This blog post was written by MakerSpace GA Marty Pollard
Many graphics cards, including my own, have exposed PCBs that are not aesthetically appealing inside of a custom-built PC. In order to elevate the look of my PC, I wanted to create a backplate for my graphics card that also uses RGB LEDs to match the theme of my other components. There are several companies that sell custom backplates for this purpose, but they can be very expensive. This project will guide you through the process of making your own GPU backplate with tools available at the MakerSpace, at a relatively low cost to you.
It is recommended that you read all of the instructions prior to beginning so that you are aware of each of the steps involved and can plan your schedule accordingly.
- Clear Acrylic Sheet
- Two pieces of acrylic are required for this project, each will be roughly the size of your GPU
- Get the dimensions of your GPU and make sure the sheet you buy can fit at least two of them
- The MakerSpace sells 12” x 24” acrylic sheets for $15, which should give you plenty of space to work with
- White Vinyl
- Vinyl will be used to cut out your custom design and transfer to the backplate. Your sheet should be large enough to cover both pieces of acrylic.
- Vinyl is also used on the bottom side of the backplate so that the light is better reflected through your design.
- The MakerSpace has plenty of vinyl for you to work with
- Transfer Paper
- Transfer paper will be used to move the cut vinyl onto the acrylic
- The MakerSpace has rolls of transfer paper that are free to use
- RGB LED Strip
- The LED strip will be used to shine light through your design
- The type of strip you buy will depend on the type of controller you will use
- Motherboard: your motherboard may have an RGB header. If so, you should be able to control your LED strip from internal software. Check if your header is a 3-pin or 4-pin connector, and get an LED strip that is compatible.
- Corsair Lighting Node Pro/Commander Pro: these are popular devices used to control RGB lights that you may already have. If so, you can buy/use a Corsair RGB strip which would plug directly into either one of these.
- Remote: There are many RGB controllers that use remotes to switch between lighting themes. If your PC does not already have an internal RGB controller, this is an affordable option to use.
- 4-Pin RGB LED Strip
- 3-Pin RGB LED Strip
- Matte Black Paint
- Black paint is used to block the RGB light from all areas outside of your design .
- Whatever paint you want to use, make sure it will adhere properly to plastic.
- Matte Black Paint
- VHB Tape
- Used to secure the finished backplate to the GPU.
- Double Sided Mounting Tape
- Used to secure the two pieces of acrylic together.
Preparing Your Design using Adobe Illustrator
To begin, get the dimensions of the PCB on your graphics card. These can be found by either taking it out and measuring it or looking it up online. There are several websites that list the specifications of computer hardware where you can find this information, or you can look up your card directly from the manufacturer’s website. Here is a good website to start with.
The next step is to create your design using Adobe Illustrator. You can pick a design from any image online or create your own from scratch. Because the design will be cut out to allow the light to shine through, it is best to use an image with high contrast and sharp lines; make sure it looks good in black and white, with little to no shades of grey in between. Below is a screenshot of my Illustrator window with my design.
Start by creating an artboard with the same outer dimensions as your GPU. For me, it was 235 x 105 mm. Next, either import your image or build your design into a layer called “Image.” If you are starting from a raster image such as a JPEG or PNG, you may want to trace the outline of your design and fill it in black, as shown above. Tracing the image out will convert it to a vector format and allow the vinyl cutter to operate more precisely than it could with pixels. You can either use Illustrator’s “Image Trace” function or, if that doesn’t work well, trace it out manually using the “Pen Tool.”
Following this, create two new layers called “Acrylic Top,” and “Acrylic Bottom,” respectively. In the “Acrylic Top” layer, create a rectangle with no fill and a black stroke of thickness 0.001 that matches the outer dimensions of your GPU. Since this rectangle is the same size as your artboard, you won’t be able to see it. In the “Acrylic Bottom” layer, create another rectangle with the same settings as above, but with slightly different dimensions. The widths of the rectangles should be the same, but the bottom rectangle should be shorter than the top rectangle by the same width as your RGB LED strip. My LED strip was 13 mm wide, so the bottom rectangle is 235 x 92 mm. Make sure that the lower edges of each rectangle are aligned.
Scale and center your image so that it fits nicely inside the bottom rectangle. We only want it in the bottom rectangle because the top strip will be where the LEDs will be, and we want them to be fully covered in black paint so no LEDs shine directly through the clear acrylic. Create another, larger artboard and copy the two rectangles over to it. This time separate them so that they are not overlapping. This artboard will be used to cut out the acrylic using a laser cutter. See the image below for context.
Cutting out the Acrylic using a Laser Cutter
Get trained on the MakerSpace laser cutters, if you are not already, and reserve a time to use one of them. You can do this here.
Open your Illustrator file and print “Artboard 2” only. You do not want to use “Artboard 1,” because this will be cut out using the vinyl cutter. Use the recommended vector cutting settings shown at the laser cutter station.
Cutting out the Vinyl using the Vinyl Cutter
Get trained on the MakerSpace vinyl cutter if you are not already, and reserve a time to use it. You can do this here. Export your “Image” layer as a PNG with a 1x scale and import it to Roland CutStudio. Position the file accordingly and run the machine. Using an X-ACTO knife, remove all of the vinyl that you DON’T want the LEDs to shine through. Depending on how intricate your design is, you may want to look at the illustrator file while you do this to make sure you remove all of the necessary vinyl. Whatever vinyl you leave is what the LED strip will shine through when it is finished.
Cut out a rectangular piece of contact paper roughly the size of your bottom piece of acrylic. Making it close in size will help line up center the design when transferring. Peel the contact paper and place the sticky side down over the vinyl. Use a scraper to rub out as many air bubbles as you can–it doesn’t have to be perfect, but you want as good of a seal as possible.
When ready, peel the vinyl backing away from the contact paper. I like to place the contact paper on the table while doing this. Be careful not to touch the vinyl design to anything after this step–it is very sticky and can easily be removed from the contact paper.
Wipe off the surface of your acrylic to ensure it is clean. Center the sticky side of the vinyl and contact paper over the top piece of your acrylic (the large one). Make sure to line up the bottom edges so that the vinyl doesn’t extend too far towards the top edge. When centered, press the vinyl and contact paper down and scrape out the air bubbles. You’ll likely only get one shot at this, so take your time and make sure it lines up the way you want it. Carefully peel away the contact paper, making sure that no vinyl comes up with it. Continue to scrape out any air bubbles over the vinyl. The next step is to apply paint to the acrylic, and we don’t want any paint to leak underneath the vinyl due to air bubbles.
Painting the Acrylic
If you’re using spray paint, make sure to do so in a well ventilated area. Place a piece of cardboard or other scrap behind the acrylic so that you don’t end up painting the wall/ground behind it. Apply thin coats of paint to the top side of the acrylic only. You want to leave the sides and back clear so that light can properly shine through. Allow the paint to completely dry between each layer, until no light shines through when held up to a bright light. For me, this took three layers of paint. Once the paint is fully dry, you can peel off all the vinyl, exposing the clear acrylic beneath that the LEDs will shine through.
Assembling the Backplate
The first step to assembling is to join the two pieces of acrylic. The piece with the black paint will go on the top, and the clear, slightly smaller piece will go on the bottom. Cut small pieces of mounting tape and place them on the clear side of the painted acrylic sheet. Make sure to place the tape in areas as far from the design as possible. Mounting tape is really strong, so you should only need around four small pieces. Align the pieces of acrylic so that the bottom edges are coincident, and press them together so that the mounting tape holds.
Next, you’ll glue the LED strip to the top edge. Place hot glue along the top edge, where the larger piece of acrylic overhangs the smaller one, and press the LED strip into the glue. You want to slightly angle the LED strip when you do this, so that it will shine down into the acrylic sheets. If the LED strip is too long for the backplate, you can use electrical tape to cover up the extra LEDs, so they don’t shine.
Next, apply strips of white vinyl to the bottom piece of acrylic. This will help the LEDs reflect the light upwards, so it shines more brightly through your design. It will also help secure the LED strip in place. Cut small pieces of the VHB tape and connect the backplate to your GPU. Connect the LED strip to your RGB controller, using an extension if needed. Depending on your specific RGB controller, you may also need to connect it to a peripheral port on your power supply.
Turn on your PC and start your RGB controller software. Make sure the LEDs are all working for each color. You can then create custom RGB profiles to go along with the color scheme of your PC.
To begin designing and prototyping your own project, please visit the MakerSpace Training and Reservations page to learn more about how you can utilize the MakerSpace. If you need advice or guidance for your project, visit the Mentoring page to reserve time with an expert!