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Home Shop Fabrication Tips #1 – Panel Labels

Posted by Tom Benedict on 13/03/2013

In the perfect world, we’d all have silk screen setups for making beautifully inked labels for our panels, enclosures, or anything else where a connector might poke through a wall. Unfortunately I don’t have one of those in my home shop. I don’t have on at work, either. Instead, here’s a trick we use at work that serves just as well in a home shop:

It all starts in CAD. I use a commercial CAD package, but there are inexpensive or free CAD packages out there as well. Since you have to cut the holes in the enclosure in the first place, might as well draw up all the holes in CAD anyway. Making labels is just one more step that’s well worth the effort.

Design Label in CAD

Next, print the labels 1:1 on your printer. Black and white works fine, but I like to use color whenever I can. Most of the stuff we make at work is used at 14,000′ of altitude, so by definition we’re mentally challenged whenever we use it. Having big bold labels with clear names, lots of color, consistent connector orientation with keys all facing the same way, etc. is a really good idea. This set of labels is for some fiber connectors. We put a band of electrical tape of the appropriate color around each fiber so there’s no confusion about which jack it plugs into. On larger electrical cables, we’ll name them, number them, and still color-code them, just to be sure we don’t screw up. (Actually, we use one other trick: For electrical connectors, we use a different shape connector for each cable that needs to be plugged in. That way we can’t screw it up!)

Print Label 1:1

The next step is easier if you have your own laminating machine, but even if you don’t it’s well within the capabilities of most copy shops. We keep a stock of adhesive-backed laminating films at work for making labels. Simply laminate your 1:1 printout, and cut out your labels on a paper cutter. If you don’t have your own laminating machine (hey, I don’t!) you can take your 1:1 printout to a copy shop and have them do this step for you.

I always draw a pinstripe outline where I want to cut. This makes it tough to screw up when using the paper cutter. These outlines also tell me where to cut holes for each of the connectors. Since I already have the outlines in my CAD file to tell me where to make the holes in the panel for the connectors, this is really a no-brainer.

The next step is to cut out all the holes. The toughest for me are the screw holes. Luckily Fiskars and several other manufacturers make a line of hole punches with hole sizes varying from 1/16″ up to much larger sizes. If in doubt, grab ’em all! Here I’m cutting out holes for #2-56 screws using a 1/16″ hole punch. This is smaller than the clearance hole size for these screws, but I haven’t had a problem using a slightly undersized hole. The screws just push through the label when you install them.

Hole Punch Clears Screw Holes

The rest of the outlines can be cleared with a craft knife or razor knife. I tend to freehand mine, but using a straight edge makes for a cleaner cut.

Craft Knife Cuts Outlines

Once the labels are all cut out, they can be installed on the panel, enclosure, or whatever else you needed to put a connector on.

Installed and Looking Good!

Voila! Nice, readable labels that are quick to make and use. In case you’re wondering, these are the labels for the fiber connectors on one of our instruments. The people here started using this trick back before laser printers existed. We still have labels that were made on a pen plotter! With a good lamination job, they’ll stand up to all kinds of abuse.

– Tom


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