This guide is for beginners who are ready to take the next step in DIY electronics: putting that soldering iron to use to add NeoPixel or other addressable LED lights to your project.
You don't have to be able to solder to use NeoPixels! Here is a beginner tutorial that shows how to use NeoPixels with no soldering: Make it Glow - Your First NeoPixel Project
However, there are times when soldering is really the best option. If you want to use NeoPixel rings, or individual pixels, or create more elaborate or complicated designs with multiple strips, there's really no way to do it without soldering.
The good news: it's not as hard as you think! There are a fair number of tools to acquire, but once you've got your station set up, a whole world of creative possibilities will open up for you.
In this guide, we'll recommend some tools and equipment that every DIY electronics maker should have in their workshop. Then, we'll go over the techniques and skills needed to get a good solder connection, and how to secure your connections it so they are sturdy and reliable.
Finally, we'll cover some techniques for repairing broken strips, and troubleshooting help for when your project just won't behave the way you want.
This guide assumes you're making a fairly small project, with fewer than around 250 NeoPixels and just one NeoPixel strip. Once your projects get more ambitious with more pixels and more strips, dive into the NeoPixel Überguide for more advanced techniques.
Roll up your sleeves, Makers, and let's get started.
NeoPixel is a fancy name for an addressable LED light that can show millions of colors, and also color animations, when you hook them up to a microcontroller and a battery.
"Addressable" means that every single pixel has its own little brain, so each pixel can show a different color from its neighbors. You may have encountered LED strips that can show all green, or all blue, or even change from one color to the next as a strip -- these are commonly used in everything from fancy architecture to cheap toys you bought on the Internet. NeoPixels are different in that they can show all the colors at once, and can update so fast that they appear to show animations.
There are a lot of options out there. Check out this page of the NeoPixel Überguide to learn about the differences between NeoPixel types and their form factors.
This guide will cover soldering NeoPixel strips and rings and pixels and dots, so choose the one that works best with your vision.
If you need bright, pure white lights in your project, use RGBW format. Otherwise, use RGB. And if you need really tight timing, say, for persistence-of-vision (POV) projects, you'll want to use DotStar LEDs instead of NeoPixels. Most costume or home-DIY projects work great with NeoPixels, which are a little less expensive and a bit easier to hook up, since they have just 3 connections instead of 4.
You'll also need a microcontroller and a power source to make the pixels work.
Which to get depends on your project. If you're not sure, get a Circuit Playground Express. This is my favorite controller for smaller DIY type projects like costumes or artwork. It's really easy to program, there are lots of code samples available so you can just copy-paste effects, and it has sensors, which means you can make your artwork interactive.
If you're on a budget, and don't need fancy motion sensors, sound sensors, or other interactivity-enablers, get a Gemma M0.
If your project will be stationary, plug your microcontroller in to the wall or a USB hub with its onboard USB port.
If your project is mobile, like a costume, get one of these 5v AAA battery packs. This is a great option because it's got an on/off switch, which is very handy.
Here's a kit that has a Circuit Playground, a USB cable and a battery pack! Score.