Light it up - NEON signs made easy

I attended a fabulous Neon Sign workshop at French Grey Tales earlier this year, and wanted to share my newly learned craft. It took me forever to think of a sign that I wanted, and most importantly, which room I wanted it in. I settled for a Bar Open sign, to sit atop my bar cabinet in the living room. It was meant to be pulled out on occasions where we had guests round for drinks, but it's been a permanent fixture on the bar since I made it.


To make a sign similar to mine, it will take you around 2 hours. This does not include the time it takes to research a design - I spent about 20 hours on Pinterest (standard) trying to find a design I liked, and realising my skill level pretty much dulled my inspiration for my first go. Here is everything you need, and how to create your design in 10 easy steps...

What you need:
Paper and pencil
A pair of scissors
A piece of wood cut to your preferred size (thin enough that you can drill a hole through to thread the neon strip)
Sanding paper
Paint (if you would like to paint the wood)
Neon strip (which you can buy from Amazon for around £7 - example here)
A piece of string cut to the same length as the neon strip
Electric drill
Staple gun
Electrical tape

1. Clear a working space - this isn't a super messy task, it just depends how much of a messy painter you are, and there will be dust from drilling holes. Maybe not one for the living room.


2. Prepare the board - I used a 15x17inch piece of wood, which was sanded off ready to be painted. Sand off any rough edges - remember you can be creative as you like with the shape of your board. I quite fancy a heart shaped one for my next project. Once it's all sanded, paint the board with your chosen colour. I used Pigeon Grey Autentico chalk paint (which you can buy here), as it gives a great matte finish and is dark enough so that the pink neon pops against the board. I also painted the back of my board - you don't have to, but I'm too much of a fuss-pot and it would have annoyed me knowing I hadn't done it. Again, you can be as creative as you like with this. Go mad.


3. Cut out a piece of paper the same size as your board, and start sketching your design on the paper. This will give you a great idea of how your design will look on the board, without charging on and ruining your freshly painted wooden board.


4. After you've done your sketch, place the string over your sketched design. This is to check that your neon will be long enough for your design. If it is, you now need to work out where the holes will need to be for the neon to be threaded through. You can see on my design that I have some gaps - it's not a continuous piece of neon on the board. Now your design may be continuous - maybe if you have just a heart shape, or an initial. Basically if it's one symbol, you need to skip to step 6.


5. Mark on your sheet of paper with a dot where the neon will start on your board, and then place a dot where your neon needs to 'disappear'. This is where you need a gap - maybe between letters if you're not joining them up, or for separate designs. Remember that passing the neon through the board will use up more of the length of the neon string, so think of this when you're laying down the string over your design. You want to leave yourself with a little spare at the end just in case.

6. Once you're happy with the design, lightly sketch this out on your board (light enough so that it will be covered by the neon, including where your drill holes need to be. I did this for mine as I'm not the most artistic of characters (as you will be able to tell by the cocktail glass on my final design). If you're happy free-handing it, go ahead.

7. Drill the holes for your neon. Be careful of the thickness of the drill bit. You don't want the hole to be too large as you will be able to see it, plus you don't want it too small as the neon needs to freely pass through without pulling to avoid future damage. Once you have drilled the holes, sand off any rough edges (this is so that it won't pierce the neon). You may wish to drill as you go - I did this as I wasn't 100% set on my design and it was touch as go if I had enough neon to do the full design. Once you've drilled there's no going back, so if you want to guarantee your board to be perfect, I would recommend doing each bit as it comes. I made mistakes on my first go, but you learn for the next one.


7. For your first hole where you want the neon to start, thread the neon strip through from the back of the board. At this stage, pull it all the way through, and it's handy to tape up the battery pack with the electrical tape to ensure this is out of the way for you. The board will be flipped a million times during the next few stages, so it's important to get this out of the way.

8. Now to start laying out your neon along your design. Where you want the neon to bend up in to a letter or shape, use the staple gun to hold the neon in place. The staples should be wide enough that it does not crush the neon. The strip should pass freely through. If the staple goes through the neon, it will break and will not light up, so please be careful that when you're putting the staple gun in place, you have some wiggle room for the strip before you press the trigger.



9. Pull the neon up through the design, and repeat this process. If you come to the point where you need to pass the neon strip through the board, thread it through, and then back through the board again. You can see on the O of Open in the picture below that I have overlapped the neon so that I could join to the P. If you are doing this, please be mindful of the staples you're using, and that the neon isn't crushed. It should be able to hold it in place, but not too tightly.


Keep repeating this process until you reach the end of your design. The neon is stronger than you think, so you can pull it round the staples for quite tight designs, just make sure not to damage the strip. You can see on the picture above compared to the completed product that I worked on the martini glass - another staple and a stretch of the strip meant it gave it a tighter finish.


10. Extra neon at the end of the strip can be trimmed with scissors, however once it's cut it's gone. If you have loads left over, coil it up and stick it to the back of the board. This means that if you want to create another design, you can unpick the neon and use it again on another board.


Give it a go - and let me know of your design! If like me, you're not as brave to start something like this without a little help - get booked on to one of the courses at French Grey Tales - they have all sorts of workshops going on. I've got my eye on the copper pipe one next!

K x

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