Articles - LED Strip Lighting
08/31/2014
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I have been very interested in using LEDs for lighting things, and I use them exclusively in model structures and locomotives. Now it is time to experiment with the idea of lighting up a model railroad layout. I've kept an eye on the prices, which were quite high, as is normal for new technology. However, I recently found an LED set on Amazon for around $12. The photo you see below is of a 16-foot roll of three hundred 3528 SMD (surface mount device) LEDs. So, I ordered a set to experiment with. You get exactly what you see in the photo. You need to hook up a 12-volt power supply (such as a wal-wart), and it needs to be rated at at least 2 amps, due to the load of those 300 LEDs and their current-limiting resistors built into the strip. I had a 3.3A one, and they lit up like a Christmas tree. Very bright; hard to look at directly.
LED Strip Lighting
The key parts of an LED strip are identified in the photo below. Note that you can cut these strips every three LEDs. The LEDs are flagged as "3528", which is basically their dimensions in terms of fractions of a millimeter. In other words, the LED measures 3.5mm by 2.8mm. I bought the "natural white" ones (4000K) and I am glad I did, because I like their color. If you search the web for these LED strips, you will also find ones that are "3535", which are basically square ones. These have the ability to have effectively three LEDs within one package. You can get those in the various shades of white, but they are predominantly used to hold three different colors so that they can be used for color rotation displays. However, if you get those in a single color (e.g. white), they are much brighter than the "3528". You can also get 16-foot strips that have 600 LEDs on them, for even better brightness. In addition to 12-volt ones, you can also get 24-volts ones, which are even brighter (think whole-room-lighting), but those strips in are pricey. The strip I bought has an adhesive backing. Remove the cover paper, and you can directly apply the strip to a surface. I tried it by hanging them upside-down in my room's closet. They stayed put for about 24 hours before the strip fell off. So, this is not a very permanent solution.

I forgot to mention, you can cut the strip off every three LEDs to customize the length. You can see four round soldering pads in the center of the photo below. In between the two pair you make the cut. You can then solder wires to the pads to power the strip.
LED Strip Lighting
So, I went to the hardware store and bought an 8-foot section of corner molding (3/4" x 3/4") made of wood. Using five-minute epoxy, I glued the strip to the board, after removing the backing paper strip. This made the installation more manageable. I made one 4-foot section.
LED Strip Lighting
I then soldered two wires to one end. These are soldered to the power supply I mentioned earlier. If you hook up more than one strip section to one power supply, all you have to do is solder two wires to the pads on the other end, and then solder the wires to the next LED strip. You can daisy-chain them as needed.
LED Strip Lighting
I didn't want to damage the walls in the closet (for which I bought this light strip), so I am using a heavy-duty double-sided tape (by 3M, bought at the hardware store). The LED strip is on the opposite side of the double-side tape, so that the front section of the L-shaped corner mold acts as a light shield to keep the bright LEDs from shining in my eyes.
LED Strip Lighting
All I had to do was firmly press the board to the under side of the closet's door opening. This closet had bi-fold doors in it, and they can be re-installed when so desired (I removed them from my set up since the closet is now a permanent part of my layout). The red and black wires will be hidden behind the closet's molding. The power supply sits on the floor behind my layout's cabinets. When all done, this will look nice and clean, with no visible wires.
LED Strip Lighting
This is what the module in the closet looks like with the one strip installed above the door opening. It is a significant improvement over what I had before, although there is a bit of a shadow due to the shelf in the closet.
LED Strip Lighting
I then built a second 4-foot section of corner mold and LED strip, which was daisy-chained to the first one (you can see the wires still on the left side of the photo). The closet's shelf is quite warped (was that way when I moved in), so I had to use some creativity to get the corner mold to fit. This is the closet's module lit up by the two strips of LEDs. Two 4-foot sections, so 150 LEDs. It is definitely workable. Because the strip under the shelf is closer to the module's surface, it casts a brighter light, and thus causes a shadow. But I can live with that for now.
LED Strip Lighting
I took a photo of this 1931 Cadillac Cabriolet model in the new lighting. It came out fantastic, I think. Overall, I think LED lighting is definitely the layout lighting solution for me. This particular configuration of the smaller LEDs with "only" 300 LEDs is not bright enough for general layout lighting. It barely registers when I have my fluorescent layout lights on. The brighter LEDs are what I will look into next. I can envision a flat board above the layout with a collection of bright LED strips that provide even lighting to the layout. The LEDs get slightly warm to the touch, but nothing compared to other forms of lighting, including fluorescents. And, of course, they consume far less electricity. These two 4-foot sections combined use 12 watts!
LED Strip Lighting