by Pinch Of Pepper
There are a few essentials that you’ll need in your tool kit to successfully wire and power your own miniature lighting. Most of which are inexpensive and, with a little maintenance, will last you your miniature making lifetime. I’ve displayed and listed each item below.
- Soldering Iron - the iron I use is a Weller Pyropen which is powered with butane gas. The other type you can buy is the power supply type which requires you to be near an electric socket. The choice is yours...if like me, you tend to work in odd areas without a power supply then the gas soldering iron is the one for you. If you intend to work in your home then a socket close by won’t be an issue. Either way, the soldering iron will be the most expensive item you have to purchase. They range from £5 up to an eye-watering £100 pounds. Buy within your budget and don’t get too hung up on labels...they all do the same job.
- Soldering mat - unless you are keen on renewing your furniture every week or so, you need to protect the area you’re working on. Soldering irons achieve very high temperatures so a soldering mat is a must. The mat absorbs the heat and doesn’t allow it to transfer onto your table, kitchen worktop etc. This 12inch x 12inch piece cost £1.50p from an EBay supplier.
- Side Cutters - these are not an essential. Scissors will do just as well since we won’t be using huge diameter cable and the legs of the LED’s are fine enough for basic kitchen scissors to cut through. The ones in the picture are ‘Draper Professional’ side cutters. There is a huge range available.
- LED (Light Emitting Diode) lamps - this brings us succinctly onto the type of lamp to use. Now, pre 2005 or so the choice of lamp was pretty limited. Dollhouse suppliers tended to use ‘pea’ or ‘grain of wheat’ bulbs. Since then, the cost of LED’s has fallen dramatically and the varieties of colours are numerous. If you take anything from this tutorial then please let it be this - USE LED’s OVER FILAMENT BULBS FROM NOW ON AND FOREVER MORE. Seriously, LED’s can be as small as 1mm, have a longer lifetime, don’t get dangerously hot, use a fraction of the power compared to their filament counterparts and are kinder to the environment. Filament lamps (however small) depend on the reaction of poisonous gasses held within the glass to work. This said I’m going to presume you are going to use LED’s and want to know how to wire them. The LED’s I’m using are 12 volt, to keep it in line with the majority of dollhouse circuits. This also allows me to install it permanently into the dollhouse circuit if I wish. At this point I have to point out that some vintage dollhouses are run on a lower voltage...Lundby Gothenburg for example. If you want to install a light permanently into your dollhouse, you MUST use LED’s with an equivalent voltage.
- Most suppliers (and there are a nation of them on EBay etc) generally offer deals on LED and Resistor packs. This makes it hugely simple for you because the supplier already knows what size resistors are needed for the LED. If the word resistor has freaked you out already, then please don’t let it. In plain speak, all a resistor does is reduce the amount of energy in and pumps it out as heat or light (depending on LED type). The LED’s in an electric cooker hob emit heat, the type in small torches are of course light emitting. So if you are embarking on a miniature light making frenzy, buy bulk because it’s cheaper. Ten 1.8mm bright white LED’s plus Resistors should cost around £2.50p.
- Heat shrink tube - it does exactly what it says on the packet. If you apply heat to it, it shrinks. This IS essential. Heat shrink insulates the wires so that the energy travelling through doesn’t transfer to other materials. Buy 2mm heat shrink, in whatever colour suits you. It’s normally sold by the meter and costs pennies ($cents).
- Solder - another essential. This is the material we will use to make a tight bond between LED and wire. Buy the lead free type, around 0.6mm-1mm. This should cost a few pounds.
- Emery board - I use this to clean the tip of the soldering iron from old solder and grease. As you can see from the picture the one I use is a 20pence nail manicure type.
- Dollhouse wire - the final item is the wire. Dollhouse wire is two core, 32 gauge wire that is capable of carrying a 12 volt current. Please use this specified type. Smaller wire may not be designed for those specifications and as such can melt, burn and in extreme cases cause a fire =0(
Carefully separate the dollhouse wire for about 2 inches at one end. (You can use scissors, a craft knife etc, making sure not to pierce the plastic sheathing covering the wire.)
Cut two 1cm pieces of heat shrink tube. Thread each piece onto the ends of the wire and keep them there. The little blighters do have a tendency to work their way off and disappear into the ether.
Now you need to strip an inch of the wire back. Do this by nipping the wire between forefinger and thumb. With the other hand and in the direction of the end of the wire, you’re going to nip with your finger nail and pull. By gently breaking the covering around the wire, it allows you to separate the sheath from the copper strands inside.
Do this for both ends of the wire. Once stripped twist the copper strands together on each wire. Now hold the LED, bulb end, and one end of the wire. You’re trying to achieve around three tight twists around the leg of the LED. You’ll notice that the LED has two legs, one slightly longer than the other. The longer leg is always the positive (+) side.
Twist the other end of the wire around the remaining LED leg. This is how it should look.
Now push the twisted wire up towards the LED lens until it reaches the tiny indentations in the leg. This will define how long your LED is going to be when you put it into a lamp. You can leave them longer, however this will mean that your LED may stick proud of the lamp shade (or whatever you’re going to fit it into).
The indentations in the leg are put in there on purpose. Firstly; to allow a bend in the leg if your work requires it and secondly, to limit how close the hot soldering iron tip gets to the LED lens.
Now *dun-dun-duuuuun* the scary soldering part =0)
Work over the heat resistant mat during this time. It’s useful to have something to hold your work or it tends to wander. Hold it down with the weight of your cutters or scissors.
Turn the soldering iron on and use the emery board to softly scuff the soldering tip. You’re not trying to sand away the tip, just clear any residue solder from the end. Allow the soldering iron time to warm up fully (around four minutes). Check that the soldering iron is hot enough by simply dabbing the end of your solder against the soldering tip. If it melts immediately, it’s hot enough.
At this point you’re probably thinking
- This is going to explode
- I’m going to set fire to everything
Or both of the above.
Okay, so none of that is going to happen unless you’re more accident prone than me and that’s just impossible. If it’s your first time I imagine the worst will be that you end up with a kilo nugget of solder dangling from the wires in your eagerness to make a solid joint. Electricity needs just a small connection to travel on its merry way so as soon as the solder melts over the copper wire and LED leg...your job is done =0) If you find the solder isn’t flowing smoothly over the joint then your iron isn’t hot enough. Patience. Just give it a little while longer.
So, hold the tip of the soldering iron on the point where the wire is twisted around the LED. Solder runs towards heat so you’re trying to get the solder to move over the joint and towards the soldering iron. Give it a second so that the heat from the soldering iron gets into the wire and LED leg. Dab and I mean DAB the solder against the joint. You’re not welding steel plates to a frigate so less is more =0)
Solder a wire to each of the LED legs. Even though I said that the LED has a positive and negative side, at this point it doesn’t matter. The positive and negative attributes will come later with Resistors and finally wiring into a dollhouse circuit.
When you’ve done, the solder (which is a silver colour) should have enveloped the copper wire wrapped around your LED legs. Give it a minute or two to make sure the solder is cold. Solder burns are a pig, believe me!
Snip the stray strands of copper with either your scissors or side cutters. Do the same to the legs of the LED, just below the soldering joint.
To ensure that electricity won’t pass onto any other conductive material push the heat shrink up and over the soldering joint until it will go no further.
Use a hair dryer, at about 5 inches from your work, to gently warm the heat shrink tube. You will see that the heat shrink shrinks down over the joint to make a tight seal. All going well, this is what you should have.
I tend to leave around a foot (12 inches) of wire on the LED which allows me to position the light anywhere in the room. It can be shorter or longer, as you wish.
Now here’s the doozie...many people believe that the resistor has to be at the light end of the wire. WRONG! In order for the light to work in a dollhouse circuit, the Resistor just needs to be in the circuit. So this means you can put it at the very end, middle - in fact anywhere along the wire. Often, pre wired LEDs have a Resistor near the LED which makes it virtually impossible to thread it through a teeny-weeny lamp. So now you can wire your LEDs to your requirements.
This is where we are going to see if all of your hard work has come to fruition.
As before, split the end of the wire at the opposite end to the LED. Strip back about an inch of the plastic covering from each end of the with the ‘pinch and pull’ technique that you have now mastered =0). Pick an end...doesn’t matter which one. Wrap that end around the metal ‘tail’ at either end of the Resistor.
What we are going to do is establish which end is positive. Get a 12 volt battery and it MUST be 12volt...no bigger.
If your house has a smaller voltage...lets say 4 volt and you’ve bought the equivalent 4 volt LEDs, the battery can’t be a bigger voltage. Putting a 12 volt battery across a 4 volt LED will burn out the diode in the light. You’ll get a pretty bright flare for a second or two before the LED dies =0(
Remember ~ Dollhouse voltage should be the same as LED voltage which is the same as the battery voltage must be.
You can run a 4 volt LED on a 12 volt circuit but you won’t get the maximum light possible.
Touch the Resistor end to the positive end of the battery ( + symbol). Touch the other wire to the negative end of the battery (- symbol). If your super guessing skills are right, your LED will illuminate. At this point you may, with a degree of ladylike restraint, do a lap of the area screaming ‘I’m a genius!’
If the LED does not illuminate, do not worry. Swap the Resistor to the other wire and try again. You may now do your lap of honour...
If, by a terrible turn of fate, the LED still doesn’t illuminate then one of three things has happened.
- The LED is deceased
- The soldering joint has not formed correctly
- The insulating heat shrink has not covered all of the joint and the positive and negative wires are touching
Should this happen then I’m afraid you have no choice but to start again *sniffles* It has happened to me and it is heartbreaking to have to start again. But you can console yourself with the thought that it serves to perfect your technique.
Once you’ve established that the LED light works, you can permanently solder the resistor in place. Use a slightly larger diameter piece of heat shrink to cover both the Resistor and any bare wire at either side.
If you want to wire the LED permanently into your dollhouse then the wires can be soldered into the circuit. You will have either copper tape or a dollhouse adaptor socket. If you want the freedom to move your lights around then use electricians insulating tape to hold the wires onto a 12v battery when in the display.
Here are a few I have made:
Thanks for reading and happy miniature making!