diy neon sign

Make your own indoor neon light sign, without needing to master the art of blowing neon glass tubes! And no, I'm not talking about taping glowsticks on a wall...

ビール (biiru) means beer in Japanese

 

Cocktails, anyone?

Since I had been planning to help Mr. Pooper redecorate his office, I wondered what I could do to add some more personal elements to his man space (no, that's not his office above with the barcart...). And that lead me to thinking about neon signs. I love all those old school beer signs, and I know he does too, but it's rare to see one to buy that's not of Budweiser or Coors or some other piss beer. Of course, I could go to some craft center and learn the real craft of neon glass tube blowing to make my own (which I saw at MakerFaire once and it looks really awesome), but that would be a bigger commitment than I was ready to put in. So I went looking for other options on the ol' web.

Not surprisingly, I ended up on various web stores that sell something called EL Wire (electroluminescent wire). It appears they are quite popular at Burning Man festivals. They're almost like super long flexible glowsticks, but they are electric-powered, either by battery or the wall outlet. THAT MEANS THEY CAN GLOW FOREVER. Great, then these would work for a home sign!

Level of difficulty

This how-to is going to be fairly extensive, and dedicated to the intermediate crafter (whatever that means). The project in actuality is pretty easy and straightforward, but you do need to be a little nimble with your fingers and willing to drill and solder things. There is a little bit of soldering involved, but that is not hard--it's really easy to learn. So if you're willing to challenge yourself a little and try something new, read on!

But...if you're not to the task and want to play around with EL wire anyway, coolneon.com sells pre-assembled kits that have one color of wire already hooked up. You just have to insert batteries and bend the wire to your desired shape. Give that a shot!

About EL Wire

EL Wire is similar to your standard electrical wire. It has two plastic outer sleeves that are clear, so light can shine through. The core metal wire has a phosphor-coating, which is what glows; and two other tiny wires wrap around it. When the wire is hooked up to a driver that is connected to a power source via battery or outlet, the phosphor glows out of the wire to create a soft glowing light.

The light coming from EL Wire has varying intensities depending on the type and thickness you buy. They do not compete with traditional neons in terms of intensity though. But you're getting a compromise for an easy do-it-at-home alternative. All EL wires naturally slowly degrade in UV light, but they're just fine for most purposes. If you need extra UV protecion, coolneon.com's "Phat" wire have extra UV protection, so they could work indoors or out (but you probably should keep it away from bright sun anyway). They are also flexible, unlike glass, and thin enough so you can make smaller signs for smaller spaces.  They also generate no heat and are fairly inexpensive.

 

Tools

Most of your tools can be bought at any hardware store and craft store. I have also included some store links for references.

  • Drill with standard drill bit sizes
  • Solder gun with a fine pointed tip
  • Wire stripper & cutter
    • one that can strip 20 - 10awg (gauge) at least, but if can strip thinner too, even better, up to 26awg
    • most should also have a flat blade for cutting wire
  • X-Acto knife with a sharp standard #11 blade
  • Heat gun
  • Scissors
  • Other optional tools like a hammer, pliers, magnifying glass, chalk pencil, and cutting mat may also be useful.

 

Supplies

EL wire can be bought from various online stores. I have found coolneon.com to be a great learning resource as I was figuring things out. They also have great customer service, so I got most of my supplies there!

  • A design! More on that in Step 1.
  • All the lengths of colors of wire you want!
    • If you have a design in mind, approximate the length you'll need for each color, and add a few more feet to be safe. In the photo below, you can see you have to accommodate for the "black" hidden wires as well, and for connecting different colored wires behind.
    • Opt for the "High Bright" wire for general use, or "Phat" if you want extra UV protection out in the sun. High Bright is 2.6mm and Phat is 3.2mm, so they should be comparable in flexibility.
    • They are the brightest (which is still not brighter than real neon). I used "High Bright Standard 2.6mm" because it is flexible for my intricate shapes. The "High Bright Hella Phat 5mm" may be harder to bend, and I believe is equally bright as the standard, but it may look more like traditiona neon's size.
  • A driver
    • I got the Pipsqueak for its quiet operation. But the "Quieter Blue Fish" may have been a better choice because it's even quieter. Most are battery operated, but you can buy an additional adapter for plugging it into the wall. Almost all the drivers have a corresponding wall adapter.
    • Opt for the quietest driver possible, because they usually give off a high pitch hum while turned on. It's not always noticeable when in a room with other noises, but the quieter the better.
  • Heat shrink tubing (1/8in)
    • Length depends on complexity of your design, I used almost 4 feet worth of tubing, to cover parts of the wire that I want unlit. Having too much is better than too little.
  • Wire-side connectors (1 piece)
    • To solder to the beginning of your EL wire, which then connects to the driver for power
  • Standard electronic solder (60/40) - any hardware store has this
  • Stranded hook-up electrical wire (26awg)
    • 26awg is very thin and may be hard to find in stores, but you can use a slightly thicker (24awg) wire or use speaker wire.
    • Used for connecting different colored wires together, so not to waste lengths of EL wire. This wire comes in coils and is very cheap if you can find it. Radioshack may be your best bet.
  • Black electrical tape
  • Thin plywood
    • In the size you want to place your design. Craft shops have conveniently sized sheets perfect for this.
  • Black paint
    • To cover the plywood for a black background
  • Other basic supplies like tape, nails, super glue may also be useful.

 

The unlit sign. You can see the black covered parts of the wires.

The Pipsqueak Driver can light 4-20' of wire. It operates by a 9V battery, or with an AC adapter for the wall outlet.

Overview

The neon sign operates as one continuous strand of wire, which could be different colors soldered together or extended with plain "hookup" wire. The whole strand is connected to one driver that serves it electrical power. In order to "lift" the EL wire away from the back board, parts of the wire is bent backwards to serve as anchors that get glued to the back board. These parts are covered with black heat shrink tubing to prevent them from glowing. The lift is to simulate traditional neon signs and to provide a more pleasing glow. Similar to traditional neons, when the sign is turned on in the dark, the black areas are completely hidden from view.

 Parts of the wire that need to be completely hidden can be tucked away behind the board by drilling a hole and threading the wire through to the back. This is useful when the next connecting color is far away from the previous color.

Before beginning, it would be useful to skim through the directions first so you can have a clearer big picture of how it all goes down.

Step 1 - Design

Make a to-size drawing of what you want for your neon sign. Use simple lines and avoid too many steep corners. It is easy to bend the wire and keep them in shape, but too much re-bending the same point will cause that area to lose its glow (like a glowstick that's not shaken up well). Try a simple design as a first attempt. You can always disassemble it and make a nicer one next time. If you want to try out "biiru", you can click on the image below to download my template. It's a big drawing spanning a few pages of paper. After printing, just tape all the pieces together.

Click to download PDF template

 

Wait - it's reversed! The template is reversed! Why, yes, yes it is. Reversing the template allows you to work from the back of the design where all the stuff happens. So if you have your own template, reverse it by either reversing it on the computer, or trace it by hand from the back of the paper

Step 1a - Paint backboard

Paint your piece of plywood with black paint on the front side. Let it dry.

Step 2 - Connecting EL Wire to Driver

Before we start to bend our wire into shape, we have to first solder the beginning of our EL wire to the single wire-side connector. The wire-side connector is what snaps onto the driver. Pick a spot and a color on your template to start the sign.

Because coolneon.com has done such a fantastic job of putting together a tutorial on soldering the EL wire and wire-side connector together, I will have to defer you to their guide for this part. With their permission, I have summarized it below, with some extra comments and edits from me to fit the purpose of this project.

Soldering EL wire tutorial from coolneon.com

 

Full guide at:
http://www.coolneon.com/el-wire-soldering/the-ultimate-beginers-guide-to-soldering-cool-neon-el-wire/


 

Section 3: The Basic Joint

3.1 Overview
3.1.1 Cool Neon wire anatomy

Your Cool Neon wire consists of a vinyl cover (1), under which lives an inner coating (2), under which live two corona wires (3), and a core wire (4). (Hella Phat Cool Neon wire has two layers of inner coating. Angel Hair Cool Neon wire has no vinyl cover. These variations have little effect on soldering, other than how the wire is to be prepared.)

3.1.2 What will get connected

The basic Cool Neon joint consists of two soldered connections. First, the core wire must be soldered to the short end of the connecter pigtail (1). Then, the two corona wires must be soldered to the long end of the connecter pigtail (2). The two pigtail ends of the connecter are staggered to prevent the connections from touching and shorting out. In particular, notice that the black cover of the long pigtail will not come in contact with the core wire, but instead will only touch red vinyl cover.

3.2 Prepare end of wire
3.2.1 Strip outer coating

The following steps will take a little bit of practice with EL wire. That's why you bought extras, right? Just pick a color to practice with, you don't have to cut off a short piece, just use any end of your spool of wire as is.

Grab a strand of Cool Neon wire. You can attach a connecter to either end. Your first step will be to strip ¾ of an inch of vinyl coating off one end of the wire.

Thread ¾ of an inch of wire through a hole in the wire stripper that is small enough to cut through the coating, but not into the wire itself. Grip lightly and rotate 90 degrees in each direction. (Grip too hard and you may cut through the wire entirely.) Release pressure and slide the stripper off wire. Pull off the vinyl coating.

3.2.2 Strip inner coating, revealing core and two corona wires

Your wire has ¾ of an inch of vinyl coating removed, exposing an inner coating. You need to remove that inner coating without damaging the two corona wires wrapped around the core wire.

Method 1 - 3:

See full guide for their methods. I have my own suggestion below.

My preferred method:

Because the two corona wires are tiny and fragile, it's easy to strip those on accident too when using a stripper. So I have found this method to be much more failsafe:

Take your X-Acto knife with a sharp #11 blade. Carefully cut along the length of the exposed inner coating. Cut a line deep enough to peel off the coating, while making sure to avoid the two corona wires spiraling inside it. A magnifying glass and a bright light are especially helpful for this operation. Once cut across, you can peel back the coating, like a banana, and then just cut off the "peel" at the base. If the corona wires are stuck inside the peel, simply use a pin or your knife to gently ease them out.

After practicing this a few times, it becomes quite easy to do! And you don't have to worry about melting any wires and causing a gooey mess.

3.2.3 Test corona wires


Tug on the two corona wires to make sure they are still strong and have not been damaged by the stripping process.

I know. You’re hesitant to do this. It took you three tries to get the wire stripped, and four tries after that to burn off the inner coating without burning the corona wires. They look fragile. If you tug them and they break, you’ll have to start all over.

Tug on them anyway. If they break, better you find out now rather than after doing all the soldering. Then you’ll end up with wire that doesn’t light and you won’t know why. Tug on them, and if they’re good, bend them back out of the way.

3.2.4 Scrape phosphor off main wire


You’ve bent the corona wires safely out of the way? Good. Now use a razor blade to strip off the dull-white phosphor cover of the central wire, exposing the shiny metal surface.

3.2.5 Thread heat-shrink tubing for later use

Cut off a 1.5 inch strip of heat-shrink tubing and thread it over the two pigtails of the wire-side connecter Congratulate yourself on remembering to do this. Notice that the tubing will not fit over the white plastic end of the connecter. Which means that any shmoe who forgets to thread the tubing over the wire before soldering has a problem. Now you’re ready to begin soldering.

 

3.3 How many hands do I need?

Consider what it is you’re about to do: apply solder and a soldering iron to two pieces of metal which must be held in place together. Those of you sufficiently limber and with fine foot-eye dexterity will have no problem holding all four components. The rest of us need to consider how to proceed.

You need to position your soldering iron in a stable position so you can have both hands free to solder wires. You can do this in any way you feel comfortable. You can use a clamp or table vice to secure it to a table. Or use a mug, as they suggested, and stick your iron into the mug with the tip facing up (keep the cord out of the way). Or stick it between a pile of heavy books, with the metal part sticking out. Just be sure to keep the hot metal parts away from any heat-sensitive objects.

 

3.4 Soldering
3.4.1 Seasoning the soldering iron


A new soldering iron can take a long time to heat some other metal hot enough to melt solder. It will all happen, but it will take long enough to make you wonder if you’re doing something wrong. There is a short-cut, based on the familiar notion that solder heats quickly. Turn on your soldering iron and wait until it is hot to the touch. Apply some solder to the tip of the iron. The solder on the iron will quickly get hot. Use that hot spot to heat whatever metal you want to heat. You might think of this technique as pre-tinning the soldering iron.

3.4.2 Pre-tin core wire

As noted in 2.1.2, to pre-tin is to coat metal with solder in order to make the subsequent joint stronger. The corona wires are thin and do not require pre-tinning.

 The connecter wires from Cool Neon are all pre-tinned. All that is left to pre-tin is the newly exposed core-wire.

With the soldering iron held by the (coffee cup) fixation device, hold the exposed core wire in one hand and touch it to the tip of the iron (on the hot spot created in the step above). Hold a short length of solder in the other hand and touch it to the core wire (not to the soldering iron).

What happens next is great. When the core wire heats up enough to melt the solder, the solder will melt around and cover the core wire, looking exactly like the liquid-metal effects in Terminator 2 and The Abyss. Your core-wire is now pre-tinned.

3.4.3 Solder core wire

You’re now ready to join some metal. Go back and make sure that the heat-shrink tubing has been threaded over the connecter wire! Ready? Ok. Apply a tiny bit of solder to the tip of the iron. (A tiny bit. There may already be some there, left over from previous soldering. That’s probably enough.) Put the solder down. Hold the wire in one hand and the connecter in the other, such that the core wire lies alongside the short pigtail. There is no need to twist them together. Lock your pinkies together so that your hands move together as a single unit. This should help keep the pieces from moving apart.

Bring the joint to the tip of the soldering iron. Fairly quickly, the available solder will flow over the pre-tinned core wire and the factory pre-tinned connecter wires. Once the solder flows, remove the joint from the heat of the iron so that it can cool. You must keep it very steady at this point so that the solder forms a strong bond. (This is the reason you have locked you pinkies together.)

Within seconds the joint cools and becomes as strong as the wire itself.

3.4.4 Trim sharp edges

Occasionally the solder will form spikes or sharp edges protruding away from the joint, which may become problematic when the heat-shrink tubing is applied. You don’t want one to slice open the tubing and expose the joint. Use your razor blade to chop them off, or a pair of pliers to crush them down.

3.4.5 Test the core connection

The core connection provides the structural integrity of the joint. Test it to make sure it is strong.

The most important test is that the joint is stronger than the connection between the wire side and driver side connecters. Set up the wire as shown below and join the white plastic connecters. Grab the far ends of the wires and pull apart.

The joint should hold and the plastic connecter should pop out. This reflects good material design. Should your soldered strand of wire come under stress (caught in a bicycle spoke or run over by an art car) the connecter will pop out for easy replacement, and the joint will hold.

3.4.6 Solder corona wires

You will now connect the corona wires to the long pigtail of the connecter. There are two methods for this step. The first is slightly easier in that it requires less manual dexterity, but it also requires extra material (copper foil, provided in the Learn to Solder kit) and an extra sub-step or two. The second method is faster and simpler, but requires more involved manipulation of fine wires. Try them both (in different joints) and see which you prefer.

3.4.6.1 Method 1: Copper foil

See full guide for this method. Method 2 is just as easy without foil.

3.4.6.2 Method 2: No foil

Let’s re-orient. You’ve soldered the core wire to the shorter connecter pigtail (3.4.3) and are now ready to solder the corona wires onto the long connecter pigtail (without using foil).

3.4.6.2.1 Twist corona wires around connecter

Twist the two exposed corona wires around the long pigtail of the connecter. This is intricate work and may take a few tries.

3.4.6.2.2 Solder

Apply a tiny bit of solder to the tip of the iron. (A tiny bit. There may already be some there, left over from previous soldering. That’s probably enough.) Put the solder down. You can probably hold the joint in one hand since the already soldered core wire provides some stability.

 

Bring the joint to the tip of the soldering iron. Very quickly, the available solder will flow over the corona wires and the factory pre-tinned connecter wires.

You have completed the second of the two soldered connections. Trim off any spikes that protrude.

If you like, connect the wire-side and driver-side connecters, power the driver, and look at the pretty light.

3.4.7 Apply heat-shrink tube

Slide the heat-shrink tube you previously threaded in step 3.2.5 back over the connecter wire to cover the joint. Now you must heat it. There are two methods:

3.4.7.1 Use some expensive method

If you happen to have a heat gun or a paint stripper, now is the time to use it. A hair drier will not be sufficient. On the other hand, you can always . . .

 

3.4.7.2 Use side of soldering iron

Not recommended for this project, because you'll want a clean finish in the areas you'll want to mask. A heat gun will give you a much cleaner finish.

Congratulations! You have soldered your own piece of Cool Neon wire.

 

SHOW GUIDE

 

Step 3 - Draw with EL wire

Whew, well that was lengthy. But now that you have the initial connection set up, you can start shaping some EL wire!

Take the first color wire that you have already soldered to the wire-side connector. You should have tested the light already by connecting it to the driver and see that it works. If so, great! Place your drawing on the table and pick a spot to begin your wire. Some place in the corner of the drawing works well. I started at the beer mug where the foamy head is close to the mug handle. Remember the drawing is reversed because you're working from the backside. Start outlining your drawing with the EL wire. Gently curve and bend it to match your drawing, using pieces of scotch tape to secure it to your drawing. Be light with the tape though, as it can leave gunk residue on the wire if you go overboard.

You don't have to be absolutely perfect with the shaping right now, as you'll get to tweak it as you go. But just get it close.

Step 4 - Jumping spots

If you have a line within the same color that needs to jump or skip to a different spot, like my yellow mug below, this is a great chance to create an anchor that will support your light from behind.

Where your line needs to skip, bend the wire backwards and slip a long piece of black heat shrink tubing into that spot. You can trim it shorter with scissors while slipped on if necessary. Bend it back and forward again, just like in the picture below. You can see in the beer mug, there are black anchors that hide one continuous strand of yellow wire. When flipped over, those anchors help hold the light up against the back board.

It is wise to include these anchors throughout as you're outlining your drawing, for support. Even if you don't have a line skip, you can artificially create one by jumping from one point of the drawing to another and continuing from there.

 

Here is the back of the "biiru" lettering, showing all the black anchors. It appears like separate lettering strokes, even though it's all one single strand of wire. The anchors also attach to the backboard and keep the light away from it. The red pencil over my template was my pre-planning how the wire will run (start here, start anchor here, go this direction, etc.). It helps to plan things out on paper!

Step 5 - Changing colors

Changing colors is very easy, since you have already learned to strip and solder EL wire.

If you need to attach a new color right next to the previous color:

Then just solder the two wires together. Cut off the previous color, keeping an extra 3" or so for soldering and anchoring. Here is coolneon.com's suggested method.

Soldering two EL wires together

Full guide at:
http://www.coolneon.com/el-wire-soldering/the-ultimate-beginers-guide-to-soldering-cool-neon-el-wire/


 

Twist the two core wires together and the four corona wires together.

4.2.2 Soldering the wire-to-wire joint

Solder the core wires together and clip off the long end.

Solder the corona wires together, and bend them back away from the core wires.

Almost done!

Thread some heat-shrink over the edge. (Yes, this is the one joint that doesn’t require heat-shrink pre-threading. Think of the countless hours saved.) Shrink it down.

Done!

4.2.3 Making a straight line

I guess that looks OK, but I has hoping for more of a continuous strand that changes color. Not one that goes along one way and doubles back at the joint.

No worries. Bend each wire ninety degrees away from the heat-shrink-covered joint.

 

This extra black piece can act as a support anchor. You can see that's where I joined the yellow and white in the photo below, on the right top edge of the beer mug.

SHOW GUIDE

 

If you need an extension or to attach a new color some distance away from the previous color:

Instead of soldering the previous color to the new color directly, you use the 26awg hookup wire to extend the connection. Do not fully solder both colors to the extension until you are ready to transfer your whole light onto the backboard, because you will need to string the extensions through drilled holes in the board.

  1. Cut two pieces of hookup wire long enough to connect the two colors some distance away. Strip both ends of both wires about .5". Strip the end of the EL wire about 1" and expose the core wire.
  2. Slide in a piece of heat-shrink tubing into the EL wire.
  3. Pre-tin both the core wire and the hookup wire. Then solder them together in exactly the same way as before when soldering the wire-side connector.
  4. Pre-tin the other piece of hookup wire. Wrap the corona wires around this wire in exactly the same way as before when soldering the wire-side connector.
  5. Mark one strand of hookup wire with some tape or some other marker, so you can remember which is connected to the core wire, and not the corona wires.
  6. Wrap the heat shrink tubing around this connection and seal it with the heat gun.
  7. You will solder the next color to the other end of the hookup wires, but NOT YET. Do not solder the next color on until you are ready to move your light onto the backboard. Continue laying out the different colors until you are ready to remove the paper template and move your light onto the backboard. You may solder any direct color changes (without extensions), but save the extensions for later.

Soldering the extension is the same as soldering the wire-side connector to EL wire from the beginning.

Step 6 - Transferring the design to backboard

When you have all your different colors laid out and bend to their proper shapes,  carefully remove the tape and remove them from their paper template. You may have several colors that are still in separate pieces.

Lay out your lights on the backboard and position them until they are where you want them. You can use a chalk pencil to lightly trace your design onto the backboard for easier positioning. You can tape the anchors to the board with some electrical tape temporarily for stabilizing.

Wherever you have an extension, drill a hole just big enough in the backboard to string it through to the backside. Drill another hole for where it should come back up and attach to the next color of EL wire. At this point you can finally solder the extension to the new color, making sure to connect the right hookup wire to the proper core or corona wires. I'm informed, it actually works either way even if you mix them up, but for strength, you should connect core wire to core wire, so you don't even up wasting your hard work with a broken connection. You may need to hold the soldering iron in your hand to accomplish this solder, or get someone to assist you.

What the backside looks like, where it hides all the extensions and the driver and battery. A simple picture hanger hook is drilled onto the backside so it can hang on a wall.

  1. After everything is drilled and semi-taped down, you can use superglue or another adhesive to glue all the anchors down onto the backboard.
  2. Use fishline to invisibly tie any lose areas of EL wire together. I used fishline to tie the mug handle closer to the mug body.
  3. Add hanger wire to the backside for hanging on a wall.
  4. Connect the battery, turn off the lights, and be dazzled by your new neon sign!

 

Conclusion

Even though this tutorial was rather long, making the sign itself is actually very straightforward. It may look hard if you have never soldered or strip wire before, but these are very useful general skills to have, in my opinion, and will open doors to many more possibilities for other projects. It doesn't really hurt to learn, so why not?

I was pretty happy with my first sign (as was Mr. Pooper). I look forward to making other things with all my EL wires too (I bought many colors!). Maybe a fancy greeting card or a holiday sign. I love exploring new techniques and materials, so this was a very interesting project for me! I hope you'll enjoy it too if you take the leap. Any questions welcome!