Homemade Light Table Ver. 2.0

October 26th, 2007 | Posted in General

Back when I built my studio I constructed a homemade light table that was incorporated into a counter area. I made it out of a shop light I bought at Home Depot, the kind that hang from the ceiling and have 4 fluorescent lights in it. All I did was turn it upside down, place it in a frame I placed between counter areas, rigged a cord and wall plug and placed a piece of 1/4 inch plexiglass on top.

That’s the light table to the right of Shakespeare

It worked pretty well, actually. But I quickly realized that the flat nature of the light table was making it difficult to use. What I generally do with an illustration, especially those for MAD, is do a fairly drawn out rough at print size to send in for review. Then I scan this rough, increase the size to inking size (200% in MAD‘s case) and then transfer it to a 3 or 4 ply bristol. Because of the light table’s flat surface, it was impossible to “draw” for long on the bristol using the light box. I had to lean over at an awkward angle, and therefore was forced to do a very quick and limited sketch of the original rough. Then I took that back to the drawing table and redrew it, incorpoating any changes I needed to make and fixing any issues I saw.That was inefficient. I was spending all this time working out the rough pencils, only to have to spend time hunched over a flat light table doing a very insubstantial transfer and then having to draw it all over again. I thought “wouldn’t it be better to have a combination drawing table and light table, so I can comfortably transfer the roughs onto bristol and actually do the ‘drawing’ at the same time… making my adjustments and changes right on the light table and ending up with a ready-to-ink final pencil?”

Yes, it would.

So, I spend a day recently designing a new light table that is a combination of my old 36″ x 48″ drafting table and my old light box. My scanner’s not working so I have no blueprints, but here’s how I did it:

Step One: The Raw Materials

I started out with the table I was basing this on and the shop light originally used in the first light table.

My old drafting table, 36″ x 48″ top

The shop light

These shop lights are exactly 48 inches long, so that’s perfect for the table. I just needed to build a frame to encase the outside edge of the table top, rather than be on top of it. That way the interior dimension of the frame would be a full 36″ x 48″. The light is only 23 inches wide, so there will be table top not part of the light box.

Here are the building materials

I bought some decent 1″ x 6″ pine boards, rather than rough lumber. Places like Home Depot will cut the boards for you to whatever lengths you want for free. I had them cut me three 48″ and two 37.5 inch lengths. I kept the extra which I will use some of for support braces. I also bought a piece of 1/4 inch clear plexiglass, which comes in 36″ x 72″ sheets. I had them cut that to 49.5″ x 36″. I also bought some #8 1 1/4 inch screws, some 1 1/2″ corner braces and about 4 feet of 1/4″ x 1/4″ trim hobby boards.

For tools and other supplies I needed a power drill, 1/8 inch, 1/16 drill bits, a 1 1/2 inch spade bit and a phillips screw bit, a table saw, hammer, 1″ finishing nails, wood glue, a pint of black paint, and a power or belt hand sander.

Step 2: Building the Frame:

First I wrapped the table in the outer frame. I screwed two of the 48″ boards to the top and bottom edges of the table top. The ends were flush with the table sides, and the bottom of each board flush with the underside of the table.

Completed main frame

You can see how I used five screws along the bottom of the board, into the edge of the table top. That’s a lot of screws but this thing will be pretty heavy when done. I did that on each side. I pre-drilled the holes in the 1×6’s with our 1/8 inch bit so I didn’t split the wood. I also used two screws on the end of the side boards (the 37.5″ ones”) that screwed into the end edges of the 48″ boards.

Next I added the middle board, which creates the frame that the shop light sits in.

The larger space is 48″ x 23″, just right for the shop light

These lights have a ‘lip’ along the long edges that work perfectly to hold them in place when turned upside down and placed in the space. The shop light is 23″ wide, so I needed to place this middle board so there is 23″ between it and the foremost board. The complication here is that this 48″ middle board is also a 1×6, and since the outside frame boards are screwed into the outside edges of the table rather than sitting on top of it, the middle board (which has to sit on top of the original tabletop) will stick up 3/4 of an inch from the level of the outside frame. That’s where the table saw comes in. I used it to cut the middle board down by 3/4 of an inch (the thickness of the table top). Now it is flush, and I screwed it into the proper place.

Next I added some supports along the top cavity so that the plexi top won’t warp under it’s own weight. Here we use the extra pieces from the boards they cut for us at Home Depot. I once again had to cut them on the table saw so they are 3/4 of an inch less wide. I then measured the space between the middle board and the outer topmost board: 15 1/4 inches. I cut two of these boards and secured them in place with screws. Notice I also drilled a big hole for the power cord to come through… that is done with the 1 1/4 inch spade bit.

There is one more thing I needed to do, but I forgot to take a picture of that step. I needed to put a lip of some kind across the bottom for the plexi to rest on, otherwise it would just slide right off onto my lap. Here I used the 1/4 x 1/4 inch trim boards. I glued them into place along the upper edge of the bottom board flush with the frame’s outside plane, right where the bottom of the plexi will rest. I also pre-driledl 1/16 holes at 6 inch intervals across the top of this lip, and used the finishing nails to secure the board. This will easily hold the weight of the plexi top.

It’s at this point that I smashed my finger with the hammer. All projects contain at last one injury, screw up or miscalculation. Skin grows back for free and replacing materials costs money, so I prefer the injury. However the profanity I uttered upon mashing my finger was so concentrated and venomous that it melted a plastic Batman action figure nearby and my cat has not approached me since the incident… I think she’s deaf now.

The frame is now done.

Step 3: Sanding and Painting

I won’t bother sanding the frame, the pine is very smooth. However I do give it’s outside and edges a coat of black paint.

I also added the corner braces along the inside of the upper board just for more support of the frame’s weight… one in the center of each upper space.

Corner braces help carry the weight of the light box…

Now I was ready to prepare the plexiglas top. It’s no good to leave it totally clear like glass, because then the light coming though it will be too bright in places. I needed to make the plexi translucent as opposed to tranparent, which will give me a nice, diffused light.

To do that I simply sanded one side of the plexi. That will turn it milky and translucent. Using the handheld power sander and some rough grit andpaper, I went to work on only one side of the plexi, leaving the other side smooth.

About halfway done with the sanding…

Since part of the plexi will not need to allow light through, I measured that part of the frame, taped off that sized area on the plexi and painted it black on the newly rough side.

It takes two coats for both the plexi and the frame. Once it’s dry I could assemble the light table.

Step 4- Assembly:

This part is easy. I just dropped that shop light into the frame, fishing the cord through the hole I drilled. Fit’s great!

Fit’s like a glove

Now I just placed the plexi smooth side up on the surface… It will rest on the lip I created. It should be flush on the sides but as it was only 36″ tall and our frame is 37.5″ we will have a small gap at the top. I could cut a 1/4″ x 1 1/4″ x 49 1/2″ strip for that, but who cares??? You barely see it even if you look for it.

The finished product

Now I can turn it on, and we are ready to save time and get back to drawin’… Thank goodness that smashed finger is not on my drawing hand.

I don’t remember what I originally paid for the shop light, but the rest of the materials cost about $100.00, most of that being the plexiglass. Very cheap for the size of the light box. I’ll probably get a big piece of Borco drawing board cover to use for when I’m painting or doing something on the board besides using the light box.

If you are going to build one of your own, remember… measure twice, cut once- hammers are not your friends- intense swearing is the leading cause of deafness in pets and children- there are people you can hire to do this sort of thing, and I am not one of them.


  1. quikdraw4 says:

    Thats pretty cool Tom! I like that design.
    Does it get too hot to draw on after you’ve been drawing on it awhile?
    If so I suppose you could add a small fan to cool down the bulbs or drawing surface?
    Great job on creating the table and thanks for the how to build it process.
    When I build mine-I’m renting it out as a tanning bed when I’m not drawing on it.

  2. cedricstudio says:

    That’s a pretty slick gizmo. Nice job.

    Would it work to put a dimmer switch on a florescent bulb?

  3. Tom says:

    Thanks, guys.

    It does get a little warm, but not hot. Florescent lights themselves generate very little het compared to incandescent bulbs. I can use it for hours.

    Dimmer switches do not work with fluorescents. There are some advanced kinds of fluorescent CFLs that have dimming capabilities, but they have to use a special kind of switch and regular dimmer switches won’t work. These shop lights can do it.

  4. PaulMcCall says:

    Great step-by-step Tom, like Norm Abrams except you forgot the safety glasses lecture! Is that the same base you were using for the black top?

    Any personal adjustment required between the depth of the lightbox surface as opposed to the black drawing table top? Your drawing surface is now six inches closer to you, correct?

  5. quikdraw4 says:

    I like seeing pics of your studio Tom and hope to see more in the future.
    A tour if you will someday.
    This way when you’re working we can get an idea of how your work area looks/works.
    Like as if we dropped by your studio for a visit this is what we’d see.
    How the old school (pen-paper-drawing board) merges with the Hi-Tech (computer-digital drawing tablets).

    I remember years ago visiting an artists studio who I thought did awesome portraits. However I left totally bummed because I found out he used a camera/projector to trace his subject photos on to the illustration board then inked it in! Like taking a color photo of a house
    or a person-copying it in Xerox copier in B/W lightly then inking it in with marker and saying you drew it from scratch.

  6. Tom says:

    Paul- Yes the table is now 6 inches thick, the surface is closer to me. I like that, personally. Usually when I ink I use a lapboard anyway, so that has not changed. That is the same table as the one you see in the first pic… i used to have it covered with black mat board.

    Chip- On the top of my blogroll on the right side of my blog page there is a category called “Pages”. Click on the “Posts of Interest” link and then “Virtual Tour of Tom’s Studio”. This was from back in Sept of last year, so some things have changed like I have a real Mac now. I have some plans this winter to redo the studio a bit as it’s pretty shabby… 12 year old paint and the carpet is ruined and worn out. I want to add more cabinets now that the light table is gone and more shelves.

  7. Oluseyi says:

    Very inspiring. I do have a question, though: do you find the shop light *too* bright? From the photo, it appears that it would seem so, and while it’d probably be fine for a few sheets of paper placed one on the other, the light bleeding around the edges might be distracting…? (Admittedly, I think I have higher light sensitivities than most people.)

    In one or two other DIY light table projects I’ve seen, a sheet of translucent plastic is attached to the underside of the plexiglass surface, accomplishing the same effect as sanding (acting as diffuser) but to a better degree.

    I’m planning on building myself a drawing table with integrated light box and, possibly, animator’s circle, so I’ve been stalking projects like these across the web ferociously! 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

  8. Tom says:

    Actually you can get translucent white plexi at a real glass place if you want, but it’s a lot more $$$.

    This is bright but I use 4 ply bristol in most cases and I need the bright light to see the images through it. I also get a little distracted by the light outside the edges of my paper but I have a few pieces of black matt board laying about to cover the sides if the ambient light is too much.

    Good luck with the project!

  9. Zieglar says:

    Very cool and useful. I was going to ask about the height difference also but McCall beat me to it. So 2 other things instead.

    The original table/legs must be pretty good to take the extra weight. Also, seeing the black section at the top kinda throws when I glance at it – why didn’t you sand the whole sheet for a uniform look instead of painting?

  10. Oluseyi says:

    Thanks for sharing, Tom. I guess, as the overcautious beginner (cursed with an engineering background), I’m looking for solutions as close to ideal and with as few compromises as possible.

  11. flash says:

    We build it! Thanks a lot for your instructions! Everything was quite easy, except to find the lamp. We improvised with a neon Lamps, which was quite cheap but more painful to install. Anyways we like love to work on this table and like to thank you again.


New profile pic courtesy of my self-caricature for the Scott Maiko penned article “Gotcha! Mug Shots of Common (but Despicable) Criminals” from MAD 550

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