Who knows where my love of midway illuminated lettering comes from, but it's definitely fed by my addiction to Disneyland. More specifically, the part of the park called “Main Street, USA,” which consists of gift shops and ice cream parlors dressed up to look like an early 20th Century bustling downtown street on speed. Too shiny not to love. But I digress…
Typically an illuminated letter like this is made of metal, is very heavy, and would cost you a pretty penny. I knew I wanted something to light up at my wedding, so I figured I'd make my own midway letters. You can too! And there are power tools involved!
What you will need:
- 3D cardboard letter (any size, but bigger means brighter; mine were purchased at my local US chain fabric/craft superstore)
- utility (aka “Xacto“) knife
- permanent marker
- electric drill fitted with a 3/8″ bit
- masking tape
- drop cloth
- spray paint
- string lights
- hot glue gun
First, grab your utility knife and cut the top off each letter, leaving the inside of the cardboard letter exposed.
Next use your permanent marker to draw clear dots where you intend to drill holes, keeping a safe distance from each other and the sides of the 3D cardboard letter. Midway letters feature lightbulbs which are equidistant from each other, so use a ruler if you don't trust yourself to get everything perfectly by eyeballing it. If your letters feature serifs, remember to add more holes to the wider parts of the serifs; a good font is worth recognizing, even in the dark.
Now grab your drill and make 3/8″-1/2″ openings over the dots your just drew. The cardboard will look pretty chewed up, but don't sand it down; these rough parts will help later on.
The trauma of ripping off its ceiling and then punching dozens of holes in it can potentially ravage the structural integrity of a 3D cardboard letter. Now is the time to reinforce weak spots with masking tape. You can also cut pieces from the top you cut off and hot glue them to weak, flat parts of the letters.
Take your letters to a well-ventialted place, lay down your drop cloth and spray them the color of your choice. I chose a more customary carnival red, but offbeat brides often have daring color schemes, so don't feel shy — bust out those neon greens and electric blues! Let each coat dry completely for a few hours before applying the next. Leave the back unpainted. Allow a full day for the letters to dry before the next step.
Flip your letter over to the back side, grab your glue gun and squeeze a ring of hot glue around the rim of each drilled hole. Get really close to the edge, because immediately after you'll need to make contact with that glue as you stick a light bulb through that hole. Pay attention to your light strand as it might twist and turn while you apply your bulbs. Try your best to maintain order behind these letters.
Got extra light bulbs hanging around, unused in your letters? Well you can let them hang out, all lit up and cool-looking, or you can twist the unused bulbs to break contact with the electrical impulse and avoid illumination. If you do the twisty version, you'd be smart to keep the tiny pack of backup bulbs (included in every new package of string lights) within reach.
The cool thing here is they can transition from wedding decoration to home decoration so easily, so find a corner or shelf you'd like to display them on and enjoy your work before and after your wedding day.