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How To Make a DIY Neon Sign with EL Wire


Let your words shine bright

by Maddie Eisenhart, Chief Revenue Officer

diy neon wire sign for your wedding

This year the APW staff collectively lost its shit over neon signs (can you blame us?). They were everywhere, they were awesome, and we decided we each needed one of our own, because who doesn’t need a neon sign in their office? (Neon is the new glitter, you heard it here first.) After seeing cheeky neon signs pop up in workspaces and at conferences, I kept eagerly waiting for them to make an appearance at real life weddings (because that’s usually how these things go) until I realized something: neon signs are expensive. Like, can’t even buy on Craigslist expensive. I know, because I’ve tried.

So earlier this year, I made it my personal mission to see if I could figure out a way to… fake a neon sign. Preferably one that doesn’t require a degree in electrical engineering. And a few weeks ago, I found it: a magical little tool called EL wire. If you haven’t heard of EL wire, that’s because it’s typically sewn into fabrics and employed at places like Burning Man (and the occasional Tron cosplay). EL wire is a thin, pliable wire that glows almost exactly like a neon sign, but costs a fraction of the real thing (as in, less than $150 for the big sign). So I begged LA-based wedding designer Tabitha of Winston & Main to see if she could take this awesome EL wire stuff and turn it into something befitting an APW wedding, and the result is way cooler than I ever pictured it. Bonus: it’s totally self-contained, so you don’t even have to plug it into the wall. Double bonus: it would look amazing above a dessert table, just saying.

Before we get started, though, a brief disclaimer: this tutorial doesn’t exactly fall under the #lazygirl hashtag. It is awesome, but it requires a little planning, and a power drill. So give yourself ample time to get it right. That said, you definitely don’t need any special skills for this project. Just some foresight and a little patience.

And, you know, you can have it in your living room for forever. (As if that wasn’t your goal all along.)

EL WIRE SIGN Materials:

diy neon sign el wire tutorial steps

Directions to make “Love” Sign:

1. Print out your word to fit the acrylic. Tabitha prefers Blockposter.com (free!), or you can use Adobe Acrobat’s “poster” printing option to enlarge things at home.

2. Figure out where you will need to drill holes to make your words. The obvious ones, are at the beginning and end of every word or unconnected letter. To figure out where else to drill holes, play with your EL wire (or a piece of string), bending it over your word and seeing where it piles up too much and would be “cleaner” if you could get rid of a bit of the wire (or where it is unable to bend into the shape you need.) So the “obvious” ones in our “Love” Sign are the beginning of the “L”, end of the “e” and beginning of the “o” because it isn’t attached to any of the other letters. Tabitha drilled another hole to connect the “o” to the “v” because it made it easier to read than if there was a third piece of EL wire between the two letters. Mark the places you’ll drill with an “x”.

3. Trace your word or quote on to the acrylic using a dry erase or chalkboard marker. Do a test first to make sure it comes off your plexiglass easily before you write out the whole thing!

4. Drill a hole big enough for your EL wire to fit through everywhere you marked an “x”. Tabitha used a quarter-inch drill bit for her 5mm EL wire.

5. Pull all of your EL wire through the first hole from back to front (at the beginning of the “L”) leaving just the black wire that connects it to the battery pack on the back of the sign. You can secure it with a little piece of gaff tape to keep it in place.

6. Now just trace your word with the EL wire, bending it over itself at the curves and securing them with a couple drops of super glue gel. You’ll have to hold it in place for a minute or two until it sticks and then you can use a piece of painters tape to hold it down while it dries completely (about ten minutes). I found it best to walk away and do something else for those ten minutes and then come back and do the next curve.

Pro Tip from Tabitha: If you wipe away the writing writing as you go, it makes it easier to to remove all the writing (which will be more difficult to get off if you wait until the end and try to go back and get under your letters). Tabitha used little pieces of tape to mark where her letters should go.

7. Continue gluing your EL wire at all the curves and loops (you will start to tell where it naturally meets the plexiglass when you bend it, and that’s where you want to glue it) and whenever you come to one of your holes, drop the EL wire to the back of your plexiglass, then pull it through the next hole and continue.

8. When you get to the last letter, drop the EL wire through to the back of your plexi and flip it over. You can cut off the extra EL wire now—just snip it with regular scissors!

9. Wrap any extra EL wire on the back with gaff tape. (Tabitha used black because she had some on hand, but white would work too.) This step ensures that you don’t see these “extra” bits shining through when the sign is lit up.

10. Plug in the battery pack and tape it to the pack of the sign!

Modifications:
EL wire kits come in all different sizes, colors, and lengths, so you can really go nuts here and make whatever you can imagine! (Tabitha is planning on doing portraits next, which I can’t wait to see.) You can use a different material for the base of your sign too. Wood would work much like plexi, or you could use canvas and sew the EL wire right through it rather than drilling holes.

Tips & Tricks
Most EL wire (but especially the 5mm EL wire Tabitha used) cannot bend to ninety-degree angles—so take that into account when choosing a font or image to create. The smaller EL wire (2.6mm) can get much closer to a ninety-degree angle, but you’ll want to experiment because forcing it can cause a black spot at the bend. Also, don’t be intimidated by the drill or the EL wire—with a little practice, they’re both actually really easy to work with. Tabitha suggests getting a scrap of acrylic to practice on (one that is the exact same material as your big piece). It’ll most likely be free or only cost a few extra dollars and it will be totally worth it for the practice.

Test out tricky letters
Some letters will throw you for a loop, like the “k” in “like” (which required 4 holes), but you can use your test acrylic to practice drilling out the letter and to make sure you like how it looks before you do it for real on your bigger piece.

diy neon sign el wire tutorial

WITH YOUR SCRAP
Practice drilling into acrylic. Go slow. Depending on your acrylic, it’ll heat up and maybe even melt a little as you drill. So you’ll want to brush away any shavings after each hole so they don’t stick to your sign. Test out your glue too (cut a small bit of EL wire and then test it with your chosen glue to make sure actually sticks to your acrylic). Acrylic is tricky stuff to stick; Tabitha told us she tried three different glue options before settling on the super glue gel she recommended for this project. With the glue, you have to be patient—it really does take a minute or two to bond and then another ten minutes or so to be pretty sturdy and it’ll take a whole day before you can tell if it works. You will not be able to get it off if it works, but that’s what you want! Tabitha initially used a different type of acrylic for this project, and had really good luck with 3M plastic glue (a 2 part solution) with that material, so that might be an option for you too. The bottom line: experiment and see what works!


The Info:

Styling: Winston & Main APW Sponsor | Photography: Marble Rye Photography APW Sponsor

Maddie Eisenhart

Maddie is APW’s Chief Revenue Officer. She’s been writing stories about boys, crushes, and relationships since she was old enough to form shapes into words, but received her formal training (and a BS) from NYU in Entertainment and Mass Media in 2008. She now spends a significant amount of time thinking about trends on the internet and whether flower crowns will be out next year. A Maine native, Maddie currently lives on a pony farm in the Bay Area with her husband, Michael and their mastiff puppy. Current hair color: Purple(ish).

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  • Stéphanie

    o.O
    You people ROCK !

  • Neat! The possibilities are endless! EL wire looks like tons of fun!

  • Lawyerette510

    I just saw Kacey Musgraves on Saturday and her set included neon cacti, and my take-away (in addition to loving her music and performance) was that I needed a neon cacti. This looks like the perfect solution!

    • Kayla

      I had a neon flamingo when I was a small child. Highly recommended. Really spruces up a room. :)

  • effinclassy

    We are doing something really similar with EL wire for our wedding! We threaded the wire through translucent tubing and used wood painted black instead of acrylic. (The wood was way cheaper, especially since my FIL already had in laying around his garage.) We made 9 signs of varying lengths and complexity for next to no money – and it was fun!

    • YAY! Also, I’m glad we both had the good sense to replace that “o” with a heart! :)

    • Cassie Katlyn

      Hi! I’m doing the same for my wedding but with wood painted gold! What glue did you use since you used wood instead of plexi? Thank you!

      • effinclassy

        We drilled two small holes on either side of the wire at key points and looped clear zip ties through the holes. So the letters are fastened to the wood with zip ties rather than with glue. (Also, we threaded the EL wire through translucent plastic tubing to make it thinker, sturdier, and give a glowing from within effect.)

        • effinclassy

          Also, BTW we got the idea for EL wire signs from my brother, who has threaded EL wire along the frame of his bike. It’s cool looking and makes it safer to ride at night!

  • Kay

    AWE.SOME.!

  • GBee

    Looks like my next DIY project! Love this!

  • revooca

    Please do DIY posts on venue lighting! Those of getting hitched in architecturally striking venues or outdoor spaces at night are at a loss on how to make the place look its best without hiring professionals. I’ve heard you can rent lighting equipment.

  • Amazing! Can’t wait to give this a try!

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  • Falkenzord

    OMG I was going to contract someone to make a neon sign, and here you are with this genius… this is my fave neon artist…http://yoonyeojun.com/

  • kathee

    I remember lying in my room when I was in high school and writing in a journal to my future husband. I’d write all sorts of notes and questions and things I’d wonder or ask this man when I eventually met him. I would wonder where he was and what he was doing and if he was thinking about me too. It has always been such a strong desire in my heart to find a wonderful man to marry, someone who would love me and cherish mce and appreciate me for the person I am. I always thought I would get married right out of college, just like my parents, so when that plan didn’t work out, I started to get discouraged. A school mate snatched my future husband away from my arms just because she had spiritual powers, all hope was lost to me before i came across the help doctor (prayerstosaverelationship@gmail.com
    ) who i confided in, i told him my long story and he helped me regain back my lover with his prayers which is now my husband today. if you have any problem email the help doctor (prayerstosaverelationship@gmail.com
    ).

  • Katie Kidwell

    We just finished making our sign using this tutorial. We substituted a 2×2 piece of pine wood that was pre-cut at Lowe’s and used a low-temp glue gun to hold it all down. We found el wire cheap on amazon. I think our whole project was $20. Thank you for the tutorial!!

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  • Daisy Goldstein Cross

    How thick was the acrylic you used? Will an 8th of an inch be alright?

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  • ManzyPanz

    I want to make the sign from this seasons American Horror Story. This was very helpful.

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