Introduction: LED Plexiglass Art
The original inspiration for this project came from a centerpiece project my students and I found on Pinterest. We were looking for a centerpiece idea for our annual dance and this year the theme was Sci-Fi.
I initially thought the project looked too complicated and didn't pay much attention to it. One of my students kept pointing it out so I suggested she look through the materials and see what we needed. Turned out, I already had most of the tools/materials the project would require and didn't need to purchase much more.
There's no limit to what you can make or what occasion you could make these for. After the centerpieces, I decided to make a display using images from Creative Market to depict all of the different countries I have visited. I got lucky and caught the European Capital Landmarks while they were a freebie.
It was actually traveling through EF Tours with the school my parents' taught at that made me realize I was really interested in History and wanted to become a teacher. After my first trip to Europe in Spring 2005 (I was a sophmore) I went right in and changed my major from Biology to History and almost 10 years later I'm now a teacher.
Step 1: Bill of Materials
-LEDs (I bought these but you can also use individual LEDs for a multi-color display)
-Hook-up wires (I literally used whatever I could find lying around)
-Plexiglass (we used 1mm plexiglass from a craft store, thinner and less stiff than what they have at Lowes/HD)
-Plastic scoring tools -Soldering Iron & Solder -Duct Tape
-A23 battery & battery holders -Electrical tape -Mini slide switches
-Cardboard -Hot glue & glue gun -Rulers -Wire stripper -Third Hand Tool***
Step 2: Plexiglass
I experimented with two different types of plexiglass. One I found at Lowes/Home Depot for $3-5 and was very thick (making it a huge pain in the butt to score and snap) and the other from a craft store, which is what we ended up using. The craft store sheets are 1mm thick, so they're very thin and appear filmsy--but they are FANTASTIC. Easy to score and snap, very light, and easy to work with.
Initially we kept the plastic protecting sheet on both sides of the plexiglass while engraving. This became a big pain when it was time to remove the protective cover, so eventually we started removing the plastic from the side we were engraving on and then removed the back cover near the last minute. Just be very careful, plexiglass scratches easily.
We were making centerpieces for 10 tables, and planning to use 3 strips of plexiglass per centerpiece. The plexiglass I bought was 16"x20", so I got 6 of them (only ended up needing 4). Tons of plexiglass leftover in case of mistakes or other mishaps. We originally planned to make each centerpiece 4"x10, but ended up cutting some of them a little shorter.
After you know how big and how many pieces you need, with the plastic covering on, start measuring out your cuts. To make it easier to see pencil/pen marks on the plastic covering, I put paper underneath the plexiglass. I used a ruler to help keep my score marks straight.
Score the plexiglass and then firmly grip one side and use your other hand to carefully snap the other side.
Repeat until all your pieces are cut and ready to go.
Step 3: Engraving
I found this great little tool at my local hobby electronics shop, onsale for $9.99. I believe it's also sold at Lowes/HD for similar prices.
This tool was absolutely amazing. It came with 2 AAA batteries that lasted a pretty good amount of time and was very easy to use. There is a tiny learning curve, if you are making circular shapes, go slow and don't try to make one continuous circle---break up your movements to get your shape right.
You don't have to press too hard, in fact, if you do, it'll stop.
Step 4: Designs
For our centerpiece images, we used a lot of premade pictures found on google images that fit our theme. Some of these included stencils, stock images, others included old movie posters or blue prints.
For the travel momento, I used European Capital Landmarks from Creative Market. Because I don't have a desktop version of Photoshop (iPad app only) and no other editing software on my work provided laptop, I dragged each landmark file to a Pages document to enlarge to the size I wanted. After that, I cut out each landmark and arranged them the way I wanted.
Once you have your images picked, print them out and cut/tape to the back of your plexiglass. You're basically going to use the engraving tool to trace over the image.
Step 5: LED Strips
For the centerpieces, we used flexible LED strips. Extremely cheap on Amazon and you get a lot to work with. The strips can be cut in specific places, usually about 1-2" long and with 3 lights. These LEDs have an adhesive backing, making them even more desirable to work with.
I used leftover pieces of wire from other projects to solder the strips together. Wire color doesn't matter, I used red for positive and black for negative. After much trial and error, I found it easier to tape the LED strips to the triangle cutout and then solder on the wires.
The LEDs I used were 12v and I had 6 strips wired together for each centerpiece. A single 12v battery ran the LEDs for 3.5 hours with no problems.
Step 6: Individual LEDs
If you don't want to use the strip LEDs, you can use individual ones and solder them together.
Or, if you don't want to bother with soldering, you can use conductive foil tape.
The important thing is to make sure the connection is solid and each leg is matched positive-positive and negative-negative.
Step 7: Switches & Batteries
I used a mini slide switch for turning the center pieces on and off. One end is connected to the negative wire (black) on one end of the LED strip and the positive wire (red) is connected to the middle leg.
I did the same thing with the battery holders I ordered. The black wire (negative) is connected to the LED on the negative side and the red wires (positive) are connected to the positive sides.
A little solder and you are good to go.
Step 8: The Base
The original project we looked at came with an .STL file for 3d printing the base off of Thingiverse. I have 1 and a 1/2 RepRap's and haven't had time to use the working one (Prusa i3) or finishing the partially complete one (Kossel Mini). Knowing the level of involvement RepRap's need for consistent, good quality prints, I knew I wouldn't be able to get my Prusa in working order, let alone get 10 bases printed by the time of the dance.
This is where the design process I've been trying to embed in my kids' heads all year long comes in handy. I explained to the kids the problem: we needed a suitable base that could hold the plexiglass strips up, accommodate the wires and battery pack, and was cheap and easy enough for us to reproduce in less than 2 weeks.
We tried styrofoam, various cardboard designs, and eventually settled on a a 5 sided cardboard box, the face is about 6" and the sides that fold down are an additional 1". The plexiglass was arranged into a triangle, so we cut a same size triangle out of the the cardboard face.
The triangle piece that we cut out, we then covered with ducttape and used to arrange the LEDs. We used strips of electrical tape to hold the LEDs in place.
Insert the plexiglass into the base and then use a little hot glue to hold it still. After the plexiglass was in place, we arranged the LED triangle so that the LEDs were directly below the plexiglass and then we taped the triangle in place.
It does not look elegant, but it is functional.
Step 9: Ta Da!
Pop in your batteries and you are good to go! If you use switches, I highly recommend taking the batteries out when you are not using your display.