Introduction: Building Large Lighted Marquee Letters
My daughter is getting married and saw a set of lighted marquee letters with the bride’s and groom’s initials, used in photos and as an accent at the reception. She asked if I could make them.
Marquee letters are typically made up of a flat letterform that has lighting to make a sign visible at night, with metal flashing around the perimeter. The flashing serves to direct the light outward, while minimizing light bleeding into adjacent letters.
Always up for a challenge, this is how I did it.
Please take my advice: Before you do any project involving power tools and sharp metal, make sure you know how to use your tools, and that you follow safety precautions. Wear safety glasses, and use gloves when you’re working with sharp metal flashing. You’ll thank me later. You’ll want to have both of your eyes, all of your fingers, and no stitches when you’re at the wedding. After all, you have to look good in the wedding pictures!
And vote for me in the Wedding and Lighting contests!
Step 1: Materials and Tools
- Framing square
- Assorted clamps
- 1/3 sheet sander
- Bits including spade and standard drill bits
- Tin snips
- Heavy hammer
- Diagonal cutters
- 48" 2"x2" steel angle (2 lengths- Can be used for the metal brake, not needed if you have #12)
- 48” metal brake (not required, but very helpful; see Instructable)
- Metal rules
- Digital micrometer (not required, but very helpful)
- Painting equipment
- Safety glasses
- 1/2” MDF, 4’x8’
- 6” valley flashing, 60’
- 3” steel angle, 2 pieces at least 48” long (used in lieu of a brake)
- 1/2" round-top screws (one screw every two inches of perimeter)
- Paint and painting equipment
- Outdoor light strings with removable bulbs (I used 5 sets)
- Large nylon zip ties
- Masking tape (I used 3/4")
Step 2: Design
Design has a couple of steps: First, you have to decide on the font that you’ll use for your marquee letters. Second, you’ll have to make a decision on the size of the letters and how you’ll transfer the letters to the sheet goods from which you’ll cut them.
I chose a font that came installed with Windows, both because I like the font itself (Eras Bold ITC) and because I felt it would work for the wedding and the bride’s and groom’s style. The font was a good choice because the letterforms are made up of straight (or nearly straight) strokes. This is an important consideration, because tight curves and complex shapes complicate flashing installation.
The letters in the picture my daughter shared were quite large, about four feet tall. That drove the size of my marquee letters. My daughter’s name begins with an L, and my future son-in-law’s name starts with a T; I was fortunate that their initials were made up of largely straight strokes. I also wanted to include an ampersand.
Step 3: Drawing the Letterforms
In my CAD program, I drew a four by eight sheet. Then I selected the font, converted the letters to vectors, and sized and placed them on the sheet.
The purpose of drawing the sheet was two-fold: It gave me an idea on the best way to lay out the letters to maximize material usage, and it gave me straight lines I could use to ensure that when I projected the letters onto the sheet of MDF the letters wouldn’t be distorted.
At this point, I’d decided on lights, so the drawing also gave me an opportunity to lay out some lights on the letters to see what kind of pattern made the most sense.
If you don’t have CAD, any program where you can lay out a box with letters over it would work. I leave that as an exercise for the student.
Step 4: Transferring the Letterforms
There are many ways to copy a design from a small size (i.e. on your computer screen) to a larger size (i.e. the 4x8 sheet of MDF or plywood). For a purely mechanical approach you could use the grid method, but I was fortunate that my local library had computer projectors available for checkout, so that’s the method I used.
I set up the sheet stock in my garage, and then placed the projector attached to my laptop. I adjusted the position of the projector until the image filled the sheet. Note that it’s not critical to set up the sheet of MDF exactly vertical; most projectors have the ability to make what are called “keystone” adjustments, which allows you to change how trapezoidal the projected image is. In step 3 (Drawing the Letterforms) I mentioned that I drew the sheet stock to ensure that when I projected the letters onto the sheet of MDF the letters wouldn’t be distorted; I used the keystone adjustment to make sure the left and right edges of the drawn sheet were parallel to the actual edges of the MDF.
Once I had the projection aligned properly, I traced the letters onto the MDF sheet with a permanent marker. Don’t worry about making the tracing perfect but try to get close; you’ll be sanding your cut line in any case. If your letterforms have perfectly straight strokes (mine didn’t; Eras uses gentle sweeping arcs), feel free to use a straightedge.
If you don’t have access to a projector, a good tutorial on the grid method can be found at the Art is Fun web site.
Step 5: Cutting the Letterforms
Once you’ve transferred the letterforms to the sheet stock, transfer the sheet to a sturdy set of sawhorses or a work table. After you don your safety glasses, cut relief holes to give you access to interior cutouts (in the case of my letters, the interior of the ampersand) using a spade bit or hole saw.
When you transferred the letters to the sheet stock, chances are that your lines aren’t perfectly straight. Keep this in mind as you cut; use your traced shape as a guide rather than as gospel. Strive for smooth curves and remember that you will be sanding the letterform later in the process.
Whenever you’re cutting out large shapes like letters, a helper is useful. They can stabilize the letter as you’re cutting, and help prevent the piece from falling when you make the final cut. Having said that, use your jigsaw to cut out the individual letters. Ensure that you don’t overextend your cuts into the body of the letters.
Step 6: Laying Out the Lights
I spent a lot of time thinking about the lights. I considered regular porcelain light sockets, candelabra light sockets, lamp parts, and a host of other options. What they all had in common (and what led me to abandon them all) was cost and wiring. With porcelain sockets, I figured that I’d need 20-30 at a few dollars apiece, plus bulbs. I’d need even more candelabra sockets. Then, I’d have to wire everything together, and I wasn’t confident that I could do an aesthetically pleasing job. Finally, the large bulbs would put out a great deal of heat. Since these marquee letters will be located on the floor, there’s a real burn hazard for an innocent passersby.
I settled on garden string lights from the big box store with a red bullseye on it. Twenty-five light strings were buy one, get one 50% off, so I bought six sets. The bulbs were 1.5” in diameter according to my digital micrometer, could be removed from the sockets, and weren’t uncomfortably hot even after being on for extended periods.
Letters with Straight Strokes
I laid the lights on the cut-out letterforms, and determined that given the scale of the letters, a single row wouldn’t achieve the look I was after. So, two rows per stroke was the decision.
I measured the width of the vertical stroke of the L, and divided that into thirds. With masking tape, I ran two lines down the vertical stroke, each one-third of the distance from the edge of the vertical stroke.
I repeated the process with the horizontal stroke of the L.
At the bottom of the L, the four pieces of masking tape (the two on the vertical and two on the horizontal strokes) intersected to define a square. This square showed the required spacing for the lights running along both the vertical and horizontal strokes; you want your lights to be evenly and consistently spaced in both directions.
Using my dividers, I measured from the center of the intersections of the top and bottom pieces of masking tape, and then walked the dividers up the vertical stroke making a pen mark as I went. When the dividers extended past the end of the stroke, I stopped. At each mark, I ran a horizontal piece of masking tape.
For the horizontal stroke, I repeated the process above, with the exception that I used the dividers to measure from the center of the intersections of the left and right pieces of masking tape, and then walked the dividers along the horizontal stroke.
The center of each masking tape intersection marked the future location of a hole for a light. At each mark I made with the dividers, I ran a strip of tape to span the two parallel pieces of tape.
I repeated the process for the letter T.
Letters with Curved Strokes
The ampersand was another matter. First, it was a smaller font size, being about 75% the font size of the T or L. That meant that a single row of lights was sufficient. Second, there were few if any straight lines I could strike to lay out the hole positions. In the photo, you can see my abortive attempt to lay out masking tape.
I settled on a strategy that relied upon the human visual system’s ability to enable us to accurately lay out items in a pattern.
I cut out a set of 1.5” disks (the same size as the bulbs from my light strings). Then, I placed the cardboard disks on the ampersand. The goal on curved letterforms is to keep each light centered on the stroke, and to ensure that when two strokes intersect, the light positions should flow into one another. I started by laying out the positions at the two intersections, and then placed the other light positions from there.
Once all of the cardboard disks were in position, I drilled a small pilot hole through the center of each disk to mark the location for boring with a spade bit.
Step 7: Boring Holes
When I measured the light sockets on the light strings with my digital micrometer, they were just a bit larger than 0.75”. Using spade bits, I drilled two test holes. The 3/4" spade bit hole was (as I expected) too small, while the 7/8” spade bit hole was too large. However, serendipity was in play; the larger hole allowed me to secure the socket in place with a large nylon zip tie. This approach securely attaches each individual light, while still being removable so I can install the lights in my garden after the wedding. Win!
The Hole Truth about Spade Bits
Spade bits aggressively remove material. It’s all too easy to get massive tear-out on the rear of the piece you’re working on (especially with material like MDF). Make sure to clamp a sacrificial piece of scrap behind your letter as you bore the holes, and stop drilling as soon as you break through.
Boring (in more ways than one)
This project required boring more than eighty holes (the ampersand had 17, the L 30, and the T 34). Clamp a sacrificial piece of scrap underneath the letter. Center the point of your spade bit on the intersection of the two pieces of masking tape; note that since I used 3/4" tape, I could use that to visually center the point of the bit. Try to keep your drill perpendicular to the workpiece, and bore holes until your arms scream in agony.
Stand back and admire your work.
Step 8: Prep and Painting
Using your sander, sand all of the surfaces. At this point, you can sand out any of your guidelines. Sand the edges, and also sand the back. You will have had some tear-outs from the spade bit; use the sanding process as an opportunity to clean up the tear-outs.
Once you’ve completed the sanding process, remove all sawdust in preparation for painting.
Using a roller, paint the letterforms. I used an interior latex in white.
Step 9: Metalwork 101: Trial and Error (and a Friend) Wins the Day
Marquee letters typically have metal flashing around the perimeter. The flashing serves to direct the light outward, while minimizing light bleeding into adjacent letters. For this project, I could have used poster board or cardstock for the flashing, but I wanted something more durable. This meant working with metal, something with which I had only cursory experience.
Valley flashing seemed like the obvious choice: It was inexpensive, thin, and easily available. However, valley flashing is quite thin, and with metal that equates to quite sharp. I knew the best solution was to fold the metal into the shape I needed, thus eliminating the sharp edge.
Folding metal is not like folding paper. Folding metal is called brake forming; I was familiar with that from my time working operations for a custom skylight manufacturer. I did not have a metal brake so I needed to improvise.
My first attempt involved scoring the flashing with a tool, then bending the metal using a piece of wood over it and tapping it with a heavy hammer. That approach accurately folded the metal, but the scoring resulted in the metal snapping along the score. So that approach was out.
My second approach involved improvising a brake former. Some time ago, I purchased a metal bed frame from Ikea for another project. I realized that by clamping the two pieces together, I could hold the valley flashing and then create a sharp fold. If you don’t have a bed frame, two pieces of steel angle iron would work in the same way. This worked well, allowing me to produce metal folded precisely and repeatably.
I cut the valley flashing to length and then marked my folds with a fine-tip marker (a pencil works, too). One fold was the width of my small, 12-inch metal rule, and the other was the width of my four-foot metal rule (I chose these widths for convenience’s sake). I placed the flashing between the two pieces of steel, then clamped everything together with two ratcheting tie-downs. Once the metal was secure, I folded it over with piece of wood and then tapped the wood along its length with a hammer. I made the narrower fold first, then made the wider fold; the wider fold slightly overlapped the first fold.
I repeated this until I had enough flashing to cover the perimeter of the letter on which I was working.
After I finished the first letter, a friend of mine came over for dinner. He has an HVAC and plumbing business and said to me, “I have a small, four-foot metal brake. Want me to drop it off?” I jumped on his offer, and was able to finish the flashing for the other two letters in half the time it took to do the first letter. There are numerous videos on YouTube that show how to use a metal hand brake; here’s an example: 4 Foot Sheet Metal Brake Demonstration.
On each piece of finished flashing, I laid down a piece of masking tape and then drew a line marking the width of the MDF used for the letterforms. I started one inch from the end and then marked a location every two inches. These marks were positioned to fall half the width of the MDF from the bottom edge of the flashing. It was time to apply the flashing to the letters.
Step 10: Attaching the Flashing
I built the flashings two different ways. For the first letter (the T, my son-in-law’s initial), I cut the flashing to length for each side of the letter: For instance, a long one for the top of the crossbar, and a short one for the base of the T. For the rest of the letters (because I used the metal brake), I made 46-inch long pieces. Regardless of the method you use (the second method is the fastest and the one I recommend), strike a vertical line on the interior of the flashing (the folded side) and use the brake to fold the flashing to 90 degrees perpendicular to the length halfway between two of the drilled holes. Place the fold at a corner of the letter and drive a screw into the MDF through the hole you drilled in the flashing on either side of the fold. It helps to lay the letter flat on a table or other work surface; this ensures that the bottom of the flashing is flush with the bottom of the letter. Repeat until the flashing is secured all around, but leave the last hole at each end of the flashing open. When you need to, make a bend manually, using the framing square to shape your fold.
Grab another piece of flashing. Overlap the end of the previous piece of flashing; try to align the hole in the next piece of flashing with the last hole on the previously attached piece of flashing. Drive a screw through the two holes (if they don’t align, clamp the two pieces of flashing together and drill a new hole through the previously attached piece) and continue fitting the flashing along the letter perimeter as you go. When you’ve completed the letter perimeter, use your tin snips to cut the final piece of flashing to the appropriate length, and drill a hole to drive the final screw.
The final step was to use a piece of clear packing tape over the joins between two pieces of flashing; this held them together and I feel it will reduce the risk of being cut by the sharp edges of the flashing.
Curved letterforms like the ampersand (and those with interior cutouts) follow the same process but require some thought and patience. Just take your time.
Step 11: Lighting
Attaching the lights is straightforward. Remove all of the bulbs from the string and place them in a safe location. Flip the letterform over, and push the socket through the hole. Once all of the holes are filled with light bulb sockets, flip the letterform over and secure a nylon zip tie around the socket as tightly as you can. Clip off the excess tail of the zip tie with diagonal cutters. I aligned the head of the zip tie over the clip that was built in to the socket of each light. If this was a permanent art piece, I’d cut the excess sockets off of the light string (for instance, the ampersand needs 17 lights but the light string has 25) and wire in a cord. However, since I plan on using the lights afterward, I’ll leave those sockets without bulbs.
Step 12: Final Thoughts
This was a fun project, and I learned quite a bit. These techniques can be applied to a wide range of marquee letter sizes. What remains to be seen is if I’ll need stands attached to the backs of the letters, or whether they’ll lean against a wall.
Have fun and be safe!
Step 13: The Marquee Lights in Use
The wedding was this past weekend. I've included a copy of a photo taken by the event coordinator at the venue so you can see what the letters looked like at the dinner and party.