Chris Spooner

14 Aug

I’ve always loved those vintage style marquee bulb signs that used to appear on casinos and theaters, illuminating words shapes with hundreds on incandescent lights. A few weeks ago I decided to have a go at making my own using some spare sheets of plywood and a string of LEDs hacked together with a motion sensor. My completed arrow bulb sign now proudly sits at the top of the staircase in our house and lights the way whenever someone walks past it. I collected a bunch of photographs during the project, so here’s a little write up of the making of my DIY vintage bulb sign.

I don’t know how engineers made these kinds of things before the digital age! I spent hours in Adobe Illustrator planning my concept, tweaking the angles of the arrow outline and the layout of the holes for the LEDs. Some of the bevels were too acute to cut on my mitre saw, so I had to come up with some clever layouts to achieve the various angles for the upright frame.

The digital concept was then printed at 100% scale using Photoshop to split the design over multiple pages. These were then spray mounted onto one of the plywood sheets I had in my shed.

All the holes for the LED bulbs were drilled first, then the arrow shape needed cutting out. I don’t have a large band saw or table saw, but a spare piece of timber helped me cut straight lines with a jigsaw.

Small timber blocks were glued and nailed to the underside of the arrow, which the upright side pieces could then be screwed into. Thankfully all the mitre cuts fitted together nicely, but some slight warping of the wood resulted in some small gaps.

Decorator’s caulk did a fantastic job of filling any ugly gaps to leave nice seamless joints.

I knew from the start I wanted an aged, distressed finish so the entire sign was painted with 3/4 coasts of walnut varnish.

I quite liked the dark walnut finish, but the plan was to add some coats of paint that matched our recently decorated hallway/stairs/landing, which could be rubbed back to expose the dark wood finish.

While the varnish dried I got to work on the tech. I bought a cheap battery powered LED motion detector lamp from Ebay and disassembled it. The original LEDs were removed, then the wires for my string of LED bulbs were soldered in their place.

The string of 40 lights weren’t quite as bright when powered via the motion detector unit compared to straight off their own power source (probably because the motion sensor itself draws some power), but the functionality worked perfectly. When motion is detected by the sensor the LEDs illuminate for about 60 seconds before fading out.

Back outside the arrow was given multiple coats of the sage green paint that was leftover from redecorating the hallway/stairs/landing.

The painstaking work of sanding back the paint to expose the varnish and raw wood was next. A mix of wet rubbing, machine sanding and hand sanding all sides of the arrow gave it a cool distressed look.

By the time I’d finished sanding my iPhone no longer recognised my fingerprint ID, but the arrow sign looked pretty cool with its new weathered appearance.

To fade the green paint a little more I dulted some of the walnut varnish and gave it a quick rub down with a cloth to add some stains.

The motion detector unit was then screwed into a couple more timber blocks to allow the sensor to peek through a slightly larger hole in the arrow face, then the string of lights were threaded into all the remaining holes.

A quick test with some battery power made sure all the LEDs were still working before replacing the caps that gave them the softer bulb like glow.

Each hole was drilled at just the right diameter so the neck of the caps pushed tightly into place.

The final bulb sign looks super cool when it’s illuminated. The motion sensor actually works really well even recessed into the wood through that hole.

Vintage marquee bulb sign

A little bracket was added to the back of the sign that allowed it to be hung onto a hook in the wall with some paracord above the staircase. It’s the perfect location to help guide the way at nighttime!

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