How to create an overlay
This is the procedure I used to create the overlays for VeCaves.
It took at lot of trial and error to get a good result, and I encourage
any other programmers to mess around and see if you can create something
As you will see below, this method does not lend itself
well to producing reproductions of the original overlays. This is intended
to create multiple copies of the same overlay. You can use this for
creating slightly modified versions of the original overlays, but it takes
a bit of setup for each overlay you do. Click any picture for a larger
If you liked this page, or are creating your own overlays,
I would like to hear about it.
to return to my projects page.
- Inkjet photo printer. Using an inkjet is imperative. a
color laser printer will create a dither which ruins the color filter
effect of the overylay. The key part of using an inkjet is that
the ink has a chance to mix slightly after being sprayed onto the transperancy.
This creates the uniform color needed to create the color filter.
I suspect that a dye sublimation printer might work well, but I don't
have access to one to try. I used an HP deskjet 722C, which worked
- Color ink for above printer! This is a significant portion
of the cost of making an overlay. Using the HP deskjet, I found
that I could only print about 35 overlays before the color cartridge
ran out. The color cartridge for this printer is $35. If
you are just doing a couple overlays, this is no big deal, but if you
are producing a bunch for sale, keep in mind to that you will probably
run out. I ran out to the store several times, so you may want to
buy the double packs. I printed probably 90 overlays and color box
covers and never ran out of black ink.
- Transperancy film. You must aquire transperancy film that
is created for an inkjet, preferably for your specific brand.
Transperancy film which is designed for a copier or laser printer will
not allow the ink to dry. I used both the Apollo and 3M brand transperancy
film The Apollo film produced a little glossier image, but looked
like it had a little dust on it. The 3M film produced an extremly
even image, but was much more matte. In either case, after you
laminate it, they both looked the same. Boxes of 50 sheets are much
cheaper than smaller packages. Expect to pay about $0.75 per sheet
in packs of 20, and can be purchased at office supply stores.
- White spray paint. This is needed for the white coloring
on the back side of the overlay. If you just print an overlay, then
put it on the vectrex, you will see that the entire overlay is extremely
dark and unreadable. You will only see the coloring of the beam on
the display. To allow the user to read your game logo and text on
the overlay, the back of these areas must be colored white. This allows
room light to go through the transperancy, and reflect off of the white
paint on the backside, which is what you see. I had more luck with
a more watery paint than a thicker one. I used a cheap quick drying
enamel paint I picked up at the hardware store. Expect to pay $3,
and that one can lasted me about 40 overlays.
- Lamination sheets. Laminating the overlay is imperative
for several reasons. The most important is that a printed transperancy
has no thickness, and will not stand up on the vectrex very well.
Another is for protection of the ink and white paint. That said,
laminating the overlay can be a very difficult task. There are two
primary problems to using the traditional laminating methods. First
is that the heating process to fuse the laminating sheets will cause
the transperancy to wrinkle and warp. Second is that if you
manage to get the result flat(probably by using a lower temperature),
then when you cut out the overlay, you end up cutting off the edge, and
the lamination will come off. I found that the best method is to
use "self adhesive" laminating sheets. Basically these are full
sheet clear stickers. These are not cheap, and are a real pain to
deal with, but with practice, the result works great. I used this JM
brand, which I found at an OfficeMax(50 sheets for $25), but OfficeMax seems
to have stopped carrying them. Thier other brands are more expensive,
and only sold in either 2 packs or 10 packs. I also tested out the
Avery brand which was much more expensive, and I don't think had as nice
of a gloss to it. Expect to pay about $1 each sheet. You need
2 sheets per overlay. These can be found at larger office supply
stores, and can be difficult to find.
- Paper cutter. This is not required but makes cutting straight
lines much easier. You are going to be cutting through the entire
laminated overlay, so a good quality paper cutter will save your hands
from cutting them all with a pair of scissors. This one has a solid
wood base and cast metal arm If you don't have one, check if you can
use one at work, or at a copy shop.
- Scissors. You are going to need scissors for cutting the
corners and the finger notch. If you are going to be doing a lot,
I would recommend finding a confortable pair. I can tell you that
after cutting just the corners of 30 overlays, your hand gets pretty sore
using a cheap pair.
- Straight edge. You are going to need a firm straight edge
to apply the lamination. A ruler works quite well. It needs
to be as wide as the entire width of a page, and firm enough so that you
can use considerable pressure on it and have it remain fairly straight.
I used a hard plastic craft ruler which worked quite well. I would
not recommend a metal ruler. A wooden one might work, but the edge
needs to be very straight but at the same time not sharp. I think
a plastic ruler is probably the best option by far.
- Sleaves. This is an optional way of protecting the overlay.
I found that the protective bags used by comic book collectors work
great for protecting overlays you give out with your game as well as protecting
your entire overlay collection. I use them for all my overlays as
they protect the overlays from scratches and at the same time allow you
to see them. If you choose to do this, note that there are several
sizes of comic book bags, so make sure you get the right size. The
correct size is the "current" or "new" size, which are for 6-7/8" by 10-1/2"
sized comics. You need both the bag, and the backer board which are
white cardboard sheets sized for the bags. The backer board provides
firmness and the white background allows you to see the the overlay clearly.
The backer boards are too tall, and need to be cut down to 8-1/2" high.
They are typically sold in packs of 100 and can be found in most comic
book shops.. Expect the bags to be $4 per 100, and the backer boards
to be $8 per 100.
Create the overlay design. I used Corel Draw, which is a professional
drawing program. The primary advantage of using a drawing program
like this is that all the parts of the image you draw are stored independantly
as objects. This is unlike a simple picture editing program which
adds the new drawings over the original. This method allows you more
flexability in creating the design as parts can be moved around, and placed
on top of each other in any order. Another key advantage is that all
of the drawn objects are based on lines and curves from point to point.
This means that the result doesn't have a 'resolution' per-se. This
is good because when you print it, the 'image' will automatically take on
the resolution of the printer. If you do decide to use a picture based
drawing program, be sure to make your resolution high enough so that you
don't get an interferance pattern when you print it.
No matter how you do it, create your image keeping in mind a couple
- Color does not always match. The display on a vectrex appears
to have a white beam, but it is actually a blue-ish white. This created
quite a nusiance when doing the overlay for VeCaves. I wanted to make
the main portion of the overlay look brown. Problem was that when I
used brown on the overlay, it appeared grey and not at all brown on the screen.
I discovered that if I use orange, it creates a perfect brown when you look
at the screen through it. I would recommend printing a bunch of colors
you think you are going to use, and holding it up to the Vectrex screen to
see how it actually looks.
- All text areas should be simply shaped. Any area of the
overlay that you want the game player to see as an image instead of a color
filter for the display must have white painted on the back side of the
overlay. To do this, a stencil must be created. I recommend
that you keep in mind the shape of the stencil when designing the overlay.
Small areas won't work very well with the stencil. This precludes
anything like the grid pattern in the original Minestorm overlay.
This is one of the reasons that using this method for creating reproductions
of the original overlays is difficult. I recommend only expecting
an outside boarder and blocky logo area at the bottom.
- Colored areas should be general. I created blue colored
areas for the scores, a red area for the high score, and a green area for
the ribbon in VeCaves. Keep in mind that many Vectrexes are adjusted
slightly differently, so the spot that you think the high score will be
may be a bit different from where the score is on a different Vectrex.
Before you layout these areas, I highly recommend that you use the test rom
that is available on the web and Sean Kelly's multicart to tune up your Vectrex
first. The test rom and the accompanying documentation(find it at
Brett's Vectrex preserve )
gives you fixed displays that you can line up with each other and the edges
of the screen. If you do this first, you will know that any Vectrex
which is properly adjusted will show the score in the same spot as the overlay.
After this, make your colored area a bit bigger so that it will work with
Vectrexes that are not aligned quite as well. If you are unable to
adjust your Vectrex, try it out on someone elses, or send a prototype to
someone who has adjusted thiers, and have them tape a clear transperancy
to thier screen, and then draw on the transperancy where all the graphics
are located at.
Print the overlay. Use a good quality photo inkjet printer.
Again the goal is to get a lot of ink onto the transperancy. Typically
this is done by setting your printer for printing onto a transperancy
with a quality of "best" or "photo".
Here is the result set on a piece of white paper to make it visible.
Inkjet transperancies are made to only print on one side. This
side is made with a special textured surface to accept the ink and allow
it to dry. When you load the transperancy into the printer make
sure you load it properly to print on the correct side. Check the
directions included with the transperancies. Again, make sure you
get transperancies made for your brand of printer.
Once you print on the transperancy, I suggest being extremely careful
not to touch the image part of the print until you have laminated it.
I found that because of the textured surface, it is just about impossible
to get finger prints off of the printed side of the sheet. The backside
can be cleaned off, but it is much easier to just keep it clear of fingerprints
Create the stencil. The next step is going to be to paint the
white outline on the back side of the transperancy. To do this, you
need to create a stencil. I found that a thin piece of masonite wood
worked quite well. Masonite is a very dense composite fiber board.
I also tested out a simple paper stencil and one made of cardboard.
The paper one did not work at all because it did not stay flat when the
paint was sprayed. The air movement caused the paper to lift up.
The one made of cardboard worked, but the paint wicked up into the cardboard.
This ment that after one or two overlays, the paint started splotching
onto the center part of the overlay. I was able to scratch it off
after it dried, but I don't think this would work well for more than a few
overlays. The key with the masonite is that the paint did
not wick into it at all. I suspect that glass, plexi-glass or metal
would work as well if those are more handy materials for you.
Here you can see my stencil(well coated with white paint) sitting on
top of an upside down printed transperancy. The stencil is lined
up and ready for paint. Notice that I glued a block of wood on the
back of the stencil so that after painting I can quickly lift the stencil
up. Also notice that although I have a bed of old newspaper to prevent
the paint from coloring the basement floor, I placed a sheet of plain white
paper between the transperancy and the paper. Otherwise, the newspaper
ink would rub off onto the transperancy and ruin it. When you create
your stencil, remember that it goes on the back side of transperancy.
This means that it is a mirror of the normal image.
Paint the back of the overlay. I found that I had the most
luck by doing a couple things when painting. First, apply pressure
to the stencil to make sure it is fully pressed against the overlay.
I simply used a pole I pushed down on during the process. Second, paint
quickly, and lift up the stencil as soon as you are done. If I left
it on too long, the paint will wick in between the stencil and the transperancy.
Here is the result after painting, and then after removing the stencil.
Ideally, you would paint one, and allow all the paint on the stencil
to dry before placing it on another transperancy and painting another.
However, this is impossible if you have to make a lot of overlays.
If you opt not to let the paint on the stencil dry, you need to be careful
in a couple areas. First, wipe any paint off the bottom of the stencil
that leaked in. Second, after 5 or 6, you will build up quite a layer
of liquid paint on the stencil. I found that I had to wipe off the
thickest parts of the paint, especially near the edges. If I didn't,
this paint would leak down onto the transperancy. Third, be very careful
when you place the wet stencil on the next transperancy so that you don't
smear paint onto the inner part of the overlay.
I found that while I was painting each transperancy every couple minutes,
I had to wait until the paint on the stencil dried after painting about
30. At that point the smears and leaking just gets too bad.
This point is also good to allow the paint to dry so that you can use a knife
to cut off the thick layers of paint from the stencil. The paint gets
so thick, that the corners and edges of the stencil get "blurry".
Clean the overlay. Once the paint on the back is completely
dry, store it so that it will not get any dust on it. Just before
you laminate it you want to make extra sure that there is no dust or finger
prints on it. I found that it is very difficult to clean dust off
the printed side of the transperancy. The best way that I could find
was an extremely light brushing with the side of my hand. The back
side is much easier and could be done with a lint free clean cloth.
If you have finger prints on the back side, a little pressure is required.
I found that this pressure actually caused a marking in the ink on the front,
so I would recommend laminating the front side before applying the pressure.
This seems like an obvious step, but I cannot overstate it's importance.
It is very easy to overlook the smallest bit of dust. Just a tiny
bit will cause a large dimple in the laminating process which will look
Laminate the overlay. This is one of the hardest parts to get
good at. A lot can go wrong at this stage. Even after doing
50 overlays, I still lost 5 to 10% of my overlays at this point.
The self adhesive laminating sheets are full sheet clear stickers on
a paper backing. The best way to apply the lamination is to peal
back an edge of the sheet, and slowly apply it at the same time as it comes
of the backing. If you peal the entire lamination off the backing
and attempt to apply it, you will end up with bubbles, wrinkles or stretching.
First, peal back an edge of the sheet:
The sheets I choose are quite a bit larger than the final overlay,
so a good area of the sheet around the edges is discarded in the next step.
This means that finger prints on the edge of the laminating sheets is ok,
but I would still recommend keeping the area as untouched as possible.
Next line up the laminating sheet so that you can "roll" it onto the
overlay with the straight edge. The sticky side should be down with
the pealed off part of the paper backing resting on the overlay.
At this point it is probably useful to mention that you should be working
on an extremly smooth flat hard table. Ideally a glass table top.
I would not recommend a natural wood table surface as its grain is either
not smooth enough, or if it is laquered smooth, the laquer might get marred
from the pressure applied with the ruler. It is useful to allow the
laminating sheets to stick the overlay to the table as it helps hold it
in place, so you obviously want a table you can peal it off of without damage
to the table.
When you line up the sheet, do not attempt to press it down onto the
table or the overlay with your hands. I found it worked best to
use your hand to hold up the backing, then simply allow the sheet to rest
evenly on the table at the edgeof the sheet. This helps ensure that
when you apply the sheet it will not bubble, wrinkle or stretch. If
you get it slightly kinked, you may manage to keep the wrinkles out, but
in doing that you have stretched the lamination sheet. When you pick
up the overlay you will discover that it is now curled, and cannot be flattened.
It must be discarded and you will have to try again. Note that because
the laminating sheet is so much larger than the resulting overlay, it is
actually not very important to line up the laminating sheet with the overlay.
The important part is to get the laminating sheet applied evenly. (even
if it is slightly crooked compared to the overlay)
Next use the straight edge to press the laminating sheet down onto
the table. I found it worked best to line it up about 1/2 inch into
the laminating sheet from the edge. This means that the first 1/2
inch may not be flat, but it is ok, as this section will be cut off and
discarded. The sheets I used are about 1 inch longer than the transperancy,
so this allows you to actually press the laminating sheet onto the table
instead of the transperancy.
Next apply the laminating sheet. This must be done with a smooth
uniform stroke. Use both hands to apply downward pressure on the
ruler, and slowly slide the ruler forward. If you stuck the leading
edge of the laminating sheet to the table, then the overlay will stay put
and will not slide away. Make sure that you slike the ruler forward
with a uniform forward pressure. If at any point you stop, you will
create a small wrinkle, which you will not be able to smooth out.
If you have setup the laminating sheet right, the paper backing will peal
off automatically as the laminating sheet gets applied to the overlay.
Be careful to hold the ruler straight and apply even downward pressure across
the entire length of it. I found that about 10 pounds of downard pressure
was required. Further, as little forward pressure should be applied
as possible. If you apply to much, the laminating sheet will be stretched
resulting in a curled overlay. The picture below shows me using only
one hand because I was taking this picture. I highly recommend using
both hands on the ruller.
I mentioned above that the paper backing will peal off automatically.
This requires that there be nothing in the way on the table. Another
thing to note is that if you have done one side, and are doing the other
side, the paper backing may get stuck on the last edge of the stickly lamination
from the first side. This happens near the end. If you find
this a problem, I recommend having someone help you and hold the other
end of the paper backing up slightly. Remember, do not peal the entire
backing off. Allow it to come off as the lamination is applied.
Next, while the overlay is still stuck to the table, you need to get
the lamination fully applied to the transperancy. Even with the
downward pressure you applied to put on the lamination, I found that the
sticky adhesive on the back of the lamination was not fully adheared to
the transperancy. This shows up as blurry areas. To fully
apply the lamination, run the ruler over the overlay applying a lot of
pressure. This is where a strong ruler is required. I found that
I needed to apply probably 40 or 50 pounds of pressure to get all of the
adhesive applied fully. By doing this, you should see the blurry
areas clear up. The result should be crystal clear. I found
that it was best to draw the ruler back over the overlay applying pressure
instead of pushing it forward. This prevents it from digging in.
I am talking about moving it in the opposite direction used when first applying
the lamination shown above. If you use a straight edge with a sharp
edge, applying this much pressure will cause it to dig into the overlay causing
a dent, and possibly ripping the laminating sticker. This is why a
metal ruler will not work well. If you did get some dust stuck in
between, be very careful how you run the ruler over this area so that you
don't rip the laminating sheet. If you are careful, you can finish
out the overlay, and perhaps the dust is small enough to ignore.
If you ended up with bubbles or wrinkles in the lamination process,
it means that you did not line up the sheet evenly. See the part above
about allowing the laminating sheet to come to rest on the table instead
of pressing it down with your fingers.
If the result is curled in the long direction, it means that you applied
to much foward pressure causing the lamination to be stretched.
Once you finish applying the laminating sheet, it relaxes and contracts
causing the curl. You can try applying the lamination on the other
side to "cancel" out the curl, but I would just give up and try again on
a new one.
If the result is curled in the short direction, you probably did not
line up the sheet quite evenly. It is probably just slightly offset,
and the downward pressure you applied prevented wrinkles or bubbles, but
caused the sheet to be stretched horizontally causing the curl.
Unfortunitely this means another one down the drain.
Now, peal the overlay off your table, flip over, and repeat this process
on the other side.
Over all, I hope you can see that this step is by far the hardest to
master and is the most likely way to ruin an overlay. If you are
making a bunch of overlays, I would recommend making 10% more than you think
you need to cover for mess ups.
Cut out the overlay. Before cutting, I found that stacking
up all my laminated overlays, and putting a pile of books on top for a day
or so helped take out any slight curls in the overlays.
Actually cutting out the overlay is as you would expect. The
paper cutter comes in handy for cutting the long straight edges, but you
will need to cut the corners and the finger hole with a pair of scissors.
The cutting takes a bit more pressure than normal paper because you are
cutting through the plastic transperancy, the layer of paint and both laminating
sheets, so you might want to give your hands a break after cutting out
a dozen or two. I would recommend a sturdy sharp paper cutter and
scissors because you need to get through all three layers without stretching
them. If you don't cut through all three in the same line, the laminating
sheet could stick off the edge, and be prone to pealing later in life.
When you cut them out, make sure you are cutting the proper size.
If you cut the overlay to small, it will fall off of the vectrex.
Slightly to large, and you will have a very hard time cutting just a sliver
off of it.
Put the overlay in a protective bag. I liked to give the result
a good polishing with a clean lint free piece of cloth to remove finger
prints before putting it in the protective bag. Simply fold over
the plastic bag, and tape shut with a small piece of sticky tape.
Voila! and you are done!
Overall, expect an overlay will take about 20 to 30 minutes to hand
make(assuming that you have assembly lined the process). I can tell
you that this gets quite tiring after a while, but the result is worth
Now that I've told you how I made mine, and how you can make your own,
I ask that any other homebrewers use this method(or create an even better
one) and release overlays with your game. Overlays add so much to
the fun of the Vectrex!
Long live the Vectrex!
I had a couple ideas that someone could experiment with that may make
the result look better
- Using standard thermal laminating sheets would result in an even thicker
overlay. The problems I mentioned above are that the transperancy
will melt in the process, or that when you trim the overlay, the lamination
will come off. The idea is to use this type of laminating process,
but to prevent the transperancy from melting, and to make sure the lamination
is solid. Take a couple plates of smooth clean metal. Put the
transperancy in the laminating pouch, and place it between the metal sheets.
Now apply pressure to hold the metal sheets togather, either stack more
metal on top to weigh it down, or use C-clamps. Next stick it in your
oven and turn up the heat. The hope is that this will allow the lamination
pouch to melt completely onto the transperancy, and yet not mess up the
transperancy. I have no idea if this will ever work, and if it does,
it will probably take a bunch of playing around to get the temperature and
heating time just right.
- Try using a dye sublimation printer instead of an inkjet. This
may yeild a better print.
- Try to find a print shop which can actually print the white on the back
side instead of using the stencil and paint technique. I have never
heard of a printing process which actually lays down white ink, but GCE must
have had a way to do it with the original overlays.
Click here to return to my projects page.