If you are a geeky child of the 80’s, like me, then you programmed your Logo turtle on your Apple 2E, you know exactly where you were during the Challenger launch, and you “just said no” a little longer than the rest of your friends. You also probably remember creating glowing masterpieces of unicorns and rainbows on your old school Lite Brite by sequestering yourself to the closet and hiding from the sunlight and your siblings. Ah, yes. Life was simple and grape cough syrup tasted like delicious, liquid candy.
Lite Brite was one of my favorite childhood toys. I still love the nostalgia that comes from playing with anything 80’s. I pee my pants a little at the sight of a classic PacMan cocktail table or a set of uninsurable monkey bars, but I particularly love the techy creativity that comes from a cheap, halogen light box and a bunch of colorful, plastic pegs. For the past few years, I’ve been noodling over the idea of making a souped-up, scaled-up version of Lite Brite. I finally got the kick in the pants to create it when I received a 1K grant from the Apogaea Art Festival, Colorado’s regional Burning Man outing. I call it, the Almighty Lite Brite (cue the choir of angels here).
The process of designing and creating a toy designed to inspire creativity was uber meta: A healthy dose of puzzling, a heap of proto-typing, and a dash of setbacks – all mixed together with some redesigning. The project challenged my internal innovator and the final product was supervised by my inner 80’s child, you know, that playful little girl that believes that she could do anything when she puts her mind to it. I was reminded that sometimes things don’t always work the way you imagine, but the act of finding creative solutions can be even more rewarding than getting it right the first time. And as with most things in life, this project was better with a buddy. Thank you to my husband, Piper, for being a sounding board and supplying the handy-dandy wood-working craftsmanship.
Wanna awaken your inner 80’s child? Here’s the “How to Guide” to making your very own Almighty Lite Brite using easy to acquire and affordable materials.
Lite Brite is basically a box with an internal lighting system and a bunch of colored pegs that slot into the face of the box and illuminate like tiny, stabby, stained glass windows.
I started my design process by asking the following questions:
- How GIANT can I make this thing?
- How blindingly bright will it need to be?
- What on earth could I use for pegs?
It turns out, my answer to the last question ended up driving the answers to the rest of my questions. My genius idea? Unblown plastic bottles. These are literally the same 16 ounce plastic bottles that you drink water out of – before they expand to their 16 ounce size. They can are basically fat test tubes with lids. You can either buy these straight off of Amazon or you can finagle free, rejected unblown bottles from the manufacturer. I filled these with food coloring and water to make a rainbow of colors.
Side note: Pink is really hard to make with water and food coloring. Who knew?
Reminder: Water expands when frozen. Doh!
In the end, the test tube/bottle pegs worked great, but they did lead to a few unforeseen challenges that required some Macgyver-level problem solving.
Setback #1: Large pegs = droopy pegs = 🙁
When I built a prototype light box, I learned that the size of the pegs and the depth of the box can cause the pegs to droop down. If I made the box less deep, I wouldn’t get enough light into the pegs.
The solution? Throw the janky proto-type box again the wall. Scratch that. After a glass of wine and probably some much needed sleep, I realized that I could add a layer of 1-inch foam to the back of the lighting box with 1-inch diameter holes punched out for the peg caps to slot into. This held the pegs in place without reducing the amount of light that could pass through the plastic. Unfortunately, this also added about ten hours of monkey work to the project (you know, the kind of work you wish you had a cute, little, monkey to train to do it for you).
Setback #2: Large pegs = large holes = lots of light escaping
1-inch diameter pegs with a lip on the cap require a 1.5-inch diameter hole to slot through. This allowed a lot of light to sneak around the pegs and even more to escape out all the empty, peg-free holes.
The solution? Try every material in the house to see if it could be used to block the light. After testing multiple types of black plastic, tarp, vinyl and felt, I went with placing a large sheet of 2-mm thick neoprene fabric behind the peg holes. This would be sandwiched between 2 pieces of wood with 1-inch slits cut in the neoprene behind each hole.
Setback #3: Now where the heck do the lights go?
Since the foam was now in the back of the box, I couldn’t put the lights there. I also realized that I didn’t want the lights to get crushed by an attack of wiggling pegs.
The solution: Thank science for the invention of high wattage, super thin LED strip lighting. We lined the inside of the front of the box with bright white LEDs. Each thin strip had to be carefully criss-crossed between the many peg holes and held in place with bailing wire.
Setback #4: So many holes. So little support.
Once the face of the box looked like Swiss cheese, we realized how flimsy the wood was and how easy it would be for someone to press on it too hard.
The solution: 1-inch diameter dowels strategically placed as support posts inside the box. Unfortunately, this meant more monkey work, more foam to punch, and more obstacles for the lighting to maneuver around.
Yay! Now it’s time to build (ie. do ALL the monkey work).
- Step 1: Build the box
- Step 2: Attach all the lights
- Step 3: Punch all the foam
- Step 4: Bandaid all the blisters
- Step 4: Cut all the Neoprene
- Step 5: Fill all the pegs
- Step 6: Paint all the pretty
- Step 7: Scrub all the hands
Huzzah! After putting on the finishing touches, we were ready to haul it the Apogaea Art Festival just west of Trinidad, Colorado. The Almighty Lite Brite was a self-proclaimed success. I loved seeing the young and young-at-heart get inspired to create their own glowing peg designs.
The Almighty Lite Brite was by no means a perfect installation but I was proud of our creation. I still hope to be able to make the following modifications to increase the level of awesomeness:
- Lengthen the depth of the box
- Add more LEDs and/ or changing the orientation of the lifts so that they shine sideways rather than towards the back
- Add a second layer of neoprene with a slit running in the opposite direction
Perhaps this project will inspire the internal innovator in you? Follow my process to create your own. Better yet, improve upon my design and send me a picture. I double dog dare you.
Okay, so what do you need for a 4×5 foot lite brite box?
- 4 sheets of thin wood paneling
- 1 sheet of plywood
- Hardware (your favorite screws and such)
- 2 yards of neoprene fabric
- 200 unblown bottles/Fat test tubes
- Food coloring
- 2 sheets of 1 inch foam
- 1 inch leather hole punch
- 2 inch circular drill bit
- 200 feet of LED strip lighting
Author: Jill Katzenberger