Introduction: Inexpensive Lighted Circus Themed Sign

About: A combination of paradoxes, I love to create useless stuff of novelty. The less functional a project is, the more I'm interested in it. I like to inspire others to make things.

This is a tutorial on how to create a great looking inexpensive lighted sign. Mine is circus themed to coincide with a clown themed Halloween display but the basic techniques can be applied to any theme or design. The material I selected for my sign are inexpensive and somewhat durable but higher quality/more durable materials can be used depending on you skill level. The reason I used the materials that I did was because I was trying to do it a cheap as possible and I only needed it for one occasion.

I can't recommend enough for you to sit down and take the time to plan your sign out. The better planned out your sign is the more professional it will look.

Step 1: Supplies/tools

  • Materials:
  • lightweight 1/8th inch plywood
  • 12 volt LED strip lights
  • 1"x2" pine wood (length depending on your needs, more on that later)
  • Screws
  • Adhesive
  • paint
  • styrofoam sheet
  • sandpaper
  • Tools: soldering iron
  • hot wire cutter or sharp utility knife
  • scroll saw or jigsaw
  • drill
  • table saw
  • soldering iron
  • hot glue gun
  • wire cutter/stripper
  • square

Step 2: Design

I am no artist, I can fudge my way through most things without things looking too terribly amateur but that's about it. With that in mind the circus style font was perfect for my design. The letters follow pretty specific geometric patterns that make replicating them pretty easy. their design also makes aligning them easier.

Step 3: Creating You Cut Out Letters

Once I figured out what size I wanted my letters to be, I measured and cut a strip of plywood as wide as the height of the letters. I then took that strip and cut it in to individual panels the width of the letters. All of my letters were of the same width (no "M"s or "W"s), so with my sign being 8 letters I cut 8 identical panels. I discretely wrote each letter on each panel. Lay all of these panels out together and confirm that their size and spacing conforms to your design. It is easy to make adjustments to the overall size, if they're too big, at this stage.

Using a pencil, I lightly marked some measurements to help me draw the letters on the panels. I recommend only lightly drawing your guidelines out at first so that if you need to edit them, the lines you've already drawn will be easy to erase. Once you've drawn all your letters and decided that your satisfied with them you can go back over them a little darker, These will be the lines we'll follow when cutting out the numbers so keeping them clean and neat will help you when using the saw.

I used the rounded base of a bottle I found, to duplicate the same curve that is inherent to the font's design. I also used a bottle that had an outside radius that matched the inside curve of the "O". These shortcuts helped keep the letter contours uniform.

Step 4: Cutting Out the Letters

The ideal tool for this is the scroll saw, if your letters have a lot of interior corners or sharp turns it will require the right blade. If your using a jigsaw make sure you get a blade that leaves a clean edge on plywood. The wrong blade will splinter the wood.

To cut the interior of a letter like an "R", "A", or "O" you need to drill a hole to start your cuts. Drill a hole that's just slightly wider than your blade, then you can insert your blade and make your interior cut. Now that your letters are all cut out lay them out and adjust their position in relation to each other and confirm everything lines up as planned. The plywood I used left little strands at the cut edge so I trimmed them off with a utility knife and lightly sanded the edges.

Step 5: Prepping Your Letters for Mounting

I wanted to letters to be offset from the sign so that I could put lights behind them to give them a light silhouette effect. I ripped the 1"x2"s in half so that I had 2 1" strips. The amount of space the letters stand off is a matter of personal preference. On my sign the lights are visible at some extreme angles had I made the space between the backing and the letters smaller the lights would have been hidden better.

I chose to cut pieces of the strips that were about 2/3rd the total height of the letters (for example: if my letters were 9" tall I cut a 6" strip for it). This is also a matter of personal preference keep in mind the longer the length of the strip the more LED strip you are likely to use. I did not do a continuous strip on the back of my letters and opted for a more frugal approach to conserve my supply of LED strip. Once you've decided on how you want to configure the letter mounts attach them to the letters. I chose to use a spray on contact adhesive but wood glue would probably be the best for a sign that you want to last.

Step 6: Wiring the LED Light Strips

Once the glue is dry, Measure the sides of your letter mounts and cut some LED strip to the same size. LED strip has sections on it specifically for cutting, so some adjusting may be needed for best coverage while also complying with the cut indicators. peel off the adhesive backing and stick to your letter mounts. I chose to cover 3 sides, while leaving one narrow end uncovered but that is entirely up to you. LED strip adhesive is notoriously unreliable, so I usually put a bead of hot glue on it every few inches to keep it secure.

I kept the wiring on my project pretty straightforward, LED strips almost always have indications for wiring positive + and negative - and when soldering them, you're really just reconnecting the connections you severed when you cut them, only with a length of wire in between. Lay all your letters out face down in the order that you'll mount them in, spaced as you'd want them spaced. Measure the distance from the positive and negative on the first letter to the positive and negative on the nearest next letter. Cut and strip 2 wires to the same length and solder both wires to the 1st letter's LED strip. Leave the two wire unattached at the other end because we'll complete the connections after mounting the letters. do this with each letter consecutively.

Soldering LED strip is simple, the technique that has worked best for me is to set the hot soldering iron on the copper pad for a second, then put the solder wire against the pad. This should make a nice and neat little silver puddle. prepping all LED strips in advance and prepping the wires in a similar way and then going back and connecting them together.

Depending on how you configured the LED strips you should have at least 2 wires from each letter. In my example the letter is an "O" and I chose to mount it using a block on each side of the letter. If you follow my example you can solder wires from one strip on one side to the other strip just like it is another letter and them continue the circuit on the other side of the mounting block.

Step 7: Preparing and Painting the Backing Panel

Cut your stock material to a manageable dimension to fit your design. If the shape of your sign is symmetrical, like mine is, you can cut out one side of the sign and use the scrap piece as a template for the other side. Just cut one side and flip the scrap piece over and draw your outline from the cut edge.

Clean up the cut edges just as we did with the letters. Sand and clean up any offending marks that will detract from your sign. fill any cracks, dents or scratches with wood filler or putty. Sand the filler smooth once it has hardened.

Since my sign has white in it I painted the whole exposed area of the sign white. It is usually best to start with the lighter colors and then add any darker colors on top of the lighter ones.

Using a pencil, lightly sketch out your design onto the plywood. I kept mine pretty simple and used masking tape to mask anywhere I wanted to stay white. If you intend to use polystyrene foam, as I did, don't use spray paint. Spray paint has a solvent in it that melts polystyrene and if you paint your sign with spray paint you may find it difficult to match the color when you go to paint the foam.

After masking the white areas on the sign I painted the stripes on in black. Since my sign was just black over white I didn't need to be too concerned about the colors bleeding through. It is recommended to do a practice run with your paint/color scheme. Some types, and qualities, of paint are better suited than others for different types of materials and designs. An acrylic craft paint may not be opaque enough to cover up even some lighter colors. I used Rust-Oleum Ultra Cover brush on paint which comes in a pretty good variety of colors and doesn't have the solvents that spray paint does, which would melt my polystyrene foam frame. It is also is reliably opaque so overlapping colors is less of an issue, and I rarely need more than one coat. You might also want to include in your practice run to check how effective your masking tape is, as some paints will bleed at the edges of the tape.

Step 8: Painting the Letters

After sanding and cleaning up the edges, I painted my base color which was red. I did not use a primer because with the paint I was using I didn't really need it and I could use the extra time it would take to do so. I also painted my darker base color first and added my lighter accent color afterwards, which I don't recommend, but it worked out ok. The lighter color, because of the quality of paint, didn't allow the base color to bleed through. Multiple coats of this paint, and sanding between coats, would have yielded a higher gloss and smoother surface.I chose to do the painting free hand but masking would have yielded neater results.

Step 9: Mounting the Letters

Once all letters are painted and all LED strips have positive and negative wires attached to them, arrange them on your backer board. We are going to use wood screws to attach them so being certain where you want them is vital. We will be drilling holes for the screws so we don't want any stray holes in our backer board.

Re position your letters on the backer board and make some inconspicuous marks to indicate where your letter will sit. I used screws for mounting the letters to the backing board because it's quick and it can be difficult to properly clamp the letters. When you set the letter aside you should have marks for the edges of you mounting blocks. Drill a hole into the painted side of the backer board. Also drill a larger hole to feed your LED wire through ensure that where you drill the hole is inconspicuous but also not under a mounting block. After drilling all the necessary holes, place your letters back in place and secure them in place, I used masking tape for this. flip the whole board over and drill a shallow hole through the predrilled holes in the backer board into the mounting block. Don't drill all the way through because you don't want holes in the front of your letters. Use wood screws that are not quite as long as the depth of your mounting blocks.

Step 10: Cutting the Polystyrene Foam Frame

I wanted to add some dimension to my sign but also wanted to keep it a low budget project so I decided to use Polystyrene foam to make a frame for my sign. There are several varieties readily available at any home improvement store with some being more durable than others. Since I am trying to do this cheaply, I used the cheapest white variety. If you want your sign to be more durable and of higher quality, the pink and the blue kind is more durable and has a denser foam texture which will result in cleaner/neater cuts.

Do a test that the combination of paint and foam sheeting is compatible. Not all paints have the same type of solvents in them and will not adhere, or sometimes melt, the foam as previously mentioned.

I cut the 4'X8' sheet of foam to a workable size and then put my sign on top of the polystyrene and used the sign to trace the outline onto the foam.

Cutting the foam will depend on your skill level and what tools you have available. I chose to cut the foam initially with a sharp utility "snap" knife and the later with a hot wire cutter. The snap knife is ideal because the cutting edge is considerably longer than that of a utility knife, use a new unused knife and angle the blade in the direction of the cut at about 45 degrees for best results. Each variety of foam has it's own characteristics and each type of cut requires a different technique so I recommend you take some scrap and practice each variation until your comfortable with the material. Avoid the temptation to use any type of oscillating tool to do final cuts on the foam unless it something your certain of the results of.

Using the hot wire cutter I was able to use the sign as a template, I cut a scrap piece of plywood and sandwiched the foam between the two pieces and then I could just guide the hot wire along the edges of the plywood. If you use this technique MAKE SURE YOU SMOOTH THE EDGES OF THE PLYWOOD so the wire glides smoothly. Hot wire is a great way to cut foam but it still has it's limitations. Smooth steady movements make the best looking cuts but the wire will only cut at a speed that is affected by variables such as thickness of cut and denseness of material.

I was able to offset the top template and cut a nice bevel on the outside edge of the sign's frame. Cutting the inside field of the frame is a bit trickier, I used a combination of cuts with the hot wire and the snap knife but could have gotten better results had I made a template for that as well.

Step 11: Wiring It All Together

Ideally, positive should be wired with red wire and negative should be wired with black wire. I didn't have enough of each color and I had an abundance of some cheap yellow wire so I just marked all the negative strands with black sharpie and left the positive strands unmarked. If you wired each letter negative/positive to the next letters negative/positive you really only need to attach a female barrel jack to one end of your letters either the first letter or the last letter or you can solder additional wires to any of the +/- of any of the strips in between.

Step 12: Attaching the Frame to the Backing Board

In my opinion there is no ideal option for an adhesive for polystyrene foam but I've had regular success with a spray on contact adhesive. The process is to spray both surfaces to be bonded, wait until the adhesive surface gets tacky, and then combine the two surfaces. This type of adhesive works great for gluing foam to foam and is effective when gluing foam to some surfaces, just not all surfaces. Handle the spray adhesive with caution because, like the spray paint, it has a tendency to melt the foam. It is best to sandwich the foam between the back of the sign and another board and clamp them together. It's better to sandwich the foam like this because the clamps will blemish your foam.

Step 13: Painting the Polystyrene Foam Frame

When painting polystyrene foam be certain to test your paint to ensure that it co-operates with polystyrene foam. Any paint that is solvent based should be tested. So if your paint cleans up with soap and water it will probably be ok.

The white polystyrene sheet that I used has an lot of little holes and gaps in it. It is not an ideal surface for painting. It's kind of like painting a sponge just not as porous. The surface can be improved by painting with a thick primer like Kilz or even multiple coats of latex paint. Lightweight vinyl spackling compound will also help make the uneven surface of the polystyrene smoother.

I chose to just paint the sign's frame without any surface prep. I inspected it once the 1st coat was dry and since there are so many holes and crevices in the material I chose to paint the entire frame a 2nd time to ensure everything was sufficiently covered.

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