How to use and join EL wire

Most Instructables you find are short and offer the basics to repeat what was shown.

As you might already noticed I go a slightly different way with mine, so don't be shy and think it is long and boring ;)

I will focus mainly on the wire here as I have no tape or sheets around right now, but I will update once I got new supplies.

1. What is the stuff?

You can check Wikipedia for it or some websites from the people that make EL products for really detailed info.

I explain it with simple terms here, so look it up if it is not to your satisfaction.

EL wire, EL tape and EL sheets are all the same in terms of how they work.

You have two electrodes and between them some phosphorous material that emits light when a AC voltage of suitable strenght is applied.

The wire has a stiff copper wire in the centre and a thin "corona wire" wrapped around the light emitting material.

The tape is similar to the sheets only made from more flexible materials. There is one electrode on the back and a second, made from almost clear material on the front of the light emitting material.

All are cover on the outside with a layer of plastic, clear for white and other colors to make them glow in whatever color you prefer.

If you understand that it becomes clear that they don't work like a LED or these neon lights.

In fact they can be compared to a capacitor and in the electric circuit they act like one with a quite high series resistance.

2. What can I use it for?

Don't expect bright light, so the stuff is perfect for illuminating edges and for decorative purposes - not to actually give you good light to cook your dinner.

Things like the effects in the Tron movie are made from EL wire that has an added flat strip so you can sew it into fabric.

Some advertising signs, house numbers or emergency informations are also using EL material - often in several colors or with the information printed on the surface.

Highlighting the edges of some stairs, your garden beds or using it as a backlight for a picture is possible too.

Let your imagination play and you will find endless amounts of uses for EL material once you started playing with it.

3. Why is it so expensive?

Well, the price depends on what you want in terms of length and brigthness.

Short pieces of under 1meter are usually quite cheap, while lengths over 3m can cost you dearly.

One reason for this is that the wire for example is produced in lenghts of around 100m for wholesale.

You always end up with section of slightly different color or even missing bits of the phosphorous material (missing in terms of not enough glowing stuff in it).

So what ends up for normal people like us to buy has been cut to size and been fitted with connector for ease of use.

Buying in bulk and doing the connections yourself is a good way to save money - I will give some examples on how to do it further down.

The sheets are expensive because they are much more complicated to produce and not too many people use them.

A major downside of most sheets is that they can be cut smaller but only the part with the connections will be usuable - all you cut away is junk making EL artwork quite expensive.

So far I have not found a way to successfully add some new connection to cut off pieces but I will update if that changes.

4. Why does my EL wire loose brigthness over time?

Most likely because it uses a cheap inverter to power it and the inverter is not really matched to the length of the wire.

El wire needs between 60 and 180V AC to work properly, the higher the voltage the brighter, same for the frequency - although there are limits.

Only top quality suppliers will be able to provide proper datasheets telling what voltage and current you need for a specific length of their product.

This is important if you want maximum brigthness without risking a premature burn out of the wire.

So if the inverter was designed for 3m of 3mm wire it will "overload" the wire if you shorten it too much.

More brightness in these cases often means the lifespan goes down to only a few thausand hours instead of 15-18.000 hours.

Another problem is moisture.

Most internet suppliers will tell you that you can simply cut the wire to the desired length but won't tell you that should seal the cut as the EL material is sensitive to moisture - apart from the fact that you can still get a nasty shock on the unsecure wire endings.

Also the term "flexible" should be taken with care! It only means you can bend it into almost any shape you like but you can't kink it or use it areas of constant movement - the wire will simply break.

5. Are there any dangers?

Yes! EL products require quite high voltages.

The currents are small but without a EL wire connected the inverter can put out over 400V - nothing you want to check with your fingers...

The biggest danger however is not coming from the wire but from the inverter itself.

Many products are advertised as waterproof - the inverter is not!

Only specially designed and quite expensive inverters off proper protection against moisture or rain water.

Depending on your supply voltage, 3V, 12V and mains powered are most common, an inverter will handle quite high currents, especially the 3V models.

Using cheap batteries can cause overheating and even slight levels of moisture can cause corona like sparks coming from the inverter connections as well as happening on the inside.

Unless specified for wet use you should never use cheap inverters in moist areas or directly on your skin.

If using for body art make sure the inverter is sealed in insulating plastic bags with heat shrink over all HV connections!

6. What else should I know?

Apart from the handling, cutting and joing?

No idea! Ask me! ;)

Step 1: Testing the freshly arrived wire...

You don't want to assume it is all working, you should test it.

Simply connect the full length of the wire to the inverter, check for a properly sealed end or that there is at least no short or wire poking out.

In my case the inverter runs on 3V but I used my lab power supply instead of batteries to check the power consumption in one go.

If all works as expected you can use the wire for your project or continue to the cutting and joing part.

And if you do it right the joined wire should look like this:

How to use and join EL wire

I will explain in the next step how to do it ;)

Step 2: Cutting and joining EL wire

No matter what project you have, sooner or later you will need to cut your wire so it has the right length.

Since we don't like expensive waste I will show and explain how you can cut and join EL wire.

If you only want to add a connector or normal wires to power them, check this nice Instructable:

A word of warning:

Some people like to use their teeth to remove insulation from wire, I can not recommend this for EL wire as the phosphorous material is not rally healthy - to say the least.

If you are dumb enough to try it anyway be prepared for a nasty taste in you mouth that can last several days - don't ask me about the health risks, just don't try it ;)

Thinks you might need:

Sharp and pointy knife - should be sharp all the way to the tip

Soldering iron with a needle tip - the ones for small electronics are good too just don't use a 100W wood burner ;)

Some clear sticky tape or clear heat shrink tubing of the right diameter

2k glue (clear)

"Helping hands" - these little clamp stands for doing solder repairs, the ones with a magnifying glass are prefered

Multimeter or something to test for resistance/continuity.

The best way to cut EL wire is by using a sharp knife with a thin blade, exacto knife, carpet knife....

Using wire cutters often means you deform the wire wire quite badly and that makes the joining more complicated than necessary.

There are two ways of making a connection to EL wire, the quick and dirty and the proper way - I will only go into the details of the last...

If you are reading this I assume you either just started using EL wire or you have a bunch of end pieces and like to know how to make use of them.

Once you got a feeling about the lengths or wire you need for your level of skills you won't need to waste much material, right now I suggest to use longer bits than necessary to make it easy.

Start by cutting through the outer plastic layer, first a cut around at the point where you remove all, then lenghtwise to the end.

About 1.5cm will do here.

Peel the plastic way and take care not to break the thin corona wire that is right under it.

In some cases, like mine, the corona wire is within the inner tubing and the outer is just to change the color, so:

Once the color layer is removed do the same cutting on the inner tube - take care of the corona wires and check with a magnifying glass where they are located.

It is usually one wrapped around or two in parallel in a straight line.

If you wire is like this it is best to leave a few mm of the inner tubing.

Unwind the corona wire all the way to the cut and fold it back a bit.

Scrape the EL material off withoug cutting through the inner wire - don't worry too much as it is a solid wire.

If it is quite thick, twist the EL material after making a round cut and pull it off the inner wire - done with the hard bit ;)

You can now solder the ends, cut them to length and solder a connector to it - the polarity does not matter as we use AC.

Once the connector is on I strongly recommend to use some 2k glue and to shrink the heat shrink tube before it sets rock hard, otherwise you might have to use two layers of tube to ensure the connection will not bend easy.

Joining EL wire is the most interesting bit as it allows you to change the color along the lenght of your wire.

Here is the pic of the joined wires again, one in blue, the other in green:

How to use and join EL wire

Most tutorials on the net provide a proper connection but leave a "massive" gap between the two colors due to the way the actual joint is done or because they use connectors for the job.

I use a technique similar to what some of you might already use to work with HF antenna wire.

What you need:

Same as above ;)

Take two wires as prepared in the part above.

You could just solder the inner wires together as close as possible and put the corona wire over it after covering with some tape - I won't recommend that way as the result is quite ugly.

Try it like this:

Take your leftover pieces of the color coat material as a base for the max lenght of the gap you can work with.

E.g. a 2cm piece means you can cover a joint of 2cm, while with 5mm you can cover 5mm unless you use several bits.

Cut the inner wires so they are shorter than you EL leftovers once soldered.

I prefer here to have a few mm of untouched inner tubing where the corona wire ends plus a few mm of the EL material - check the images.

How to use and join EL wire

Solder them togehter with as little overlap as possible, around 2mm are sufficient for good strength.

How to use and join EL wire

If you have thick EL wire you might be able to use the leftover bits from the phosphpric stuff.

Cut the leftover piece lengthwise - see why I said twist them off earlier?

As the soldered bit will be thicker you might want to cut material off one half to cater for the change in diameter on the inside - you don't have to if a near perfect finnish is not necessary (often you can hide the imperfection on the back).

Place both halfs over the inner wire and cut so they will fit prefectly into the gap.

Of course this is entirely optional, a 2mm gap in glowing part once finnished should not be a big problem.

If you are happy with the result, take them off again and use a tiny amount of 2k glue to set them in place securely - let the glue set before you continue. This will also provide the necessary insulation to the corona wire.

I did not bother with the 3mm wire to get the glowing stuff back on and used sticky tape for the isolation bit.

Note that the leftover piece of tape is only to make it more visible in the pics, it was of course removed.

How to use and join EL wire

Use the corona wire to secure the pieces by wrapping the thin wire around the two halfs - be careful not to break the wire.

For the straight type simply "hook" them together in a V-shape - again check the pictures for this.

Here is the "hook I mean before bending it flat and soldering.

How to use and join EL wire

Try to keep the same winding pattern and pitch as in the original part and warp the second corona wire right next to the first.

As the wire is already pre-soldered (remember I said to solder the wires?) you only need a tiny solder point at both ends of the wire - don't overheat the EL material, it pays off to have a temp controlled soldering station or to be really fast here.

How to use and join EL wire

Now use the multimeter to check that you did not make a short and that the wires are all connected throughout the lenght.

You might have to remove a bit if material on the other end to access the wires there, sometimes it is enough to use a needle on the probes.

Check if all is working by connecting it to your inverter - take care not to touch the exposed corona wire!

Take the leftovers of the color material, cut lenghtwise and trim to size.

Now use a drop of 2K glue and put the covers over the wire, a bit of twisting will force trapped air out.

If all is good, slide the clear heat shrink over the wire, make sure to have an overlap of at least 5mm on both ends.

If in doubt you can add thin layer of silicone sealant at the plastic coating of the wire - don't put any silicone over the joint itself.

The silicone will ensure that no moisture can get into joint - not necessary for indoor use.

For permanent installations I prefer here to use the 2K glue again to cover all all and provide some more stiffness.

How to use and join EL wire

Step 3: My use for the EL wire - will be updated with pics once I am done with the bike

Attention: This part is not complete yet as I am a bit low on time but it will be completed soon.

My little niece complained that her push bike looks boring and that she does not like riding it once dark as it only has the little front and rear lights.

(Car drivers are just bad with bikes around here....)

So I decided to pimp her old and rusty bike with some extra light effects.

I did not want to use an inverter with batteries as my aim was to give a brightness effect with the change of speed.

There are many way to generate AV voltages but when it comes to push bikes you just don't want to mess with fitting a stepper motor or a sycronous motor to it only to increase the voltage with a transformer.

Too many failure points where you electrocute yourself - although I would not recommend EL systems in the rain anyway...

Until we discovered high powered and battery operated LED lights for our push bikes there was old school tech : the Dynamo.

A dynamo is a tiny AC generator that provides around 6V with the right lights connected and around 20V with no load.

There are two basic kinds (unless you count the new type inside your front axle).

A full metal version using bearings and being fully sealed and the cheap alternative in a plastic housing.

The later usually has a slide out bottom part that will expose the coil inside with the connections to the terminals.

You can pull this entire "cage" out. A screw in the center and some pliers work wonders here ;)

You will see a metal cage with a coil inside - the cage hosues the magnet on the axle inside the housing.

If you are lucky and aptient you can use a flat srewdiver and pry the two parts of the cage apart.

I had one that was quite resistant and I had to bend it back into good shape once I got the coil out.

You will notice the wire is quite thick, no wonder as it should provide at least 500mA without getting hot.

I replaced the entire wire with much thinner magnet wire - salvaged from the motor of an old microwave fan.

Can't give you any info on the wire gauge but you should aim for something that allows at least three time the amount of turns than the original wire.

Rule of thumb: 3 times for a quite fast rider, 4-5 times if you want it for relativley slow cruising along the beach to impress people.

You have to experiment a bit here as it all depends on the type and lenght of wire you want to use.

I was able to power around 5m of 3mm wire with mine but at more than calm crusing speeds.

Put the new coil into the cage and press it back together, a punch and hammer work, a drill press with a drill upside down works better - take care to cut the cage onto something that allows the center to go through on a flat surface you won't be able to press the two parts together.

If you are unlucky like me you will notice that the magnet no longer spins freely once the cage is back in the housing.

Press it from the outside tap it carefully with a soft hammer or take the cage out and strighten it manually - you have to try what works best here.

Now before you connect all on your bike check the brigthness of the wire on an inverter first!

You want to be able to tell if on the bike the brightness goes too high - if it does you can either reduce the number of turns on the coil or add a resistor between the dynamo and the EL wire.

The value of the resistor should be established by testing different values - if the brightness is far too high even at low speeds start with around 1kOhm and work your way up and down until you have max brightness at your fasted riding speed.

For the cruising enthusiasts it pays off to add a switch to bridge a resistor - open for higher speeds, closed switch (bridging the resistor) for slow cruising.

A word of caution:

Although we use a tiny dynamo it still produces more than 80V when running and powering the EL wire, at higher speeds you can expect around 150V.

This means all connections should be made with proper wire, at least good insulated speaker wire to prevent the risk of breaking the insulation or creating an arc when wet.

The dynamo should not be conneted with one end of the coil to the monting part as common ground!

If your dynamo does not have two seperate terminals make a hole in the bottom to feed the wire through.

Always use two wires! Never use common ground on the bike!

Seal all connections with silicone once tested and working! I can not stress that enough as you simply should be careful with all voltages above 12V.

Make sure all joints of the EL wire as well as the ends are sealed as well.

To keep the lifetime up you should not overpower the EL wire to increase the brightness.

If you want to power your front and rear LED lights from the same dynamo you have to be a bit creative.

So far I have not done this mod on so for now a collection of thoughts:

Making a seperate coil winding would be best but makes wiring the dynamo hard apart from the compromise of output power.

If your dynamo reaches over 100V at full speed one option to try could be an old 5V or 3.7V phone charger - the wall apadter type.

The electronic ones often have have quite flexible input rating and are capable of producing a steady output from around 80V onwards if the load is small.

The inside of the LED lights have to be converted for the different voltage unless you use a 3 battery system and a 3.7V charger.

I had no time to modify the bike like this yet but will do in the near future, so expect an update on this.

The other and simpler way is to use a capacitor as a resistor for the AC (to match the voltage of the LED lights) and a resistor the limit the current.

Since every homemade system is different this again requires experimenting - you should not check with your actual LED lights but with a multimeter and resistor insted. You don't want to kill your light!

A cheap voltage regulator and supercapitor inside the battery compartment ensure the lights get the voltage they need and that they stay on during short stops.

Again, not tested by myself yet, will be checked out at a later stage.


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