Sunday September 25th, 2016
My Portal Room Project
January 27, 2012

GLaDOS: Here are the test results: You are a horrible person. I'm serious, that's what it says: A horrible person. We weren't even testing for that.

I stumbled upon (see what I did there?) a website where a guy re-created one of those light up signs at the start of all the Test Chambers and thought it would be a great addition to have in my Portal room. While I’ll give him full of credit for the build he did, there were a few aspects of his project I wanted to change, or thought I could improve on…

Other Guy's Project My Project
His sign was 4x2 ft large I wanted a smaller, wall-mountable sign
He used frosted glass I didn’t want glass in mine
Fluorescent lighting was used which produced blotches of light under the glass I wanted even/uniform lighting for my sign
He used clear stickers and a printer for his chamber icons I was planning to use my friends vinyl cutter)
He spent around $200 My budget was $100

With those differences in mind my project began, and this is *my* write-up on the Portal Test Chamber light up sign I built.

What I used:

  • 1x (16”x31”x2.5”) Shadowbox Frame
  • 1x 10 Meter strip of 6500k LED lighting
  • 1x 12V DC adapter
  • 1x Piece of white plexi
  • 1x Piece of foam board
  • 1x Vinyl cut-out
  • Paint
  • A little bit of time

The Frame
The first thing I needed to do was figure out how large my sign would be. Seeing them in game I knew they were twice as tall as they are wide, so I did some measuring and decided a good size for my sign would be around 15”x30”. Originally I was going to build a frame out of wood, but when I was browsing the local arts and crafts store for fake lemons for my Lemonade Project I lucked out and found a 16”x31” shadowbox frame on sale for 70% off. With the measurements being close enough and not being able to say no to a deal like that I grabbed it and headed home.

There wasn’t much I had to do to it to get it prepared. I ditched the glass, drilled a hole for the on/off switch and for the power plug, and called it a day after giving the whole thing new coat of medium grey paint.

Lighting & Wiring
I was contemplating (my big word of the day) the use of fluorescent tube lights (similar to what you would find under a cabinet) but knew it would result in bright stripes of light where they would be mounted behind the plexi and that’s not the result I wanted. I did a little research and found a company which makes flexible strips of LEDs lighting and all you need to do is connect them to a 12v DC power source for them to work so I decided to give them a shot.

I choose a 10m (33') long strip with 650 white LEDs and a color temperature of between 6500K – 7000K. The color temperature is important because if it's too low, say in the 3000K range, they will give off a yellowish light where as 6500K is more of a pure white and what I was looking for.

As for the power supply… the LEDs are DC so I can't just plug them into the wall (since that’s AC), so I have 2 options: Use a 12v battery to power them or use an AC to DC converter. I didn't want to have to charge a battery all the time and there is no reason why this sign needs to be portable so I opted to use a power converter. My LEDs are 12 volts and draw 48 watts which means I need a power supply of at least 4 amps (48/12=4).. I found a spare 5amp converter off a battery charger I had and since 12v*5A = 60Watts, that’s plenty to power them. If you don’t have one of these converters around your house, you can pick them up online for around $15.

Wiring the lights was pretty straight forward. In about 30 minutes I had the black wire connected directly from the power plug to the LEDs, and the red I had going from the power plug to a rocker switch, and from the switch to the LEDs to complete the connection. I didn't really need the switch but I wanted a better option to turn the sign on/off then just unplugging it from the wall.

Installing the LEDs was hassle free and went really smooth. With the inside of the shadowbox being 30"x15" I did a little math and figured out I would need 13 rows of LEDs to use up what I bought. I laid out all the measurements on foam core board and started securing the LED strip. There are three reasons I went with the foam core board and didn't just attach the lights to the frame's original back panel:

  • The foam board is white and will help diffuse/reflect light back towards the plexi
  • It's very lightweight and easy to work with
  • Using strips of Velcro and sticking the foam board too the original backing will allow me to easily replace the lights if they ever burn/short out in the future
You can see in the photo I used zip-ties to secure each strip of LEDs before looping it over for the next row. You probably don’t have to do this step since the adhesive backing on the LEDs works really well, but with my O.C.D. it just seemed like a small step to ensure they are nice and secure and won’t eventually peel off the foam board. It took about an hour while watching Storage Wars (Barry Weiss is my favourite ) to complete and I think it turned out pretty good. The strip of LEDs was exactly the length I needed and I think they are going to give me a great uniform glow for my sign.

Plexi Sign
I'll admit I kind of cheated with this part. My plan was to go to one of the box stores grab a sheet of 3mm translucent white plexi and cut it to the size I need but couldn’t find anything but clear plexi. I ended up visiting a plastics shop I know in town and for $10 I found exactly what I needed and the guy cut it to size for free so this whole part of the project was pretty uneventful, but there was a menacing looking rabbit in the parking lot looking at me as I left the shop if it makes the story more interesting!

Vinyl decals
The guy in the other test chamber sign project ended up cutting his numbers out of vinyl by hand and printing the icons on clear labels which he stuck onto his sign. From a distance I'm sure it looks alright but I wanted something more professional looking for mine.

After quick Google search I was able to find all the Test Chamber Icons in vector format (Vector images are files which can be scaled without loosing quality), so that saved me a few hours of having to re-create them from scratch. Now all I needed was the name of the font Valve used for the Test Chamber numbers. I initially figured this was going to be pretty easy but apparently there are a lot of people on the net who think they know what font it is… unfortunately no one I found actually had it correct.

My O.C.D. kicked in again and I wasn’t going to settle for a "close match". I blew the dust off my archive of about 20,000 commercially available fonts and started searching for a true match. I’m happy to report the 113 minute search paid off and for those who want to know - The CORRECT font used for the large numbers on the Test Chamber Sign is: “Univers LT 49 LightUltraCn“. It's not a free font, but it can be purchased from a number of sites for around $25. As for the smaller progression numbers, as far as I can tell they are just “Microsoft Sans Serif”, and most Windows based machines should already have it on their systems.

With the correct fonts and icons I needed, I loaded up CorelDraw and got to work. I setup my page for 30"x15" and imported an in-game screenshot of the sign for reference. After sizing and locking the screenshot to the background I just overlaid my work on top of it and in about an hour I was all done. I sent my buddy the file exactly to the scale I needed and his vinyl cutter would do the rest of the work!

Transferring the vinyl to the sign only takes a few simple steps. The vinyl is lightly stuck to a wax coated sheet of paper, and then a transparent sticky film (also known as transfer) is applied over the vinyl. All you have to do is peel off the paper, lay it onto your item removing any air bubbles, then just peel away the transfer when your ready. Couldn’t be easier! I like working with vinyl because it produces nice crisp lines, it’s durable, and relatively cheap. Even if I didn’t have a friend with a cutter, there are tons of graphic and sign companies that could cut any pattern you need for a couple of bucks.

Finished Project!
That pretty much wraps up this project! Overall I think it turned out great. Since I have never worked with LED lighting before I had NO idea what the end result was going to look like. I was a little worried when I was installing the lights because when I tested them they were so bright I could have signalled the International Space Station from my house, but after putting them behind the white plexi, they are just the right intensity to give the sign the nice soft glow I was hoping to achieve.

Total Cost of project = $80 + about $15 in shipping costs

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Calgary Alberta,



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