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How To Get Started with Electroluminescent (EL) Wire

By Alex Castle

Electroluminescent wire—more commonly known as EL wire—is probably the simplest solution for adding lighting to a project. We show you how it works, what you can do with it, and how to easily get started using it.

A few weeks back, I wrote at length about LED strip lighting. Originally, that story had been about more than just LED’s—I’d wanted to cover the entire world of flexible lighting. Since addressable LED lighting proved to be more than enough glowing awesomeness for one article, I never got around to talking about another fun, affordable way to trick out virtually any project: EL wire.

What is EL wire? Electroluminescent wire—more commonly known as EL wire—is probably the simplest solution for adding lighting to a project. It’s a thin, flexible wire that (when powered) gives off a bright, even glow along its entire length. In appearance, it’s not unlike a chemical glowstick or a neon sign. It’s waterproof, stays cool, can be cut to whatever length you want, and as long as the soldered joints are properly insulated, it won’t shock you. All those qualities (and its more-than-passing resemblance to the piping on the Tron outfits) make it a very popular choice for light-up costumes, clothing and accessories. Because it’s very energy efficient, EL wire is also used as accent lighting indoors and in vehicles.

Photo credit: Flickr user thematthewknot via Creative Commons.

EL wire requires an alternating current source, which means that you’ll need to connect it to a transformer—usually a little battery-powered box you can tuck away someone on your project or in your costume. Greater lengths of EL wire require more power.

How Does It Work?

EL wire is constructed of a copper core, coated in a phosphor, which is wrapped with a thin wire. The wire is protected by a layer of PVC sheathing, and a second, dyed PVC sheathe is used to color the light that the wire produces. When an alternating current is applied to the core and the wrapping wire, it excited the thin layer of phosphor that separates the two, causing it to glow brightly.

Image credit: Adafruit

What Can I Make?

The real miracle of EL wire is that it’s so simple that you can slap it on pretty much anything. Yes, you can sew it into your clothes and go full Tron Guy, but there are plenty of more subdued uses for it as well.

You can, for instance, line a bag with EL wire, or wrap it the handlebars or top-tube of a bicycle. You can tuck the wire into the corners of a box or container, a display case, a drawer, or even the engine compartment of your car. Personal experience has taught me that you can make the cat wear EL wire like a collar, but she doesn’t like it.

If you want to get a little more technical, you can hook multiple strands of EL wire up to a sequencer—a microcontroller that turns the strands on and off according to a program, much like the addressable LED strip/Arduino setup I wrote about last time.

Photo credit: Flickr user kodamapixel via Creative Commons.

If you like the smooth look of EL wire, but find that it’s just a little too wiry, be aware that you can also buy EL tape and EL panel. These work the same way as EL wire, and provide the same continuous, even illumination—the only difference is that EL tape comes in a thick, flat band and EL panel is sold in 10cm x 10cm squares. Like EL wire, both can be cut down to a desired shape and size.

How Do I Get Started?

EL wire itself is sold in bulk at commodity prices—if you search around you’ll find EL wire available at hundreds of stores, in tons of colors and with a number of different effects. Personally, if you’re just getting started with EL wire, I recommend going with a starter kit from one of the big maker supply sites like Make, Adafruit or Sparkfun. You may end up paying an extra dollar or two, but you get the peace of mind that comes with knowing that you got the right transformer, and that you’re dealing with a company you can trust.

Have any of you experimented with EL wire? I’d love to hear about any projects you’ve made.