Updated: Feb 20
Save yourself over £500 by making your own DIY custom neon rope light - all you need is a soldering iron, wire strippers, a Stanley knife, a jigsaw and a drill.
After looking online for a custom neon sign, most were in the £500+ bracket, which is simply unaffordable for many, no less myself! I'd put off making one myself until a friend was turning her garage into a gym mid-pandemic and wanted to create a 'vibey space' to work out in. I used this opportunity to research neon signs and how to make them, but always came out feeling a bit more confused as none of the how-to videos were clear, nor actually guided me through the step-by-step process of making my own neon sign. I therefore had to 'wing it' in true DIY fashion. But the result, I'm sure you'll agree, is amazing!
You can view my YouTube video on the step-by-step process below, but here I will break down the process for you.
"I’ve been watching DIY neon sign tutorials for years and I always end up really confused. This is by far THE BEST TUTORIAL on YouTube! Love it" - Daniel Jimenez
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Step 1 - Gather all your tools
What you'll need for this project include:
Drill with 4mm HSS drill bit
Soldering Iron Kit - LINK
2-hole end caps - LINK
Wire Strippers - LINK
Superglue - LINK
24-gauge Speaker Wire - LINK
Neon Rope Light in your choice of colour (I used 5m of rope for this sign) - LINK
Arcylic Sheet in your choice of size - LINK
Step 2 - Design Your Sign
You'll need to find a font you like, and that's doable in rope light format. I actually found the calligraphy fonts much easier to do than the linear sans-serif styles, but always bear in mind how each letter will be wired to the next and how all 'pieces' of the letter will join up.
In order to get it printed in the size I wanted it to copy as a sign, I used the website Rasterbator, which put it into a PDF document which split the design across as many A4 pages as I need to have it big enough to fit my acrylic sheet. You'll want to tape these pieces together to create a template you can trace.
Step 3 - Prepare Your Acrylic Sheet
You can keep the acrylic as is, or you can make it more bespoke by tracing loosely around the design and cutting with a jigsaw and fine blade suitable for acrylic. To do this, I clamped the acrylic between two bits of wood as I cut along my marks to prevent the sheet from cracking or shaking while cutting it. Use a file to smooth any rough edges but be careful not to scratch the front or back of the sheet. Move the jigsaw quickly and maintain a high speed throughout to prevent the plastic from melting and fusing back together.
If this does happen, you can go over the cut again and snap the pieces apart.
Step 4 - Mark Your Path & Drill Holes
Next step in the process is to work out the path your wire is going to take. Think of it like a long string. Each letter or part of a letter needs to be included in that string, without any breaks.
On your template, take a pencil or pen and mark your starting point. This could be at the first or last letter. If you have more than one line of text, you could think about doing two 'strings' and connect them both to the power source later. Draw one continuous line from one letter to another, going 'in' at one end and 'out' the other, linking to different parts of the letter and joining back.
Also think about where the wire is going to be hidden behind the light and where its going to join onto the next letter, using as much or little wire as needed to get a neat finish. Once the light is on, you will not see the wiring.
Once you have this marked out, place your acrylic over your template and place some masking tape over the entry and exit points where the wire will need to be fed through. Use your pen to mark a hole as close to the tip of the letter as possible. Then using your 4mm drill bit and drill, on a low speed, drill through each marked dot, creating your wire holes. Make sure you have adequate support behind your acrylic to prevent it cracking.
Step 5 - Your First Letter
Your first letter can be the 'dead end' if you find it easier to work that way. This means one end of your rope light does not need to be connected to any wire and can just be a free end. Whack a cap on it and trace your rope around the first letter and work out where it needs to be cut. Look on the side of the rope light. One light should have a line and every so often you should see a little dark mark - this is your cut guide. This cuts between the contact points so you can connect both ends with wire. If you cut anywhere else, you may have some LEDs that won't light, as well as nowhere to connect your wire to. Once you've created your dead end, and worked out where you can cut, use your Stanley knife to cut your first letter piece.
Inside this cut, you will see two connection points. The one on the left here, against the bottom of the rope is the positive and the one on the right, on the coloured light side, is the negative. So
Using your wire strippers and Stanley knife, separate your speaker wire positive and negative (the positive has a white line on it) and strip the ends to expose a couple centimetres of bare wire. Twist the ends so all wires are intertwined. Turn your soldering iron onto a high heat, ensuring you've attached a thin point tip before turning on. Wet the sponge in your stand and wait for it to heat up.
Once hot (you can test this by holding it against the solder to see if it melts), I find it easiest to dab a bit of solder on the end of each wires. To do this, hold your iron against the solder to melt off a beads worth. Place it on the end of one of the wires until the bead transfers. Do this for both positive and negative sides. Slip your end cap down the wire as in the image below, and then get your rope light ready to attach to the wires.
Make sure the positives and negatives do not touch one another and the solder holding them in place isn't touching, as this could short out the light (and is dangerous).
You're going to need to be quite dextrous here to hold the rope, the wires and the soldering iron without burning yourself. Take extra care using your soldering iron here. Position your wires in place on top of the components, with the positive and negative the right way round. Thanks to the solder you put on the wire earlier, all you need to do is hold the iron on top for a few seconds to re-melt the solder onto the component. This should then connect the rope light and wires. Once done, you can move the end cap up the wires to cover the connection. Work out how much wire you need to reach the next piece of rope light, allowing a little extra to be stripped and connected, and feed it through the holes in the acrylic, ready to connect the next piece.
It's time to stick your letter piece down. Using your superglue, coat the bottom flat side of your rope light with glue and using your template, place the rope down onto the acrylic carefully so you don't place it in the wrong place (super glue is near impossible to get off acrylic neatly!), and hold down for a few seconds while it dries. You can use a bit of masking tape to hold it in place if you need to as well, particularly if its got lots of bends and corners.
Step 6 - Work Through Each Letter
Repeat the above for each letter, or piece of a letter at a time, working along your string diagram, adding end caps and feeding wire through the holes as you go.
Use your power source and adapter to double check all is working by holding the positive (red) and negative (black) with the corresponding speaker wire ends. If the rope light lights up, you've done it! if not, you may want to double check that you've got the wires the right way round or that the connection isn't loose.
If you have a letter with a sharp corner, you can cut out a small triangle on the blank side of the rope (not the side that shows you were to cut) to allow it to bend. It doesn't matter if you can see the LEDs, once it is bent you won't be able to see them exposed.
Stick you pieces down with glue as you go, but don't worry about neatening up the wires at the back until you've finished.
Once you reach the end of your line of text, if your second line is too far away to neatly join, attach one long (about 1-2m) piece of wire for you to later connect to the power source.
Step 7 - Connect to Power & Neaten Wires
If you've done two or more lines of text on separate wires, you'll need to connect all the positives and all the negatives together. You can do this by soldering them together. You'll then want to connect the positives to the red wire and the negatives to the black wire of the adaptor. If you have heat shrink wraps, now is a good time to use them - otherwise we can wrap each sets of wire in electrical tape, then wrap them both together to be neater. Again, make sure they do not touch as it could short out the light.
Now is your chance to neaten up the wires behind the lights. Flip your sign over and grab your super glue. Stick down as much wire behind the rope light as possible and leave the connecting wires between letters as neat as possible. You won't see it once the light is on but it'll look neater if it's off.
Step 8 - Final Test & Hang
You've glued down all the wire, you've connected it to the power source - but does it all work? If you've been checking as you go, it should all be fine, but there may be a loose wire somewhere that you missed, so if part of your light isn't lighting up, go through and double check your connections.
Drill two holes (6mm is a good size) at the top and bottom of your sign so you can mount it on a wall, and use wafer head (flat on the underside of the head) screws to attach to the wall as not to crack the acrylic, or use these standoff mounts for a neat finish.
And you're done! Stand back and admire the sign you've just successful wired up!
Stay tuned for my next tutorial on a solder less neon sign.