Project 2 - Ceiling Panel

Most of the fibre optic star ceiling kits that we sell to the public for DIY projects end up in bedroom or bathroom ceilings, with the fibres inserted directly through the ceiling from the attic above. However, this is not always possible - particularly in downstairs rooms, loft conversions, in a basement or in a flat.

In such cases it's often necessary to fit the fibres to a panel which is then fixed to the existing ceiling, or, as commonly happens in home cinema projects, to drop all or part of the ceiling by a few centimetres and insert the fibres in this new, lower level.

There are many variations to the prefabricated panel approach, and we've provided links on this page to a few customer projects which illustrate various options. We're demonstrating the basic principle here in the shape of a very small star ceiling panel in a hallway linking bedrooms and bathroom.

In this case, although the fibres are going into a prefabricated panel, there is actually a loft space above, so the fibres could actually have gone directly into the ceiling. However, crawling around on joists is never much fun, so for relatively small star ceilings the prefabricated panel approach may appeal, even when it is not strictly necessary.

Once you've decided to use the prefabricated panel method, start by selecting the type of board you're going to use for your panel - mdf, plywood, Foamalux, Dibond, plasterboard etc. We've used mdf here as being reasonably easy to work with and universally available.

Measure and then cut the mdf to size. We've achieved a chamfered edge through using an angled cut on a circular saw, but you could also use a router or plane to achieve an attractive edge finish or other decorative effect. You can leave the edge square if you like, but the chamfered edge will help the star field panel blend in more seamlessly with the existing ceiling. Be realistic about the size of panel you use - the bigger it is the more difficult installation will be. It may make more sense to divide the project into two or three panels. We've used a panel which is 206 cm by 74 cm.

If you are going to use large panel sections it may be worth hiring a plasterboard jack - an adjustable trestle system designed to lift panels up into place and safely support them while you fix them to the joists.

 
Measure the mdf board and cut it to size
Cut the panel to size
The mdf panel is measured and then cut to size as the first step in creating the fibre optic star ceiling panel.

Next, to manage the distribution of stars across the star field, mark the panel into a few equal sections and divide the number of fibres in your kit by the number of these sections. We've used a Pegasus star kit with 160 fibres, and divided the panel into three, so we needed to mark around 50 drill points in each section. We'll create a handful of brighter stars by putting two fibres in the same hole, so the number of holes is less than the number of fibres.

You can dispense with the marking, if you prefer, and simply space out the holes as you drill, but marking them first ensures you get your desired distribution and don't run out of fibres. Or, another tip is to count out grains of rice and scatter these across the panel to get an idea of what sort of distribution appeals to you. It's easier to move the rice backwards and forwards than to make pen marks and then cross them out when you change your mind. Don't strive to make the distribution too even - it's actually better to have some little clusters of stars and occasional areas of relatively low star density.

If you plan to mark out some accurate constellation shapes, do remember to mark them the right way around - from the front of the board - so you don't end up with back to front constellations as some customers have!

We recommend using a 1mm drill bit to ensure that the fibres fit snugly, but be aware that you'll probably end up snapping one or two bits during the job. So, it's an idea to have one or two spares. When it comes to fixing the fibres there are various options.


Drill the holes for the optical fibres using a 1mm drill bit. Here we used a hot glue gun to secure the optical fibres.
Holes are drilled to accommodate the fibres and after they are passed through from the back they are secured in place. Here, a hot glue gun is being used, although silicone is probably a better option.

Silicone or our Acrylic adhesive is probably best for fixing the fibres, even though these do require a few hours to set. In this demonstration we've used a hot melt glue gun for speed, but it's not really the method of choice. If you do use a glue gun use a "low melt" grade of glue stick and avoid touching the fibre with the metal tip of the gun since you're likely to melt the fibre. A better idea is to put a dab of glue around the drill hole, wait a few seconds and then insert the fibre. An advantage of this method is that the dab of molten glue will act as a lens and make the tiny drill hole easier to spot.

You want the fibre to protrude a few mm on the front side initially, so ensure that the board is supported above your table or workbench.

For star ceilings we strongly recommend against the use of any end fitting. Bare fibre ends are best for a starry effect, although end fittings are fine if you want a more formal arrangement of lights.

Bear in mind that you may need to fix the board flat against the ceiling, so it's worth thinking about how you distribute the fibres at the back of the panel. You want them to lie flat, rather than bunch up, but remember that the fibres will eventually have to be gathered together in a bundle to connect to the light source, wherever that is located.

The back of the panel with the fibres in place. The front of the mdf panel is painted before the fibre ends are trimmed back.
In the photo at left the rear of the panel is festooned with optical fibres running to each of the drilled holes. Groups of fibres have been taped together for ease of handling. In the second photo the panel has been turned over and is having a coat of paint applied. The protruding fibre ends will be cut back flush to the surface once the paint has dried. You can paint the panel before adding the fibres, but there's the danger that the fresh paint may be scuffed during the drilling and fibre installation.


Once the fibres are all in place turn the board over and put the first coat of paint on. It's up to you whether to have the board blend in unobtrusively with the existing ceiling decor or whether you prefer a contrasting colour. When the first coat is dry, add a second. Of course, if you use a product such as Foamalux or Dibond, which come ready coloured, you can skip this stage.

Think about different finishes: you could add some glitter to the starfield or some sun, star and moon decorations. For a child's room you might like to have some spaceship models or similar hanging from the starfield. If so, now would be a convenient time to think about methods of suspending those models. You could drill another few holes and pass some monofilament fishing line through the board, secured on the top surface.

Remember to check the location of any electrical cables in the attic above before drilling or cutting into the ceiling. The number and type of fixings you need to use to secure the starfield board to the ceiling will depend on the weight and size of the board, the type of ceiling, whether you're drilling into plasterboard or joists. Use common sense and err on the side of caution - you'll end up seeing stars in a painful sense if the board comes down!

If you want to make the panel blend in seamlessly with the existing ceiling decor you'll want it screwed tight up against the ceiling. However, another alternative is to suspend it a few centimetres below the ceiling. You can either literally suspend the panel from chains or steel wire (see Customer Project 12) or create a box framework (see Home Cinema Project 1) One customer (see Customer Project 39) used rubber door stops as spacers between her panel and the ceiling above. If your existing ceiling is high enough that you can drop the new area by more than 120mm you should be able to sit the light source on top of the panel, where it is easily accessible for maintenance purposes.

Selecting the right location for the light source in a prefabricated panel star ceiling can take a bit of thought. Ideally, the light source needs to be as close as possible to the display area, but this isn't always possible. From a technical perspective the light source can be 20 metres away, if necessary, but every extra metre adds to your fibre costs.

A hole cutter is used to create a large enough hole to pass the common end ferrule through the existing ceiling, before offering the panel up to the ceiling. The common end ferrule is pased through into the ceiling to mate with the light source in the loft.
In these photos a hole is first cut in the ceiling and then the common end ferrule passed through into the loft or ceiling void to where the light source is located. This is actually an older photo, so the ferrule design differs from our current versions.


A dropped ceiling often has the advantage of creating a space for the light source, but it's also possible that there's enough space between the existing ceiling and the floorboards above. In this case you can either put an access hatch in the ceiling (see Customer Project 35) or provide access from above. The floor of a cupboard in a room above is a popular location.

If you do use a dropped ceiling then it is also worth considering adding an edge lighting effect by putting some of our LED tape or strips around the perimeter of the dropped area. Set the LEDs a few centimetres from the edge for a nice even concealed lighting effect.


Our lightsources come with either one or two 13 amp plugs fitted as standard, but these can be removed if you're wiring the light source into your room lighting circuit. Seek help from an electrician if you have any doubts about your competence when it comes to wiring the light source.

 

The white-painted mdf panel blends unobtrusively into the existing ceiling. The dense star field produces enough light to illuminate the hallway for nocturnal visits to the bathroom.
When the white-painted panel is fitted to the ceiling it blends in unobtrusively during the day and comes to life at night. The light from the fibre optic stars illuminates the hallway and is useful for nocturnal visits to the bathroom.

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