Making the art

You can either watch this video or read below.  There are a few things I learned after making the video.

I’m a bit old to flirt with police, so I hung my “hairy heart” solar graffiti on this metal sculpture with a magnet instead of superglue. Unfortunately, with only a magnet, a windstorm knocked it down the very next day. I took this as a sign that I should stick to lighting up my own house.

Here’s how I’ve been making the string light art.

Building the wire frame: I use either 3mm galvanized or plastic-coated steel wire to make the form, with thin wire to hold the 3mm wire together or for shorter segments. 3mm steel wire is thick enough to maintain its shape. (Aluminum wire bends more easily but is more expensive and hard to find.)  “Galvanized” means it’s coated with zinc so it won’t rust if you have the art outside. Update: I now prefer plastic-coated wire for outside art. I’ve noticed the zinc can wear off over time.

About the form: I try to keep the form simple — eyes, hairy hearts, stick figures, etc. When it’s too complicated, it’s hard at night to see what it is. Small loops make it difficult to wrap the lights around later.

Of course, wrapping around natural forms, such as a tree branch you find, looks great also.

Wrapping the lights: Once the wire frame is finished, I wrap the lights around it all. This takes about the same time as building the wire frame. Make sure you measure the distance from where the solar panel will be to the closest part of the art and start there. Even a window facing north will receive enough light to light up your artwork for 3 hours in the evening.

Sometimes I wrap some of the frame with strong crepe paper (called “silk paper” in Spain) and papier mache glue. When it dries, the paper tightens like a drum skin.

Removing an LED light: What if you don’t want some lights to light up, like in the lead line, or between words or letters, or if making a face? It’s not too hard to take small clippers and cut the light in half without cutting the copper wires.

Extending the lights: If you do make a mistake and cut a copper wire, all is not lost. The wire is enameled/galvanized — that is, coated with non-conductive metal. To fix this, or to extend the lights, you can sand the end of the wire to remove this coating, then you can twist the wires together again.

However, a much better option is to buy telephone wire connectors, also called “jelly crimps”. Search the web for “telephone wire connector UY2”.  (Apparently UY2 is smaller than UR2). Once you insert the two wires, you can crimp with ordinary pliers. A very simple way to add more lights to the end! Note that adding an extension will distribute the electricity and cause all the lights to be a bit dimmer. So depending on your artwork, you decide how many solar panels you want to use.

Corrosion: Make sure that all the wires you use for the structure are galvanized. For outdoor art, you might want to use plastic-coated wire, especially if you live in a humid area.  Any spots missing the galvanized coating will rust, and rust everything around it, including the string lights. You’ll know it when thin string light wire changes color. The corrosion process speeds up when a wire is carrying current.

I used some older wire to hold together the fat 3mm wire. This caused problems in an unusual way: when I moved a bit of the structure in a certain place, it would light up. I moved it back, and it would stop. Somewhere, I suppose, the string wire is touching the old wire and causing a short circuit.

Note 1 on corrosion

Note 2 on corrosion

Maintenance:  BAfter 1-3 years, your artwork may stop working. Check for corrosion (discoloring of the wires). If it’s not that, then maybe the rechargeable battery is dying. For most of the lights, that’s not a problem. Just open up the solar panel and pop in a new 1.2V Ni-Cd battery. A few solar string light models, though, do not have removable batteries. The bigger panels with 3.7V rechargeable batteries are not the AA size, so they’re not readily available in a store.

Otherwise, it might be that the solar panel itself is dead. In that case, cut the lights from the solar panel, grab a new solar panel and cut off its lights, then plug in the new solar panel using the telephone wire connectors (see Extending the lights above). That way, you don’t have to go through all the work of re-wrapping the LED wires all around your structure again.

Making eyes (see my Witness project): for eyes 110 cm wide, measure 5 meters of wire. For eyes 80 cm wide, measure 3 meters of wire. Straighten the wire a few times to give a real broad curve.  It helps to draw the eyes on a big sheet of cardboard as a model.  Do your best to get the curves right.

Get curve 1 right, make the bend, then get curve 2 more or less right, then do some taping as shown. You can leave the wire longer at one edge to give the eyes an egyptian flair.  Done! Now you can use the first eye as a model for the second one. Now you’re ready for the lights. I use one solar panel for each eye. Wrap the first light at the tear duct. Then just keep wrapping. You’ll have enough wire for a second wrap on all wire.  When you’re ready for the second wrap, keep the lights separate from each other by occasionally wrapping real tightly.

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