Introduction: LED Ribbon Lighting for a Curio Cabinet

We have a curio cabinet in our living room. It’s a lovely thing really, Spanish Colonial in solid rose wood, with three glass sides and five wooden shelves.  I only have one issue with it, even in daylight, it’s dark inside. At night everything inside more of less fades away.  Not that it contains anything materially valuable, or even beautiful, just the memories and curios of two lifetimes.  I thought we could do better with a little lighting… LED lighting of course.

Step 1: Parts

Because the cabinet is tall and has wooden shelves, installing a single light at the top would only illuminate the top shelf. Installing five standard cabinet lights, while possible, would be expensive and involve more wiring than I wanted to do. After considerable research I settled on LED lights in ribbon form from HitLights, but there are several suppliers.

Advantages of LED ribbon lighting are: 1) Low voltage (more or less impossible to get shocked or burn down the house), 2) low wattage (cheap to run), 3) low heat (won’t melt your stuff), 4) flexible (literally, it’s a ribbon, super bendy), 5) self-adhesive (3M double stick tape), 6) good quality light (available in day light, warm white, and primary colors), and 7) never burns out. Let me repeat, Never Burns Out.

Parts List

1 – spool (16.4’) LED ribbon (HitLight or other)
1 – 12v power supply
Wire cutter/stripper
Soldering iron and solder
Blue painter's tape
Isopropyl alcohol and paper towels

The LED spool costs about $12, and the power supply costs $11, so the total cost is under $25, remarkably cheap.

Step 2: The LED Ribbon

The LED ribbon comes on a plastic spool that looks like it was meant for 8mm film, and maybe it was.  It has a connector at one end for the power supply, and pre-soldered wires on the other for splicing. It is backed with double-stick 3M adhesive tape, so it’s easy to attach it to your project. Still wrapped on its spool and plugged in to the power supply, the LEDs look like the first photo.  That’s just cool.

The second photo shows the basic unit of the LED ribbon light. Each unit has 3 LEDs and a current limiting resister. You can cut the ribbon on the indicated line and it will still work. Each unit is just a tad under 2” (exactly 6.5cm). More than one ribbon, or cut segments, can be joined by soldering the tabs at the cut marks (so long as you pay attention to the polarity).   Every 10th unit the solder tabs are pre-tinned, so if possible you want to cut there. If you are not comfortable with soldering, they do sell solderless connector, but I didn’t try those.

Step 3: Installation

Everyone’s particular project will be different of course, but some things will be constant.  Clean the surface of your project well with isopropyl alcohol before sticking anything on it. I’d recommend initially positioning the LED ribbon using blue painter’s tape.  Once you pull the backing off the 3M adhesive that comes preattached to the ribbon there will be no repositioning, it’s going down for good.

I decided to install the LED ribbon on the door of my cabinet. For even lighting, I wanted it on both sides of the door, so that was going to involve cutting and soldering. The ribbon is so low profile (about 1/16th of an inch) that I had no problems with it impacting shelves or hardware, the door closed just fine with the ribbon attached.

First I ran the ribbon down the hinge side of the door, using lots of blue tape, with the power connector at the bottom. Then I cut it off at the top on the nearest cut line. I applied power to make sure it still worked, and opened and closed the door to make sure everything was free and clear.

The remaining length of LED ribbon was more than long enough to do the other side of the door. As I mentioned earlier, one end of the uncut ribbon has a power connect, but the other end has two wires pre-soldered on.  I ran the other half of the LED ribbon down the other side of the door (more blue tape) with the pre-soldered wires at the bottom, since I intended to use those wires to power the second ribbon.

Again I cut it off at the top at the nearest cut mark.  Just to be clear, the waste part of the LED ribbon, the part I cut off and didn’t use, came from the middle of the ribbon. In my project I used the front end with the power connector, and the back end with the pre-soldered wires.

Step 4: Testing

I didn’t want to do any soldering yet, not until I knew that both ribbons were still ok. I used a couple of clip-leads to take power off of the first ribbon and run it over to the wires on the other ribbon on the opposite side of the door. More blue tape.

Again I opened and closed the door to insure there weren’t any problems.

Step 5: Stick It Down

Once I was sure everthing was ok, it was time for final install. I pulled everything off of the door because I realized I hadn’t cleaned the surface. Bummer. I wiped the surface of the door thoroughly with a paper towel dampened with isopropyl alcohol.  Some older finishes (shellac) might be damage by alcohol, so test first. Then I stuck everything back up with the blue tape.

Sticking the LED ribbon down isn’t hard, but you want to keep it under very slight tension as you go so you don’t get wrinkles or waves in it. Gravity helps with this, so I started peeling off the backing from the 3M adhesive at the top, and worked my way down, removing blue tape as I went. Firm it down with your fingers at the end.

Step 6: Drilling

The connector for the power supply was just about 9/16th inches wide, so I drilled a 9/16th hole at the bottom back of my curio cabinet to run the power cable through.  This is actually the only permanent modification I had to do to the cabinet to complete this project.

Step 7: Soldering

On the power connector end of the 1st LED ribbon, I used a razor knife to carefully peel back the insulation and expose the solder blobs.  To those solder blobs I soldered red (+) and black (-) hookup wires. Speaker wires would also be an ok choice here, these wires are not going to carry much current.

Notice the little plastic clip that the power line is feeding though. That’s a strain relief and it came with the HitLights, nice touch from them.

The other end of the two hookup wires go to the LED ribbon on opposite side of the door. In the photo the solder joints are already covered by heat-shrink tubing, my personal favorite way to insulate wire connections. Electrical tape would also be just fine here.

Step 8: Conclusion

And that’s it. The LED ribbon made this job much easier (and cheaper) than would have been possible with traditional cabinet lighting.  The resulting lighting is warm and even, and greatly enhances the look of both the cabinet and its contents.

This kind of lighting could easily be used for shadow boxes or other artwork, under cabinet lighting in a kitchen, or any place that’s restricted or otherwise hard to light conventionally. It is also inexpensive and easy to work with.

As a final plug for LED, I’ll show what my KILL A WATT meter indicates this lighting project is drawing... just 17 watts. About the same as an old fashioned night light.