This post is sponsored by The Home Depot. Light tables are a staple in many artists’ studios. They’re great for compositing, iterative drawing, animation, shadow puppets, tattoo artists and showing your friends that gnarly X-ray of the screws in your femur. For a woodworker like myself, it can be a useful tool to create scroll saw and other woodworking patterns. So when we received the model P3100 Ryobi 18V ONE+ hybrid soldering station to try out, I took the opportunity to make one for myself. Trace our steps to find out how you can make a professional quality light table of your own!
DIY Light Tracing Table And The Ryobi P3100
This light table (also called a “light box” or “tracing table”) is a great exercise in transferring and cutting angles on the table saw. And since it involves a little electrical work, it’s also a good chance to hone your soldering skills. Plus, we got to use the Ryobi 18V soldering station. It did not disappoint! I’ve spent over 20 years of my life soldering and de-soldering electronic components; I have a little experience with soldering irons.
I’ve tried a handful of cordless irons over the years and none of them have impressed me in the least. That is, until now! Ryobi has given me a whole new perspective of what’s possible with portable, gas-less soldering tools. I’ve done so many service calls and worked in so many vehicles where this thing would have been tremendously helpful. But I’m getting way ahead of myself. Before any soldering occurs, we’ve got a light table to build. So let’s get to it!
Pick Your Plastic – DIY Light Table
The actual tracing surface (the “top”) is arguably the most important part of this project. Now is a good time to obtain a suitably large sheet of acrylic.
The material you use should:
* be translucent white
* have at least one smooth side (sometimes one or both sides will be textured, or “frosted”)
* be thick enough not to sag
* be hard enough not to dent under the point of a pen or pencil.
Acrylic sheeting works great as a tracing table top. For mine, I used a stack of two plastic diffusers harvested from television LCD panels (total thickness of about 3/16”). Mainly because I already have a huge pile of them. My tracing surface will be about 16” x 14-1/2” and all dimensions given will be based on this size.
Cutting Up Some Wood – Bored Of Cedar?
Rough cut two 15” pieces for the sides and two 18” pieces for the front and rear. Then create one straight edge on each piece before cutting them to their final length.
Place the jointed, bottom edge against the fence of your crosscut sled (or miter gauge) and trim to the final length. The sides are 14-1/4” long and the front and rear are 17-1/4”. Verify that both ends are square to the bottom edge.
Angled For Comfort – Lighted Tracing Table
This unit is designed to sit on a desk or work table, so let’s give it a bit of a forward tilt. First, we’ll taper the sides. Mark the front edge 3-3/4” from the bottom and the rear edge 5-3/8” from the bottom. Then draw a line connecting the two points. Use a table saw and tapering jig to cut along the line.
The board I’m using has one “show side” and one not-so-showy side. I made sure to cut the tapers so that the best side will face outward on the finished project. If you too have a preferred “outside” face, orient the tapers properly by cutting the right side panel face-up and the left side panel face-down.
For the rest of the project, leave both the tapering jig and the bevel gauge set exactly as they are! You’ll need them again. Also, save those tapered off-cuts; you’ll be using those too.
Bevel The Front And Rear Panels – Making Your Own Light Table
Now that the sides are tapered, we need to carry that same angle through to the front and rear panels. That’s where the bevel gauge comes into play. Unplug your table saw and raise the blade all the way up. Tilt the blade to match the bevel gauge. Rest the gauge against the plate of the blade, not against the teeth.
Lower the blade so it’s a little higher than the thickness of the wood and position your rip fence for the next cut.
Use the right-side panel again to transfer the bevel angle to the rear panel. The rear panel should be cut with the show face UP (the front panel was cut face down), also with the bottom against the fence.
Groovy, Dude – Cut A Groove To Hold The Top Panel
Next, all four pieces need a 3/8” deep groove to hold the tracing panel. The groove begins 1/4” down from the top inside edge on all four pieces. Since the blade is still tilted, we’ll start with the front and rear (specifically, the rear). Set the blade height 3/8” above the table.
When you cut the groove, orient the workpiece with the bottom against the fence and the bevel leaning the same direction as the blade. After the first pass, bump the fence a tiny bit closer to the blade and make another pass. Continue until the groove is wide enough to accept the thickness of your acrylic sheet.
The Other Side Of The Fence – Keeping You On Your Toes
Until now, all cuts were made the “regular way” – with the fence to the right of the blade. (Note that this blade tilts to the left, like most (but not all) table saws in North America. It’s all reversed on saws having a right tilting arbor. But this is getting confusing enough, so we’ll let you puzzle that one out on your own).
This cut, however, will be done with the rip fence moved to the left side of the blade. Leave the blade positioned exactly as it is; just move the fence over. Now we can groove the front panel.
Again, start the groove 1/4” from the top corner and move the fence in a little after each cut until the width of the groove matches the one in the rear panel.
Reset A Few Things – Grooving The Right Side Panel
It’s amazing how a simple project can become so involved. But stick with me; we’re making good progress. Before long we’ll get to use the Ryobi 18V ONE+ hybrid soldering station as we tackle the guts of this light table.
If it makes you feel any better, we’re all done with the bevel cuts. So go ahead and move the fence back to the right of the blade, restore the blade angle to 90° and reset depth of cut to 3/8”.
First, groove the right side panel. Leave the tapering jig set as it was; don’t adjust it!
And Now, Groove The Left Side Panel – Panel Hokey Pokey
Grooving the left panel is another of those trick moves where you have to turn yourself around. Well, you have to turn the tapering jig around. And use it backwards. To do this, move the jig’s rear workpiece stop to the other arm. It will now be a “front” workpiece stop.
Rabbet For The Light Table’s Bottom Panel
The bottom panel will be cut from 1/4” plywood and screwed into a rabbeted recess. The easiest way to cut rabbets on the table saw is with a dado blade set. Set the depth of cut to match the thickness of your bottom panel material. Cut a 7/16” wide rabbet on the inside bottom edge of each piece.
Partial Assembly – Bracing For Success
The front and sides can now be glued together. While the glue is drying, cut a triangular strip to reinforce the inside corners.
Glue corner braces at both ends of the front panel. Avoid casting a shadow on the tracing surface, by leaving a space between the top of the brace and the groove.
OK, let’s shift gears for a bit. We’ll come back to this in a little while.
A Blessing In Disguise – LED Strip Lighting
I ordered some bright LED modules months ago. But it wasn’t until I was about to start building that I actually tested them, and discovered that they run way too hot for use in a light table. An active cooling system would complicate things to the point of absurdity, so I went to The Home Depot and found a dual LED strip light that will actually work a lot better than what I planned to use (even if they didn’t run hot). But, it will have to be modified first.
You Light Up My Life – DIY Light Table Build
This light fixture has two 24” LED strips that will have to be cut down to four 12” strips. That means we’re about to void the warranty. It also means we will be messing with electrical circuitry. So please, be careful!
Electricity is dangerous. It can cause afros, serious injury or death and may pose a fire hazard. Never work on live circuitry. Make sure all connections and components are wired properly and safely secured before applying power. If you aren’t comfortable wiring an electrical circuit or soldering, get help from someone who is. And while we’re at it, the same goes for table saws and other power tools; except for the afro part.
Mod That Mother! – But Make Sure She’s Not Too Hot
I first wanted to see how hot the ballast (it’s technically a power supply, not a ballast) and LED strips get before I commit to using them. They all ran pretty cool while attached to the metal enclosure, so I removed the parts from the housing, wired them back together and let them run for a good half hour. The ballast got a little warm, but definitely not hot. And the LEDs barely got warm. So I know these components will be safe to use for this project.
Disconnect the power then carefully pull the ballast and LED strips out of the housing.
The LED strips are attached to metal backers with nylon rivets. Make note of which holes have rivets before pulling them out. Put the rivets somewhere safe; you’ll need them again later.
Red Lining It – Mark Which Side Is Which
All of the wires in the fixture are color coded. But we need to pull the wires from the LED strips. Color the board so you know which wires go where.
Ryobi 18V ONE+ Hybrid Soldering Station – Soldering On The Go
With all this babbling about a light table project, you may think we’ve forgotten our guest of honor. We have not. The Ryobi 18V ONE+ hybrid soldering station is a star. And stars like to make a grand entrance. So, ahem… ALL RISE! Ryobi P3100 has entered the building! The cheering. The fanfare. The entourage. It’s enough to make this lime green hottie blush with pride.
I hinted earlier that I’ve always been underwhelmed by cordless soldering irons. So I was genuinely impressed (and surprised) with how well the Ryobi 18V soldering station actually works. It’s a “hybrid” in that it can be powered by either an extension cord or a Ryobi 18V ONE+ battery pack.
Some Quick Specs On Ryobi’s P3100 18V ONE+ Hybrid Soldering Station
As a corded soldering station, the P3100 works as well as a good soldering iron should. But as a cordLESS soldering station, it works, well, just as well! There seems to be no performance anxiety when operating on battery power. It heats up quickly and the tip stays plenty hot while soldering, even on fairly heavy joints.
I also used the iron on a few soldering tasks that had nothing to do with the light table and never needed the maximum temperature setting. And runtime on a 6Ah battery blew me away.
This 45W soldering iron has a variable temperature dial for heat up to 900°F. It goes from cold to melting solder in under 30 seconds. Included are two tips (fine point and chisel tip) and a few feet of solder (enough to build this particular project, but that’s not much).
The Ryobi 18V ONE+ hybrid soldering station enters energy saving mode after 10 minutes and auto shut off at 20, both of which can be thwarted by jiggling the control dial. These aren’t features I’d necessarily want on a dedicated bench model. But for a battery powered field unit, they conserve battery life to keep you working for hours. Press down on the dial to power the unit on or off with a satisfying tactile click.
Separation Anxiety – Cut The LED Strips In Half
Enough showboating! This light table isn’t going to build itself! We have the tool; let’s use it.
Start by desoldering the surface mounted wire connectors. Heat will transfer more efficiently if you first apply a little extra solder. Gently rock the connector as you heat both ends of the terminal. It should push through the board with very little effort. If you force it, you’re likely to damage circuit traces. Once removed, the wires and connectors can be discarded.
I wired the LED strip halves with soft braided wire that easily flexes without putting strain on the solder pads. The double wires were just to ensure I had plenty of conductor thickness (because I wanted to use some really flexible, appropriately-colored wire I already had on hand). Standard 22 AWG is plenty thick. I twisted the wires together only for wire management and cosmetic purposes.
Now that you have four 12” light strips, carefully cut the plastic diffusers and metal backers in half.
Ramping It Up – Back To The Table Saw
Now we need four wedged pieces to mount the LED strips to. These ramps are the same slope as the sides of the cabinet in order to position both ends of the lights the same distance from the tracing surface.
Tie Me Light Strip Down, Sport
A long drill bit came in handy a few times later in the light table build. I drilled holes to pass wires and – in this case – tie string through the wooden ramps. The LED strips are tied to the ramps with thin, strong braided cord. And the plastic rivets prevent them from sliding around.
Wiring With The Ryobi 18V ONE+ Hybrid Soldering Station
Wiring the LED strips to the ballast is as simple as matching colors. All of the red go to the red ballast wire. And blue to blue. Before soldering the wires, slip on a couple pieces of heat shrink tubing.
Carefully strip the wires so you don’t knick any strands. Twist all of the red wires from the light strips together then twist that bunch together with the ballast wire. Finally, solder the connection.
I wired the light strips to the ballast then gave it a test run. Next I mounted a rigid solder post to interface the main power cord with the ballast input. For this, I bolted a modified Bakelite fuse holder to the LED support ramp.
Coming Up From The Rear – Make Your Own Light Table
We’re coming around to the back of this project. But we’re not done quite yet. The next step is to drill the rear panel to pass the power cord through. I’m not a fan of running a straight AC cord, so I’m adding a power switch as well.
Mind The Gaps, Richard – Keeping Up Appearances
I’m filling the gaps at the ends of the grooves and rabbets with contrasting wood. Use the same wood if you’d rather disguise the gaps. If you choose not to worry about them at all, you can cut and insert your tracing surface and attach the rear panel now, but expect light to bleed through.
Cut And Install The Tracing Panel – Just Me And Ryobi, Making A Light Table
Before installing the top and rear of the light table, mask off the glue surfaces (where you’ll put glue when attaching the rear panel), sand and put a finish on all of the wood that will be visible after assembly. I went with polyurethane; you may prefer a different product, such as paint.
Alternatively, you can insert the plastic sheet and glue the rear panel in place now (then mask off the tracing panel to apply a finish afterwards). But I felt it was easier to finish first, then assemble.
Brighter Times Ahead – Final Assembly Of The DIY Light Table
All that’s left to do now is wire the power switch, mount the switch plate, solder the power cord and attach the bottom panel and feet.
Light Table At The End Of The Tunnel
The light table works exactly as I hoped it would. It’s works great in a well lit room. Yet it’s not blindingly bright in a darkened room. In other words: absolutely perfect! I don’t think the discreet LED modules I originally purchased would have produced such even, consistent light across the entire panel.
Ryobi 18V ONE+ Hybrid Soldering Station – A Truly Bright Idea
While our light table may shine brightly in a literal sense, the Ryobi 18V ONE+ hybrid soldering station deserves a lot of credit for also performing brilliantly. I love that it can be used miles away from the power grid without compromising performance. And that’s something I never thought I’d say about a battery powered, portable soldering iron.
Yes, the tip cleaning sponge is laughably tiny and the handset cable is a bit short. But when you need a truly portable soldering solution, the P3100 is going to make you “ONE+” very happy camper. Even if you’re literally camping.
Get the Ryobi 18V ONE+ hybrid soldering station for just under $80:
You can get the dual 2′ Lithonia Lighting 25W 2,200 lumen 4000K cool white LED strip light used in this article for around $35:
I acknowledge that The Home Depot is partnering with Home Fixated in sponsored content. As a part of the sponsorship, Home Fixated is receiving compensation for the purpose of promoting The Home Depot. All expressed opinions and experiences are our own words. This post complies with the Word Of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) Ethics Code and applicable Federal Trade Commission guidelines.