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

25,285

352

53

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.

Supplies:

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

Second Prize in the
Faux-Real Contest

Share

    Recommendations

    • Classroom Science Contest

      Classroom Science Contest
    • Woodworking Contest

      Woodworking Contest
    • Colors of the Rainbow Contest

      Colors of the Rainbow Contest

    53 Discussions

    0
    None
    ucndonvukovic

    Reply 7 weeks ago

    Hi there, the letters are about 2*3" (50x75mm).

    0
    None
    cnludwig

    2 months ago on Step 8

    I was just going to vote for you, but I see that I can't. I'm glad you won a prize! I am going to try this technique to light up a retro clock design. I think it will work very well for it.

    0
    None
    scott.cairo

    2 months ago

    Brilliant idea, and just in time, I have a old smirnoff 2 colour neon, without the neon, and was about to try to make the letters out of wire and glue round section EV to wire, and for the different coloured border use that extra thick diffused fake neon LED tubing, but this way will be so much better. I can acheive the different colours by having the border lit with a different colour strip, since the baffles behind will isolate it. So thanks!

    0
    None
    wasanah2

    2 months ago

    That's such a great idea. I've wished for a fun neon light like that for some time, something retro looking. Will have to use hand tools but that's no problem for me. Once I have my current project done, I want to work on one of these. Thanks for the great instructable!

    0
    None
    BLASTFEMI

    2 months ago on Introduction

    I love the idea of using the tubing! I have a bunch of oxygen tubing to make something with! Thanks for the inspiration!

    1 reply
    0
    None
    ucnBLASTFEMI

    Reply 2 months ago

    Have fun! Post some photos if you do :)

    0
    None
    neilscott100

    Question 2 months ago on Introduction

    I love the idea of this and I dont know whether it would work, i assume the LEDS just backlight the tubing, you can use chemical glass tubing to make letters and signs etc, its incredibly easy to work with and does not need high temperatures to melt it, I have used it in the past for other projects but never thought of using it for this. Its just an idea and it will give you the real glass look of Neon but i dont know whether the leds you use will give you the same look as using polythene tubing instead of glass, maybe diffused leds, you can pick the tubing up off ebay and other sites is about 6 mm in diameter you just heat it over a spirit lamp and pull and twist it to shape it, its incredibly easy to use but it is glass. you can make complete letters by just heating up the end of the glass for a few moments and stick it on to another piece of glass.

    1 answer
    0
    None
    ucnneilscott100

    Answer 2 months ago

    Wow, that sounds like a whole specialised skillset to shape glass tubing. I mean, that's what makes real neon tubes so expensive!

    0
    None
    erana_reborn

    2 months ago

    Very nice, and a bit simple than how I would have done it. Which is a compliment, as simplicity is difficult. Great work.

    1 reply
    0
    None
    ucnerana_reborn

    Reply 2 months ago

    Thanks for the compliment. :) I'm surprised at how many views this has gotten!

    0
    None
    blast replicas

    2 months ago on Step 8

    Been looking for something like this for some time. It's relative simplicity is appreciated by me. Thanks for sharing! .... You got my vote.

    1 reply
    0
    None
    ucnblast replicas

    Reply 2 months ago

    Thanks for the vote! Glad you liked it.

    0
    None
    CHARLESCRANFORD

    4 months 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.

    2 replies
    0
    None
    ucnCHARLESCRANFORD

    Reply 4 months 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
    Camoman619

    4 months ago

    What would be really cool is if some acrylic tubing (like in hard-line water cooling for PCs) could be used to form everything the same as a neon sign and then find a way to get the LEDs to shine into it to look even more realistic... What really sells the look of the neon sign is the effort in using a continuous piece of tubing as much as possible within reason. Definitely a cool weekend project with plenty of room for modification.

    1 reply
    0
    None
    ucnCamoman619

    Reply 4 months ago

    I recall an Instructable a couple of years ago where someone did just that. Heat-formed a 'neon' sign with polycarbonate tubing, and threaded EL wire through it. Looked great in the dark.
    That Instructable seems to have been taken offline, as I can't find it no matter what keywords I use. It was a contest winner at the time, if my memory serves me right.