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
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.
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
- Other optional tools like a hammer, pliers, magnifying glass, chalk pencil, and cutting mat may also be useful.
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.
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
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
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.
- 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.
- Slide in a piece of heat-shrink tubing into the EL wire.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Wrap the heat shrink tubing around this connection and seal it with the heat gun.
- 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.
- After everything is drilled and semi-taped down, you can use superglue or another adhesive to glue all the anchors down onto the backboard.
- 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.
- Add hanger wire to the backside for hanging on a wall.
- Connect the battery, turn off the lights, and be dazzled by your new neon sign!
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!