Introduction: Easy Programmable EL-Wire Wall Art Project With Cool-Neon

Blank space, what to do?, what to do?
Our hackerspace has a blank brick wall above the fireplace. It's been a cold winter so we've had a fair number of fires, but there is just something wrong about a blank brick wall. Well in this project I'll document how to create an animated, Arduino controlled, EL-Wire design mounted in a picture frame, sure to spiff up any lonely chunk of wall space. I'll go beyond just powering the lights and show how you can control up to 10 different segments of your picture using an a Cool-Neon Arudino Shield and a bit of open source software.

Supplies Needed
  • EL Wire - 4 5' segments of Cool Neon wire (High Bright Standard 2.6mm) 
  • Coolneon Arduino Shield - available on the CoolNeon website
  • Arduino Microcontroller - I used a Borderless Electronics Arduino Leo clone
  • Micro- USB Adapter / powersupply 
  • Old Picture Frame - from the attic
  • Black foam core poster board - from Hobby Lobby 
  • Fishing line or Magnet wire - to hold the EL wire to the board, I found the magnet wire (normally used to wind around for electric motors) worked better than the fishline neither blocked the glow of the EL-Wire (as bell wire would for example), but the magnet wire seemed to make it easier to hold the EL Wire in shape.
  • 1 Nail - to poke holes through the posterboard
  • Acrylic or glass to fit the picture frame
  • Translucent Glitter paint, - adds a special glow and hides imperfections in logo design.
  • Duct tape
  • Xacto knife
  • Computer projector, Overhead projector or a good artist - to transfer the logo design to the posterboard 
Here's a video of the Logo in action including a demo of how the shield can be dynamically customized to  power a different number of channels and or a different pattern and speed.

Step 1: EL Wire, What Is It?

EL-Wire, What is it?
Generally pronounced "E" "L" Wire, it's short for Electro Luminescent Wire.  EL-Wire is thin, like a USB cable, when electrically charged and glows like a little neon sign. It's very flexible, and can be sewn into clothing. There are even waterproof versions of EL-wire!
For good background on the inner workings of EL Wire, (how AC Current causes phosphor to glow, and how to solder EL Wire), take a look at this award winning Instructable:

How Do I Control My EL-Wire?
The Cool Neon EL-Wire power adapter includes a corded, or battery powered power supply which has the options: On, Off, or Flashing, so if all you want to do is flash your glowing wire, you are all set. But we wanted to play with other options, including lighting up different sections of the sign at different times, flashing only the eyes of our logo, varying the speed of the blinking, etc. In order to do this I used an Arduino and the Cool Neon Shield. The good thing about this project is there is a very flexible and powerful driver (see the Cool Neon Sketch below) available and that means little to no programming required (but you'll still need to set up the software to load the driver)

Setting Up The Cool Neon Shield
Prior to creating the Wall-Art, you may want to get the software set up and see what can be done with the EL-Wire. There are 10 Channels on the Cool-Neon shield, so you can boost, blink or dim up to 10 different sections of your project independently. I ended up using 4 different channels: the rabbit eyes are one channel, the rabbit head is one channel, the upper left and lower right wrench are the third and the upper right and lower left wrench make up the forth channel.
To set up the shield you'll need to
  • Download the Arduino IDE
  • If you've never used an Arduino, you may want to try one of the included Example pieces of code in the Getting Started Guide
  • Download the Cool Neon Code Sketch by Tully Gehan of
  • Plug the Cool Neon EL-Wire into the channel sockets - be careful plugging and unplugging these sockets, it's easy (but not fatal) to snap off the little plastic clips that secure the EL-Wire
  • Choose the "Run" arrow on the Arduino IDE and the code will load and begin running on the Arduino Shield
Running the Arduino Shield: (as shown on the video on page 1) 
  • Press the the button labeled "F1" to choose the number of channels you want activated
  • Press the button labeled "Pattern" to cycle through the available patterns
  • Adjust the potentiometer wheel to a speed or slow the flashing of the EL Wire

Step 2: Create the Art Work

Creating the Artwork
My goal was torecreate our Rabbit Hole logo with EL-Wire. EL-Wire is flexible and can be bent into very sharp corners without breaking, it can be cut and soldered as desired. The original plan was to cut a channel in the foam board and use a little glue to hold the desired shape. After a little experimenting it became clear that I do not have enough hot glue skillz to make do this AND keep it neat. So instead we decided to use magnet wire to sew the EL Wire into's how:
  • Measure the foam core posterboard to fit the frame. Foam core was required vs basic posterboard in order to avoid ripping the board when punching holes and "sewing" on the EL-Wire
  • Cut the board using a box knife or Xacto knife
  • Draw, or as we did, trace the design on the posterboard. Due to lack of free hand drawing skills, our solution was to project our logo on the posterboard and trace the design.
  • Segment the design. remember you can have up to 10 different channels so up to 10 different sections of the design.
  • Poke the poster board with the nail.
    • an Entry hole and exit hole for each segment of the design. These holes need to be big enough to push through the insulated tip of the EL-Wire.
    • smaller holes on either side of the traced design.
    • Poke small holes on either side of the design at the outermost sections of the design (such as the points of our rabbit ears) and wherever you need to force a curve or bend.
  • Thread the EL-wire through the board - remember to leave enough slack on the beginning of the EL-Wire so all the sections can meet at the same location and be plugged in to the CoolNeon shield (Since the shield has controls for the spead of the design you may want enough slack so you can mount the shield on the front of the piece)
  • Attach the EL-wire to the board by essentially sewing it using one long section of fishline or magnetwire. The magnetwire is inexpensive and worked really well.

Step 3: Add Some Sparkly Diffusion

Sparkly Diffusion 
Originally my plan was to fasten the EL-Wire to the board with glue but it seemed this would not produce a neat and accurately held bend. But in thinking about using the glue we thought a layer of translucent paint would add an interesting effect, and look neat even when the picture is not turned on.

I used Martha Stewart Fine Glitter Translucent Glass Paint to obscure and sparkle up the glass for my picture frame
I also used some Rustoleum Frosted Glass paint left over from my Create Your Own Solar Powered Mason Jars project. The  frosty paint really helped obscure the design under the glass and the Glitter paint really gave the piece an interesting look even when the power is off to the picture.

Assemble and Mount the Picture
For this project I simply put the sparkly acrylic in the frame, placed the poster board on next and used duct tape to hold both to the picture frame. I used some eye-hooks and  more magnet wire to create a hanging wire.

The CoolNeon EL-Wire and Arduino shield really matched up to it's name."Cool!" is a really common reaction when people see the work in action (Though some folks want to know if we have Rabbits Head Beer on Sale ;-) ) 
It was super easy to get the EL-Wire running, the shield made animating the EL-Wire even easier. Bending the wire was easy but holding tight corners was a bit trickier. I think if I went back to it again we could make even tighter more true to the original bends, but everyone was happy with how the design turned out as is, very Neon sign looking.

Drawbacks / second thoughts include:
- the powercord running down the side of the wall. We could have corrected this by simply using rechargeable AA batteries in the supplied power pack and a battery pack for the Arduino.
- the power supply makes a noticeable high frequency sound, especially when switching power levels on the piece (you can hear the sound on the video included on page one)
- switching patterns and flashing speeds is fun, I should have mounted the shield on front of the picture, and may still make such a change.

Thanks for checking out my instructable, good luck on all your projects!

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