I was assigned to build large illuminated letters for the music group I play bass in (GUSTAV). My plan was to build these in the style of the twenties, using oldfashioned lighbulbs.
They needed to be lightweight and quite sturdy, so we could take them on the road to every concert we play. In true musician-fashion they had to be finished within 10 days for the first concert of the tour.
Step 1: Planning and Drawing
I checked into utilizing low-voltage lightbulbs, but these were either too expensive or i could't get them in time. So i settled on 230V standard E27 (25W) lightbulbs which I could get anywhere very quickly. I found quite nice metallic sockets in a online electronics shop here in switzerland and ordered 60 of these.
Since everything had to be done as fast as possible (in my time off) I used a overhead projector to enlarge the letters to the desired size (750mm height) and copied them by hand onto paper. I traced all letters on the same piece of paper and was actually quite happy with how fast and precise this was - in contrast to finding somebody who could print this size or copying it it parts to this size.
Step 2: Letters and Holes
After transferring the letters onto wood (8mm poplar plywood, the lightest and least expensive plywood I have) with carbon paper, I cut them with a jigsaw. Thanks to the size of the letters the edges didn't need to be perfect, but I still tried to get them as smooth as possible since I didnt want to spent too much time sanding them smooth. I cut two sheets of plywood at a time because I needed two layers of letters for my construction.
The letters turned out really well and I only sanded the worst bumps. After working out the distance between the lightbulbs, I marked, punched and drilled them (just one of the layers though).
Step 3: Re-drilling and Assembly
After receiving the sockets, it became evident that they had a larger diameter than specified in the online-shop. So I drilled the holes once more with a 5mm larger diameter... dang!
Then I set off to assemble the letters just to check that my concept works. I glued wooden blocks to the forward layer and the rear layer would be screwed onto these blocks. The side lining would then be attached to the forward layer (which would contain all the wiring and sockets), so as to allow the rear layer to be detached for servicing or repairing.
Step 4: Painting and Wiring
Before installing the sockets, I painted the visible side of the letters white, just because its a lot easier than painting around the sockets. After disassembling the letters, I was ready for installing the sockets and wiring.
This took quite a bit of material and was more time-consuming than anticipated. I used insulated wire (not the flexible braid or litz wire), to be on the sturdy side. The "splitters" I used unfortunately only allowed for 4 outgoing connections each, so I had to install quite a few of these. There are much easier and cleaner solutions out there for wiring something like this - I still think it turned out quite nice and clearly arranged.
Every letter has a 3m 230V supply which is firmly attached to the wooden block so it can't be pulled out. I'd rather have some broken lighbulbs than 230V contacts exposed!
Step 5: Side Lining and Painting
I cut 1mm plywood I had lying around (lucky!) to 100mm wide strips and sanded the edges smooth by hand. These linings were then glued and stapled to the forward layer (on the pictures you can see some of the staples - sorry for not taking a detailed picture). I was very surprised as to how well this worked out. After 8 months in use, none of the letters seem to loose their side lining.
I then painted the outside black (backside as well) so the letters wouldn't pop out too much on a stage. To make the corners more robust, I attached textile hockey grade adhesive tape in every corner. This blends in to the black linings and holds up really well.
Step 6: Finished Letters
As a way of mounting the letters on stage, i placed eye bolts on the top and backside of every letter. Sometimes we suspend them from the rigging, sometimes we set them on the floor - depending on the situation at the location.
I couldn't be happier about the way these letters turned out. They look gorgeous on stage (whether we place them on the floor or hang them) and haven't caused any problems. After the first concert I did build a case in which to stow the letters for transport. I have no pictures of this case available - sorry!
Depending on the gear in the concert-location we have the letters lighting up together or individually. Altogether the letters consume around 1450W at full power, so we need to have a adequate dimmer. But most concert locations provide this. There are no funny words to compose with the letters GUSTAV, although for one song (for reasons unexpressed) USA is appropriate... ;-)
We did paint the visible front side of the letters again, since the white was too shiny. Now it is a dark gray which intensifies the effect when the letters are switched on.
Thank you for reading this instructable! I hope it might have inspired you to build your own illuminated letters... If you have any questions, please do contact me.