Faux Neon: Building a Fixture for EL Wire

Since I was a kid, my unspoken goal has been to manifest the cyberpunk world I come to adore from my favorite movies and games. This mindset acted as my magnetic north and has subtly influence my projects, writing, and philosophy. As you can image, I’m happy to see this loved stylistic motif explode in our popular culture with vigor as of late!

2019 is the year that so many of my favorite fictional dystopias are set in, like Blade Runner and Akira. Seeing as this year is somewhat of a spiritual homage to humanity’s impending and over-romanticized decline, I thought I should surround myself with more cyberpunk *feels*! I’m watching Love. Death. And Robots on Netflix to light my inspiration pilot. I’m sporting EL Wire as a casual bodily adornment when I go out at night. I’m listening to no small amount of moody gritty synth pared with upbeat ethnic tunes from a multitude of cultures to play as the soundtrack for this year’s adventure, and I invite you to do the same! Whatever helps you get in the mood, Get psyched! The future is now.

Visually, the cyberpunk aesthetic is all about light. When you break it down, “the jewel” of these visually delicious settings is the unapologetic use of unnatural lighting. Color is leveraged to paint the contours of objects and bodies, creating a sense of space in the way that two different hues may produce a sharp saturated edge at opposite sides of a body and then blend into each other in a gradient that describes the surface.

The colored light that I speak of is usually a product of commercial signage found abundantly in chaotic cityscapes. Most future dystopias are sure to highlight the inevitable overuse of advertising, the likes of which shifts from being a mere numbing visual cacophony, to become the culprit for moody romantic spaces.

This unintended transcendence from “ugly” to “beautiful”, or “undesirable” to “inspiring” is the conceptual fiber buried at the heart of cyberpunk aesthetic that I’ve been enchanted by my entire life. (Who I am as a person and artist is very much in alignment with that very idea: creating beauty where it isn’t expected)

Any cyberpunk city street is laden with neon signs of recognizable symbols and not-so-familiar foreign characters. To build, neon signs themselves are quite process heavy and require a special workspace setup to accomplish, but there are other materials in the world that can be leveraged to produce a good proximity. I’ve come up with a few easy repeatable steps to create neon sign fixtures for any design that can be 3D printed in multiple pieces, assembled with ease, and pass as your own bar logo, or noodle cart sign.

For this tutorial of my faux-neon process, I’m going to produce a homage to the movie which single-handedly had the most impact on me as a person while growing up, and that is Blade Runner. I’ll be building a replica of that iconic noodle stand sign with the pale-blue dragon.

EL WIRE VS LIGHT PIPE

That I know of, there are two different neon emulating materials out on the market right now that you can use for your project. Both have their pros and cons.

There is the easily obtainable EL wire, which comes in many colors and is easily powered via battery pack: it is lit equally throughout because the fiber at its core glows- but it isn’t as bright as neon tubing:

There is light pipe, which comes in a variety of thicknesses, but requires a light source (like a high powered LED) to be mounted at one end, and typically runs at a higher voltage (not batteries). The plus side to this is that the light tends to be magnitudes brighter than EL wire. The down side is that this brightness drops off quickly as the light pipe bends and curves.

You can see the brightness diminish as it travels from the light source at the left end to the pipe to the right end:

my balancing robot “Carl” in his neon body

Which you decide to use might depend on the complexity of your design. Signs with many colors and intricate curves will be easier to make in EL wire. Simple designs with one or two colors would look more striking in light pipe.

This tutorial will outline how to make a faux-neon sign with EL wire (but if you fancy creating one from light pipe, I’ll be creating a tutorial for that process in the near future!)

MATERIALS YOU’LL NEED

  • Adobe Illustrator, or any other vector graphics program that can export paths to DXF file format (or equivalent) 
  • Fusion360 CAD software
  • A 3D printer
  • Misc Hardware (screws and nuts)
  • Appropriate length of EL Wire (from 3-5 yards)
  • Black heatshink in multiple sizes (3mm – 5mm)
  • some misc hardware (I’m using 3mm screws and nuts)
  • you’ll also need to download the offset_peg .stl file from my GitHub

BEFORE YOU GET STARTED

Order your materials and have them on hand. Aquire some EL wire in the colors you would like to use, and pick up some 3D printer filament in natural, or transparent. For this project I printed my fixture pieces in natural PLA as it has a translucent quality.

STEP 1: Design your Image

For this tutorial I will be recreating the iconic neon dragon sign seen above the noodle shop in the opening of Blade Runner (it will go above my robot, NoodleFeet’s space in my lab :3). Since I’m doing a recreation, I’ll be laying out my path onto of a photograph, however I encourage you to draw your own or use whatever reference you like!

Whether you draw it out by hand, or are using a reference image like I’ll be doing for this tutorial, you’ll need to have in mind what your sign will look like once its finished. Take into account things like overall size, number of colors, and overall line complexity.

These are my chosen colors for the “pallet” of the sign:

As you know, neon signs are basically glowing noodles held in place by an underlying fixture. They are singular lines curved to create recognizable shapes. The more complex the shapes, the more intricate the fixture must be in order to hold those noodles in the correct position.

faux néon cyberpunk zoness spetku

STEP 2: Trace Your Design as a Path

Once you have your design in mind, import that sketch or image into Adobe Illustrator (or similar program). Lock the layer that the reference image is on and create a layer on top of it for drawing your path.

faux néon cyberpunk zoness spetku

Use the “pen” tool to draw your path on top of your reference image (pictured in red below):

faux néon cyberpunk zoness spetkuOnce finished, decide on the overall dimension of your neon sign and scale your path appropriately.

faux néon cyberpunk zoness spetku

STEP 3: Mock Up the routing of your “neon”

Ideally, you will be using one continuous piece of EL wire for each color in your design. It is up to you to decide the best possible path to rout the EL wire so that it covers all of your paths. We will be blocking out the chunks of wire where to job over to the next path, but you should try to keep them as short as possible as not to waste the length of your wire.

The best way to figure this out is to trace over it in pencil without lifting your hand off the paper. I did so in photoshop, but you can with pencil and paper just as effectively:

faux néon cyberpunk zoness spetku

STEP 4: Measure your print bed

In all likelihood, you’re going to want your sign to be larger than the printable space of your 3D printer. So, you’ll have to print your fixture in multiple segments and attach them together. The first step to setting this up is to note the size of the usable space of your print bed so that you can create a reference sketch in fusion for splitting up your design.

The way I visualize this is by setting the canvas dimensions in illustrator to the same size as your printer.

It will take some problem solving to decide the best method of carving up your design. In some cases, a hard blunt cut will work just fine, but if you see a more optimal option, you may do so.

My design fits across roughly (3) print beds, so I created 3 art boards and separated the individual pieces to make sure they all will fit. Be sure to leave a small margin as your path will increase in size slightly after you process them in the coming steps:

faux néon cyberpunk zoness spetku

STEP 5: Import your design to Fusion360

Once you’ve drawn and scaled your design in Illustrator, you’ll need to turn off any reference layers you might have been drawing over, and export your paths to DXF. Be mindful of your export setting as they’ll need to be consistent when you import the DXF to Fusion (this means, if you export metric, be sure that you import metric as well).

faux néon cyberpunk zoness spetku

STEP 6: Offset your path

Right now, your design has no bulk or dimension to it because it is one singular line to represent each stroke. In order to give it some meat, you’ll need to offset each path by (5)mm in each direction and then close off the ends.

Within your primary design sketch, click on each of the paths and hit the “O” key to offset it. You’ll be doing this twice for each path: once to offset the path by (5)mm in one direction, the second time to offset the path by (-5)mm in the other direction, so that you end up with a total of (10)mm of width for each segment:

faux néon cyberpunk zoness spetku

STEP 7: Close your paths

To close off the ends of the segments you just offset, you’ll want to create a (10)mm circle at the end point of each one of your original line paths.

faux néon cyberpunk zoness spetku

This will close the shapes (it will turn orange to indicate that it is a closed shape):

faux néon cyberpunk zoness spetku

Once all of the path segments are closed, your design should be completely orange and look something like this. Orange = good!

faux néon cyberpunk zoness spetku

STEP 8: create a (3)mm pilot circle at one end of each line path

You’ll need to make a series of holes for your stand-off pegs. The easiest way to do this is to create a “starter hole” at the end of each path segment.

STEP 9: extrude your closed shapes

Once all of your line paths are closed off, you can select all of the segments and press (E) to extrude them upwards in order to create a solid shape! Note, you’ll want to select every piece *EXCEPT* the small (3)mm circle you made at the end oof each of your line paths.

Once the extrusion dialogue box appears, enter in 3mm – (your fixture should be no more than 3mm thick so the pegs fit!). The extruded shape should look something like this, with tiny holes in a few locations. Congrats! Your neon fixture is now a solid!

faux néon cyberpunk zoness spetku

STEP 10: Making holes

For the next step, you’ll create a series of spaced holes along your original line paths using that starter hole from earlier. These are what your standoff pegs for holding your EL Wire will eventually fit into.

Select the “create pattern along path” tool from the create->pattern->create pattern along path dropdown menu:

faux néon cyberpunk zoness spetku

A dialogue box will appear with some fields where you’ll have to define how the pattern should work. It will look like this:

faux néon cyberpunk zoness spetku

For “Pattern Type” select “faces”

For “Objects” selection the inside face of the “starter hole” that you created at the end of your path:

faux néon cyberpunk zoness spetku

For “Path” select the line path which that particular starter hole was created at the end of (*note, you might need to turn the original sketch on again to see it! This can be found in the list to the left of your workspace labeled “Sketches”)

For “Distance Type” you will select “Extent”. When you do this, a little arrow will pop up over your starting point. Drag it all the way to the end of the path.

There should now be a prompt for “Number” available, so enter in the appropriate amount of holes you would like for this particular path. The amount depends on the the length and complexity of the path. Short and simple paths require less holes, while longer, more intricate path should have a good number of holes spaced roughly 30-40mm apart. I found in most cases, the correct number of holes was between 12 and-24:

faux néon cyberpunk zoness spetku

If I lost you during this step, watch this video below where I go through the motions:

Once you’re happy with the spacing of the holes, commit the pattern. Repeat this step for each line segment until the entire fixture is populated with holes.

faux néon cyberpunk zoness spetku

STEP 11: slicing your design into printable chunks

Now that you have your overall shape ready, you’ll create a way to reconnect the chunks once they’re finished printing. If you design fits on your 3D printer’s bed, the skip this step. Otherwise, we’ll be adding some tabs at the seams where we sliced apart our design.

The most standard way to do this is to create a sketch, and draw a line that extends out from your end point at a tangent angle:

And then do the same with the point it will attach to, parallel to the line you just made:

At the end of these line segments, create a circle that is the size of the hardware you’ll use to attach the segments (I used 3mm hardware, so I made a 3.8mm circle), give the line some thickness by offsetting it 5mm in each direction, and then extrude your segments upward. You’ll have created tabs like this:

faux néon cyberpunk zoness spetku

Once the tabs exist, you’ll also have to make a tiny connector piece, which is easy enough. You similarly draw a line between the holes of the tabs you just created, offset that line by 5mm in either direction, add 10mm circles to either end, and then extrude those shapes upwards to create short popsicle-stick like pieces:

faux néon cyberpunk zoness spetku

The extruded pieces should look like this:

faux néon cyberpunk zoness spetku

Repeat this step wherever two parts will need to connect together.

STEP 11: print and assemble your parts

You can see the tabs and connector segments clearly in this picture below:

faux néon cyberpunk zoness spetku

I created tabs to connect the head to the back, the tongue to the head, and two to connect the from half of the body to the back half:

faux néon cyberpunk zoness spetku

STEP 12: print and insert your pegs

I created a specific peg that compresses and fits into those 3mm holes nice and snug. You can download the .stl for a single peg from my gitHub and print the exact number you need. This will require a printer that is capable of printing relatively high resolutions. I’m using a Prusa MK3:

faux néon cyberpunk zoness spetku

Once you print a bunch of pegs, you’ll want to press fit one into each of the (3)mm holes you created. The pegs should slot into the holes with ease if you pinch them along the bias of the brads. Be sure too push them in until the barbs passes through the back of the fixture.

The “c” bracket should face the direction the EL wire will be routed in:

faux néon cyberpunk zoness spetku

Terrifying looking I know! And depending how fine your printer can print, this part can be a bit of a pain (literally), as you have to press fit each peg into the hole with varying amounts of force. If this gets tedious, I found that you can brace the pegs against your work bench, position the hole above the peg’s barb and press the fixture down onto the peg against the flat surface of your bench.

You want to be carful as not to bend the pegs in half and break them, or pinch your finger in the process… but if you get a feel for it, this method makes populating the fixture a lot quicker.

faux néon cyberpunk zoness spetku

The fully “pegged” fixture should look something like this:

faux néon cyberpunk zoness spetku

STEP 13: Rout your EL wire

This is the fun part. It’s super easy, but you’ll need to grab that heat shrink tubing I mentioned in the materials list:

Remember that EL wire routing sketch I suggested you make? Grab that too.

faux néon cyberpunk zoness spetku

You should have decided on a definite starting and ending point for your EL Wire. One end will have your battery box, the other will have the butt end of the wire. You should put the battery box connecter at the beginning, since you’ll likely trim any excess wire at the other end… and you don’t want to trim away your connector!

give yourself a small amount of strain relieve before beginning to press your EL wire into the C-cup holders of the pegs.

When you get to a point where you need to “jog” to the next path or letter, and you know you don’t want that part of the wire to be seen, measure and cut a piece of heat shrink tubing and thread it onto the EL Wire so that it spans the length you wish to block out:

You may need to thread the EL wire and heat shrink tubing underneath the segments you’ve already set into the fixture:

faux neon cyber punk spetku robohemian zoness

Running heat over the heat shrink is optional. I personally don’t find it necessary and don’t wish to risk melting the EL Wire jacket!

Once you get to the end of a path, check to make sure you didn’t miss any pegs, and double check that you’re ok with the general flow oof the EL wire. You can tweak the general curvature of the EL wire by slightly tweaking the slack in the wire before each C holder. Once you’re happy with the look of things, you can then trim the excess wire and cap it off with a small piece of heat shrink or electrical tape.

And that’s really all there is to it! The hardest part of the process (in my opinion) is done in CAD. Once your physical parts are assembled, the rest of the process goes rather quickly.

If I had to append this guide further, it would cover how to make a custom driver for the EL wire so that we can replace those annoying screeching battery boxes with something that plugs into the wall and is controllable. That part will have to wait a few more weeks… but when I get around to it, I’ll add onto this post and explain how you can do it!

I encourage you to go forth and make your Summer cyberpunk as fuck <3 If you do end up making your own neon signage to mood light your life, I’d love to see it! =P So let me know!

faux néon cyberpunk zoness spetku

faux néon cyberpunk zoness spetku

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