Here is the procedure I developed for the Simpit panels. I’ve found a few resources on the net regarding panel building techniques, but all of them have been a bit hit and miss.
The method begins by laying out the panels in 1:1 scale in your favourite drawing package.For me the best tool for the job is Visio. This is only because I have a legal license on my laptop and it works well with 1:1 scale printing and produces high quality output.
I began by drawing an outline for the entire cockpit and then by drawing the likely switch panel dimensions on it.
Once this is done, make the panels the final colour and add an outline or similar to help them stand out (Remember, the finish is crucial, the more professional the logo work the better the finished panel will be).
Some further hints on layout: Make a set of dimensioned holes with a cross-hair in the middle. This way you can locate the exact centre of the pilot hole. Make sure you carefully line up holes so that a line of switches really are in a line. Visio and other object/vector based tools can help here: press f8 in visio to get the allignment dialog. Even a few tenths of a mm really stand out on the panel. Don’t forget the dimensions of retaining nuts, alignment flanges and of the switch bodies themselves. Leave enough room between switches for chubby fingers so that two switches don’t get operated at one. Make legends big and bright enough to read from normal operating distance.
Once you have a panel layout that works aesthetically, ergonomically and mechanically, print it out. Make sure you print it out at proper scale. Quite often print drivers scale output to allow for different printer margins. Turn this feature off! For now print in utility mode to save ink. Failing this, you could invert the panels (My panels use white and yellow legends on a black background.
Cut out the utility mode prints, stick em in your SimPit and make sure they are to your satisfaction!
Assuming all is well, We’ll now undertake stage 2: Print current versions of your panel in utility mode. Make sure that any cross-hairs for drill alignment are present. Roughly cut out the result and with masking tape, stick it to your chosen panel material.
A breif word about panel material: My first technique was a clear perspex panel with inkjet printed legend behind the panel. The legend text shows through really well and can be backlit if needed.
Alas, the perspex is a bit brittle and is prone to fracture. Also, the sheet I bought is fine for some switches and too thick for others. It’s also expensive. The paper backing has a tendency to tear so I did not use this further.
My final panel material is 3mm MDF. This is rigid enough in small panels (say up to 20cm * 20 cm ) to be fine for the small holes needed for toggle, push button and rotary switches.
Now that the utility mode print is attached temporarily to the panel, we will use this as a sacrificial template for drilling. Using a small diameter bit, say 1.5mm, drill pilot holes wherever required. Alignment is very important. If you have a drill stand, use it!
Next using whatever drill size is required, drill out the holes to the required diameter. The sacrificial copy will be torn and messy now.
Remove the template and clean up the panel. Make sure the switches etc fit though the holes and are a nice tight fit.
Next, print out a master for the panel. I use photo quality inkjet paper (this is the high quality matt paper, not glossy). Use full print quality. Give the finished page a few minutes to dry out as necessary.
As I’m now sticking this to the front of an opaque panel rather than it being visible through a clear panel, we need to put a protective coat over the panel.
For this I used laminating pouches. These can be bought at reasonable price from your favorite PC store. I bought a pack of 25 A4 pouches for £8. If you don’t own a laminator, don’t worry! A household iron is pretty much fine for this application.
You could of course just laminate the whole page in a lamination pouch, then cut it out. As I’m stingy, I just laminated the front of the page. I cut the pouches up so that I have a piece of laminating material just larger that the printed, roughly trimmed master.
I found a flat piece of spare MDF, placed on this a plain piece of paper. On this I placed the panel, then over this the laminating film cut to size (make sure the glue side is down!), then finally another sheet of clean, plain paper. I then heated the iron to it’s medium setting (Experiment with this on an off-cut first!) and proceeded to iron the whole sandwich. After 30 seconds or so I checked the film was adhering to the master without melting and that the contact and glue melt was good. Excellent. Keep ironing until the panel is complete. Once you are done, stick some books on top to keep it all together while it cools down.
Note: once cool, my panels have a strong tendency to curl. This is probably;y either due to incorrect Iron temperature (too hot?) or the fact that I’ve done only one side. The panels still flatten out okay when glued onto the panel.
Once cool, apply a reasonable coat of white wood glue to the back of the laminated sheet and stick it onto the MDF panel. Hold it up to the light and make sure the holes are centred etc. Stick the whole thing back between the paper and books to dry nice and flat.
Once dry, the effect is really good: Obviously not aircraft grade finish but certainly good enough for generic panels and resistant to the ink just flaking off when scratched.
Now using a punch, scalpel or craft knife, cut out the holes for the switches. Leave do the final trimming of the panel using a sharp knife and a steel edge: repeated scoring will make a clean breakable edge after 4 or 5 hard passes. I usually just carry on scoring until I’m just about through. This stage is important to get right: MDF does have a tendancy to de-laminate (fray) at the edges if you don’t take care at this point.
Alternative finishing: I used a black marker to make the edges of the panel black, but as an alternative, you could cut the panel and logo separately and make it so it folds over. If you do this, let me know how it turns out and I’ll put your comments in here!