a full-on tutorial
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Neon signs are all over these days at weddings, showers, birthdays, and are being used in home decor and businesses too. They are a fun trend that I am forecasting to be "in" for a while ... at least I hope they are since I have made so many!
Shelling out the cash to buy one of these can be tough though since they cost a pretty penny. So, if you're willing to put in the time and learn something new, I'll show you how I do it at home with products you can easily get your hands on.
And, *bonus*, according to Dr. Karen Lynch, a neurologist at Neurologists of Cape Cod in Hyannis, "Researchers concluded that learning new, unfamiliar skills that required engagement of working memory, long-term memory and other high-level cognitive processes actually helped preserve memory." If you are like me and have a family history of dementia, the process of learning and making a neon may help you!
I know, random, but COOL RIGHT?
If that is as interesting to you as it was to me, you can read more about it here.
Ok, ok, on to the neon!
I decide what type of product I want my sign to be on. Acrylic (plexiglass), wood, and MDF are my go-to's. Knowing what size of product you're using makes designing and creating the neon easier in the long run. I usually run to my closest big box store to get mine, but they can be brought right to your door if you prefer, thanks Amazonnnn! If I can't find the exact size I want for my sign, I will cut down my sign backing (the acrylic, wood, PDF, etc.) to the proper shape and size.
I take to my computer and design up what I want my sign to look like to scale. (I use Adobe Illustrator for this since I'm a graphic designer and I use the program almost daily.) However, you can buy premade designs, make one on a free service, like Canva, or hand draw your sign! When I'm designing, I make sure to create my letters with the same width as the neon (usually this is .25").
I print out my sign (using the tile function) and tape it together. You can find some tutorials on that here via Suncatcher Studio. You can also Google this and find easy how-to's, thanks Gooooogle.
I transfer the design onto my sign backing. If I'm using acrylic (plexiglass), I just place the print under the sign backing and tape it into place. If I'm using a non-transparent sign backing (wood, MDF, etc.) I transfer the design using the pencil rubbing technique. Here is a tutorial on that via Jennifer Maker! If I haven't already cut down my backing to the proper size, I do it at this step using my design to make sure it's perfect!
Once my design is ready to go on my sign backing, I like to take yarn or string and follow the lines of the design to "measure" how much neon I will need (I bet there is an easier way of doing this, if you know, write it in the comments, please!). This doesn't have to be exact but it's good to get a baseline then order a bit more, just to be safe. I have been able to make most of my signs with one package of neon, but I have encountered the issue of running out and needing to order more.*TIP: always order the same exact BRAND/TYPE of neon per sign. There are differences in color and brightness from product to product and it can be obvious when you mix them on a single sign.
I order all of my materials. Here is the list of exactly what I have in my neon-making bin:
Just so you know...
I have spent way too much time making this tutorial and trial & erroring all these products SO I'm here to tell you that sometimes, I link to an affiliate product because A) I don't think you should live without it or B) I’m saving you the hassle of figuring it all out for yourself! If you click a link below and make a purchase, I MAY receive a small commission at literally no extra cost to you. Happy neon-ing!
NEON: I have two types of neon I tend to buy. The first neon rope (linked below) is unique because it can be cut into smaller segments compared to 90% of the other neon ropes available on the market. While most of them can only be cut in 1" increments, this brand allows for .39", making it easier to use for smaller designs, especially handy for those including comas, tittles, apostrophes, etc. This isn't necessary but can be helpful. The con to this one is the bottom has ridges so glueing it to acrylic doesn't work well. The second link is a more budget-friendly option, works great, and has a smooth bottom which makes it easier for acrylic application. It is is cuttable at .98". Both come with a female DC port but if you need extra (for making multiple signs with one rope) I have those linked below.
POWER ADAPTER: Some neon ropes come with power adapters but most don't. The linked 12V 5A adapter is the one that works with neon rope lights. The second link is a dimmer switch. Sometimes these babies can be shockingly bright! The last link is a splitter, this comes in handy if you have two separate signs you want to power with once power adapter.
SOLDERING IRON KIT: Have you soldered before? I sure hadn't so that was a learning experience for me! I bought this kit and have used it for about 10 signs and it's still going strong! I purchased a VERY cheap and crappy one from Harbor Freight that barely made it through one sign so don't make that mistake. This kit comes with the soldering wire so you don't have to purchase that separately. I use the second to smallest tip that comes with the kit.
WIRE, WIRE CUTTER/STRIPPER, WIRE CONNECTORS: The wire I use for this is fairly universal but the wire cutter/stripper selection is important! My first set was also very cheap and crappy so I had to upgrade...the new pair saved me so much time and annoyance! So don't go too cheap on these. You might need a pigtail adaptor to connect your 24 gauge wire to the AC power adapter. Some neon rope lights come with these already but not all of them. If yours does come with one, make sure to strip the wires so the copper wires are exposed to make testing your lights easy.
EXTRA ITEMS: You can use silicone end caps for the open segments of your neon to protect the wire and soldering points. Super glue is the only adhesive I have found that works to secure the neon rope to the sign backing. The thin applicator tip is crucial for this project, and using a gel-type glue prevents messy smears. Another excellent tool is the "Extra Hands Helper," which assists in holding the wires and neon while soldering (not a must-have, but very helpful!).
Now I start mapping out the direction of the wire/electrical connections. I try to think about where I want my final wire to connect so when I hang my sign, the connection wire is in the most inconspicuous place (it usually ends up being at the bottom right). I make these markings directly on my printed design. After it's complete, I transfer the design to the sign backing (placing the acrylic directly on top or using the transfer method for wood or MDF as mentioned above). If I'm using wood or MDF, I keep my design close by to look at my "electrical mapping" for reference. In this example, the design and mapping are right underneath the acrylic which makes it easy!
Test your neon before making any cuts! I like to plug in my neon light strip and make sure it works before I make my first cut.
Success! And wow, this bad boy is bright.
Once everything is prepped and all my supplies are at my fingertips, I start going!
The neon rope comes with a silicone cap with the plug-in already wired. I pop the cap off and cut at the first black mark (if you are using a single piece of neon and aren't soldering anything, you don't need to do this.) I like to have a fresh start! Then I measure, cut and label each neon segment. Read on!
Once that's cut, I MEASURE out my first piece of neon. Following the design, I place the neon over the letter from the starting point to where the lines intersect or the letter ends. See video below.
Once I know how long the segment needs to be, using sharp scissors, I carefully CUT along the black line (that is where the soldering pads are located). I do this for each individual segment/letter. See video below. *If you have any repeating letters, you can just measure the segment up against the previous letter!
After I double check that my segment fits the design once cut, using a small sharpie marker, I LABEL each piece on the underside of the neon strip and line them up - in order - so I don't get the segments confused. I do this for each and every segment before moving onto the next step.
PREP AND SOLDER: With all the segments/letters cut out and organized, I start prepping each piece to be soldered together. Some neon ropes have small flaps covering the soldering pads which makes it difficult to get a good bead of solder on each pad. I go through and remove all the flaps with the small pair of scissors on my Swiss Army knife. It works like a charm! I do this on each and every segment on both sides.
Below is a clip of how I remove the silicone flaps.
Once those are out of the way, I turn my soldering iron on and add a bit of water onto the yellow sponge (if a bead of solder sticks to the tip of the iron, wipe off the tip on the wet sponge). It doesn't take long for the iron to heat up. This thing gets suuuuuper hot so be VERY careful with it and always keep an eye on where the hot tip is. I still have a burn mark on my hand from accidentally grazing it when I wasn't paying enough attention! Mine automatically comes on at 460 degrees C and that's what I leave it at during my soldering.
*NEVER LEAVE THE SOLDERING IRON TURNED ON AND UNATTENDED!*
Once hot, I add beads of solder to each soldering pad on each segment on both ends. *The starting point of the first letters don't need this since that is where the current ends*
Phew! But stick with me, we are getting there!
Now that the segments are all prepped, it's time to start connecting them together with the 24 gauge wire. Starting with the "end point" of the first segment, I take my wire and measure the distance it will take to get to the next segment's "beginning point" and then add a tiny bit extra, just for insurance (you can always cut it down, but your can't add more!). I don't measure and cut all the wires at once, since it would be hard to keep them organized, so I measure my wire then move to the next step.
I have used two methods for measuring and running my wires:
FIRST METHOD: Where each segment ends, and the next begins, I drill a small hole for the 24 gauge wire to go in and come back out (sort of like threading a needle). I use a 3/16 bit attached to my drill which is the smallest size hole I can get away with using the 24 gauge wire.
Since the wire will be going in the drilled hole and back out the next, I usually add a bit more length so I have more slack to work with. This method is tricky with acrylic since I can't really use too much extra wire. That makes it difficult to solder the wire and the neon together since there isn't much slack. I generally use this method on wood or MDF only and I hide the extra wire on the back of the sign.
SECOND METHOD: Where each segment ends, and the next begins, I measure the distance (with a bit extra) and just go straight to the soldering portion. Once the segments are soldered together via the wire, and I'm ready to start attaching everything to the sign backing, I glue the wire straight down on the sign backing and place the neon overtop. Any extra wire can be glued alongside the neon and it stays pretty well hidden. This is the method I'm using in the photos and videos for this sign.
Once I have my wire measured from the "end point" to the "beginning point", I cut the wire with my handy wire cutter/strippers (the cutting portion is towards the handle). Then, using a sharp utility knife, I spilt the wires apart about 1/4". Then I strip each wire, just a little. I do this on both ends of the wire.
IMPORTANT: Here I take note as to which wire is POSITIVE and which is NEGATIVE. The wire with the white stripe is POSITIVE. The clear wire without any stripe is NEGATIVE. It's imperative to remember that!
Time to solder the wires onto the neon soldering pads! Using my "Extra Hands Helper", I clip the neon securely into one of the alligator clips and I take note as to which pad is POSITIVE and which is NEGATIVE. In most cases, this is notated right above the pad with a (+) or a (-). It seems like every neon I've used has the POSITIVE on the "top" soldering pad (the one the light shines through) and the NEGATIVE is on the "bottom" (the part that gets glued to the sign backing). However, I always double check before I solder because otherwise, the sign won't work!
Making sure my neon isn't connected to any power, I solder the wires to the neon. If this video doesn't quite give you all the courage to do your own soldering, check out a few in-depth video tutorials on Youtube!
Testing, testing! This is the part where I ensure I did a good job on my soldering. First, I gently tug the wire and the neon in opposite directions to ensure they are connected well. (If the wires aren't soldered on well, there will be disconnection issues when the glueing portion gets underway.)
Then, I add POWER! I plug my AC power adapter into a power outlet and connect it to the pigtail adapter, while keeping the positive and negative wires from touching. I take the un-soldered end of wires and touch the positive to positive and negative to negative. If the pad soldering was successful, the neon light segment will illuminate! I unplug the pigtail and move to the next segment. Back to step 11... I measure the wire for the next segment, then prep, solder, and test it repeatedly until my work is complete (or until I get too excited and want to start glueing!).
I generally solder an entire "word" together before I attempt to glue my segments down. And I always make sure that I have enough slack to continue soldering the next segments before continuing my glueing. I've gotten stuck before where I cannot access the soldering pads with my soldering iron and have to un-glue parts of my sign...annoying!
I place small beads of glue along the design, place the neon segment on top, then hold for 10-45 seconds depending on how well it's adhering. You WILL get glue on your hands, your fingers WILL stick together, and you WILL be peeling glue off of yourself for the rest of the day! Just make sure not to touch your eyes or lips...or teeth... I've done that before too, it's bad.
I didn't nail it on the "h" but I try to glue the silicone sections of the rope light together (avoiding the soldering points) to make the segments appear seamless. Sometimes this works out, sometimes there is just too much space to make them connect. Win some, lose some! Then, I always test as I go.
I glue and glue and test and test until all my letters are in place and working properly. Once I get to the end of my words (in this example, it's the "g" and the "D") I measure out about 5 feet of my wire and connect it permanently to the pigtail. I do think by stripping both sets of wires so there is about 1/4" of copper showing. Then, I place the wires on either side of the "helping hands" alligator clips and "mesh" the wires into themselves. I solder them together with a healthy amount of solder. I tug them apart gently to make sure the connection is secure then TEST by plugging them into power. If everything is working properly, I take electricians tape, tape each connection, then tape both sets together as seen below:
AND THEN IT'S DONE!!!! Happy dance time.
As if that wasn't an info rainstorm, here's some more stuff:
Sometimes, if the letters are too big or the words are too long, I will measure the wire, strip the wires, solder then glue, and repeat... as seen below:
And sometimes, I get so impatient that I get all my wires connected (including the power) and finish glueing with all the lights illuminated :)
Once your sign is all finished, you may notice that some superglue is showing up on the acryllic. If this is the case, take a cotton swab dipped in pure acetone nail polish remover and touch up the areas. Perfect!
HERE IS THE FINAL PRODUCT!
You can see that I have this particular sign split into two separate signs. That way, I have flexibility to switch up the sayings by making more or using signs I already have. Thinking I need to make a "JUST" to be able to create a "JUST MARRIED" version! What other terms can go with "she's getting"... hmmm, will have to brainstorm on that one!
(This is where a splitter comes in handy. You can see it connected to the end points of each wire segment then connecting to the AC power adapter at one point.)
You can find other signs I have made at my instagram handle @afterglowidaho and if you're a Treasure Valley resident, you can skip all the hoopla of making your own and just rent mine! Boom!
Cheers! <---- I should make one of those next!