EL Wire Fish With LED Eyes

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Welcome

Hello and thanks for checking out my first Instructable. I'm excited to finally share one of my favorite projects, a glowing fish skeleton with color changing eyes and a top hat. This project combines EL wire and addressable LEDs with a piece of laser cut acrylic (or hand cut cardboard). You could display it as a sculpture, hang it like a picture, or in my case, put it on a long pole so your friends can find you at festivals.

The Inspiration

I love music festivals because they are a great opportunity to get closer to your friends and make new ones. Nothing accomplishes group bonding quite like a good dance party. With all the chaos, running around, and meeting new people, sometimes you just want an easy way to find your crew. To solve this problem, people get creative and create a piece of art, sign or object, attach it to a pole and hold it up as a beacon above the crowd. This creates an easy way for a group to stay together or find each other, and also makes a great conversation piece for meeting new people.

The range of styles and designs are limitless, from utilitarian and minimal such as holding up a broom, to elaborate designs with 3D printing, LEDs, and more. I have always enjoyed seeing people's creativity expressed in this way, so I decided to make my own.

For this particular use case, here were my requirements:

  • Unique and easily recognizable.
  • Bright enough to pick out of a crowd at night, with a lot of other lights and glowy things.
  • Small enough form factor that it won't block anyone's view or be difficult to transport.
  • Light enough to carry around for hours.
  • Strong enough to withstand numerous dance parties, dust storms, being dropped, etc..

I've got a collection of light up festival accessories at this point, so I wanted to make the electric components modular so I can swap things like battery packs or controllers in and out. I also wanted the EL wire and LED eyes to operate on separate circuits and power supplies for a level of redundancy. If one goes out, there's still something up on that pole lit.

This project was a ton of fun to make and the end product never fails to get the crew back together after a classic festival 'scatter'. It's also been a great conversation piece and way to meet new people. I hope you enjoy it.

Build Summary

The fish body is constructed out of a piece of laser cut acrylic. If you don't have access to a laser cutter, you can also do this with hand cut cardboard and still get a great effect. My prototype is made of cardboard and has been alive for three years, many festivals, and is still swimming.

The outline of the fish is made by gluing EL wire around the perimeter of the body. If you're not famliar, EL wire stands for electroluminescent wire, and it creates a nice soft glow and is a great choice for outlining. You might want to check out some other Instructables dedicated to working with EL wire if you're new to the material.

The eyes of the fish are LED rings, made of 12 individually addressable rgb LEDs. The rings are glued to the acrylic. The LED colors and patterns are controlled with a micro-controller. For this project, you don't need to be a micro controller expert, but you'll need to be able to upload a sketch and do some basic soldering. You can learn a lot more about micro controllers and individually addressable LEDs on Instructables or Adafruit.com.

I have the fish mounted on a modified paint roller, so that it can screw on and off of an extendable painting pole. The pole extends from 4 to 8 feet. You can mount your creation in whatever way suits your need.

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Step 1: Materials & Tools

There are three main sets of materials that you'll need for this project. I'll list a few alternatives for parts where you can get a creative or modify things to match what you have access to.

Body and Mounting

  • Piece of 1/4 inch acrylic
    • Size will depend on our design. The fish fits inside a 10" by 20" rectangle.
    • I used a clear frosted acrylic. There are many colors and levels of frosting, so you can experiment. I like the clear frosting because it diffuses the light from the EL wire throughout the body of the fish.
    • If you don't have access to a laser cut, want to save on costs, or prefer to use recycled material, you can use cardboard.
  • Paint Roller Head - This will be attached to the acrylic fish body, and screw onto the painters pole.
  • Painters Pole - I used one that extends from 4 to 8 feet, but there are a variety of sizes available.
  • Decorative Duct Tape - If you'll be using cardboard for the body, you'll need some tape to strengthen and decorate it. I used aluminum duct tape, which is very strong and shiny like fish scales.

EL Wire Parts

  • 2.6mm High Bright EL Wire
    • Length will vary depending on your design. I used 10 feet and it was enough.
    • To keep things simple, you can buy a kit from companies like coolneon.com that include the wire, driver and connections pre-soldered. You can even pick which driver you want as part of the kit, which as you'll see below could be important.
    • For the first fish I made, I used aqua colored wire because it's supposedly the brightest. For the fish that I'm making for this Instructable, I used green.
  • EL Wire Driver
    • If you really want your project to be bright, it's important to get something more powerful than the common 2x AA battery drivers that are readily available. Those will work great if you're making a piece of art for the home, but if you want it to stand out at a festival, use something more powerful.
    • I recommend one of the mid-length drivers available from coolneon.com, that take a 9-12 volt power supply. More power means brighter, but also more battery and weight. For me the trade-off for a brighter light was worth it.
    • You can get this as part of a kit, or buy separately.
  • 12v AA Battery Pack - This holds 8 AA batteries and has a 9v battery type snap on the top.
  • 2 pairs of 2-Pin JST connectors - If you bought a kit these shouldn't be needed.
  • 9v Battery Clip connector - Some EL drivers have this already attached.

LED Eyes

  • 2x 12 LED Rings - WS2812B or compatible LEDs. Other shapes or ring sizes could work too.
  • Adafruit Trinket Pro micro controller- There are many options but this worked well for me. I got the 5v version.
  • 500 mah LiPo Battery
  • 2-Pin JST female connector - Needs to fit the male end of the connector on the Lipo Battery.
  • 1 pair of 3-Pin JST connectors - These will be to connect the LED Rings to the micro-controller.
  • USB LiPo battery charger
  • White Adhesive Felt - This is used to diffuse the light of the LEDs into a softer glow. Optional.

Other Materials

  • E6000 Glue - Plus a small paintbrush used for application.
  • Blue Painters Tape
  • Electrical Tape
  • Wire
  • Heat Shrink Tubing - Plus a lighter to heat it.
  • 2 x toggle on/off switches (not pictured)
  • Velcro Straps - Useful to secure things to the paint roller
  • Sandpaper

Tools

  • Soldering Iron & Solder
  • Wire Strippers/Cutters
  • Scissors
  • Pliers
  • Small Clamps
  • Xacto knife
  • Dremel (optional)

Step 2: Pick & Cut Design

    For your design, you'll need to think about how big and complex you want it to be, and what that will mean for the amount of EL wire needed to cover the perimeter and any other details you want to add and light up. You can also use a wide variety of materials. The two I've used are cardboard and 1/4 inch acrylic. The acrylic is more sturdy and has more interesting ways to diffuse the light. Cardboard on the other hand is much more accessible and cheaper. Cardboard holds up surprisingly well when completely coated in tape.

    For my original design, I looked at a bunch of reference photos of fish skeletons, and then hand drew one about a foot long on a piece of cardboard.

    If Using Cardboard:

    • I cut my cardboard drawing out with and Xacto knife. If I were to do it again, I would have done a second cutout and taped or glued the two together to make it thicker. I then coated the cardboard in aluminum duct tape, which is very strong and has a nice silver sheen to it. It also holds its shape well because it's a thin sheet of metal.
    • You'll need to use a piece of string to carefully trace the perimeter of your object to measure the a mount of EL wire needed.

    If using Acrylic:

    • You'll need to use some illustration software to create your image. I used Inkscape, which is free software with lots of tutorials online. I started with a picture of my hand draw image, and then drew a vector file over it in Inkskape. You can have your design laser cut from a service online and shipped to you.
    • Inkscape has a feature that measures the perimeter of your design, which will tell you how much EL wire you need.
    • I've included the file for the fish if you want to use that.

    Step 3: Solder EL Wire

      If using a pre-soldered kit, no soldering necessary here and you can move on to the next step.

      If soldering your own, you'll need to solder one end of a 2-Pin JST connector to the end of the EL wire, making sure to leave enough wire to be routed across and off the body of your design.

        For more complex designed (mine uses 3 separate pieces of EL wire, perimeter, hat and stripe on the back), rather than solder on the JST connector now, you can attach wire leads to each piece of EL wire. In later steps, consolidate those wires and then solder them to a JST connector.

        Step 4: Tape EL Wire to Body

        Now it's time to start attaching the EL wire to the body. EL wire is all about lines, and I like mine to look as clean and smooth as possible. I try to be gentle with the EL wire when it arrives and not put any bends or kinks in it until I'm ready to use it. By slowly wrapping and taping the EL wire to the body, you can get a nice smooth line around the perimeter.

        1. I like to cut small pieces of blue painters tape ahead of time and have them ready to do a section. It's always nice to have a few handy when working around curves.
        2. For design purposes, you can create breaks in the continuity of the EL Wire with black heat shrink tubing. On the back side of the fish, I wanted to do a stripe down the body, but I didn't want a continuous line from the body. I cut a piece of the heat shrink and slid it onto the wire. Don't heat it yet, because you'll want to adjust it's location right before gluing.
          • My EL wire had a little end cap glued on that I needed to take off to get the heatshrink over it. If yours has one of these, save it for later.
        3. Once you have the EL wire taped down how you want, it's time to double check that EL wire works. I temporarily hooked my EL wire up to a driver to check that it lights up.
        4. If everything looks good, you're ready to start the next step, which is gluing.

        Step 5: Glue EL Wire

        For the glue, I like to use E6000 because it cures strong and flexible, which helps it withstand bumps and jolts. It also dries clear, which is great for using with EL wire. E6000 is a strong chemical, so I recommend working outside.

        EL wire tip: If you removed the little end cap on your piece of EL wire, or cut it yourself and there is a raw end exposed, glue the cap back on, or completely cover the exposed end in glue to make your own cap. If the raw edge is exposed it's possible for the El wire to create a short circuit and not light up, and possibly damage your driver.

        1. To glue the EL Wire, un-tape half of the fish (top half or bottom half), keeping the pieces of blue tape.
        2. Squeeze some E6000 out onto a piece of cardboard and use a small paint brush to apply the glue to the edge of the acrylic.
        3. Work in sections, applying glue to 5-10 inches at a time. Wait a few minutes for the glue to get tacky.
        4. Once the glue is tacky, push the loose EL wire back into place, and into the glue you just applied.
        5. Use the blue tape you saved to tape it back in place to hold it while it dries.
        6. After all of the EL wire is glued and cured, remove all of the blue tape and check that there are no areas that didn't get enough glue, or the EL wire is loose, and touch those up with extra glue.

        Step 6: Diffusers for the LED Eyes

        This step is optional and is a matter of personal preference. The EL wire produces a soft glow, so I wanted to diffuse the LEDs to achieve a similar affect to compliment the EL wire. You could leave the LEDs bare for a more sparkly and sharp looking light.

        1. Using a piece of white felt (mine came as a sheet and had an adhesive backing), trace the inside and outside diameter of the LED rings. Do this twice.
        2. Carefully cut out each ring of felt to match the shape of the LED ring.
        3. Save these felt rings for later.

        If I had been thinking ahead better, I would have had these cut from frosted Acrylic when I had the fish cut.

        Step 7: Solder the Controller and LED Eyes

        The eyes are made of two 12 LED Rings connected to a micro-controller and a LiPo battery. The rings are glued to the acrylic, and will be wired to a connector that plugs into the controller. The controller and battery will be mounted on the handle of the paint roller. Take a look at the wiring diagram to see what goes where.

        1. To build the eyes, start by soldering wires 12 inches long to the GND, V++ and Data In of each LED Ring. The wires will later be consolidated and soldered to a 3-pin JST connector.
          • Note: In the wiring diagram, the Data Out from one of the LED rings goes to the Data In of the other. For now, just solder wires on each Data In. You'll connect it to the Data out of the other LED later.
        2. Next, on the Trinket, solder a 3-Pin JST connector to the GND, V++ and Pin 6 (data). This connector will ultimately connect to the wires you just soldered to the LED rings.
        3. For power, solder the right angle JST connector to the back of the Trinket. The LiPo batteries come with a 2-Pin JST male plug already attached. I added a switch between the battery and the male JST on the + wire

        For the sketch, I just used the FastLED DemoReel100. I adjusted the brightness, data pin, and number of LEDs in the sketch. I've attached my modified sketch here. Load the sketch, and then using a breadboard, test that everything works.

        Step 8: Solder the EL Wire Controller and Battery Connectors

        If you're using an EL Wire kit, then you can probably skip this step. In my case, I have multiple strands of EL Wire, and a controller that has wire leads but no connectors.

        1. From the EL Wire driver, there will be two sets of wires, one goes to the EL Wire, and the other to the power source. Attach one side of a 2-pin JST connector to the wires that go to the EL Wire. The other side will later be soldered to the leads coming from the EL Wire.
        2. To the power wires coming from the driver, solder another 2-pin JST Connector, with an on/off switch. This will connect to the battery pack.
        3. Solder the other side of the power wires JST connector to the 9v battery clip.

        Step 9: Glue Eyes

        Now that everything is soldered and tested, it's time to glue the eyes to the body. Try to make the rings match up between both sides of the body.

        1. Use a paint brush to apply a thin layer of E6000 to the back of each LED ring.
        2. Give it a few minutes to become tacky, and then stick it on the acrylic. I used small clamps to ensure a solid connection.
        3. Apply the white felt rings to the LED rings. If you didn't use adhesive felt, you can apply a very thin layer of E6000 to the felt. I actually decided not to ad the felt rings to mine.

        Once the eyes are glued, it's time to attache the mount.

        Step 10: Attach Mount

        At this point almost everything will be soldered and glued, and you should have a funky looking piece of art with a few wire leads hanging from it. Before finishing up the wiring, it's a good time to attach your mounting method.

        1. Using pliers, remove the roller part of the paint roller. This was difficult for me, but I eventually got the roller off.
        2. Now there should be a piece of metal exposed that can lay flat against the acrylic.
        3. Position the handle how you want, taking in consideration where the center of gravity is, and if you want your piece to be at a certain angle.
        4. Use the blade of an xacto knife to lightly outline where the metal rests against the acrylic.
        5. Remove the paint roller and use sandpaper to rough up the acrylic where it will be touching the metal. Do the same to the metal where it will touch the acrylic. You can use a dremel tool to help scuff up the metal.
        6. To further scuff up the acrylic, you can use the Xacto knife to make a series of cuts.
        7. Using a paintbrush, apply E6000 to the area you sanded on both the acrylic and metal.
        8. Let the glue become tacky and then carefully position the metal onto the acrylic.
        9. Clamp the metal in place and let cure for at least 48 hours. Do not disturb your piece until the glue is completely cured.

        I opted to apply additional glue after the first round was totally cured to provide additional support.

        Step 11: Consolidate and Finish Wiring

        The project is almost done! It's time to tidy up the wires and get them routed off the body of the fish, and then attach connectors to easily snap into the driver and controller.

        1. In my project there are multiple pieces of EL wire, so first I had to consolidate those wires. The 5v, ground and data wires from the LED eyes need to be consolidated as well.
        2. All of the wires can be routed together along the metal of the paint roller, off the acrylic and down to the handle of the paint roller.
        3. Cut the wires to even length and solder the 3-pin connector to the LEDs and the 2-pin to the EL wire.
        4. Glue the wires to the acrylic to protect them from getting caught on things.
        5. As a last step, use E-6000 to reinforce all of the solder joints on the LED Eyes, and anywhere else there is risk of abrasion or mechanical failure. Also don't forget to cover the exposed ends of any EL Wire with glue so that they aren't damaged.I

        Tip: Lots of blue tape helps keep things in place while measuring, soldering and gluing down the wires.

        Step 12: Mount Batteries and Micro-controller

        The micro-controller, EL Driver and batteries need to be mounted to the handle of the paint roller. I'm sure this can be done in a better way, but I used a mix of tape and velcro straps to hold in all the wires and secure the hardware to the handle of the paint roller. In the future I would like to find a way to mount the hardware that looks cleaner and will provide more protection. That being said, multiple velcro straps has worked well for me and I haven't had any issues.

        Step 13: Finished!

        Finally it's time to plug everything in and check out the final product. Thanks for reading along and I hope you enjoyed seeing how this project comes together. I'd love to see what you create, and am happy to answer questions in the comments section.

        Thanks,

        Dan

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          4 Discussions

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          MikaelaHolmes

          9 months ago

          This is fantastic! Such a thorough tutorial, very well written and easy to follow. I've been lucky enough to see the final product in person and it really is an awesome looking project. Thanks so much for sharing your creativity :)

          1 reply