Introduction: EL Wire
El (electroluminescent) wire is a thin, flexible, self-illuminating wire that glows along its length. It does not emit as much light as a light bulb or LED, and is not typically used as a light source. It is meant to be used as a decorative light source and is popular for costume or lighting effects. Since EL wire operates at very high voltage AC (alternating current). It offers less control and flexibility than the other light sources we have looked at, both on account of the voltage supply and the fact that it is not very bright to begin with.
How Does EL Wire Work?
EL wires consists of a thin central copper wire coated in phosphor, a chemical which glows when exposed to an energy source. This central coated wire has two thin outer copper wires wrapped around it. When alternating current flows through these wires, it moves back and forth through the phosphor coating, constantly exciting it and emitting photons.
The color of EL wire is determined solely by the tint of the flexible outer PVC jacket. Since the plastic can be tinted nearly any color, EL wire comes in a wide range of options. That being said, EL wire is only ever the color it comes manufactured, and there is little that can be done to change this.
EL wire is not the brightest light source, and it is hard to see it illuminated under normal bright daylight lighting conditions. It usually has to be fairly dark to really get the full effect. This makes it ideal for dark places like night clubs, but less ideal for outdoor signage. It is largely meant more for decorative usage under very particular conditions, more so than as a source of cast light.
EL Tape and Panels
Aside from EL wire, electroluminescent lights also comes in tape form and panels. These too operate along the same principle as the wire. The only difference is the form factor. Rather than being a thin wire, these strips and panels glow evenly along their entire surface. This makes them great for special effects like making glowing EL decals.
An EL driver - or EL inverter - is a device that takes low-voltage DC (typically between 3V and 12V), and converts it to be about 100V AC. While this might sounds dangerous (being around the same voltage as a wall socket), it is actually very low current. If you were to get shocked by an EL driver, it might give you a surprising 'buzz,' but is highly unlikely to harm you. That said, try to avoid getting shocked.
EL drivers are fairly straight forward devices. They have a connector that the EL wire mates directly to. Usually they have a switch to turn them on and off.
Sometimes, they also have a mode to make it blink.
There are even sequencers which respond to music, blink multiple wires in series, and allow you to interface with EL wire using an Arduino.
Cutting EL Material
EL wire can be cut shorter to whatever length you desire. However, if you do, you need to make sure that you seal the end using a hot glue gun to prevent wires shorting or moisture damage to the EL material.
EL Panel can also be cut into any shape you like so long as you don't cut the electrical traces the connector wires are soldered to. Also, like wire, it is very important to seal the edges, and this can easily be done with packing tape.
Depending what you are trying to accomplish, masking the EL Panel with tape, vinyl, or fabric can achieve the same effect with less risk of malfunction or problems. It is also less wasteful. If your project allows for it, It is a much safer alternative.
As you can see, a black masked EL panel, and a cut EL panel more or less have the same effect on a black background.
Soldering EL Wire
EL wire is a pain in the neck to solder, and you should avoid doing this if ever possible. However, sooner or later you may find yourself needing to splice or repair EL wire, and solder lead wires onto it.
Thus, let's quickly review how to solder to EL wire.
First thing's first, to solder to EL wire, you will need some EL wire with one or both ends cut off.
The next step is to carefully strip the color jacket off of one end of the EL wire. The goal is to expose the two outer wires and the phosphor coated center wire. This step may take some practice as the outer wires are very delicate and break easily. It is important to keep both wires intact.
Wrap a piece of long thin piece of copper tape once around the outer jacket of the EL wire. Fold the two outer wires over onto the copper tape and quickly and carefully solder them into place. Once they are soldered, wrap the remainder of the copper tape around this connection to protect it.
Strip the phosphor coating off of an inch worth of the inner copper core in order to be able to solder to it.
While you could solder any two wires onto the end of the EL wire, it is best to acquire a 2-pin JST female plug. One of the wires will be soldered to the copper tape, and one wire will be soldered to the inner core. It does not particularly matter which wire is which, since it is AC current.
Slide a piece of shrink tube onto the wire that will get soldered to the center core, and then solder the wire in place. Solder the other wire to the copper tape.
Slide the small piece of shrink tube over the center copper core and shrink it into place. Slide a larger piece of shrink tube over all of the connections and then shrink it into place.
When it's done, connect it to the inverter and turn it on to test that it is working. It should glow.
Attaching EL wire, tape, and panels to costumes is an art unto itself, and beyond the scope of this lesson. There are however many great EL garments on this site such as this EL Wire and Leather Necklace made by Mikaela Holmes.
That said, to work with EL wire in costumes you will want to brush up on your hand sewing and machine sewing skills (if need be), and experiment.
There is a good guide on the site for adding EL wire to a garment.
You can also get EL wire with welted piping which has its own set of challenges, but makes it easier to sew it into the seams of garments.