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

8,468

164

31

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 taki...

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!

Faux-Real Contest

This is an entry in the
Faux-Real Contest

Share

    Recommendations

    • Toys Contest

      Toys Contest
    • Faux-Real Contest

      Faux-Real Contest
    • Cardboard Challenge

      Cardboard Challenge

    31 Discussions

    0
    None
    MandyH46

    3 days ago on Step 1

    perfect - i need to make my coffee worshipping family one! Great presentation and writing thanks :)

    1 reply
    0
    None
    ucnMandyH46

    Reply 3 hours ago

    Cheers, let us see pictures if you do it!

    0
    None
    mrmeasuretwice

    3 days ago

    I've never voted for anything - until now. Spectacular work, very original technique and looks 101% legit!

    1 reply
    0
    None
    chico513

    3 days ago on Step 1

    great idea and it lighted up a bulb over my head. how 'bout using a harbor freight pantograph with a small router to cut out the lettering on blackout painted 1/4" acrylic , then framing with aluminum and boxing out and attaching the wiring inside the frame.

    1 reply
    0
    None
    ucnchico513

    Reply 3 hours ago

    I had to Google 'pantograph', but yes, I've seen old-school signmakers using those for engraving on dog-tags and so on. Certainly worth a try!

    0
    None
    barrylawrensen

    4 days ago

    Excellent Instructable!

    I like your frame. Not as inexpensive, but an easy way to make this with slightly more expense is to go to a picture frame shop and order a custom-sized aluminum picture frame. You can get shadow-box frames with extra depth, to be able to have room for the assembly and wiring on the back side, and the aluminum picture frame shape includes nice corner joinery as well as hanging brackets.

    1 reply
    0
    None
    ucnbarrylawrensen

    Reply 3 hours ago

    Great tip, thanks. That would yield a very professional finish!

    3
    None
    AceSound

    4 days ago

    Great work but here's a quick tip how to improve amount of light emitted and make it look even more realistic - use another tube, thinner, not transparent, but milky white, and put it inside your tube, so when you illuminate it, it will glow just like real plasma :)

    1
    None
    gralan

    5 days ago

    I love the idea and you've explained it well enough I could try doing it. Woo Hoo. The phrase struck gold with me both as a coffee drinker and as an avid reader. I read a book decades ago about counseling among neighbors where the title came from what the author's mother told all who came to pour their hearts out to her: "First we have coffee..." This is not a plug and I get no compensation for mentioning it. It is, quite, the impulse behind my loving this project.

    1 reply
    0
    None
    ucngralan

    Reply 5 days ago

    Thanks for sharing, gralan. Coffee, tea and good conversation unite neighbours the world over.

    0
    None
    CHARLESCRANFORD

    5 days ago

    That is really cool. I love how something being too expensive can motivate someone to think of a way to make it themselves for less money. I appreciate that you added the step to show how to make it without CAD or expensive machines.

    1 reply
    0
    None
    ucnCHARLESCRANFORD

    Reply 5 days ago

    Glad you liked it! I do love crafting things myself, although without a proper wood workshop (eg table saw, shop vac etc.) I tend to default to digital fabrication for most projects. It fits in my design workflow which always starts with a CAD or SketchUp design.

    But as you say, there's always another way to do it with whatever tools you have.

    0
    None
    Leanbean12

    6 days ago

    You're right about EL wire being too dim in the daylight. Here's a sign we made with EL wire and it looks fantastic in the dark but kinda blah in the daylight.

    IMG_20181216_000413.jpg
    1 reply
    0
    None
    ucnLeanbean12

    Reply 5 days ago

    Yeah I played with a few strands of EL wire and wasn't very impressed. I get a lot of daylight in my kitchen and it wouldn't show up at all before dark.

    Great cursive script on your sign, though!

    0
    None
    Bongos

    5 days ago on Step 8

    I love it! You really think out side the box and use the tools at hand. Thanks for sharing!

    0
    None
    Penolopy Bulnick

    6 days ago

    Very interesting technique for doing this! I really like the results :)

    0
    None
    garygoldfinch

    7 days ago

    That’s really nice, very effective. I always admired a local houses neon house number, wondering if I could use this method to fake one...

    1 reply
    0
    None
    DonG36

    7 days ago

    and all it took was some CAD software and an $800 laser cutter to make a $350 neon sign lol.