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MakeICT was the recipient of an EL (electroluminescent wire) kit from Instructables and coolneon.com in January 2014. We decided that our most pressing need was a sign to direct people to our door. We meet bi-weekly and it took 7 sessions to create the sign in its current state. About halfway through the process someone suggested animating the gears. We all decided that was great, but would wait until a later version.

In our first meeting, we reviewed the materials list to decide on a project. One MakeICT member brought a mockup to show the flexibility of the EL wire. We quickly settled on some sort of sign. The entry door to our makerspace is on a dark side alley. We printed out the letters of the sign, one to an 8.5 x 11 sheet, started brainstorming, and this is what we ended up with.

Step 1: Supplies

Tools:
  • Cable ties
  • Needle nose pliers
  • Wire cutters
  • Wire strippers
  • Awl
  • Scissors
  • Small wooden spools (optional)
  • A friend (optional, but recommended)

Materials:

  • EL wire (we used 10 strands cut into 5 ft. lengths)
  • Power source and inverter
    NOTE: The power source we were provided failed (lifted trace on the PCB) and had to be replaced.
    • 12v, 1.5a AC/DC Adapter
    • Inverter
  • EL Sequencer/shield
  • An Arduino
  • Craft wire (12 ga.)
  • Scrap plywood
  • Light finish nails
  • Fishing line (15 lb. test)
  • White plastic tape
  • Black electrical tape
  • Corrugated plastic board
  • Wire coat hangers (2)
  • Large grommets (2)
  • Code

Step 2: Layout

Print the letters/shapes of your sign design in the desired font and size.

Arrange the letters on the corrugated plastic board to determine the final size and arrangement of the sign.

We ended up using white corrugated plastic board because we didn't have enough black. Black is probably a better choice, as the white board allows light to shine through, including light from the Arduino/shield.

Step 3: Creating Letter Forms

Now tape each letter to a scrap sheet of plywood and put in nails at all the corners, angles, and along straight runs. These nails will serve as points for us to bend wire, creating our letter forms. Note that when the wire goes on the outside of the nail, you must put the nail on the inside edge of the letter. When the wire makes a turn or runs along the inside of the nail, put the nail along the outer edge of the letter. You will not be able to get sharp corners using this gauge of craft wire, see the gear teeth, but it works pretty well.

Pick a place that seems comfortable and start bending the wire around the nail pattern. Make sure to leave an extra tail of wire at the start for later

With your wire letter fully formed, remove enough nails to free the wire. At this point the letter will may lose some of its shape, but don't worry. This will happen several times in the process. Keep the original printed letter to use as a template.

Cut off the wire roll from the letter, leaving a tail. Use the two tails to connect the ends of the wire letter together.

Repeat this process for each letter/shape in your design.

Step 4: Illuminate the Letters

Wrap a long piece of fishing line around something small to make a spool of line. We used a small screwdriver and some wooden craft spools.

This is most easily accomplished as a two person job. While one person guides the EL wire along the letter form, the other person wraps the fishing line around both the EL wire and the craft wire. This should keep the EL wire in place. The letter will deform as you do this, but it can be worked back in shape.

Pick your starting place so that the leftover wire tail can reach the controller on the back. Start wrapping from that corner using the terminal end of the EL wire, not the connector end.

Notice that we used 1 wire for the letters "I" and "T". We didn’t leave a long enough piece of EL wire between them. You can see that that portion, wrapped in white tape, partially obscures the "C" in "ICT".

You may have to wrap portions of EL wire in tape to cover where it jumps across. One example is where the wire goes from the outside of the "A" to the inside. We used white tape since our board was white.

Step 5: Build the Sign Structure

Once your letters are completed, lay them out on your backboard. You may need to cut the backboard to size. We had to use two pieces since our board was tall enough, but not long enough.

When you have your final design, mark the locations where the wires must go to the back. Also mark as many places as necessary to secure the letters. Punch holes in the board with an awl or knife.

Thread a cable tie from the back through each hole. Slide the tip of the cable tie between the craft wire and the EL wire so that you don’t block off the EL wire. Pull the cable tie through the same hole to the back and secure. Do this until all letters are secured and trim the cable ties. Be sure to push the connector ends of the EL wire to the back.

You may want to create a housing for your Arduino and sequencer shield. We used some scrap board to make a case and used hot glue to attach it to the sign.

Step 6: Add Grommets (optional)

We wanted our sign to be displayed in different configurations. Primarily, however it will hang outside above the door, so we added grommets because they protect the holes and look nice.

The grommets we purchased at a local craft store came with instructions (yours probably will too), but the process is pretty simple. They also came with a flaring tool and a base.

Start by marking the sign where you want your hole to be. Next, you'll need to make a hole large enough to accommodate your grommet. We did this by starting with a screw driver and then switching to a step drill bit.

Now place the two parts of the grommet into the hole, and position it onto the base. Insert the flaring tool, and give a few good blows with hammer.

Repeat this process for each hole.

Step 7: Power, Program, and Hang

We made a small box out of the corrugated board to house the controller on the back of the sign. Holes were cut in the sides to accommodate the EL connections and the power cords. We hope to make a more permanent cover with the 3D printer at a later time.

The EL wire on the back of the board was covered in black electrical tape to keep it from shining through to the front. The controller box was made so that the LED's on the controller were turned to the wall.

Information about programming for the shield, including sample source code is available here. We didn't like that code, however, as it was confusing and somewhat magical. In the end, we wrote our own code.

To hang the sign, we secure 2 large grommets to the top of the sign.

The brick wall by our alley door has some old wire sticking out of the brick. We straightened two wire coat hangers and made hooks at both ends to hang the sign. An extension cord was run from the inside to the alley. The sign will be hung out only when the space is open.

<p>Great job, It looks awesome!</p>
<p>Very cool design! noteper light show can be made steeper controlled ipad https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q8c6u_P4lUM</p>
<p>It looks fantastic! I've been wanting to make something similar to this for a long time - definitely favoriting this to use as reference later :D</p>
<p>Thanks! We were pretty pleased with how it turned out too. <br>Unfortunately though, the letter forms don't hold their shape as well as <br> we thought they would. It doesn't help that our sign is moved regularly <br> (it lives outside but isn't weatherproof). <br></p><p>You could use stiffer wire, but that would be harder to bend. Anyway, it adds a little personality to it :)</p>

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