DIY Nameplates


As mentioned in the Helen writeup, I decided to have a go at making a quick set of nameplates before entering her in the Curly Bowl. This proved to be so easy and gave such good results that I thought it might be useful to others to describe the process. I claim no originality for the method as it is used all the time for making printed circuit boards and no doubt someone will have used it for making nameplates etc. before.

The nameplates themselves are etched brass sheet and this description outlines the method of masking off the areas i.e. the letters and the surround which need to be protected from the etching solution.

There are various ways of applying a suitable mask. Some people use rub down letters such as Letraset and there are methods using a photo sensitive etch resist which involve applying a film or spray to the brass surface and then exposing it to UV using a suitable negative. The film is then developed in a suitable solution which removes the unwanted part of the film. I've used this method for making printed circuit boards using pcb material precoated with the photoresist and the results are very good.

There is another, perhaps easier, way to make pcbs nowadays and this is by using a method which transfers the toner image from a laser print onto the copper surface using heat and a special transfer film. The toner used in laser printers and also photocopiers is basically a very finely powdered plastic. During printing the powder is transfered onto the printer paper to form the image and finally passes over a heated roller which melts the toner and fuses it together and onto the paper, making the image permanent. By using a suitable medium instead of ordinary paper, it is possible to remelt the toner image and transfer it to another surface. Being plastic, the toner is well able to resist the effects of the etching solution used for making pcbs.

I decided to try this method for making the nameplates as I have a laser printer and the transfer film is readily available quite cheaply. It is possible to use photo paper to transfer the toner but it is very fiddly and involves soaking the paper in water after transfer and carefully peeling the paper off to leave just the toner behind. I used a film which has been specifically designed to do the job called ' Press n Peel PCB Transfer Film. There are two types, a blue type and a wet type. You need the blue type which has a glossy side and a matt side. The image is printed onto the matt side. It comes in Letter size sheets (8½"x11") and I got mine from a seller on Ebay for £1.75 a sheet plus postage.

The Press n Peel sheet

The first step is to design your nameplate, shed code, numberplate, etc. I did mine with CAD but any image making software will be suitable. One thing to remember (I forgot the first time!) is that the final image must be reversed i.e. it must be a mirror image of the actual name etc. otherwise your nice nameplate will come out back to front! I decided to make four in one go in the hope that two of them would turn out ok!

Block of four nameplates printed out onto paper

Rather than use a full sheet of the film, I cut out a piece a bit bigger than the image and then sellotaped the piece of film over the already printed image on the paper. I just used a piece of tape along the top edge of the film which was adequate.The paper and film sandwich was then put through the printer again. This time the image was printed onto the film.

Piece of film cut a bit bigger than the image

Film taped over the paper image (tape just on top edge)

Paper/film put through printer again to print image onto film

Printed film detached from paper

Next a suitable piece of brass sheet was cut to size and cleaned well with fine wet and dry paper and then degreased with a suitable solvent or cleaner. I used 18swg ( 0.048") thick brass which seemed about right for Helen's plates. Larger scale locos would obviously need thicker brass.

Brass sheet and film ready for transfer

The next stage is the tricky bit - transfering the toner image from the film onto the brass sheet. This is done using an ordinary domestic iron (some of you chaps may not be familiar with one of these! It's a long time since I last used one!). The heat setting is a bit critical and the suggested setting is between 275 °F and 325°F ( somewhere between 2 and 3 on the thermostat or between the 'acrylic' and 'polyester' settings). My iron just has the numbers on the dial and I set it halfway between 2 and 3. This seemed to work ok.

The film is placed toner side down onto the brass and then 'ironed' until the brass reaches the same temperature as the iron. This may take anything up to five minutes depending on the thickness of the brass. Some users of the film suggest using a piece of paper between the iron and the film rather than directly ironing the film itself. I found this to work better as there is less chance of moving the hot film on the brass. I first tried the ironing without the paper and the film did move on the brass and smudged the image. I found the best method was to just place the iron onto the paper/film/brass sandwich, apply even presure and just 'twist the iron from side to side slightly.

Ironing the film onto the brass

When the ironing process is complete, the image will be clearly visible through the film.

Image visible through the film - transfer complete

At this point it is very important to let the brass cool down to room temperature again before going any further. To speed up this process the brass can be cooled under the water tap but be careful - it will be very hot! The film can now be carefully peeled off leaving the toner image on the brass. If you try and do this with the brass still hot some of the toner may peel off as well. You'll notice that part of the blue film has also transfered along with the image which I assume makes the transferred image a little thicker.

Film peeled off to leave the image behind

In the above photo you'll notice that in the corners of the borders some of the toner has not transferred properly. If this happens, it is not too difficult to repair the offending areas with a bit of paint or even a permanent marker pen. The above pictures were actually of a dummy run purely for illustration of the process as I had already made the nameplates for Helen. I had no problems with transfer when making the actual plates. If you do get a lot of missed areas it is probably best to start again rather than have to do too much patching up.

The next job is to protect the back of the plate with paint or plastic tape to prevent that etching as well.

All that remains now is to etch the plates. I used ordinary ferric chloride solution as sold for pcb etching as I have some already. If you make your own pcbs you may well have a suitable etching tank with a heater and an air pump for agitation. This does make the etching process much quicker but it can be done without fancy equipment. I actually did Helen's plates by just putting the brass sheet face up in a dish of etchant and tilted the dish every so often to stir up the solution. I placed the dish in another container of very hot water to heat the ferric chloride up as this speeds the etching process up considerably. Another way of speeding it up is to suspend the brass vertically in the etchant by drilling a hole on one corner of the brass and dangling it on a piece of enamelled copper wire. This allows the sediment formed by the etching to fall away from the surface of the metal rather than lying on the surface hindering the process.

How long you leave the plate in the etchant depends on how deep you want the etching to go. I found that after an hour or so the depth of the etching was 0.013" which was enough to make the letters stand out well. When you are happy, rinse the plates well and remove the toner with steel wool or fine wet and dry.

The original plates after etching. All were useable.

Then it's just a case of cutting them out, cleaning up, and painting the background. I drilled a couple of holes in the end of each plate to take a couple of 14BA screws tapped into the side tanks.

One plate after cutting out and cleaning up the edges.

Painted and fitted!



Recently a member at the club asked if I could make him a set of nameplates for his 5 inch gauge Royal Scot. His wife tragically died from cancer earlier in the year and he wished to rename the loco in her memory. I was more than happy to do this for him so they were made in exactly the same way as for Helen. Once again, I made four to be on the safe side and they all turned out fine. I've now had other members asking if I can make them some!

These were slightly more complicated to draw as the plates are curved to fit on top of the splashers and I wasn't sure how to do this. Eventually I found out that there is a command in AutoCad in the Express toolbar ( Text/Arc Aligned Text ) which handles this nicely.

The brass came from a salvaged door finger plate, hence the two holes in the end!




Another commission! A friend in the 2½" Gauge Association wanted some nameplates for his newly acquired Ayesha 2 locomotive.



These plates are the smallest that I've tried so far and I wasn't sure how they would come out but I think they will be ok when painted and cleaned up. The photo was taken using flash which shows up every tiny mark etc. and makes them look a funny brown colour!

Les wanted the name 'Sandbanks' as it's where he used to go on holiday as a child!

I couldn't find any 18swg gauge brass for these so I used some nickel silver sheet that I had instead. I had plenty of 16swg brass but I thought that was a bit too thick for the sixe of them. I wasn't really sure what size to make them so had a look at the new Atlantic build (Beachy Head) and 'guesstimated' the size from photos of the full size nameplates.

I had to have a few goes at getting the transfer film to stick properly to the plate despite cleaning the surface well, and then, when I did get a good one, I suddenly noticed that the lettering was all wrong! As mentioned above, you have to make sure you print out a mirror image of the name otherwise it comes out back to front on the plate. I had done that but although the name was now reversed, the individual letters were not. When I mirrored the image in Autocad, for some reason it didn't reverse the individual letters. I eventually realised that I had to convert the drawing to a block before mirroring it. It then worked fine. I probably did that with the previous nameplates but had forgotten!

The next transfer turned out ok except for a couple of little bits missing where the toner hadn't transfered properly, so I just touched the areas up with some paint. You can see where if you look closely at the photo. I made a couple of the lines a bit too wide but the excess is on the outside of the plate and will be removed when the individual plates are cut out and filed to size.



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