Some folks think I’m joking, but no: if you can find a “dollar store” item with the effect you’re after, use it! LED tea lights, kids toys like zap guns and magic wands, those battery-operated Christmas light strings by the checkout line…pop in a battery, flick a switch and it’s done. The challenge then is disguising the item to hide its obvious toy store origin.

Important points to keep in mind:

  • If you dismantle a toy to work it into your design, never defeat safety measures like interlocks (e.g. shutting off automatically when a hatch is opened) or covers (like the zap gun above…the spinning LEDs are inside a clear capsule, no pinched fingers or tangled hair!). Also be mindful of metal parts inside both the toy and your prop; there’s a potential for electrical shorts.
  • Even “flexible” items, like a string of LED lights, don’t take well to repeated bending and will eventually fail. This is the downfall of every would-be TRON cosplayer! Steer clear of elbow and knee joints.

We sell a few such ready-to-go items:

These Litex white LED ribbons can be sewn or glued into garments and props. A tiny button cell provides power, and several modes (on, fade, blink) are selectable.


Project: LED Ribbon Shoes

These 12-LED strands are similar, with wires instead of ribbon, no modes (just an on/off switch) and come in several colors: cool white, warm whitered, green and blue.

Very different from LEDs, electroluminescent (EL) wire is amazing stuff, and pretty easy to use if you stay with the 2.5 meter length of the starter packs. Trimming, extending or splitting EL wire requires advanced techniques best left to other tutorials.


Project: EL Wire Animal Masks

The same rule about frequent bending applies to these. Minimize movement or they’ll soon break.

Another easy method uses a coin cell battery, a single LED and some tape. Sometimes called “LED throwies” because people used to add a magnet and toss them at metal bridges (please don’t do this…it’s littering, and e-waste materials don’t belong in landfills or the street).

LED is short for light-emitting diode. A diode is a one-way valve for electricity. Just like a battery has a + and side, diodes also have polarity — they go a certain way. Look at the legs of an LED and you’ll see one is longer: that’s the + side. Connect this to the + side of the coin cell, and the shorter leg to the – side, wrap with some tape and you’re done. It’ll run for a day or so, gradually getting dimmer.

Most two-legged LED varieties (except for infrared) should work this way. Some even have special color flashing or fading modes.

This fantasy armor has glowing jewels using this technique…each backed with a single LED and coin cell battery.

This works for small numbers of LEDs at one-time appearances like a Halloween party, but is not recommended for frequent use. The connections aren’t durable and the batteries don’t last as long as other types…there’s the potential for a lot of waste. Spent batteries need to be properly disposed of with other e-waste.

Serious Engineers™ may scoff at such approaches, that you’re not doing real electronics. Technically they may be right, but we’re not all looking to go pro. And for crying out loud, we’re grown adults playing dress-up! How serious can you be?

That said, if you’re ready to step your game up, I’d be happy to oblige…

This guide was first published on Sep 06, 2014. It was last updated on Sep 06, 2014.

This page (No-Brainer Method) was last updated on Aug 29, 2014.

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