Intro: 13 Ideas for Diffusing LEDs
This is a list of my favorite LED diffusion ideas, which I hope will provide you with some sparks of inspiration for creating your own next-level illumination. Examples and links are provided for each!
Step 1: Paper-Lined Shadow Box
We'll start out with an easy one: just start out with a box, either homemade or an easily found shadow box frame, for example, and line the inside with plain printer paper.
In my WiFi Weather Display project, for example, I broke the shadow box up into sections with a folded piece of corrugated cardboard. Then I taped some pixel strips to the back, shining into each triangle shape. In the Arduino code I control the color of each section of the pixel strand to create abstract weather patterns. Notice how the "snowy" status has some blue and some white LEDs, as compared to "rainy" with only blue.
The simplest form of this technique can also achieve a great result, and that's just to line the walls of the box with a single LED strip. Make the inside of the box white so the light can bounce around, and create a cutout face with the design of your choice. Learn more in my Instructable about this 2017 sign.
Step 2: Woven Fabric
Woven fabrics aren't stretchy, so they're easier to sew and keep flat. If you go shopping for fabric in person, bring a flashlight or use your phone's flashlight to test how different fabrics transmit light. Some, upon illumination, will show off an interior texture that you couldn't see from the surface. If you're shopping online, look for lightweight synthetic woven fabrics as a starting point. Faux flowers are also made of woven fabric.
If you're looking to smooth out letters on an LED scroller sign, the next obvious choice beyond paper is woven fabric. In the messenger bag display project pictured, I used solid white ripstop nylon to diffuse a large flexible NeoPixel display right up against the surface of the LEDs.
Step 3: Knit Fabric
Knit fabric is stretchy! Sweaters are knit, so are t-shirts. Knits can be tough to work with, but are great for diffusing LEDs! Like in the case of the pictured off-white fluffy cable-knit sweater: it diffuses the 8x8 NeoPixel matrix with an added texture that couldn't be imparted any other way. It's probably too thick to read numbers/letters through it, but the soft edges it gives the snowflakes are very festive.
The color changing scarf has an interior string of pixels diffused by a heavily gathered machine-knit panel. The folds of the gathered knit material were supposed to give a floral garland effect, but I think this thin grey yarn choice fell short of its goal.
Step 4: Plush Toys
Plush toys add a volume of fiber around an LED, usually synthetic fiber fill, and creating some volume can spread out the light and also highlight different parts of the toy. I created my first LED soft toy for a plush nightlight assignment in college (I made "irradiated" plush steak and the Chatter Pillow). Now I teach that same assignment as an exploration of materials in my classroom at SVA Products of Design.
Step 5: Glass
Small mason jars often have an interesting texture, and can make a great base for a few different diffusion effects. Pictured is a simple 3D printed lid holding a single LED. Try filling the jar with translucent beads, or lining it with a simple piece of printer paper to pick up the glow. You can also paint the jar, inside or out. Learn more in my Instructable about making LED Mason Jar Lanterns.
Step 6: Backlit Laser-Cut Textile
You can layer fabrics for a wide variety of diffusion effects. This Sparkle Skirt project uses a laser-cut microsuede skirt as its base, and has the LED circuit sewn into the lining. When the LEDs light up, light bounces off the back of the overlay and the lining, creating a sophisticated backlight effect.
Step 7: LED Underlighting
You can use backlighting in many other applications as well. Technically it's not diffusion, since the light is reflecting off of something else, but we'll include it in our brainstorm anyway! In my Internet Valentine project, I glued tiny sequin LEDs to the back of a tissue paper heart, and they reflect off the white card behind to give the heart a red glow. Similarly, the red illuminated button shines up at the tissue paper heart on the remote to the left, bathing the layered pedals in red light.
Step 8: Laser-Cut Acrylic
Laser-cut acrylic affords a few diffusion opportunities, including edge-lighting, etching, and coloring in the etching with a marker. The photos here are from my Iron Man Arc Reactor project.
Step 9: Crinoline Tubing
I learned this tip from my pal Phil Burgess, who showed me this technique with his Cyber Falls Wig project. The crinoline tubing fits great over LED strip that's still inside its silicone sheathing, and catches the light with its cross-woven synthetic fibers. I used this idea in the Colorful LED Headpiece project pictured.
Step 10: Ping Pong Balls
Ping pong balls are a classic diffusion idea that is not used nearly enough, in my opinion. Cut a hole just big enough for your LED(s) (left) or cut them in half (right). Blast it with a cluster (like a NeoPixel Jewel, left) or use a single LED (right).
Or be like Moritz Waldemeyer and design a whole net costume with them!
I've heard that some safety trolls will say ping pong balls are flammable. So are many things on this list! Common LEDs and pixels will not get hot enough to light anything on fire, not even dryer lint. So ping pong naysayers, don't even start with me! =D
Step 11: Thermoplastic
Also underutilized in the maker scene, in my opinion, is thermoplastic for diffusing LEDs. This stuff comes in little beads you soak in hot water to make a pliable dough. It's not that easy to get precise shapes with it by hand, but I bet you could press it into little molds pretty easily. Anyway it looks great over powerful LEDs but the more that's on there, the less light will get through, since it's pretty opaque once it sets up.
Step 12: Adhesives / Glues
Different glues have different light transmission properties, and it's worthwhile to explore what magic you can make with the adhesives you already have access to. For this demonstration, I tried out hot glue, E6000, Lexel clear adhesive caulk, and a common household glue stick. You can build up multiple layers, or try whipping up the glues as they dry to create texture and tiny air bubbles. I was surprised to find that the tiny glob of hot glue on just the 5050 pixel package itself was durable and not easy to peel off. It gives a wide angle pleasant lens effect and might be my favorite result out of the whole testing process.
Step 13: 3D Printed LED Diffusers
There have been so many 3D printed LED diffusers in my life over the years, it seems unfair to group them into one idea, but dems the rules. Flexible white filament is my go-to, with a few notable exceptions like the LED coat buttons pictured (files).
These projects were all collaborations with Noe and Pedro Ruiz. Learn more at the tutorial for each:
If you like this project, you may be interested in some of my others:
- Glowing LED Gummy Candy
- YouTube Subscriber Counter with ESP8266
- Easy Infinity Mirror
- 3 Beginner Arduino Mistakes