A few weeks ago, it struck me that there must be some way to DIY a neon sign. I found this great video showing how real neon signs are made, which was really inspiring, but advanced glass blowing skills required are far beyond my skill set. Then I discovered this article sharing how to make a fake neon sign designed for a student science fair project. Forming the neon tubing into a shape like the lightning bolt above is the hard part, even with the article I found. Lucky for you, I spent a bunch of time figuring out tips for making the neon tubing and an easy way to mold the tubing into shapes and letters.
clear aquarium tubing (like this)
2 liquid ink highlighters
black canvas panel (like this)
16 gauge aluminum crafting wire
hot glue gun & glue
1. De-ink your highlighters
Phase one of this project is to carefully disassemble two liquid ink highlighters.
Hammer your nail into the liquid chamber of the pen. You’ll feel a little less resistance from the plastic when you’re through the body of the pen.
Note: I spent a TON of time figuring out how to do this, and I promise you that at least for the Pentel 24/7 highlighters I used, that plastic is crazy strong. I de-inked 5 total highlighters, and none of the pens exploded or even cracked in the process. There are some liquid ink highlighters whose design is different than the ones I used, but most of what I could find appear to be of the same design as the Pentel ones I used.
Remove the nail using pliers. To double-check that the nail was all the way into the pen, check the nail’s tip – there will be a little bit of ink on it. Next, remove the tip of the highlighter and its plastic casing with pliers. Then, with a jewelry pliers, pull out the little wick, if your highlighter has one. Be careful, as soon as the wick is out, the ink will be pourable from the highlighter.
Pour the highlighter ink into a squeeze bottle. De-ink another pen and add its ink to the bottle. Top with water.
2. Prepare and fill your tubing
Shove wire into aquarium tubing that’s the length needed for your sign’s design plus 5-6 inches.
Holding both ends of the tubing/wire vertically, preferably over a sink, fit the aquarium tubing around the opening of the squeeze bottle. Fill the tube in a steady stream all at once, avoiding air bubbles as much as you can. Leave some space at the ends of the tube.
Seal each end of your tubing with hot glue.
3. Mount the tubing on a black canvas panel
Lay a stencil or draw the design of your sign on a black canvas panel.
Drill holes at each bend in your design. Clip a 3-inch piece of wire for each hole. My lightning bolt has 11 points, so I drilled 11 holes and cut 11 pieces of wire.
Fold a piece of wire over as shown an insert it in one of the canvas holes. Use it to attach the tubing to the canvas, folding down the ends of the wire on the back of the canvas at a 90 degree angle to keep it and the tubing in place.
Keep attaching the tubing to the canvas like this, bending the wired tubing at each angle.
The last step is getting rid of the excess tubing. Working over a sink, snip away the hot glue plug, cut the excess tubing, pinch out a little bit of the highlighter ink, and seal the end back up with hot glue. You’re going to want essentially zero air inside the tubing. The air bubble will float upward within the tube when you go to hang it up.
Since my lightning bolt is a closed shape, I secured the two tube ends with a single wire. If your design is a phrase or something that doesn’t loop, you can secure the tubing as normal.
Really the hardest part of this project is keeping air out of your tubing and forming the words. My biggest tips are:
- Be careful as you disassemble your highlighters to avoid ink spillage.
- Use a separate bit of tubing for each word if you’re creating a phrase for your sign.
- Before I realized it made sense to put the wire inside the tubing, I played with hot gluing the tubing to wire bent into a shape. That doesn’t work – the hot glue and the wire just don’t stay glued to the tubing.
- Don’t get too crazy when bending your tubing into shape. You can break the hot glue seal and lose all your ink.
PS: If you want this to glow at night, all you’ll need to do is shine a black light on it and it’ll shine brightly. The advantage of the highlighter, though, is that it shines fluorescently even in regular daylight!