EL Wire Neon Sign Pt. 1

Hello again! Joe and I took a break for the holidays but now we’re back!

So this will be a 2 parter because there’s more I want to do with this project that I haven’t had time for as of writing this.

Background and Direction:
I discovered EL wire about a year ago because of this thingiverse post and consequently reading a bunch about it on Adafruit. Some of my friends moved into a new house with a bar area and as a housewarming gift I thought it would be a good idea to make them a neon sign. They are both into cars and automotive stuff (her a Jeep and him a Corvette) so that would be the theme of the sign. Her jeep has lime green accents so I chose that color EL wire for the Jeep logo and his Corvette is red so I picked that for the Corvette logo.

 

BOM:

EL wire – Your choice of where to get it. Adafruit sells it, as do a whole bunch of people on amazon. I chose the latter for cost.

EL wire inverter – I bought this one from amazon but the wire I bought also came with battery powered ones. Up to you.

EL wire splitter – Depends on your setup but I needed one because of my 2 different colors.

Power Supply for inverter – I had a 12V 1 or so Amp supply laying around which was probably overkill

Switch – Self explanatory. Also not completely necessary.

Epoxy – I used E6000 which is available at most department stores or online.

Plywood – For the face of the sign. Big enough for your design.

More plywood or other wood scraps – For the frame. This will probably be what holds the sign on the wall and hides the electronics.

Black (or whatever you like) spray paint – Black provides a nice contrast with the lights so I prefer it.

 

Tools:

CNC router with 1/8″ ball nose bit –  Check your local makerspace for one.

Sandpaper – Eliminates rough edges.

Nail gun or small brad nails and a hammer – For attaching the frame to the face.

A bunch of tape – You’ll see…

Syringe – For applying the epoxy. If you use epoxy that needs to be mixed you may have a small enough nozzle to apply it accurately but the E6000 needs it to be accurate.

 

Step 1: ‘Digital Stuff’

Find/make your DXF file you want to cut. For my two logos I googled things like ‘free Jeep logo dxf’ and I eventually found one that worked with minimal editing. The vector program I use is Inkscape but Adobe Illustrator should work nicely too. I should say you also don’t have to find a DXF file as an SVG should work nicely as well. If you want to be really complicated you can even take a JPEG or PNG file and convert it to a vector file (spoiler alert for part 2). Here is also where you can spec out how much wire you will need. On most vector editing programs you can measure how long a connected line is.

Depending on your router you will also want to port your finished neon sign design to your cutting software. For this one since it was so big I used my makerspaces ShopBot which uses Vcarve. There are plenty of guides on how to set it up with that so I won’t get into that here. I will however get into aspects of my cut profile.

I used a 1/8″ ball nose router bit and I cut down 1/16″ so the cut looks like a semicircle. My EL wire was around 2mm or so in diameter so the 1/8″ (3.175mm) groove made a nice spot for the wire to seat down in.

Also for your toolpath you will want to drill some small 1/8″ holes in the profile. These hole locations will depend on if you need to weave in and out of the face of the sign like I had to do for the Jeep part. In every closed profile you need 2 holes, one coming and one going. This should become clear later in this post.

The layout for my sign
Holes on wire guide groove

Step 2: ‘Cutting Stuff’

So. Now you’re ready to run your toolpath. So do that.

Also attach your frame pieces to the sides. I made mine 1-1/2″ thick for the inverter and just to give me more room since this was the first time I did it. I could probably shrink that if I wanted to. Once these pieces are attached sand everything.

I used 3/16″ birch plywood for this sign which worked ok but I have a hunch the same thickness of MDF will work better because that is a less grainy material (as in it is homogeneous unlike all plywood) and the face will look more plain and consistent. An example of that plywood’s inconsistency is I sanded off a section of the veneer. I painted over it but MDF is probably the way to go.

The messed up veneer. MDF will be tried next time

Step 3: ‘Testing’

This step isn’t completely necessary but I did it as a sanity check.

Take the non, connector end of your EL wire and thread it all the way through the face. Put the wire into the groove and tape as you go. Scotch tape works if you want to get a pretty good representation of what the finished sign will look like. I prefer using blue painters tape because of the capitalized sentences below:

IF YOU USE SCOTCH TAPE MAKE SURE BEFORE YOU PAINT IT TO REMOVE ALL THE TAPE. IT IS CLEAR AND WILL MAKE YOU WRITE ON WEBSITES IN ALL CAPS IF YOU MISS A PIECE AND PAINT OVER IT.

Anyway…

If you have breaks in your pattern (like the Jeep) thread the end back out then come back in in the next loop. Keep going like this until your pattern is complete.

Once that is done you can try your sign out and see if it is everything you imagined.

Remove the EL wire and tape for the next step.

Let the connector end dangle a bit
Taped down wire
Finished Jeep Routing

Step 4: ‘Painting’

You were probably confused that I didn’t paint it. Well fear not, I did.

You don’t need to paint the inside since no one will see it when it is hung. Sides and front are necessary.

Step 5: ‘Weaving and Gluing’

Do the same thing as in Step 3. Tape everything down. Make sure the beginning (connector side) of the EL wire is where you can get power to it easily.

Once everything is taped down start with the connector end and begin removing tape, epoxying the wire into the groove, and replacing the tape to ‘clamp’ it in place. A little goes a long way with the epoxy. You want to hide the glue while still getting enough to hold the wire down. Its a delicate balance. A great post on how to use E6000 with a syringe is right here.

One thing I will change for next time is I bought white E6000 (I thought it would dry clear…) They make a black version that would be more subtle.

Follow your epoxy’s instructions for drying times. I let mine sit for about 24 hours.

Thread through the face
Tape down as you route
Thread back through
After taping
My preferred epoxy delivery system
Peel up tape
Insert epoxy in groove
Replace tape
Everything taped and glued

Step 6: ‘Wire up’

Connect your inverter through a splitter or whatever you need to get it lit. You will want to wire your switch, if desired, before the inverter so you are shutting off what I’m going to call ‘easy electricity’. What I mean by that is the inverter makes the DC going into it into a high frequency AC signal to get the EL wire to glow. It is a touch harder to work with that signal compared to the easy DC stuff, especially if you want an arduino or a Pi to control it turning on or off.

Something to note about the inverter is that it emits a high pitched tone during use. I mitigated this by making a foam enclosure and letting the inverter freely shake itself around inside it. It doesn’t eliminate the noise but you need to be listening for it to hear it.

Wired up switch
My inverter
Making my foam enclosure
The finished foam and hot glue enclosure

Voila! There’s your sign!

The finished product!

I hope you enjoyed this write up and keep an eye out for part 2.

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