DIY-ing It (What this is all about)

"Doing It Yourself" is one of the great pleasure of this hobby. You put in all the sweat-equity and you also see the results of your work, sometimes immediately -- and sometimes that's good, but sometimes "immediate" is not so good... You'll come to know what that means the first time you connect the positive and negative terminals backwards and you see some "magic smoke" coming out of your electronics....

Most newcomers to the Christmas lighting hobby immediately go to the electronics first: “What controller do I need?” In my opinion, this is a mistake. Instead, they should ask themselves, “What do I want my light display to look like?”


(click photos to view them full-size)

This is important on so many levels because not all controllers are alike and are designed to control the same kinds or numbers of lights. What you envision your display to look like will determine what kinds of lights you’ll want to use, and the kind of lights (and their locations) will dictate the kinds of controller electronics you’ll need to control them. So, start with a vision, but have the understanding that your show can change from one year to the next.

There’s a very high likelihood that you’ll build some of your own props to hold your lights, for these can be moved around or even used/not used from year to year to give your show a different look for your visitors. Over time, you’ll acquire many props and that can create a storage problem for you, too. For example, one year I had an idea to create a Santa’s workshop. I made a small model first to show my better-half the idea (it’s vitally important to get the approval of your mate as you make major changes and/or spend money). I started the project in mid-January, just after taking down the previous year’s show!

Here’s the completed workshop a few months later. The moral of this is don’t wait until the last minute. Sometimes these project take a lot of time!

And because it’s built around a collapsible frame, it’s mounted here above the garage door:

Another project was an animated snowman that would turn its head, wave its arms and include lighted/animated eyes and mouth. This took three years to complete and started with a board attached to a base. It’s not as easy to store this one, it doesn’t fit through a door, is bulky to move and the moving parts are quite cantankerous in the snow/ice of Minnesota’s winters. However, it’s also one of our favorite props so the annual maintenance it requires is worth it.

Some props don’t take long to make, such as this sleigh. The idea for it came from a cell phone photo I took of a commercial product in a local home improvement center. Using some long sheetrock screws and wood to fashion a jig to bend the PVC, I bent some simple PVC pipe to the shape I wanted with the aid of a heat gun, painted it with some gold paint purchased from an auto parts store and applied some 120vac rope light to it using zip ties. The five cross-pieces are easily removable for easy storage hanging on a wall in the garage.

Megatrees are popular props and are relatively easy to make from a center pole, PVC ring for the base and strings of lights affixed to the top and base ring. You can purchase a star for the topper or make one yourself out of plywood and rope light.

 

Sometimes, though, wind and other weather will affect taller structures such as this, sometimes taking them completely out of action.

You’ll want to tell your viewers when your show hours are and if you transmit music on a short-range FM transmitter, how they can “tune to” it. Sometimes weather gets in the way of the best intentions on simple signage, too…

After you’ve decided on your vision and what and where you’ll mount your lights, you can decide on the electronics to control them. Of course, the main controller will be a home computer running one or more of the many free software light sequencers, and the light controllers actually are the interfaces to the lights: your computer sends control commands to the light controllers and in turn, they turn on/off the lights when you want.

And depending on the controllers you select, you’ll need a way to connect them to the computer. Sometimes this requires common, category-5 wiring (and lots of it like the left picture below), or you might entertain the idea of wireless control and eliminate almost all the cat5 wire. Lots of options here – we started the wireless craze back in 2009 with our Ren-W wireless adapter that used an XBee radio… here's the prototype we made:

 

Since then, wireless control has evolved into multiple options, including plug-in items called “snap-ins” such as this one for a little Wi-Fi module called an ESP8266:

Sometimes, what you envision your show to be requires the use of multiple kinds of controllers, both large and small so that you can manage incandescent lights, LEDs, light strips, floods, RGB pixels and even motorized, animatronic props.

And after a while you’ll gain enough knowledge in the hobby so that you can invent your own controllers – it’s really not as difficult as you may think. And sometimes you’ll create something so neat and inexpensive that other DIY’ers will want to use it. On the left below is the layout of the original DirkCheapSSR for A/C lights, and to the right, its DC companion, the DirkCheapDCSSR. Since 2012, almost 10,000 of these two gizmos have been purchased by DIY’ers! So you just never know how things you invent might affect the hobby and help it grow!

Or you might invent other controllers such as this ESP Thing – a tiny, 8-channel wireless controller that can control almost anything, including small motors! Or invent something like this DIGWDF OneStick (right photo) – a small, wireless one-channel controller for high electrical current situations such as powerful 500-watt floodlights.

So get dreaming. Take a photo of your house from the street and print out a handful of copies. Take some marking pens and draw on the pictures where you envision lights and/or props to be. Try several designs and pick the one that you like best. Get involved and start developing your show! And by all means, get started EARLY! Don’t for a minute think you can delay this until September or October – that won’t leave you any time to put the show together and design the sequences that will play on your computer that control the lights.

And if you haven't already, join diychristmas.org! There's no cost -- and you can rub elbows with other Christmas light enthusiasts, learn their secrets, tips and techniques!

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