Introduction: DIY Vintage Light Up Marquee Letters

About: Did you know that sewing needles are sharp, and that hot glue from a glue gun really is hot? ouch! I never learn. i should be an honorary spokeswoman for Band-Aid brand first aid products considering the nu…

I am working on planning and throwing my BFF a baby shower, and she picked an awesome theme; Vintage French Circus!  So naturally, I wanted to make the most epic shower ever known to (wo)man. 

One of the things I wanted to create was a vintage looking marquee light that spelled out BABY.  Great for the shower, but also great for the nursery long after the cake hangover from the party is over.  I have seen other great DIY tutorials online for lights made of foam core, but wanted to make something more substantial that would not only look great, but be durable to last many years. 

This was my first real wood working project on my own.  The folks at Tech Shop** were super helpful in introducing me to some essential wood cutting tools to help make this project happen.  In the end, not only was I super stoked at how well this all turned out, but shocked at how easy it was!  So hats off to Tech Shop for giving me access to these great tools.

**Tech shop is the ultimate gym for geeks, with tons of amazing tools to use under one roof.  All you need is a membership!  If you are in the SF bay area, near Detroit, or Raleigh NC, check 'em out.

Step 1: Materials

Two pieces of 9/16th" x 12" x 36" paint grade ply wood
Christmas lights (I used lights with a battery pack to prevent excess cords and plugs)
Corrugated Cardboard
Masking Tape
Hot Glue Gun
Red Paint
40 grit sandpaper

Band Saw
Jig Saw
Miter Saw
Super sharp Box cutters or blades

Step 2: Designing Lettering

I played around corel paint to find out what I wanted the letters to look like.  Once I was happy with that, I went and marked where I wanted the lights to be.  Knowing that each string of lights I bought had 20 lights per string, I made 20 dots per letter.  Marking this in advance will help with the drilling later. 

I then printed out the lettering to the size I wanted and created a template to trace onto my pieces of wood. 

**Tip:  To print letters larger than 8.5 x 11, open up your letters in excel.  I was encountering issues with printing each letter big, and found that inserting an image into a spreadsheet allowed me to create a larger letter and print it out across several pages, later piece it together.

Step 3: Trace Letters Onto Wood

Once your letters all printed out and cut, it is time to trace your letters onto the wood. 

Flip your letters onto the wood backwards.  This way, when you trace your letters out and make the cuts, you won't have to worry about pencil or pen markings or having any rogue mistakes in your cuts show. 

Trace about 1/8th of an inch larger than the stencil you printed.  This will give you room to make mistakes and to sand the lettering down. 

Another little tip, avoid placing the edges of your letters in any notches in the wood.  It may be harder to saw through and the notched bits may create a funky edge in your final piece.

Step 4: Cut Plywood Into Workable Pieces

Using the great collection of tools at the tech shop, I was able to do all my cutting in one quick visit! 

1) Drill Holes
I will need to cut out the inside negative space in the letters "A" and "B".  To make sure I can slide a jig saw in there, and cut it out with ease, I drilled two large holes in each of those areas. 

2) Miter Saw
I used the miter saw to cut out the letters so that they will be easier to work with on the finer cuts.

Step 5: Cut Out Letters

Onto the fun stuff!  To cut out the lettering, I used 3 kinds of saws.

1) Band Saw
I used the band saw to cut along the lettering outline.  The blade in place was a bit on the thick side, so to prevent the blade from snapping, I cut notches into the wood up the outline of the letter, and then cut against those notches. 

2) Jig Saw
To get in tight corners and to remove the negative space in each of the "B"s and the "A".  This worked great in adjunct with the Band Saw

3) Scroll Saw
I used this on curved edges, but found that the table and base of the saw shook/vibrated too much.  It made it sort of difficult to work, so I opted to sticking with the Band and Jig saw.

Step 6: Sand Edges of Wood

Now that you have these rad letters all cut out, give yourself a pat on the back. 

Once you have congratulated yourself on your amazing cutting work, begin sanding the edges.  I started with a belt sander, but because of the curved edges of the lettering, this was difficult.  So I did the area i could with the sander, and then proceeded to do the rest by hand with a 40 grit sand paper.

**TIP**  I realized after the fact that you don't need to really spend too much time sanding, mainly because these edges are going to be covered in cardboard.  So don't worry about them being super clean.

Step 7: Drill Holes for Lights

I had to get some help here.  Thanks to the help of mikeasaurus, he showed me how to use the drill press to get the perfect hole.  I pre marked where each light would go in advance and used a template to be sure the holes lined up.  Since the lights I got were thicker in some spots, I had to basically drill two holes for the opening of the letter:
a hole on the front facing part of each letter that was just large enough to let the light poke through
a hole on the back facing part of the light that was larger, and wide enough to let the lights pass through

I drilled the smaller whole through the letter.  Once that was done, I flipped the letter over, and drilled into that same hole, but only 2/3rds the way through, and at a wider diameter.  See pics below with notes in case what I just said above made zero sense.  And considering my previous background in woodworking, I'm sure none of it was clear.

A little fun trick that we tried (and when I say "we", I mean "Mike all the way")?  After all the holes were drilled, we put a dremel bit in the drill pressed and used that as a sanding piece! 

Step 8: Primer and Paint

Once they were all sanded, and cleaned off, I primered each letter, and spray painted a couple coats of paint.

When they are dry, this is a good time to see what the final product will look like before you put the edges in.  I put the lights in to see how it would look... and ta dah!

Step 9: Cardboard Border

Once all the letters are dry, and you have fitted the lights, its time to create the border.  This was much easier than I thought it was going to be. 

Using a nice sharp blade, cut strips of cardboard about 3 1/2" thick in width against the corrugation Depending on your cardboard, you might have to use several strips for each letter, so the length of the cardboard is not that important. 

You need to score into the cardboard going with the corrugation on areas that have a curve to it.  This way, the cardboard will bend without buckling or getting wavy. Did what I say not make sense?  The photos below should explain it all.

Using a glue gun, glue down all the pieces of cardboard around the border of the each letter.  A rubber band will help hold the cardboard in place until it sets (You could probably use a wood glue too)

Step 10: Mask Border

Using masking tape, cover the cardboard.  I originally used thin masking tape, and found the thick 3" masking tape made for the cleanest look.  You want to spray paint over this, so using lots of little pieces will be really noticeable in the final product.

Once each letter is covered, spray paint the remaining border to match!

Step 11: And Then There Was Light!

Here is the final product.  When I threw the baby shower for my Bestie, I put them on the main focal wall.  They came out great and will look fantastic in the nursery!