Details, details...

Patrick Fanning, EAA Chapter 448

Originally re-published in the Chapter 1000 newsletter May 1992

The following is a reprint of an article on how to do your own custom instrument panel lettering by Patrick Fanning of EAA Chapter 448. And just to prove that the process works, George Gennuso of our own beloved Chapter 1000 gave it a go and made his own panel lettering for his Pulsar project. The results look good too!

When I got my 1955 Tripacer in 1989, the instrument panel was composed of seven different pieces of aluminum, pop-riveted and machine-screwed together. Previous owners had moved, replaced, and added instruments over the years and the result was an unsightly hodgepodge with flight, engine, and navigation readouts scrambled together in a way that defied an orderly scan.

Since I had to replace a dead navcom and directional gyro anyway, I decided to rearrange the left two-thirds of the panel. When I was done, I had an almost-standard grouping of flight instruments in front of the pilot's seat, the new radio in the middle, and everything securely mounted on a new aluminum panel. I scuffed the aluminum and spray-painted the old and new panel sections with Randolph's "instrument panel dull black".

I wanted all the panel markings and placards to look like they had been printed or silkscreened on the panel at the factory. I knew from experience that I couldn't get the "rub-on" letters from the art supply store perfectly straight and evenly spaced especially when lettering the parts of the panel that I couldn't remove from the plane to work on. I talked to a printer and a graphics designer about my options. After some experimentation, here's the method I came up with:

Make a tissue paper tracing of your instrument panel exactly locating all instruments and switches. Then pencil in your call sign, switch ID's, warning placard statements, "NO SMOKING" signs, and so on. Experiment with the placement, size, and spacing of the information until you're satisfied.

Take your tissue paper to a computer nut who is into desktop publishing. For both Apple and IBM type computers, there are programs that allow you to set professional-looking type on a home computer, running it out in crisp black on white on a laser printer. If you don't have access to a laser printer, most large copy shops have them these days. You bring in your data on a floppy disk and the copy shop runs out the type for you. If you can't find someone with a desktop publishing setup who'll work with you for the fun of it, go to a regular typesetter who will charge you about $35 for a panel's worth of type.

There are two advantages to having your own type set. First, you are not limited to the sizes and styles of lettering that are available as "rub-on" letters at the art supply store. You can exactly match the factory typefaces originally used on your airplane or use any style that pleases you. You can fiddle with line length and type size until everything is perfectly spaced and looks just right. The second advantage is that all the lettering will be perfectly spaced, perfectly straight, and it will stay that way.

All the lettering for the average panel will fit on one 8½ by 11 inch sheet of paper. Make a photocopy of that piece of paper, cut it up, and lay the markings out on tour tissue paper panel to make sure everything fits and looks good.

Take the original black-on-white type to a large art supply store or a graphic arts photo studio that can make "color transfers". Color transfers are custom made rub-on letters, shapes, and illustrations that graphic designers use to make mock-ups of ads, packaging designs, book covers, and so on. If you have trouble finding a source of supply, call some local graphic designers and ask where they get their color transfers made.

The color transfer will be a "rub-on" version of your type exactly as it appears on your original, and can be made in nearly any color you want. Also, you aren't limited to mere letters and numbers. Any black and white image that can be photographed--logos, diagrams, drawings, etc--can be made into a color transfer along with your type. It takes a day or two and will cost about $25 for an 8½ by 11 inch original. While you're at the art supply store, pick up a burnishing tool for rubbing down the letters and a spray can of matte artists' fixative.

Treat your color transfer gently. Keep it dry and cool. Leave the sheet of backing paper behind it at all times and don't put anything heavy on it. Those little letters are sticky on the down side and want to adhere to anything they touch. That's good because it means you can use color transfers to letter bare metal, painted surfaces, wood, or plastic.

Cut the color transfer into the individual words or paragraphs that you want to transfer to your panel. Make sure the panel surface is clean and dry. If it's very slick, dull it a little with 0000 steel wool or a plastic scuff pad. In awkward places, you might want to use a strip of masking tape below where you want the words as a guide to keep the lettering level. Short words and letters can be placed by eye.

Put the transfer against the panel where you want it. For big pieces you might want to tape one edge in place to hold everything in alignment. Now just rub over each word with a dull pencil or a burnishing tool. Carefully peel the transfer material away making sure that each letter adheres properly. Put a piece of the non-stick backing paper over the letters and give them a final rub to make sure everything is flat.

The transfer lettering will cure over time like paint, becoming tougher and sticking tighter. To give it added protection from scuffs and scratches, spray on a light coat of satin polyurethane or matte artists' fixative (also available from the art supply store). I've used both and there doesn't appear to be any compatibility problems between the transfers and the clear coatings. If the clear coating makes your panel too shiny for your taste, dull it carefully with a plastic scuff pad.

I put white letters on my black painted metal panel. I had so much fun doing it that I made a panel cover of 1/8 inch mahogany plywood and did it all over again. I stained the wood a dark reddish-brown, applied light yellow lettering, then finished with polyurethane. It looks a lot better than the aluminum jigsaw puzzle I started with. -end-

Instrument Panel Transfers

Above is George Gennuso's transfer sheet for his Pulsar. The scanned image doesn't do justice to the crisp, straight lines on his original full size sheet. He had a sample piece of an instrument panel to show everyone at the Lancaster EAA Chapter 49 meeting and the results were superb. The colors he's using for his panel are real close to those on Scott Horowitz's Tri Q-200 and it's difficult if not impossible to tell that they are transfers rather than silk screened on. Looks good George!


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Revised -- 22 February 1997