I look at awesome DIY projects for kids every single night after my own go to sleep. I usually don’t have any intention of making anything (that would require time and talent that I generally lack), but I keep up on the latest as an Ohdeedoh contributor. That makes me kind of an encyclopedia of OPP (other people’s projects), but it’s rare that I actually get gripped by the desperate need to make stuff. Lately I’ve noticed lots of light tables, many cleverly constructed from plastic storage containers. I wanted something much bigger that several kids could use at once and started contemplating a conversion of our train table, a KidKraft number branded as Circo and sold at Target two years ago. I got it on sale, natch. The center support beam would be visible but that was fine by me. I knew it could be done, but there were a few setbacks.
Where to get the tabletop? White plexiglass in larger sizes is not a stock item in any big box or neighborhood hardware store. I considered buying clear and applying frosted contact paper or sanding to render it translucent, but I didn’t want imperfections in the surface to distract the kids from activities. That would miss the point and annoy me endlessly. After weeks of agonizing over this decidedly first world problem, I reached out to an architect friend for spiritual guidance. Call a plastics place and get a quote to have a table top fabricated. For a few extra bucks they will take off the sharp edges. Good advice! I paid about $65 for a piece of 3/16″ translucent acrylic #2447 cut to 31.5″ x 43.125″.
How do I light the thing? Some of the smaller light tables I saw were illuminated with tap lights or small battery operated fluorescents, but I was paranoid about a bulb breaking and couldn’t figure out how to get the light distributed evenly over such a large area. Thankfully this conundrum coincided with the holiday season, and the answer was in my face one day as I walked into Target. Rope lights!
I thought I could use the included clips and measure things with great precision, but those clips are crap and so is my patience. I devised a a very janky bottom to bridge the opening in the table base using foamcore and white duct tape. A handful of those crappy clips did help to attach the lights around the perimeter, but I eyeballed a pretty random and sloppy configuration that I was able to tweak to get a nice uniform effect. There needs to be sufficient distance between the lights and tabletop to avoid patterns shining through the plexi.
Note: white duct tape gives a nice finish to jagged foamcore edges. It’s not so much punk rock as it is a good shortcut for sloppy people.
Rope lights are so great for this application. They are pliable and generate very even light with minimal heat; I used two 24′ strands of the plain old rope lights, no fancy LEDs. I can tuck the cord underneath the tabletop when we are using it for trains, then pop it out and attach an extension cord when we are ready for light table madness. For train play we just leave the plexi underneath the landscape tabletop then set it aside when we want to play with light. This is what the inside of the table looks like:
Here it is in action. My kids think it’s the coolest thing ever. They gather around the light table and play with magnatiles for hours. I’m looking forward to more light table activities to help us get through the early sunsets of our long midwestern winter.