How to Make a Realistic Faux Neon Sign - Super Bright!

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Introduction: How to Make a Realistic Faux Neon Sign - Super Bright!

About: Architect, Urban Designer, all-round tinkerer of odds and ends. Small solutions for big city living. Dreaming of lands faraway where garages are big enough to build a workshop in, or lakes are there for taking…

Hi guys, this is my all new, all original method for creating a simulated Neon sign out of LEDs that looks super realistic. It really looks like blown glass tubing, with all the varied light that comes with the refraction through the glass at different angles. I'm sure you can find lots of uses for this method in your own projects!

I researched a few alternative methods: Electroluminescent wire (EL wire) is super dim compared to my LED method. In fact, EL wire hardly shows up in the day. (And obviously this particular sign needs to be turned on in the mornings - to lead me to my cuppa!)

Other off-the-shelf 'neon' LED rope light products such as 'Neon Flex' all have a milky plastic diffuser that simply doesn't have the same effect.

If you like this, do vote for me in the "Faux Real" contest! Cheers.

Edit: I've added another bonus step to show an all-manual method of making this, for those who dont have access to drafting software or a laser cutter.

Step 1: Inspiration and Rough Idea

BUT FIRST, COFFEE!

So true, so true. I saw this awesome neon sign for sale at a design shop, and knew I had to have it. I mean, I had to buy it for my wife as a gift.

Either way, she wasn't gonna spend $350 on a frivolous sign, no matter how cool. (True glass-formed neon signs are still hand-made, and so really expensive)

So I found clear plastic tubing in the hardware shop, used for aquariums. It seemed just the right diameter for neon lettering, so I bought it! Paired up with RGB LED strip, I was sure I could make this work.

Step 2: Proof of Concept

I did a quick test on a scrap of material to see if this would work.

The idea is to cut the outline of the letters in a sheet of black acrylic, and glue on the flexible plastic tubing to simulate heat-formed glass neon tubes. The cut-outs are dog-bone shaped, to allow the two ends of each section of tubing to be pushed through to the back of the acrylic sheet. Then the whole thing would be back-lit with LEDs to make it glow.

I drafted this in AutoCAD and cut this out with my bench-top 4W Emblaser laser cutter.

The plastic tubing was glued to the acrylic with a combination of CA glue and hot glue, to make it lie flat.

The last photo shows me holding the test "T" up to the light, and the way it glows really does look like neon!

Great, the test was a success.

Step 3: BONUS: What If I Dont Have a Laser Cutter?!?!?

Edit: I got a few requests after publishing this Instructable to suggest how this can be achieved without AutoCAD and a laser cutter. Its quite simple, really.

1. Use a rigid board like 5mm MDF or plywood as your base
2. Print out your sign letters in your desired font on regular printer paper and spray mount to the board.
3. Use a drill bit the same diameter as the plastic tubing to make the start and end holes of each segment of 'neon' tubing. Eg 6mm drill bit for 6mm tubing
4. Use a scrollsaw or jigsaw to join the two start and end holes of each segment. Make sure you get a 'dogbone' shape like in the picture.
5. Continue as in the following steps.

Step 4: Tackling the Whole Sign

I cut out the full sign in a sheet of 30x40mm black acrylic (2mm thick) on my Emblaser cutter. This took about 12 passes to cut and took forever, but hey, it's just a 4W machine. The centre of the 'O' broke off, but that's ok. We can glue it back in the next step!

Step 5: Forming the Letters

Now comes the arduous task of forming the letters one by one. Take reference to actual neon signs to see how the tubing is usually formed. The start and end of the letters is always hidden at the back, and then the tube makes a 90 degree turn to form the various strokes of each letter.

This took a long time with a lot of burnt fingers from the hot glue, but eventually it got done. It looks like crap from the back, but that's ok. It's only going to be seen from the front.

I kept as much of the protective brown paper on the acrylic as possible, to avoid discolouration from the CA glue.

The last picture is where I held it up to the light to see the effect... and oooh it's beaauuutifuuull... can't wait to add the LEDs!

Step 6: Add a Simple Frame

I added an aluminium frame around the edges, to hide some of the messy wiring. This is just aluminium L-channel, 'mitred' at the corners with garden shears as shown.

This was glued to the back of the acrylic, as I liked the minimalist look of not having a huge border visible in front.

Step 7: Add Partitions to Mount LEDs

I wanted the text to glow super bright, so I built up 'walls' of black foamboard around each word, to give me space to mount the LEDs all around each word.

My original idea was to seal this sign up like a light box so that only the words glowed, like a real LED sign. But in the end I had so much LED strip left (it was a 5m roll) that I decided to add LEDs around the edges of the sign, lighting outwards as well. This gave the sign a nice back-lit glow effect on my kitchen countertop.

The LEDs were hot-glued on, as the double-sided tape on the LED strip is not very sticky. I also mounted the LED driver on the back of the frame as well, so that it is not visible from the front.

Step 8: Enjoy!

Ta-daa!

I usually hate RGB LEDs, and would stick to warm white wherever possible. But the 'tacky' colours really sell the idea that this is a neon sign. (Of course neon signs can't change colour as the gases in each tube only emit a certain frequency light by their inherent physical properties... but let's ignore physics for a moment)

I think this looks the closest to a real 'Neon' sign of all the simulated techniques I've seen. It looks like a glass tube, with real depth.

I've put this sign on a timer so that it comes on every morning, and draws me with its alluring glow to my first cuppa joe.

Hope you like this, and if you find it useful, please do vote for me in the "Faux Real" contest! Thanks!

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    81 Discussions

    0
    Ga33a
    Ga33a

    6 months ago

    Well this is a really great method for faux neon signs. I'd stay away from hot glue though (too messy!) and use twisted wire cleats instead. Very happy with the result.
    Thanks for the great tutorial.

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    5
    zander333
    zander333

    10 months ago

    This is awesome - I made one myself. Made a few tweaks and used paper clips as wire retainers rather than hot glue. Thanks for the awesome tutorial.

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    0
    ucn
    ucn

    Reply 9 months ago

    Ooh that's real nice. Love the fonts too, and the clips look like real neon fixings.

    0
    BrianW238
    BrianW238

    Reply 10 months ago

    Very well done! What did you use on the back to secure the tubing in the holes or is the friction itself enough?

    0
    zander333
    zander333

    Reply 10 months ago

    I twisted the paper clips behind - held them very securely (and appeared similar to the wires used to secure real neon glass). Very messy from the back but looked decent from the front

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    0
    cynfox2
    cynfox2

    Question 9 months ago

    I came across this when I was googling neon signs to buy, and could not find what I wanted and if I had, realized I could not afford it anyway. This looks like something I am able to find the components for and was actually able to do, unlike a lot of instructables that are facinating but I don't have sufficient skill for, or the essential equipement to complete. I do have one question. "1. Use a rigid board like 5mm MDF or plywood as your base" Is this just to attach to the bottom of the sign so it can stand up on the countertop, or did I miss something ? ( I plan to mount mine on the wall.) Thanks for a great instructable !

    0
    ucn
    ucn

    Answer 9 months ago

    I just meant that you need either a board or acrylic sheet as the background of your sign. This is the board that needs to get cut with the channels for the lettering. Hope that helps.

    2
    Whk1992
    Whk1992

    Question 11 months ago on Introduction

    Hi, thanks for the tutorial. I’ve tried two different hot glue sticks and two different CA glues, and I still can’t get the vinyl tubing to adhere to the board. The tubing simply came loose after I had held it in place for five minutes. Any tips? I don’t want to trash the sign I made, but I’m getting close to giving up because of the tubings.

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    0
    keades1
    keades1

    Answer 9 months ago

    Epoxy?

    0
    MartinM294
    MartinM294

    Answer 10 months ago

    Drill a very small diameter hole, say 1 millimeter, next to the tubing, then drill again opposite the first hole. So you now have 2 holes opposite each other and close to the edge of the tubing. Now use a fine fuse wire about 3inches long, push each end of fuse wire through the holes from the front, then twist the fuse wire together on the back side. Problem solved.

    1
    ucn
    ucn

    Reply 11 months ago

    Wow nice to see someone giving this a real attempt. I think for the tighter bends no amount of glue is going to hold the tubes down.
    I had to notch the tubes on the insides of a tight bend. (V-notch) And even so a couple of my letters sprung loose after a few months.

    I'm thinking of using some fine wire to twist-tie the letters down at intervals. Perhaps as much as before and after each bend. Just a fine filament wire would do, so that it is invisible from a short distance away. Then run that through a couple more holes drilled in the board.

    Hope that works!

    0
    kleetus92
    kleetus92

    Reply 10 months ago

    Not sure if you noticed or not, but real neon signs do in fact use fine copper or steel wire to tie the tubing to the mounts to keep it from moving around. That said, I see no reason that couldn't be employed here, in fact it would add to the realism of it. You'd just have to be careful you don't over tighten and compress the tubing and collapse it as it just wouldn't look good.

    I do like the project though!

    0
    Whk1992
    Whk1992

    Reply 11 months ago

    My first thought was to use fishing lines, but it would just be a nightmare without the rigidity needed to make the bends. My next thought is to use clear plastic screws through the tubing and anchor them in hot glue. The threads on the screws should give them a bite in the hot melt... for now, though, I have to put this on hold. A week of frustrations with the tubing has made me too grumpy to continue. :/

    0
    gazsto55
    gazsto55

    Reply 10 months ago

    So did you manage to sort it after your respite. I am the same tbh, I have to come away from something for a period of time and just have a break when it's not going to plan. Looks to be a nice build though!

    0
    Frankcw
    Frankcw

    Reply 10 months ago

    You could drill a series of 1/16" holes on both sides of the tubing (maybe staggered 1" apart) and use one long piece of mono filament fishing line with a sewing needle and stitch the tubing down then secure everything with hot glue.

    Edit: I just studied your photo and compared it to the makers photos and it looks like the cutout channel that your tubing mounts to is too narrow. On the instructable his tubing almost goes into the slot and there is more contact area for the hot glue.

    0
    MalakaiP
    MalakaiP

    Reply 10 months ago

    I agree that tight corners will require relief cuts, which can be glued with superglue. Additionally, superglue binds aquarium tubing quite well, in my experience. I would find that superior to hot glue for this application, personally.

    1
    FlorinJ
    FlorinJ

    Answer 10 months ago

    Didn't try this particular ible myself , and chances that I will are slim - not that much of a fan of neon signs. But I had somewhat of a similar problem recently - getting aquarium tube to stick to a surface of soft smooth plastic.

    What I did was to create holes/indentations in the surface into which the hot glue, once solidified, has a mechanical grip, and make a bridge over the tube. Event if the glue does not adhere to the surface itself, it creates sort of an anchor/brace that holds the tube in place.

    Given the nature of this project, I think it would be simpler to use particle board that has a melamine coating on the show side. Hot glue sticks to the rough surface of particle board extremely well.

    0
    Frank1450
    Frank1450

    10 months ago

    Excellent project! Thanks.

    1
    louis.m
    louis.m

    10 months ago

    "Step 3: BONUS: What If I Don't Have a Laser Cutter?!?!?"How thoughtful of you to remember that not everyone has a workplace
    with lots of complicated machinery
    , this is what many Instructables lack.
    And what a nice straightforward project. 👌🙂👍
    It inspires me to make "neon signs" in a similar way for my model railway.

    0
    bmohr
    bmohr

    Question 10 months ago

    Hi. I really thing this is a very clever project. I notice in the picture of the back that the ends of the tubing look purple. Is that just an optical illusion?