Project Box Graphics


After building my project’s box (see here), I wanted to create some decent graphics. I spent a fair amount of money on the guts, I did a nice job cutting holes, I expect the ‘customer’ will have this for several years, so it should look good.

Many months ago this problem had crossed my mind and it occurred to me to experiment with printing on adhesive vinyl such as this:

I did some test prints and let them sit around for months and was pretty happy with the color and durability.

Once my project box was done, I designed a graphic to cover  the top of the box using Adobe Illustrator for the basic box and photoshop to handle font effects. Photoshop, GIMP, or any such tool will work fine.

I printed the graphic on the adhesive vinyl. I figured I needed something to help protect the ink. I talked to an artist friend to find out what she puts on her paintings. I ended up spraying the vinyl with several coats of clear krylon with a matt finish.

I applied this to the box. This vinyl can be pulled back up a bit as you apply it so it is forgiving if mistakes are made.

I was super happy with the results. Best looking project box I’ve ever done. Finished assembling the box and continued testing now that all components were in the box.

During the week of testing I found that the ink was way too easy to scratch. Since the background of the graphic is a dark purple, scratches resulted in the underlying white showing thru and even tiny dings were noticeable.

So I went back to the drawing board trying to find a cheap but workable solution to producing graphics for my projects. I really didn’t find anything that looked promising but someone in some blog suggested the questioner go to a print shop and see what they could do for him.

That sounded like good advice so I went to a print shop who sent me to a sign shop. They had solutions but they were expensive – minimum job was $150. As I talked to them about their process, they said they would print to vinyl adhesive as well, but then they laminated it.

As I was driving home pondering this, I had considered laminate before but the only laminate I’m familiar with is the stuff you apply with a laminator and that wasn’t going to work so I forgot about it. When I got home I did a little research and found there is (obviously) single sided laminate.

I went to the local office supply store and came home with two types. Contact Clear Cover which has a mat finish:

and Fellows Single sided Laminating sheets (glossy finish):

I created test graphics with both. They both were reasonable and the gloss/mat finish was what one would expect.

I decided on the gloss finish (Fellowes) because the adhesive was much stronger and the material is much thicker.

Two tools useful for creating the final graphic are:

A rubber roller like this:

and a cutting mat like this (as well as a sharp razor):

I also have a steel ruler with a cork pad which is useful for holding the graphics tight while cutting.

OK, here is how I create the graphic:

  • Wash the box with rubbing alcohol.
  • Print the design on the adhesive vinyl (make sure you are printing on the correct side – it is hard to tell). Do make sure that you are using the correct printer settings based on the vinyl you choose. Mine requires using ‘other photo paper’ to get best result.
  • Trim the vinyl as necessary so there isn’t much extra material (I keep about 1/4″ material around the actual ink).
  • Cut down a piece of laminate such that it will be somewhat larger than the vinyl you just trimmed.
  • Using canned air, blow all dust off top of the vinyl graphic. When using canned air to clean like this, always apply it gently – you don’t want a blast of coolant coming out of the can and mucking up your work.
  • Layout the laminate with the sticky side up. Remove the backing from the laminate.
  • Now place the vinyl with the printed side down (against the sticky side of the laminate). There is no redoing this, so get it right the first time.
  • It seems I have luck by touching the bottom edge of the vinyl to the laminate, keeping it slightly bowed toward the laminate, then kind of ‘roll’ the vinyl down onto the laminate and pressing my finger down the center line as I do this. Once the vinyl is down then I smooth with my fingers.
  • Next I trim the laminate so there is very little over hanging.
  • Flip everything over and roll it out with the roller. Maybe I’m just lucky, but I didn’t have air pocket issues to begin with, so the roller didn’t need to press out air pockets, just make sure I had good adhesion.
  • Now it is just a matter of doing the final trim using a straight edge and razor.
  • Use canned air on the project boxto make sure it is clean – any bump is noticeable thru the glossy graphic.
  • Remove backing off vinyl, revealing the adhesive.
  • I applied the graphic onto the box in the same manner as the vinyl onto the laminate, starting at the bottom and rolling it into place. I used the roller again, here, to make sure I had the best adhesion possible.

Once the graphic was in place, I discovered one shortcoming I didn’t expect – you need to make sure that the graphic holes are such that they are a bit bigger than the box holes. When you insert components, if the vinyl flexes due to a component pushing it into the hole, you get kind of a lip.

I trimmed the excess with an exacto knife but the round holes still showed a bit of a ring.

Nevertheless, the final result looked really good.


I put the two test graphics in a spot where they will be constantly touched to see how well they hold up. I’ll try and remember to report back on the long term test.

Aug 2016 Update:

I ended up putting both sample graphics right below my keyboard so my hands rub across them constantly all day long. Neither have scratched, but the glossy laminated graphic finally separated from the constant rubbing.

In normal applications, where the graphic isn’t being touched constantly, I would guesstimate this graphic is going to last quite some time.

Dec 2016 Update:

An alternative to adhesive vinyl is adhesive photo paper. I’ve been experimenting with this:

LD Glossy Sticker Paper

Photo paper isn’t going to stand up to any kind of abuse/moisture, but laminating it as I did the vinyl will solve those issues.

Color Matching Issue

I’ve had the same issue with this paper as I have had with the adhesive vinyl which I didn’t discuss initially. Colors show up quite flat (black is more a gray). A deep purple I wanted to print ends up close to a dark gray on this paper.

If you want to get an idea of the difference between printing your decal on photo paper and an adhesive backed paper, print a reference image on both types of paper. This will allow you get an idea how the paper will perform. I have used this reference image for close to 2 decades now to determine if my printer/paper combo is going to be reasonable:

which is available here:

I wanted to print very specific colors (matching a business card) which required creating an ICC profile for my printer/paper combo. I bought Monaco Color management software back around 2003 which evidently been bought by x-rite or pantone. I imagine it is still quite expensive.

If you find you have the same problem and need colors to properly match, google ‘create icc profile’. I spent many long hours years ago banging my head against the wall trying to get colors to match perfectly (at least near). These days, typically printer manufacturers do a great job as long as you use their paper.

If you use the Inkpress Adhesive Vinyl I suggested, you can go to their website and download an ICC profile for their paper if you have one of their tested printers. This does require that you know how to use these profiles (another sink for time if you don’t). The LD adhesive photopaper has no profile.

I have a photographer friend who, rather than get the printer to match what he sees on the monitor, does the opposite – he prints a reference picture and then adjusts the monitor until it matches the picture. Then what he sees is what will print.



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