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Inexpensive Display Case Lighting


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Four years ago I got the top half of a mirrored hutch without the shelves for only $25. It was scratched, incomplete, and needed some love. I wanted a display case for my models, but $800 on average for a decent curio was out of the question. So I saw this case and got it to fix it up. I finally got around to it last weekend.

I photographed the process so those of you interested in making a cheap display case out of almost anything could see how easily and cheaply it can be to light it up. You can use a solid bookcase, the good ole' Ikea Detolf cases, or whatever you may have lying around like a bunch of fruit crates nailed together. My last display case (back in the 1990's) was just a solid book case with Plexiglas over the front! Use your imagination for what you have available.

The LEDs were bought at Five Below for only $5.00 USD (Photo 0). They are intended for lockers as you can see on the instructions. The "quality" is so high, there is spilled solder on the reel. None the less, they are bright white and provide near natural white light. They are 4,5 volts battery powered, but can be powered with an AC to 4.5v DC adapter soldered in as I did. Three reels (about seven feet long each) were used and then trimmed to fit the width. One was attached to the top, and the other two were built into the shelf supports. The key is that each strip shines downward on the shelf below it providing direct and indirect light.

The original shelves were supposed to be sold glass. I didn't have the budget for that either. So I got inexpensive aluminum angles (Hillman 1/2" wide at most American hardware stores) and cut them to shape to fit into the cabinet (photos 1,2 and 3). They were then painted flat brown primer to match the wood. The LEDs were laid down on the angle so they would shine downward. Why the angle stock aluminum? 1. It shields the light directly from your eyes. 2. It reflects the light onto your displays. 3. Adds strength to support the thin shelves.

The drawback with painting aluminum -  the paint will scratch off if you look at it the wrong way - even after prepping! The only thing available locally to help with this was Flex Tape (one of the more expensive items in the build)! My preference would have been silicone tape, but I couldn't find any locally. The tape is 4" wide so it was unreeled against parchment paper and cut into 1/2" strips to cover the angled surfaces where the shelves would touch (photo 4). The rubber tape also helps the shelves slide a little less (the tape has adhesive on only one side).

Next step was measuring and cutting shelves to fit into the cabinet. I used 2mm acrylic for its lowest cost locally. Thicker stock like 1/4" (6mm) works better, but also costs three times more (photo 5).

I also added feet and casters to the cabinet. It raised it up a little and allows easy floor cleaning of the work area or rearrangement. Finally the case unlit and lit (photos 6 and 7). There was a small light that came with the case, it is near worthless, but adds a little color. You can see how near natural the light is and it doesn't hit you in the face like some lighting units. There is some reflection from the back mirror, but it is minimized by the angled stock. Alternately, you can use "C" channel to cut back the glare and direct the light even more, but it also reduces the angle of light available for your case.

Hopefully this inspires or helps someone wanting to do a similar project like this. - MT









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I recently missed out on getting several glass display cabinets from a client who was refitting their stores, they were only a year old and really high quality, used for jewellery, just didnt have anywhere to store them till my workshop and office is finished..... I just know its gonna cost me dear... 

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Big F - That's the pits - sorry! I empathize with you. A widow was selling all the tools in her deceased husband's shop VERY cheap. I lost out on a new mill and lathe because I was unemployed. On the other hand, you can use alternatives for cheap. That's why I posted this.

Xigfrid - Go for it! You can buy kits really cheap or just buy reels that are cheap. You can even use a USB adapter if the voltage is right. I've seen a lot of Detolfs lit up with strips. For them I would highly recommend using angle pieces around the lights like I did here. In most of the Detolf photos I've seen, it's hard to see the display because the glare is so bad. Plus, looking straight into LEDs is bad for your eyes. Shining downwards helps even further. - MT

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I have rolls of the LEDs most sell as 12v but you can get 5v ones for shorter runs that you can power from a phone charger. 


For the 12v ones I use 12v lighting power blocks bought online. They are often cheaper than the LEDs. You can buy them on Banggood or Alibaba.

Edited by big F
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  • 1 month later...

Thank  you, Weiser, I appreciate it!

To follow up with this project, the LEDs came with a 4.5 volt battery pack. One pack did power three strips meant for one pack with no problems (except batteries don't last forever). So I actually used a 5 volt USB power supply. It has made the LEDs brighter, but it does not look to the point of burning them out prematurely. So if you have a 4.5 volt LED strip, a 5 volt USB power supply may work safely - just do a test for a while first! - MT 

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