Introduction: Animatronic Light-Up Sign

Two years ago I tried to start a maker club at school. I wanted to have a maker space in my school, and decided the best way to go about this was to form a group of people to use it, and then convince the school it was a worthwhile expense. The first year it went very well, the only problem is it was a club consisting of three people.

Fast forward to the next year, we needed to convince people to join. Our school held a club fair where the clubs presented themselves to the incoming students, attempting to convince them to join. I had heard that for years the stage crew had had the best sign, so I decided the best way to convince more members was to make a better sign then stage crew.

It was a huge success! We had 25 people sign up, and out of those 10 joined the club as regular members, which was, as I heard from another teacher, a record breaking turn out!

In this instructable I will show you how I made my sign, so that you can make one of your own! It doesn't have to be for a maker club, it can be for anything. One thing is for sure, if you build this you will totally have the coolest sign around!

The sign is pretty easy to build, it just takes some patience, and a little crafting experience. The automated movement is accomplished by a simple circuit and a hacked servo motor, it should be really simple to put together though, so don't worry if you haven't worked with circuits before!


I used things I had lying around my house. The point of the sign was that I wanted to be able to make it out of recycled materials, and other left overs I had from past projects. I do have weird things lying around my house though, so you may need to buy a few things. I definitely encourage you to experiment! You may not have the exact material at home, but I'm sure you have some things like it that you could repurpose.

Here is a list of all the materials I used:

  • Bristol board
  • Plastic stir stick spoon things
  • Foam board
  • Mini servo
  • Rainbow LED light string
  • Coloured construction paper

Step 1: Make a Box

The first step to making the sign is to take your bristol board and make it into a box shape! You could also just start with a box. I chose to turn my bristol board into a box because it was smoother and cleaner looking then any other boxes we had available.

It is important to turn it into a box rather than leave it flat, because the box shape has space in the back to fit the mechanism that will make it move. The box also stands up on its own, making it easier to work on.

To make the box I simply measured out the size of sign I wanted, and then traced out a pattern similar to the one I included a photo of above. I didn't include any measurements, because it depends on the sign you want to make. In the end it doesn't really matter how you made your box, as long as it looks kind of like a box!

After cutting and folding, I glued the box together using hot glue. To stick it together I simply glued the little tabs under the sides, this held the box together quite nicely.

Step 2: Letters

The next step is to cut out the letters. This was pretty simple, I just drew bubble letters onto red construction paper and cut them out. This is probably one of the slowest steps, as it requires a lot of drawing and cutting, luckily I had help! I had a small group of friends help me out. It takes a while, but it is better to do it slowly and properly than quick and messy.

One important thing is to make sure your letters fit on the box you made. It is okay if they hang off a little, it will add to the cartoony feel of the sign, if that is what you are looking for. I had to recut a few letters because they didn't fit. So make sure to double check the size of your letters, and the number of letters you need!

Step 3: Bend Your Spoons

This next step is a little exciting. It's time to bend your spoons! Take your little stir spoons, and carefully, I repeat, CAREFULLY use a lighter to bend the spoon's head to a ninety degree angle with its stem. You don't need to hold the flame very close to the spoon, I found that a centimetre or two above the flame is where you want to hold it, so that the plastic softens enough to be bent, but doesn't char or burn.

Step 4: Attach the Letters

Now we get to attach the letters! The first thing you're going to do is cut out a bunch of 2cm by 2cm squares of foam core, one for each letter.

Then you need to arrange the letters on the box how you want them to be arranged in the final sign. You need to choose a good part of the letter, where you want the letter's centre of rotation to be in the final sign, and glue a foam core square under it, attaching the square to the box, but not attaching anything to the letter.

Then take one of the spoons you bent at a 90 degree angle, and stick it through the foam core and the bristol board into the back of the box. It should go through if you apply enough pressure. A picture of this can be seen above.

Finally, you can glue the letter onto the flat surface of the spoon. You should be able to rotate the stem of the spoon from behind the box, and have the letters turn in the front, as can be seen by the movement of the A in the last two pictures. If your letters aren't rotating, there is something wrong! You probably glued the letter to the box somehow.

Step 5: Attach All the Letters Together So They Can Be Moved in Sync

This next step is easier said than done. To start, I took more of the bent spoons, and glued their head to the stems of the spoons sticking through, letting the stem of the newly glued spoon stick in towards the centre. Then, I made a small long box thing out of foam board, and ran it through the centre, sticking all the stems of the spoons into it, so that when the box is moved back and forth, the stems are moved back and forth, forcing the spoons attached to the letters to rotate, causing the letters to rotate.

This step seems deceptively simple, I'm not sure I did a good job explaining it. I included many pictures; hopefully between my words and the photos you can piece together what to do.

Step 6: Hack Your Servo

This is another step I'm not sure I'm able to explain. If this doesn't make sense, just google "how to hack a micro servo for continuous rotation" and you should see thousands of tutorials which explain exactly how to do it.

Basically what you need to do is unscrew the bottom, and remove the circuit which is inside. This circuit is meant to interpret signals form a microcontroller, and control the servo, but we don't want to use a microcontroller in this project, so we need to remove it. You should be able to pull out the little PCB, as well as the little potentiometre (the green thing in the photos) that is attached to it. Once they are remove, cut the motor off of them, leaving behind nothing but some gears and a motor inside of the little servo.

Once the circuit and the potentiometre are removed, all you need to do is solder on some new wires, which will later be connected straight to a battery pack. Once this step is done, replace the bottom, and screw it back into place.

Make sure you don't lose any screws, gears, or structurally significant pieces, because if you lose any of those the servo won't work. Also, don't throw away the potentiometre and little PCB, those might come in handy in a future project! I've got one project coming up where I will use both of those components. They are useful!

Step 7: Wire Everything Up!

Now it is time to wire everything up! I used the battery pack that came with my fairy lights. Originally I didn't want this sign to light up, so I cut the lights off the battery pack and saved them for a future project (I very rarely use the lights and the battery pack together). I then soldered the battery pack onto the motor.

But then I realized that I had made a mistake, and that really this sign absolutetly needed to light up, so I used half of the LED string, and split the wires coming from the battery pack, so that both the LED string and the motor were wired in parallel. While this is a smaller battery pack, I was running a small motor, and a smaller number of LEDs, so sharing the same power source worked well.

Step 8: Make the Motor Move the Letters

Now that we have a motor, and the lights are all wired up, it is time to put everything together! To do this I cut a disk from the foam board, and glued it onto the motor. I also glued a piece of dowel, thinking that as the motor turned, the dowel would pull the long box inside the sign along with it, making the letters move. This didn't work. A lot of my attempts at making the letters move in this project didn't work. I am not very mechanically inclined.

Ultimately, what ended up working, was using the same piece of dowel, but gluing it to the foam core box, and pushing it through a hole in the disk. This meant that when the motor turned, it moved the dowel, and the dowel was free to spin in the hole. The dowel was glued to the box, meaning that as the motor turned, the box was pulled along with it, and the letters spun. Success!

Step 9: Glue in the Lights, and You're Done!

Now that all the hard stuff is out of the way, all you have to do is glue in the string of lights! I chose to glue mine inside the box, around the perimeter of the box, allowing the lights to shine through, and sort of frame the sign, but you could put them wherever you want! Zig zags, outside, inside, the sky is the limit!

Once the sign was done the challenge was to pack it up and take it to school without breaking, which wasn't as hard as I had thought.

Overall it turned out very well, and was way simpler then I thought it would be, I was worried I would have to figure out a system of gears! Let me know in the comments if you have any questions, I would be happy to answer them, and let me know if you end up making the sign. I hope this animatronic sign inspires you to make something cool!

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