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making custom LEDs

Learn how to make your own custom LEDs in cute shapes with cute decorations!

Many electronics tutorials involve LEDs (Light Emitting Diodes)—beginner electronics tutorials use them as a “Hello World”, and other electronics tutorials might use them to test that the rest of your circuit is working, or as a status light! LEDs are already cute—they come in various colors, they’re small, they light up—but if you’re going to be using them in a lot of projects you might as well make them custom and even cuter!

Designing your dream LEDs

What kind of LEDs you want to design might affect what kind of supplies you use, so let’s brainstorm before we get started! What shape do you want your LEDs to be? Stars? Hearts? Cat-shaped? What color do you want your LEDs to be? Pink? Purple? A constantly-changing rainbow? Do you want your LEDs to have any kind of decoration inside them? Glitter? Confetti? Flower petals? Sprinkles?

Supplies (Resin Version)

This tutorial can be done with either resin or hot glue. We’ll share the resin version first, but if you don’t have resin supplies or would rather not use it for safety reasons, you can find the hot glue instruction modifications further down!

supplies needed for this tutorial
  • standard LEDs in your color of choice: you can find these at electronic supply stores like adafruit.com. If LEDs aren’t available in the color you dreamed of in the brainstorming stage, you can get clear LEDs and achieve your dream color via resin dye.
  • UV resin: for this particular project, UV works well since they’re small objects and should cure fast under a UV light. Also, you’ll have to hold the LED in place as the resin cures, so you won’t want to use AB resin which cures in 24 hours.
  • UV resin light: I use the same kind as is used for curing gel nails.
  • Resin dye & toothpick/stirrer: if you want your custom LED to be a different color than the LED you’re starting with
  • Transparent silicone molds in the shapes you want your LEDs to be: I used heart and star shaped molds for my LEDs! There are a lot of shapes and styles available on Etsy or other craft stores. Make sure they’re transparent so the UV light can get through them to cure the resin.
  • Glitter, flower petals, or other decorations: you can put these in your LED for some extra customization!
  • 3V coin cell battery (or other voltage, depending on what your LEDs need) and optionally alligator clips to test that the LED works, before and after you customize it
  • Tweezers to place resin decorations and to hold the LED in the resin as it cures
  • Safety mask: resin has toxic fumes so I recommend wearing a shop mask/N95 mask and opening a window when you work with it
  • Latex gloves: You don’t want to touch resin, so either wear gloves while working, or be careful to only interact with the resin via tweezers

One of my biggest resin inspirations is @fantasia_miran on Instagram. If you’re not sure about what shape or decorations to use for your LEDs, I’d recommend browsing for ideas!

1. Test LEDs

I always recommend testing your electronic components before you do anything to them. If your LED no longer works after you’ve modified it, but you never tested it to begin with, you won’t know if you did something to break it or if it just never worked to begin with.

Most LEDs need 3V of electricity to light up, but check your specific LEDs. LEDs also need a resistor to lower the current to their working specs, but for testing purposes, it’s ok to briefly connect the LED to a coin cell without a resistor. Coin cell batteries don’t produce enough power to burn out the LED. LEDs are directional, meaning it matters which end of the LED you connect to the positive end of the battery, and which you connect to the negative end of the battery. You’ll notice one of the LED “legs” or leads is longer than the other. Connect the long end of the LED to the positive side of the coin cell either directly by putting the coin cell between the LED leads or with an alligator clip.

connecting an LED to a 3V coin cell battery

2. Fill the resin mold with decorations

Prepare your workspace by lining it with paper or parchment paper. If resin cures on your work surface it might be difficult or impossible to clean it off. Next, pick a resin mold to use, and line it with whatever decorations you’d like to use.

Star-shaped resin mold filled with holographic star glitter
Heart shaped resin mold filled with pink dried flowers

3. Fill resin mold with resin

Next, while wearing a safety mask (and maybe gloves too), fill the resin mold with UV resin. If you want to suspend more of the decorations throughout the LED, alternate adding decorations and resin in layers. If you want to add color to the resin, you can do it in this step. Add a tiny drop of resin dye and stir with your toothpick.

4. Cure resin while suspending the LED in resin with tweezers

Next, you’ll want to put the LED into the resin, and cure the resin with the UV light. You’ll want to suspend the LED upside down in the resin with tweezers like this:

Use tweezers to hold LED in resin, via the LED leads

And keep this position as still as possible while placing the resin mold under the UV light. My UV resin light has a counter to 90; if yours doesn’t, set a timer to check the resin after 90 seconds.

After 90 seconds, you can check the hardness of the resin by poking it with a toothpick or by trying to wiggle the LED with the tweezers. It might need another round under the light if it’s not completely hard. But even if it’s not completely hard, it’s probably set enough that you don’t need to hold up the LED with tweezers.

cured star LED with star glitter
cured heart LED with dried flowers

5. Test your LED and admire

After the UV resin has set, it’s time to test it, via the same methods as step 1.

lit up heart LED with dried flowers (LED used was “warm white”)
lit up star LED with star glitter (LED used was rainbow)
[cw: flashing lights] video of the rainbow star shaped LED in action

Hot Glue Version

If you don’t have resin supplies, or if you’re worried about the potential safety risks of resin, you can make a version with hot glue! The process is very similar, except :

  • You can use either opaque or transparent silicone molds.
  • After covering the surface of the mold with decorations, fill the mold with hot glue instead of resin.
  • Before the hot glue cools, place the LED in the hot glue and hold the LED in place until the glue hardens.
  • Though hot glue doesn’t have the same toxic fumes as resin, working with hot glue still requires care and caution since the hot glue and the tip of the hot glue gun can burn you.

Here’s what the hot glue version looks like!

hot glue LED from heart mold, filled with sprinkles
hot glue heart sprinkles LED lit up

Have Fun!

There are so many possibilities for LED shapes, colors, and decorations, and so many potential uses for the results! If you try this tutorial, I can’t wait to see what you make!

one ring to ride them all

Learn how to take apart an RFID-based transit card and embed it in resin jewelry!

I’m 100% the person who is holding up the exit gates out of the subway because I can’t remember which pocket or which part of my purse I put my transit card in. Or, at least I used to be, until I took apart my transit card and put all of the important parts into a ring. Now, I never forget where my ring is (on my hand, duh) and swipe in and out of subway fare gates with ease!

Please note: before attempting this tutorial, it’s worth mentioning that every transit system has different rules for tampering with your card. The BART transit system in the SF Bay Area, where I live, will accept modified cards as long as they are still fully readable. (SF Bay Area’s MUNI and Caltrain have not commented on whether they will accept the transit ring). But other areas frown on any card modifications and will respond with fines. Just double check to be safe!

Supplies:

supplies needed for this tutorial

transit card(s)

can buy or find around the house: jar, pure acetone, tweezers, packing tape

can get from craft stores: silicone mold, AB resin, decorations

for testing: NFC (Near Field Communication) reader or Android phone with FareBot App installed

1. Brainstorm to design your jewelry

Think about function as well as aesthetic. You could make earrings, but keep in mind that you’d need to remove them to tap in. You could make a necklace, but it would have to be long enough that the pendant can reach the scanner. You could browse Etsy for resin molds for inspiration. I decided to make a resin ring that looks like a chunky plastic ring from the 90s, and found a mold on Etsy with my correct ring size. I chose a ring design with enough space for all of the components inside the transit card, a small RFID (Radio Frequency IDentification) chip and a copper wire antenna.

2. Test transit card

As you modify your transit card, you’ll want to check at every step that it’s still readable by an NFC reader like this one. If you have an Android phone, it probably has an NFC reader built in. To give yourself extra peace of mind, you can check make sure that your transit card’s RFID has all of its data intact by installing the FareBot app on an Android phone. FareBot uses the NFC reader on the phone & can read many different kinds of RFID based transit cards. It can display your card number, your balance, and the last place you tapped on and off.

It’s a good idea to test that your card is readable before you’ve done anything to the card, to make sure your testing systems are working. So, go ahead and check your card before you try any of the other steps!

3. Soaking the transit card in acetone

clipper card in jar of acetone
plastic peeling after 12 hours

Most transit cards are plastic, so they can be dissolved with acetone, the main ingredient of most nail polish remover. Pure acetone works best—the kind in your bathroom closet likely has additional ingredients, but it will also work in a pinch. Acetone has toxic fumes so I recommend working in a well ventilated room.

I’ve tried a couple different workflows, but my favorite one so far is this: putting a transit card in a small pickling jar, filling it with acetone, and closing the lid. The lid keeps the acetone from evaporating and needing to be topped up. Plus, if the acetone isn’t evaporating, it isn’t letting out toxic fumes into the air.

I recommend leaving the transit card like this for 3-4 days. I’ve heard some people say that it only takes 1 hour or 1 day to get the internal parts out of the card, but the wires are really delicate so I like the plastic to be super soft when I try to take the wires out.

Since this is the longest step of the process, and it might take a couple tries to get a ring that both works and is how you want it to look, you might want to set up a few jars to dissolve a few cards.

4. Taking out the RFID and antenna

plastic transit card in acetate peeling after 3-4 days

By 3-4 days, the card plastic should be soft and falling off in layers, so you should be able to take out the RFID chip and antenna (copper wire). The copper wire is quite delicate so be careful and gentle.

antenna & rfid chip separated from the transit card

The RFID chip is what stores your data—your fare balance, when you tagged on and off, etc. The antenna is an inductor that lets a scanner read the data on the chip. These are the two parts necessary for tapping on to the transit system. It’s worth testing the bare card guts to make sure that they’re still readable at this point. (I recommend doing this after every change/step, since if the RFID/antenna ever stops working at any point in time, and you’ve tested after every step, you’ll know exactly what step broke it.

making sure bare antenna is readable by farebot

5. Make the antenna take up less space

For it to work, the antenna has to be in a continuous loop parallel to what is reading it. But we can (carefully) coil the copper wire around a few more times to make a smaller loop so that we can fit the chip and antenna into jewelry. Make sure that the wire stays attached to the chip, and does not break anywhere while you’re doing this. If it does, you might have to solder the wire back together.

Test that this size and shape of antenna fits into the jewelry mold, and also test that the antenna and RFID still work. It also might be worth testing the distance range that the RFID is readable at, since it might have changed from making the antenna smaller. You can do this by holding the antenna at various distances from the reader and noticing what is the maximum distance that the reader can still read the antenna.

checking that smaller antenna fits in the jewelry mold
making sure that smaller antenna is still readable

6. Protecc

The copper wires are delicate, as we mentioned, as is their connection to the RFID chip, so once you’re happy with the size, shape, and readability, they might be worth protecting. One of the simplest ways to do this, suggested by my friend Samantha Gold, is to cover the the coil and RFID with clear packing tape, like this:

coil and RFID in clear packing tape
tape trimmed to smaller size to fit in jewelry

Test the antenna and RFID again after this step just to be sure!

7. Putting the RFID and coil into jewelry

Mix the resin according to the instructions on the bottles. Most AB resin has you mix equal quantities of resin and hardener and stir for 3-5 minutes. The hardener causes an exothermic reaction that heats up the resin and makes it hard. You can also add resin dyes to add some color.

Pour the resin into the mold, and insert the rfid and antenna into the resin using tweezers. You’ll want the antenna loop to be parallel to the surface that will touch the reader. So in the case of the ring mold above, you’d want the antenna to be flush against the top of the ring. You can nudge it with tweezers to get it into the right position. You can also add small decorations like glitter or tiny flower petals. If the resin has a lot of bubbles in it, it can help to hold a hairdryer 8 inches above the resin to make the bubbles rise to the surface and pop.

8. Waiting for the resin to harden

Now for what I find to be the hardest part of this process (if you’re using AB resin): waiting 24 hours for the resin to harden. As tempting as it might be to check on the hardening progress by pulling the jewelry out of the mold, that can ruin the jewelry. So just try to be patient!

There is UV resin that’s supposed to cure within minutes using a UV light, but I haven’t had much success with it. So after many failed attempts getting UV resin to cure within minutes or even hours, I decided to stick to AB resin since at least it had a fixed amount of time that I knew it would take to set.

9. Take your jewelry out of the mold

After you’ve waited 24 hours, it’s now time for the moment of truth! After popping your RFID jewelry out of its mold, try testing it with an NFC reader.

9.5 Debugging, if necessary

It can be a huge bummer if, after all this waiting, the ring doesn’t work. But don’t get discouraged! It took me 2 attempts to get a ring that worked, and 4 attempts to get a ring I was happy with. Here are some debugging ideas:

  • Look closely at the wires, have the detached from the RFID chip?
  • Is the antenna parallel when you’re bringing it close to the reader?

Even if you don’t see anything wrong with the antenna or RFID chip, they’re all so delicate when out of their protective encasement that it might be worth just trying the process again and seeing if it works that time!

If you can’t figure out what’s wrong, you could try posting your issue, along with photos, on a forum or on twitter for suggestions! Or just try again. Once you get your project working, be sure to post your solution to pay the help forward and help someone in the future debug!

10. Ride in Style

Now you’re ready to ride public transit in style! Here’s a video of me demonstrating for the local news that the ring works to enter a BART turnstile.

(Note: it’s possible for your rfid jewelry to be readable by your NFC reader but not readable by the transit turnstile, since they might have different sensitivities. So, the first time you take it out for a test spin, bring a long a regular transit card as backup, and if your jewelry won’t scan, you might have to go back to step 9.5)

11. Endless Possibilities

You can make so many different kinds of rings, depending on your taste. Here are a few different ring variations I’ve made:

I added pink dye to the resin for this ring, as well as small pieces of iridescent tinsel.


This is the top view of the ring.


To make this ring, I added purple resin dye and purple pressed flowers.

A closer look at the ring.
To make this ring, I added neon yellow dye to the resin along with tiny decorative fruits.
Side view of the ring.
This ring used no dye but had random bits of colored string in the resin as decoration.
What the ring looks like on.

Thanks to this tutorial for a guide on how to dissolve a clipper card and to Samantha Gold for debugging advice! And @wall_e555 for the title inspiration.

flower power!

When you hear the word corsage, you might think of prom, but it’s also fun to make corsages for other occasions too! Especially if they’re lit up with a sewable circuit and LEDs!

Full tutorial coming soon!