Introduction: EL Wire Spiderweb

In this instructable, I'll walk you through the steps I used to create a spiderweb art piece out of EL wire.

Step 1: Prepare Design for Laser Cutting

First I needed a frame to build on, and since cutting curved pieces is tough, I decided to get it laser cut.  I uploaded my plans to ponoko, which is a company that takes your designs, cuts then out of any number of materials, and mails it to you.  Pretty cool.

I used inkscape, which is a free drawing program that's easy to learn.  I started by grabbing the template from ponoko's site, started drawing a rough sketch of what I wanted the final product to look like.

After getting an arch I was happy with, I copied it and then used inkscape's boolean tools to remove rectangles where the crossbars will go.

For making symmetrical pieces, you can draw half the piece, then use inkscape's clone tool.  This way, any changes you make to the original will apply to the clone.

A couple ponoko tricks:
*  You're charged by the time the laser spends, so you can save money by putting things close together, and combine lines when possible.

*  Cutting a material that is twice as thick costs four times as much, so whenever possible use the thin stuff.

*  Plan ahead.  Getting stuff from ponoko takes at least 3 weeks.

Step 2: Assemble the Frame

This step is really easy, and reminds me of putting together those dinosaur models as a kid.  Just use a small amount of wood glue wood glue and clamps to build the frame.

When glueing, make sure that the glue does drip anywhere.  If it does, wipe it off and then lightly sand the area to remove any traces of the glue.  The traces of glue could mess up the wood stain in a later step, and it's better to be safe here.

In addition to cutting materials, ponoko allows you to engrave your designs.  In the second photo, you can see a small logo that I had engraved into the base.

Step 3: Steam Bend Wood

Now that the frame is built, it needed to be covered.  I bought some cherry plywood from a local lumberyard, and cut strips the same width as my frame.  Since plywood won't bend nearly far enough to fit in the arch, I had to steam it.

Odd as it sounds, the dishwasher makes an awesome wood steamer if your piece is small enough to fit in there.  The process for steaming wood is fairly straightforward.

1.  Put wood on the bottom rack, and set the dishwasher to the light-wash setting.  Make sure heated dry is turned OFF!

2.  The second the wash finishes, take the piece out.  Don't stick your face in the door as you open it, there's a lot of steam and steam hurts.

3.  Bend the piece.  If you can get it far enough to fit on the frame, great.  If not just bend it by hand.  If you did manage to get it clamped to the frame, only leave it on there for 5-10 minutes.

4.  Put the piece back in the dishwasher for another spin.  You can use the pins to partially hold your bend.

Repeat these steps until you've got the bend you want.  It pays not to rush these steps, lest you crack the wood.  I put both sides through 4 washes each before I was satisfied with the results.

Once it's done, use wood glue and clamps to attach the inner piece to the frame.  I left the outer piece off till the end to allow me to run my wires.  At this step, I also drilled the holes that the EL wire would later run through.

Step 4: Staining and Finishing

Once all the wood was assembled, I sanded everything smooth and applied a rosewood colored stain.  Staining is pretty easy, Simply brush it on, wait a minute, and then wipe it off with a rag (cloth, not paper, and preferably lint free).

I wanted the inside of the arch to reflect the EL wire, so once the stain dried, I coated all the surfaces with high-gloss polyurethane.  I did this by applying a thin layer with a sponge brush, waited an hour, then applied another layer.  Between layers 4 and 5, I lightly sanded all the surfaces and then wiped them clean with a rag.  In total, I think I have about 8 layers.

Step 5: Adding the Electronics

For the electronics, I had 12 strands of EL wire connected to sparkfun's EL sequencer.  This sequencer allows you to control 8 separate channels of wire.  The board has an ATmega328, which you can program using the excellent Arduino environment.

In practice, I was kind of disappointed with the board because for reasons which I don't quite understand, it can only have one channel on at a time.  If you want all the strands to appear on you can cycle through each one really fast, but this makes them appear dimmer than usual and introduces an odd flicker.

EL wire can be run in parallel, so I decided to connect all of my strands to a single channel which would still allow me to turn it on and off with the 328.

Step 6: Finishing Touches

With all the electronics run, the only thing left to do was attach the back and set it on the base.  I opted to attach the back with finishing nails, which was less pretty but allowed me to get back in if anything went wrong.  

All the wires that connect to EL wire are run through a hole in the bottom, and both the sequencer and EL driver sit nicely in the base, with only a power cable coming out the back.

Materials Cost:
5.7mm Cherry MDF from ponoko           $25 materials, $85 making
1/8" Cherry plywood                                  $15
Stain and polyurethane                            $23
EL Wire (14')                                               $18
EL Driver                                                      $9
EL Sequencer                                             $25
TOTAL                                                          $200

EL wire is some cool stuff, and hopefully this instructable inspires you to go forth and create your own random, hard-to-explain, glowy thing.

EL wire contest

First Prize in the
EL wire contest