Soldering EL Wire

Electroluminescent Wire ("EL Wire") is the coolest shit on the planet. That may just be the afterglow talking, but this stuff is seriously cool.

An acquaintence of mine from San Francisco was having trouble wrapping his brain around the procedure to attach the expensive EL wire to the cheap speaker wire used for un-lit runs and power connections, and after puzzling out how to describe it for a while, I decided to do a few quick sketches and write up some instructions.

Since EL Wire is expensive and fragile, we use cheap speaker wire for long runs that don't need to light up. Usually these "jumpers" are "behind the scenes" so they're not really seen anyway. EL wire would be wasted in those locations, and there are times when you don't want the wire to light up anyway but still need to deliver power to the next section. (Think block lettering vs. cursive script). This describes how to solder the regular wire to the EL wire. This also works for connecting power sources, etc. to the wire... it's all pretty much the same. This assumes basic knowledge of the very basic soldering techniques (tinning and soldering two wires together, basically).

If you're really new to this sort of thing, this all will sound really complex and scary. Trust me, it's not. Follow the steps one by one, being careful to follow each detail. Once you do two, you'll realize how simple this is, and you won't bother to look at the directions ever again. You will, of course, forget to put the damn heat-shrink tubing on half the time and have to re-do lots of work... that never ends! ;-)

Please forgive the poor quality of these sketches, but hey, I was at work, I used a cheap scanner, and it gets the point across for now, so quityerbitchin! ;-)

Things you'll need:

EL wire. (Duh.) I get mine at Coolneon.com

Speaker wire. I like cheap 24 gauge, stranded speaker wire. I just bought 50 feet for $3.50 at Home Depot, but you can find the stuff all over the place. Not too thick, else it will be tough to work with considering how thin the EL wire youíre attaching to it is.

Wire strippers. (or better yet, the custom EL wire strippers from coolneon.com)

Razor. (the straight blade, not a Gillette mach 3!)

Soldering Iron/Gun. (the more powerful it is, the easier it will melt solder... I recommend a 45 watt iron at least, tho I have done it with a 25 watt iron)

Solder. (the skinny, .032mm (I think; this is from memory) stuff is better than the more normal, thicker stuff, cuz it melts easier)

Copper tape. (1/4" thick, roughly. aka ďsnail tapeĒ. Available at some Home Depots, tho not the one by me, or Michaels. Itís used for stained glass windows, also, so perhaps a shop like that. I got a 16 foot roll at Michaelís for $7.50 that should last me a couple of years.)

Directions:

1) Strip the PVC plastic cover off the EL wire. Be careful not to cut the ultra-fine corona wires! Also note that, oddly enough, there are two layers of insulation. The outer layer is thick and tough, and the inner is almost paper thin. Youíll be able to tell if you get both pretty easily. If youíre using the custom EL strippers from coolneon.com, itís really easy. (I tell you this because while most of the time I managed to strip it cleaning the first try, occasionally the inner layer would be missed, which is a pain to strip separately.)

2) Bend the corona wires back to they are out of the way of the main, core wire. Careful not to break them! If the wires break, youíll have to snip off everything, re-strip and start over.

3) Next the white phosphor coating has to be removed from the core wire. Use a combination of a razor (I use a standard box cutter) and your fingernails (pinch and scrape). I usually scrape it a few times with the razor (itís fairly sturdy stuff) on different sides, and then clean the gunk off with my fingernails.

4) Almost ready to solder. First, however, you have to realize that youíre going to want as clean a line as possible, but you have to be very careful of short circuits. The way to avoid this is to stagger the wires so the stripped ends can never touch, and lie flat along the line. See picture. Itís not as complex as it sounds. It just ensures there is no possibility of a short. Just cut one strand of wire slightly shorter than the other before stripping the speaker wire.

5) Itís a good idea to slip your heat-shrink tubing on now, before you connect your wires. I canít tell you how much it sucks to remember this step just after youíve admired your perfect soldering job. *g*

6) Tin the speaker wire and solder the shorter wire to the core wire. (Hopefully you know what that means, because basic soldering is beyond this primer.) This is where all the strength in the connection comes from. Tug slightly to make sure you have it good n'strong.

7) This next step is the big trick involved in soldering EL wire. The corona wires are so tiny and weak they are next to impossible to work with. So the idea here is to give them a bigger contact patch to connect to. Take a little-bitty piece (less than 1"... perhaps just over 1/2"?) of the copper tape and wrap it around the EL wireís insulation just under where you stripped it. The corona wires can then lay right on top of it. Place a small dollop of solder right on top of the corona wires, and they will instantly be connected to the copper tape.

8) Solder the remaining (longer) speaker wire to the copper tape. As you can see from the picture in step 7, it should line right up with the copper tape and attach easily. Remember, however, the core wire is the strong part. Make sure you arrange the lengths so that no stress is put on the copper tape when you pull on the wire, because it can't take any pressure. The core wire has to be the one that gets stressed when the wire is pulled, else the first time the joint gets snagged on something, the copper tape (and corona wires) will tear right off.

9) Slip the heat shrink tubing over the hopefully-fairly-flat joint and apply appropriate heat to shrink. A heat gun is ideal, a 25 watt soldering iron will work, too, a match will work in a pinch with some types. A test might not be a bad idea. ;-)

Youíre done! Woohoo! Now repeat for each connection. *sigh*

I'll put pictures up of any neat EL wire creations I come up with as I finish my projects...


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Last Updated August 6, 2002