Restoring equipment labels

Original switch plate
Original switch plate

When I fixed up an old drill press, I found that the switch plate for the on/off switch was fairly worn. The original paint and lettering was worn away, so that the start/stop wording was almost unreadable. Even though I am clever enough to figure out that the big red button means “stop”, it needed a clearly readable switch plate label.

The basic process is fairly simple:

  • Photograph or scan the original label
  • Edit the picture on the computer using free software
  • Print the new picture on glossy photo paper
  • Trim label and cut out holes
  • Place over original label and cover with clear packing tape

For those of you who need more details (or just can’t get enough of my snarky comments), read on for more.

Photograph or scan the original label

First you need an accurate picture of the original label. You can take a close-up photo with a digital camera. Take the picture directly above the label, as perpendicular as possible to the label surface. Holding the camera farther away and zooming in with the lens may work better than holding the camera up close. Try several shots and see which comes out the best. You’ll want the clearest picture you can get, with no glare or shadows. Unless you want those in the final label for that artsy look; I didn’t.

If the label is flat, you’ll probably get better results using a flat-bed scanner. I tried it with the drill press switch plate, but it didn’t work. The label is riveted to a switch plate, with prongs that stick up on each side of the start button to guard the button from accidentally being pressed. They moved the label too far from the surface of the scanner, putting it out of focus. Darn safety features. Oops, I mean, hey, good thing for those safety features, huh?

Make sure you get a good picture before doing too much cleaning on the original label. I did, but only because I was lucky. I mean, good thing I planned it that way. After I took the picture, I thought it would be a good idea to clean off the dirt, grease and oil from the label plate. I soaked it in citrus cleaner, and it cleaned it all right. It removed nearly all of the rest of the paint right off the label plate. Ooops.

Edit with free software

Cropped photo
Cropped photo

Once you have the picture, it’s time to edit it. You’ll need some graphics software for that. I like using free, open source software, because I dislike the Evil Empire to the North in Redmond and their predatory strangle-hold on the computing industry, and I support freedom with liberty and justice for all. Oh yeah, and I’m a cheap tightwad too. I mean frugal.

For photo editing, my tool of choice is the GIMP. It does nearly everything the big expensive commercial programs do, like that well-known one that everybody pirates at home. I also use Inkscape for drawings. Both GIMP and Inkscape are freely available on Mac, Linux, and that other operating system I have to use at work because the man says so.

The first thing to do is crop the picture and straighten it out. It is easiest to rotate it first so that you have straight horizontal and vertical edges, and then crop it.

Overlay text and
Overlay text and “paint”

Now you need to touch it up. That was the whole point of this, remember? This is where I use the “layers” feature in GIMP. I put the original photo in the bottom layer, and then create a new layer or two for the changes. That way I can easily switch back and forth between the original view and the new retouched result and admire the improvement. I have a fragile ego and I need that constant affirmation, you know.

I did not completely restore and refinish this drill press, so I thought it would be interesting to leave a little of the original character of it in the new label. The switch plate was pretty scratched and worn from years of use. It is quite easy in the software to use the orange color of the label body and draw shapes to completely cover those sections, masking all of the original scratches and character. But with one little adjustment, the new section can be made partially transparent. The parts of the old label which were still orange in good condition will look the same. The parts that were scratched and worn will show through just a little bit, in a subtle way. (So much for not wanting that artsy look. Hey, it’s my project, OK? OK.)

The remaining part is the lettering. I used another layer in GIMP for the lettering, to place it on top of the orange mask layer. The “START” and “STOP” wording is easy enough, but the manufacturer name presented a difficulty as it curved along a smooth arc.

There may be a way to fit text along an arc and easily adjust it to line up properly in the GIMP, but I couldn’t find it. So instead I used Inkscape. Inkscape has feature exactly for that, fitting text along a path. It also has easy adjustments for the height, width, and spacing of text, to line up exactly with the original.

I loaded the photo into Inkscape, and drew a curved path along the base of the original lettering. Then I put in new text along the path, and lined it up on top of the original to match. Once I put all of the text for the label in place, I deleted the photo, leaving just the new text, and I saved it as a PNG bitmap image.

Final label image
Final label image

I brought the text bitmap image into the GIMP and put it into the top layer. This gave me a stack of three layers: new text, semi-transparent orange paint, and original photo. The editing was done.

At this point some smart guy will tell me how I could have saved myself a lot of work with only $600 worth of software. That’s probably true. Why, I could even pay for it by turning in 12000 soda cans for their deposit and come out even. Or perhaps not. I’ll stick with the free software.

Print the new label

Switch plate and print
Switch plate and print

Next I needed to print the new label at exactly the right size. (I’m skipping the surrealism at this point and just going for the realistic look.)

Both GIMP and Inkscape allow you to measure things on the screen in your choice of units, such as pixels, inches or millimeters. This makes it easier to get your image to print out at exactly the right size. Easier, but not foolproof. I’m a better fool than they expected.

For some reason, I could not get the size quite right. When I printed it out, the height was correct but the width was slightly too narrow. The easiest solution was to save a copy of the whole layered image as a new PNG bitmap image, and then play around with scaling that image. When I widened it by about 4%, it came out perfect. A little extra work, but good results. Of course, if only I had those 12000 soda cans, I could have skipped this part.

I printed the label on glossy 4-inch by 6-inch photo paper on an inkjet printer. Since digital cameras and photo printing have become so popular, it is quite easy and inexpensive to get excellent prints. No more waiting like Snow White (“Some day, my prints will come….” Ouch.)

Cut out the new label

Printed label ready to be cut
Printed label ready to be cut

This is the easy part. Once it was printed at the right size, I simply cut the margins off the label and cut out the button holes. You certainly can use scissors, but I used a sharp utility knife and a straightedge for nice clean lines. On the straight parts, anyways. Not the circles.

There were several holes to cut for this label: the main holes for the start and stop buttons, the slots for the start button guard prongs, and the two small holes for the mounting screws. I did the big ones with the knife and did the screw holes with a punch, the kind that is a sharp-ended tube which you smack with a hammer. Ouch, not again! I said smack the punch, not my thumb!

Place over original label

New label in place
New label in place

If you have lived through the previous part, now you are ready to put the label in place. Finally.

My preferred method is just to tape it down with clear packing tape. It protects the surface of the print from getting smudged, and can be peeled off if needed. Pull out a length of packing tape longer than you need, and place the middle of it over the middle of the label. Press it down and smooth it out, starting in the middle and smoothing outward toward the edges. Tiny bubbles are great for Hawaiian music, but not for your label. Then place the label and tape onto the surface where it goes. Cut the excess tape off, smooth it down, and step back and admire your work.

In this case, since this label was part of a switch plate, I taped the label to the plate and then screwed the plate to the machine, so that the plate screws also held the label on. Be careful when tightening the screws; if you overdo it you will twist up the packing tape or maybe even the label. If you do that, all is lost! You can’t just go back and reprint another one! Oh wait, yes you can. Nevermind. These aren’t the droids you’re looking for. Move along.

This method worked so well for my drill press that I have been using it for other projects also, such as my grinder. I hope you give it a try, and have fun.

Drill press lathe from bicycle hub

Drill press vertical lathe
Drill press vertical lathe

Any trained machinist will tell you that a drill press with a cheap jig is no substitute for a proper lathe. I’m not a trained machinist, so now that I’ve said that, let’s get on to accomplishing something interesting.

I recently saw an idea for using a drill press as a simple vertical lathe. If you make a “live center” and attach it to the drill press table, you can do some basic wood turning in a vertical position. A live center is a pointed shaft on a bearing, which rotates with the work being turned on the lathe.

Eccentric Cubicle
Amazon | Powells
New Wood Puzzle Designs
Amazon | Powells
200 Original Shop Aids & Jigs for Woodworkers
Amazon | Powells

This is not a new idea. One has been sold commercially for years as the Vertilathe, and Grizzly sells a lathe attachment for a drill press also. It has shown up in several books, including “200 Original Shop Aids & Jigs for Woodworkers” by Rosario Capotosto, “New Wood Puzzle Designs” by James Follette, and “Eccentric Cubicle” by Kaden Harris.

Needless to say, I had to try it out. If you want to make one like me (which of course you don’t because such endeavors are both tedious and hazardous), you might (or might not) do it as follows:

  • Acquire a bicycle wheel. This will be found rusting next to the apartment dumpster, or perhaps readily retrieved from the neighbor’s garbage can. Do not take the wheel off your neighbor’s working bicycle; they will frown upon this. Make sure you grab the cheap wheel with nuts that hold it on a solid axle, not the one with the cool and coveted lever clamp through a hollow axle. (Actually, snag that one too, but keep it for later.)
  • Remove the spokes from the hub. If you got the rusty one from next to the dumpster, you’re in luck because half the spokes will snap right off quite easily. If you are impatient and/or feeling destructive, use some heavy wire cutters to clip the remaining spokes. If you are feeling a little more retentive, remove the tire and unscrew the nuts holding the spokes to the rim. Toss the spokes and rim into the nearest metal recycling bin. We don’t need them for this project. If we need some for another project later, well there’s no shortage of rusty bicycle wheels in the world, now is there?
  • Disassemble the hub and axle. Unscrew the nuts on each end of the axle. You should find that both ends simply unscrew, and that the axle is just one long threaded rod. Behind the nuts there should be some ball bearings. Take it all apart and soak it with your favorite rust remover, such as WD40. Don’t use water; it isn’t a good rust remover.
  • Clean the parts. Use a rotating wire wheel to remove the rust from the hub, axle, and nuts. Chuck the wire wheel into the drill press and start cleaning the parts. You do have a drill press, right? This lathe jig isn’t going to work with a hand drill. And don’t accidentally clean your fingers with the wire wheel; it hurts. Don’t ask how I know.
  • Put a point on the axle. Use a grinder or file to make a rough point on one end of the axle. Then chuck the axle into the drill press and use a file to make it nice and pretty. And centered. That’s more important than the pretty part. Mostly.
  • Grease and reassemble. Load up the bearings with grease and reassemble the hub. Just like those Brady boys on TV, working on their bikes instead of riding them. OK, I never actually saw them reassemble a hub on one of their bikes. In fact, while they appeared to be working on their bikes, I don’t think I ever saw them actually fix anything. Hmmm.
Live center from bike hub
Live center from bike hub

Once you have done all this, you will have a rather hazardous-looking sharp pointy bolt that rotates. My wife says it looks like something Speed Racer would have coming out of the side of the Mach 5, so he could pop the tires of the other cars in the Grand Prix. Why were all the races always called the Grand Prix? Aggh, stupid TV. Where was I?

Now we need to hold it to the drill press table.

  • Cut a piece of wood to size. Make it fit the size of your drill press table, so you can clamp it or bolt it down. (This is where those cool bike axles with the lever clamp come in, if you were lucky enough to find some.)
  • Drill a hole in the center. Make it large enough to fit the other end of the axle, which will stick through the wood and drill press table. We want the axle to rotate freely, and not bind against the wood. That would defeat the whole purpose of those fancy ball bearings in the hub, now wouldn’t it?
  • Paint the wood to look official. Perhaps a nice gloss grey, just like they would do in the Navy when using a piece of wood and an old bike wheel to make a lathe out of a drill press. Ahem.
  • Screw the hub to the wood. OK, the real part you were waiting for. Put some screws through a couple of those little spoke holes in the hub to secure it to your fancy-pants painted board. Make sure the screws don’t go all the way through the wood and scratch up your nice drill press table.

Congratulations! You have built yourself a live center. You have now completed half of the project. You’re in good company, because I’ve only completed this much also. I’m too impatient to wait, so let’s see some results now.

Sample wood turning
Sample wood turning

Line up the live center on the drill press table directly beneath the chuck, and clamp it down to the table. Put a wood screw into the top of your piece of wood and chuck up the screw, or chuck up a Forstner drill bit to press into the end of the wood. Raise the table or lower and lock the chuck to hold the wood firmly between the chuck and the live center. Now you can spin the wood. Give it a short spin, then tighten the gap again after the live center presses into the bottom of the piece.

Spinning wood is fun, but shaping it is even more fun. We are only half done, because we don’t have a tool rest to use for any carving tools. But I can’t wait that long, so we can use a wood rasp and files for some quick wood turning results.

This is the point where you go read up on safety somewhere. Holding a jaggedy rasp against a spinning piece of wood is a recipe for having a tool thrown at a vulnerable spot on your person, or some other such hazard. Seriously, be careful with this stuff.

Having said that, the rasp and files actually work nicely. Using combinations of straight, half-round, and rat-tail files, you can actually produce a moderately interesting piece of turned wood with this little jig.