Introduction: DIY Copper Style LED Painting Illuminator

Do you have a painting or a photograph, that you want to illuminate? Why use an old, boring light bulb, when you can make a much more energy efficient illuminator, that is a piece of art by itself.

Copper is a really good looking metal. It's rarely used for domestic applications, such as light fixtures. Almost everything, that is made out of metal these days is made out of stainless steel. I'm tired of it, so I thought: why not make something different. Something unique.

This instructable will show you how to make a very energy efficient and unique light fixture for illuminating your paintings or photographs.

I will also show you how you can make it light sensitive, so that it automatically turns on at night.

Step 1: Materials

Here is an overview of all the parts, you need to make your very own Copper style LED Painting Illuminator:

  • A copper tube. These are widely available. You can get them at Home Depot and other stores that sells plumbing supplies. They're available in many different diameters. Try not to get one, that is too thin, as it will make it difficult to wire up the LEDs. The one I used was 1.5 centimetres (0.59 inches) in diameter, and I don't recommend using a smaller diameter than that.
  • LEDs. For this type of project, you'll definately want warm white LEDs. The normal white or cool white LEDs will often be more bluish in their light, and you don't want a bluish light on your painting or photograph. In the next step, I'll show you some of the many LED possibilities. The quantity depends on your needs and the length of the tube. I used 9.
  • Some enemaled copper wire a.k.a. magnet wire. It's a good idea to use two different diameters, so you can easily identify the polarity.
  • Resistors. The quantity and value depends on the type of LEDs and how many you use. I will show you how to calculate the value of the resistors in step 3.
  • Two screws for mounting your fixture on a wall. Brass screws are the preferred ones for this project, because they almost have the same color as the copper tube.
  • Some hookup wire to connect it to your power supply.
  • Some thinner hookup wire to connect the two ends of the tube together.
  • Heat shrink tubing. You'll need different diameters of it.
  • A sheet of ordinary paper.

Step 2: Choosing the Right LEDs

As I said in the previous step, you'll definately want a warm white LED. But there are many different kinds of warm white LEDs out there. I will compare 4 different kinds of LEDs in this step.

The 4.8mm wide viewing angle LED. This LED has a wide viewing angle, which is great for this project, but it's not bright enough to properly light up a painting or a photograph.

The classic 5mm Ultrabright LED. This LED is bright, which is great for this project. The problem with this LED is that it has a narrow viewing angle, so it will not distrubute the light uniformly, so there is a risk of getting light "dots" on the painting or photograph, that you will be illuminating.

The wide viewing angle SuperFlux LED. This LED has a wide viewing angle like the 4.8mm LED has, but as with the 4.8mm LED, it is not bright enough for this project.

The 8mm "StrawHat" Ultrabright LED. This LED has a wide viewing angle, and unlike the SuperFlux and the 4.8mm LED, It's very bright. It's the perfect LED for this project. The only problem it has is that it heats up quickly, but that's not a big problem in this case, since the LEDs will be hanging in mid-air. I chose these LEDs for the Copper Style LED Painting Illuminator.

The pictures below shows all the four LEDs mentioned above. There are also a couple of pictures showing the difference between a cool and a warm white LED from the same manufacturer.

Step 3: Calculate the Resistor Values

When you're working with LEDs, it's very important that you use the proper resistor(s) in series with the LED(s). Using the wrong resistors or not using any resistors at all will reduce the lifespan of the LED(s) or burn them out instantly.

In this step, I'll show you how to calculate the value of the resistors. Before you can calculate the value, there are three things that you need to know.

The forward voltage of the LED(s). In datasheets this is often marked as Vf. For white and warm white LEDs, this is usually 3.4 to 3.6 volts.

The forward current of the LED(s). In datasheets this is often marked as If. The forward current varies a lot from LED to LED. LEDs that has a brightness of 1000mcd to 20000mcd usually has a forward current of 20mA. However this is not always the case. You should always check the specs of your LEDs.

The supply voltage of the intire circuit. I used a 12V wall wart adaptor.

I use to calculate the resistance of the resistors.

To calculate the resistor value, simply type in the forward voltage, forward current, the supply voltage and how many LEDs you want. The calculator recommends a 56 ohm resistor when using two 100mA LEDs in series with 12V supply voltage.

Note: the resistor values shown in the schematic below are for the 5-chips 100mA LEDs that I use in this project only. If you're using different LEDs than I do, you should use to calculate the proper resistance.

Step 4: Prep the Copper Tube

Before you start, you'll need to know how long you want the tube to be. The painting, I wanted to illuminate had a width 50cm (19.69 inches). In my opinion, it looks best when the length of the tube is a little smaller than the width of the painting or photograph, that you're illuminating. I found out that 45cm (17.7 inches) was a nice length for me, so I sawed off a 45cm long piece of the tube using a hacksaw. After you've sawed off the desired length of tube, it's a good idea to sand the end of the tube, as it can be pretty sharp after you've sawed it.

Once you have sawed off the desired length of tube, you can start drilling the holes in your tube. Start by drilling the two screw holes. I drilled my holes one centimeter from the two ends of the tube.

After you've drilled the screw holes, start drilling the smaller holes for the LEDs. I drilled my first "LED hole" 1.5 centimetres from the screw hole (2.5 centimetres from the end of the tube).

Next, you'll need to do some math. You'll need to calculate how far the holes for the LEDs should be from each other. The spacing between the two outer LED holes is 40cm in my case. This is how you can calculate it: Take the number of LEDs, you want and subtract one by that number (in my case 9-1=8), then take the distance between the two holes (in my case 40cm) and divide it by that subtracted number.

The reason why, you'll need to subtract one by the desired LED quantity is that if you measure the distance between your outer two LED holes, the first hole is going to be at "0cm" at you tape measurer or whatever you use to measure, and last hole is going to be at "40cm". So if you want say 8 LEDs on 40cm and you just use this calculation: 40 divided by 8 is 5, and you start drilling the holes with 5cm between each hole, you'll end up having 9 holes, because the first hole is at "0cm". So always subtract one by the desired number of LEDs.

The result of that calculation is 5 in my case. That means that the distance between each LED hole should be 5cm.

Use a permanent marker to mark up, where you want to drill the holes.

Step 5: Solder the LEDs and the Copper Wires Together

It's time to assemble the LED "arms" coming out of the tube. The most annoying part of making these is that you have to burn and/or scratch the enemaling off the copper wire. This can be quite time consuming, so be patient.

Before you start cutting the wires, you should know how far from the tube you want to have the LEDs hanging. I found out that 30 cm was a good distance for my painting. Keep in mind that the wires should be long enough to come out of the end of the tube. I reccomend making the wires a little longer than you want them, because then, if they are too long, you can always cut a bit off.

I used two different diameters of enemaled copper wire to make it easier for myself to identify the polarity. I used the thicker wire for the positive connections and the thinner wire for the negative connections.

There are three ways to find out which LED lead is the positive (the anode) and which one is the negative (the cathode). 1. Almost every through through hole LED has a shorter lead, which is the negative and a longer one, which is the positive. 2. Most through hole LEDs have a ring at the bottom of their housing, and the ring has a flat side, and the lead closest to that flat side is the negative. 3. If you have a clear LED, you can see that there are two pieces of metal inside it. The biggest piece of metal is usually the one that connects to the negative leg of the LED.

I used a drill to twist the wires.

Always remember to slide the heat shrink tubing over the wires before you solder them together with the LEDs.

I started with the two outer LEDs which had the shortest wires.

Follow the instructions on the pictures below.

Step 6: Mount the LEDs

Now that you've assembled the LED assemblies, it's time to mount them. You'll need to do that by bending the ends of the copper wires, and then insert them into the holes, you drilled for them. I've tried to make a wiring schematic, so that you can see how I wired it up. I recommend that you start with the middle LED or the LEDs that are closest to the middle, and then mount the outer LEDs as the last ones, because if you start with the outer LEDs, it will make it harder to get the wires from the other LEDs all the way through the tube and out the end.

Another thing, that you need to do is to cut two pieces of wire, that are a little longer than the tube. This wire will be used to connect the two ends of the tube together.

Bacause I used 9 LEDs, I had 4 pairs of wires coming out at one end of the tube and 5 pairs coming out of the other. If the wires coming out of the tubes differ in length, you'll need to trim them, so they all have the same length.

Further instructions can be seen in the yellow boxes on the pictures below.

Step 7: Wire It Up

Now, the only thing that is left to do is to wire up the LEDs and resistors. I've tried to make a wiring schematic, so that you can see how I wired it up. Because the tube is electrically conductive, there is a risk of short circuits when soldering so many wires together, so to overcome this problem, I cut out two pieces of paper and inserted them into the tube. I also used heat shrink tubing to insulate every connection.

There are a lot of pictures in this step. The ones that have yellow boxes contains instructions. Move your mouse over the boxes to view them

The pictures will guide you through the process.

Step 8: Make It Light Sensitive

In this step, I'll show you how you can give your Copper Style LED Painting Illuminator an eye in the form of a LDR and a couple of other components. If you don't want or need this auto turn-on feature, you can skip this step.

Here is a video showing the Copper Style LED Painting illuminator with this light sensor in action.

The sensor has been adjusted so that when the ceiling light is turned off, the light bar turns on.

Note: from the the point of 00:22 and to 00:48, it's flashing because I'm waving a small flashlight over the light sensor.

Here is what you need to make it.

  • An LDR. Also known as a photoresistor, photocell or CdS cell.
  • An LM358N low power dual OpAmp.
  • An 8 pin DIP socket for your OpAmp. This is not strictly neccesary, but it's reccomended
  • A 10kohm resistor.
  • A 1-10kohm resistor. This resistor is used to limit the current going through the base of the transistor. The resistance of this resistor can be from 1-10kohm. The transistor doesn't care.
  • A 10kohm trimmer potentiometer. Can also be a normal potentiometer.
  • An NPN transistor. This project just requires simple on/off switching, so almost any NPN transistor will do. Here are some examples of some the transistors, you can use: 2N2222, BC337, S8050, BD139 and many others. Just check your transistor's datasheet to make sure, that it can handle the power needed for your fixture. My circuit uses a little less than 500 milliamps, so I used a BC337 because I already had some lying around.
  • A small PCB to solder all the components onto.

The schematic is pretty straightforward.

You can control at which brightness it turns on by turning the potentiometer.

Step 9: You're Done

Congrats. You just finished your DIY Copper Style LED Painting Illuminator. The only thing, there is left to do is to mount it on a wall and light it. The wall, I mounted it on was a wooden wall, so I could just screw it into the wall.

Here are some more pictures.


holmengraa made it! (author)2015-09-27

Very good idea! I made mine with a driftwood base. The led diode are not that great, the light is yellowish rather than warmwhite

RENE-L made it! (author)2015-01-14

Wouldn't the wires be "hot" to the touch?

baecker03 made it! (author)2014-09-09

what is the forward voltage of the Leds? it seems like you are over driving them...

spyler03 made it! (author)2009-07-26

One question. How many volts did you use to power this?

justinhyp made it! (author)justinhyp2009-07-31

It looks like 12v... it said that somewhere... You can use a number of voltages... according to the resister you use.

spyler03 made it! (author)spyler032009-08-01

Oh... Youre right in Step 3 it says it. Thanks

starmoon125 made it! (author)2009-07-19

我喜欢画,我画了一些画,等我有了家,我会用这招的! I like painting and painted a lot pictures.When I get married,I'll get this idea.Very great!


Cool. If you want, you can post some pictures of it, when it's done.

starmoon125 made it! (author)starmoon1252009-07-20

我结婚还早着呢,哈哈。你是第一个在这个网站和我讲话的人,我们会成为好朋友的。 OK,But It has so long time till I get married. You are the first person talking to me when I join into this web site.We'll be friends.


OK, but when you get married, have a really nice wedding.

starmoon125 made it! (author)starmoon1252009-07-20

Thank you very much.

starmoon125 made it! (author)starmoon1252009-07-20

Plus.I'm a student of Art Department in a college of China.And I saw lots of great ideas in here.So intelligent and different mode of thinking were not like Chinese. Anyway,I like them.

Coodude26 made it! (author)2009-06-10

The setup for the light-adjusted switch seems a little overly complicated. Why nor just connect the photoresistor to the + supply and the collector of an ordinary NPN transistor? It would trigger when the photoresistor limits the current below the threshold of the transistor. I don't know if you said somewhere what voltage you were using, but you could still use a pot inbetween the photoresistor and the supply to make it less sensetive. Last thing, you might want to aim them a bit lower so the bottom is also illuminated. Also, I'm pretty sure they make photoTRANSistors. That would simplify the whole thing...


Yes. The light sensor could probably have been done in a simpler way, but the reason why I used an opamp is that has a "cleaner" way of switching over the circuit that you mentioned, because it is either on or off, whereas the simpler circuit will limit the power going to the base of the transistor too much, so you might not get the full brightness.

Coodude26 made it! (author)Coodude262009-06-11

Don't transistors use digital logic? IE, above 5v = on, less than 5v = off?


Transistors are usually used to switch or amplify small signals. A single transistor doesn't measure the voltage, and switch a larger current if the base voltage is over a certain threshold. Some extra components are required in order to do that.

Coodude26 made it! (author)Coodude262009-06-12

AAAGGHHH oh my gosh. why in the world can't I get a simple explanation of how a transistor works. my brother is an electrical engineer at U of I and he can't explain it to me. can you give me a simple rundown of how a transistor would be "triggered" or how it's switched or whatever and what that triggers or sets in motion? Pleeeeeeeeassseee?

pfred2 made it! (author)pfred22009-07-07

Maybe because your question is flawed? There have been several different kinds of transistors developed. They mostly all work differently from each other too. I've even heard tale told that some of them are quantum tunneling these days!

Me, I'm more the old fashioned bipolar type though :) Those work on PN junctions and migrating electrons and holes. Just wait until you're checking out characteristic curve traces of those puppies. Switching is pretty dull stuff. Yawn, I'm all about analog myself.

Then there are different ways of using a transistor in a circuit.
One way:

Short answer to a screwy question though a small current controls a larger current flow.


I guess, it's one of those things that are hard to explain in a simple and understandable way. Try to google "how transistors work" and see what you get.

kemper made it! (author)2009-06-23

I love the amazing painting! hah


Yeah. The painting rocks!

gjm made it! (author)2009-06-21

Nice instructable; very well written with lots of photos. A picture is worth a thousand words.



Artificial Intelligence made it! (author)2009-06-17

New and better pictures of it has been added.

jay ess made it! (author)2009-06-11

looks great! but how much should it cost? or did i miss that part?

jay ess


It's hard to tell how much it cost me to make it, because the price of the materials varies a lot depending on where you buy them, and I already had some of the parts.

The LEDs that I used has a cost of 11.49$ for a pack of ten (they're cheaper if you buy them in larger quantities)

The auto turn-on switch cost around 10$ to make in parts (not shure, since I already had most of the parts)

Resistors 1.5$

I don't know the price for the rest of the parts, since they were purchased a while ago, but they aren't overly expensive.

sdallesasse made it! (author)2009-06-10

It's like art illuminating art.


Yes. I tried to avoid making it too traditional like using a light bulb or something like that.

The Ideanator made it! (author)2009-06-10

very neat, I'll have to try something like this

ChrysN made it! (author)2009-06-10

NIce job! This looks really stylish.

About This Instructable




Bio: Hi all, I'm a college student in the copenhagen technical college. I'm currently working with 3D printers and I'm building my own ...
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