panels you got were done with laser + scrubbing + NaOH finish + clear coat. :slight_smile: (but still a fair bit of work)

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I’ve had great luck with panels I’ve had made through Front Panel Express. They’re quite expensive in small numbers, however. For example, a 1.5mm black aluminum panel with engraved text for BitBox was about $70. That said, they have a lot of material choices/flexibility and their design software is a breeze to use. I’m not affiliated with them in any way… it’s just what I’ve used.

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Yes I have one of your 16n panels. It turned out beautifully the finish on them was excellent.

Good to know about waste disposal of Lye, figured without knowing any better, better to err on the side of caution. There are environmental days that I bring stored up chemical waste, from ferric chloride that I use in PCB etching. I rarely come back to etching techniques recently, just with the amount of prep and labour involved

This is a pedal I etched following the method above. I find using a coat of black enamel spray paint then sanding it down gives the etch more depth. It takes a real balance of timing not to over etch and lose detail. Sanding down to reveal the high spots after the coat of enamel paint can be a pain in the ass sometimes

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A bunch of the PCB fab houses offer aluminum as a substrate these days. I haven’t tried it, but it could be a potential for a nice in between of a FR4 PCB panel & a full on metal panel from FPE.

Looks like seeedstudio’s aluminum option is about $27 for Qty.10 for the aluminum with all default settings for a 6HP panel

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Hi!
During the past months I’ve been thinking about a way to create my own personal eurorack case design. I’ve always seen those cases with just one brand modules like the MakeNoise, Buchla, Verbos, Serge … as close system, and not as a mixture of different brands each one with their own color, knobs, typo, … etc. So I have an idea in my mind: to buy extra panels for each module I have, paint them in a single color, and have the typo and letters transfered into the surface. I would prefer to have them already cut, but if there are no replacement panels for some modules I will try to create copies of the panel. So I have several questions …

1- Does anybody know a simple and easy way to transfer text or designs into a flat aluminium surface? I guess the sublimation process is the easiest one, buy I think that the hi temperature of the press is going to be incompatible with the coat of paint I want to apply. I’ve found that Montana Colors have a huge variety of colors and they are really good for this and they also have a 2K polyurethane paint to protect the plates, but not resistant to extreme heat.

2 - I still don’t know if I’m going to be able to get replacement plates for all the brands I have (Orthogonal Devices and Monome have replacement plates or I can find them. I don’t know if Mannequins and Verbos are selling them). If not, does anybody a good place to order 2-3 mm aluminium faceplates?

3 - Has anyone previously thought of doing this themselves? Have I gone completely crazy?

Any help or suggestion will be welcome! Thanks!

Hi everyone. I am new to this community. Being extremely OCD, and starting a small modular rig, finding black panels for some units has been difficult. After digging around the internet, reddit, reverb, etc I did come across a small independent manufacturer that has recently closed the doors. I would like to pick up some of the files I have found on GitHub, modifying the designs to be more professional, and start doing limited runs, collaborations etc.

I am a media designer and have over a decade of experience with adobe software and products. I have never submitted a file to be cut in a PCB / CNC shop. I see a lot of the files left behind are SVG / PCB files. I did uncover some files for Mannequins panels that were AI files with layers for the cut, and color screens. I would really like to just work with illustrator if these manufacturing companies can take an AI file, cut and screen print these module panels.

Long thread short - Any advice would be appreciated. I am pretty sure I understand the reasoning behind a cease and desist from some of these companies by the third party creator. I am only interested in making custom black / colored panels for units that do not have an alternative, get more involved in the synth community, and maybe make a little money from a side hustle.

I am somewhat active on the elektronauts thread, and the muffwiggler discord. This thread is new to me. If anyone is interested in some of the music I make, you can find some samples here. https://www.instagram.com/p/CIy2xsmhC82/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link

I am really open to all discussion in regards to this topic, any advice, any suggestions. Thank you.

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yes and no. It depends on the process (and materials).

CNC might start from a vector file format like illustrator, but then will need to get translated into something else to be run on a CNC machine. You’d need to contact places that provide this type of service and see what they expect.

PCB manufacture requires a different set of CAD tools - specifically PCB layout software like Autodesk Eagle, Diptrace or KiCAD. These programs will generate “Gerber files” which are the standard for sending to PCB shops for manufacture.

Laser cutting services like Ponoko or RazorLab will often take an illustrator type of file (.ai, .dxf, etc.) with some specific setup requirements - see the websites for more details.

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Thanks for the info. Very helpful.

To be clearer, with respect to PCB manufacture you are (on a Gerber file) defining instructions for manufacture and not strokes in an image. These will relate to paths for an end mill (edge cuts and other invite), NPTH (non plates through holes) done with a drill, PTH (plated through holes) done with a drill then often with a rivets added. In contrast, the copper layer, solder mask (usually indicated negatively) and silk screen layers are effectively “printed” (or rather something is printed, then an optical and mechanical method is used to apply it). Parts of the board without solder mask or copper expose the bare board. Each of these elements is represented in some standardised manner in Gerber files which will translate to instructions which form part of a larger panel production process (your board is made alongside others).

The curves and placements can be defined in a vector format (and Gerber is also vector) and imported into the EDA software, but arbitrary geometry is not necessarily available in all regards. Drill holes, plated or otherwise have specific allowable diameters (and more importantly allowable ranges) defined by the manufacturer; Endmill cuts have minimum widths; endmills don’t create square corners; v cut routing is only available in straight “vertical or horizontal” lines spanning your panel; the resolution used in mask creation results in various line width limits. Also remember that the PCB itself is a fixed colour, the solder (depending on finish) has a fixed colour; you can pick the solder mask colour and silk screen colour but the number of options is quite limited. The result is that any area on the board can be: bare PCB, exposed copper, solder mask on PCB, solder mask on copper or silkscreen on one of the above. This also means you have a fairly limited colour palette on offer.

You might find the experience to feel a little disjoint in moving between the artistic worlds and the CAD world. This is for good reason, but can be simplified with certain tools such as svg2shenzhen.

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I would like to have black panels on all my system modules. Could someone tell me some eurorack panel makers? Preferently Europe based, but that’s not a hard requisite.

Made an alternative panel for Maths in black and gold. Meet Urania :slight_smile:

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How did you do this? Would love to make some custom panels eventually.

KiCad, it’s free!
plus 20 characters

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I guess I should’ve been more specific with my question. The bigs one that I have:

How did you get the measurements right? The spacing, sizing and placement for all the holes.

How do you get the graphics on? Is there a CNC type machine that can print on the paint (or whatever it is) afterward?

How much does it cost roughly, in material? And how much time did it take you in total?

Getting these things manufactured by PCB makers is easy enough: that’s what Kicad is for. The maker has a copper coated PCB; they remove copper according to your instructions, then apply solder mask which also gets selectively removed according to your instructions. Finally a printed layer is applied on top (known as the silk screen layer). As for measurements, you can get them by measuring; calipers or even using a ruler can be accurate enough; you can certainly get millimeter accurate that way. Printing the design on paper, cutting out the holes, then applying to the existing panel to double check allows you to be sure the design will work.

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Making panels and enclosures is the part of synth DIY that I find the most challenging.

I’m currently trying to decide on which material to use to house 2 x Ciat-Lonbarde Fourses Tarp PCBs. There will be 8 potentiometers, 8 switches and more than 84 3.5mm mono sockets (Eurorack style sockets).

That is too much drilling for me, so I was looking to get something laser cut, probably by Razorlab as I’m in the UK.

The material I’d most like to use is 3mm acrylic in a funky colour. I can then stick the LEDs behind the panel to shine through and this would match the Ieaksul F. Mobenthey aesthetic. EDIT: the panel will be about 11 * 10 inches / 280 * 250mm

However, what I’m worried about is if the acrylic panel will be too thick at 3mm? Will the 3.5mm sockets have enough thread to engage the nut once they are through the panel?
These are the sockets I have (125 of them!):

Which have a 5.5mm section, of which the bottom is unthreaded.

TLDR: Can I use a 3.5mm socket in a 3mm acrylic panel?

On these Tayda A-865 sockets the thread length is more like 3.5 or 3.8 mm, because the unthreaded part is larger than the threaded part.
Tayda - A-865

So they can’t be used with 3 mm PMMA sheets if you need to attach the nuts, unless you create a slot in the back of the panel to insert the larger part (which I did on a few panels, but to use Lumberg KLB4 jacks).

Unfortunately I don’t know of any jack socket that can be attached with its nut on a 3 mm panel by making a simple drilling.
I too am interested in such info.
:slight_smile:

Thanks @thom. Do you know the dimensions of the larger, unthreaded part? They are not on the data sheet drawing.
I’m guessing that, for a laser cutter, it would be just as easy to cut the shape of the larger part as it is to cut a circle. The nut should hold the socket in place, as two sides of that part are flatted.

Brian Van Loo (no relation, strangely enough!) has some great videos on creating front panel designs using KiCad, to be fabricated by a PCB vendor. He breaks down the layers of the PCB to show how each layer will show up, and even goes through the process of submitting them to get fabricated.

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