How to Reuse LEDs From Antworks Ant Farm

I was on my back porch one evening and I saw a sparrow behaving oddly in the grass, flying up and down, pouncing on something, and went down to investigate.  What I found was a large injured dragonfly.  At our house we love all kinds of bugs and animals so I scooped up the dragonfly and put it in my daughters bug cage.  My daughter tried to nurse the dragonfly back to health but it ended up dying and I decided we should pin it and make some artwork.  I had an extra shadow box so I decided to display the dragonfly in there.  After cleaning out my workshop and running across the LED base for the AntWorks ant farm that I’d kept after all the ants died and I wanted to merge the two:

How to Repurpose AntWorks LED's in Shadow Box
How do I get these LEDs inside that frame?

The AntWorks LED circuit board is curved and my shadow box is flat so I first I considered cutting the circuit board to make it straight but then I’d need to connect up the traces that would be cut by cutting the circuit board.  Then I had an idea as to how I could make it work and reuse LEDs from Antworks Ant Farm in my daughter’s shadow box and here’s how…

How to Reuse LEDs From Antworks Ant Farm

Hardware:

Tools Needed:

  • Fine Insulated Wire (I recycled old Cat-5 pairs for this project but you could use any fine wire you have around, telephone wire for example).  If I built this again I’d probably use some magnet wire
    I recently purchased–it is super fine and easy to hide, just make sure you scrape off the enamel from the ends before you try to solder it)
  • Solder (make sure you get the kind with flux core)
  • High Temp Glue Sticks
  • Dragonfly or any other large insect for pinning or folded paper artwork maybe (you’re on your own there)
Safety warning: ALWAYS wear safety glasses when you use a Dremel tool and when you solder.

Step 1: Remove the LED circuit from the base.

I didn’t take a picture of this part but this is what the base looks like when it is assembled, and the LEDs stuck out those holes:

LED Base Assembled
LED Base with LEDs and circuit board removed

To open up the case pry along the edge and the cover will pop off:

Prying Open LED Base Assembled
Prying Open LED Base Assembled

Once you have popped off the cover there were 2 phillips-headed screws that you need to remove to free the circuit board.

Step 2: Unsolder the LED’s.

Although you can tell the polarity of the LEDs by looking closely at the internals of them, I didn’t want there to be any question.  Typically when you are working with new (thru-hole) LEDs you know that the long leg of the LED is the positive or Anode and the short leg is the negative or Cathode but the legs of these LEDs had been cut off flush on the circuit board.  I simply put a piece of masking tape on the LEDs and labeled them according to the positive (+) and negative (-) markings on the circuit board.  Then I heated up both solder joints simultaneously and removed all four LEDs:

LEDs Unsoldered and Marked
LEDs Unsoldered and Marked for polarity

Step 3: Solder a set of wires to extend each LED.

I used some old Cat-5 cable that I saved for times like this.  I was consistent in the way I hooked up the wiring and I used the dark wire (blue in this case) as the negative (-) and the white wire as the positive (+):As you can see from above, the circuit board was nicely marked so we know the polarity of each connection.

Soldering Wires to Extend the LEDs
Solder a pair of wires in place of each LED on the circuit board

I left the wire extra long, probably 6-inches, because I didn’t know exactly how long I would need it but I did not want it too short.  You may need to heat up the solder on the circuit board in order to push the wires through.  This was the perfect time for me to use my extra set of hands tool:

Soldering Wires to Extend the LEDs-Holding with Extra Set of Hands

Holding everything with my Extra Set of Hands

I added solder and soldered the wires in place.  Then cut off the excess wire with a flush cutter (get one if you don’t have one–they are so handy).  Make sure you don’t bridge the positive and negative solder joints together like I had happen here:

Solder Bridge Across LED Pins
Solder Bridge Across LED Pins

I simply heated up the solder and used my solder sucker to remove it:

Removing Solder Bridge Across LED Pins With a Solder Sucker
Removing Solder Bridge Across LED Pins With a Solder Sucker

Here’s what a good set of solder joints looks like (I had already trimmed them off with my flush cutters):

Good Solder Joints
Good Solder Joints
Here are all four sets of wires soldered in place:
4 Sets of Wires Soldered in Place
4 Sets of Wires Soldered in Place
As you can see above, I have my extra set of hands tool clamped to my desk with a 6-Inch Steel Spring Clamp.  They are very handy.  Here’s another view of our LED extension wires:
4 Sets of Wires Soldered in Place 2
Now I can put them where I want them

This is where I plan on mounting the circuit board and these wires will be plenty long enough for that:

Circuit Board Mounting Location Location
Circuit Board Mounting Location Location

Step 4: Choose the locations for the LEDs and drill holes for the LED leads to go through.

I wanted them evenly spaced.  This shadow box has a spacer frame that presses the glass to the front of the frame and holds the picture against the back of the frame.  The spacer was approximately 7 inches square.  That gives me a spacing of about 1.4 inches.  I measured the center and then went left and right from there:

Marking LED locations with Ruler
Marking LED locations with Ruler
LED Locations Marked
LED Locations Marked

Step 5: Drill holes for the LED leads to pass through.

I used my Dremel Tool with Keyless Chuck (which is required for these small bits):

Dremel and Bits to Drill Holes in Spacer Frame
Dremel and Bits to Drill Holes in Spacer Frame
Drilling LED lead holes
Drilling LED lead holes

Below you can see the holes drilled.  If I make another one of these I’ll probably rotate them 90-degrees so the path for both wires is straight out, you’ll see when you read the following steps.

LED Lead Holes in Spacer Frame
LED Lead Holes in Spacer Frame

Step 6: Tin the ends of the wires you are going to connect to the LEDs.

It’s going to be tricky to solder the wire to the short leads on the LEDs and not overhead the LED by keeping the soldering iron on there for too long.  Put some fresh solder on each of the wires, which will ready them to connect to the LED leads.  Be careful not to leave a big glob of solder on them though, or they won’t fit through the hole:

Tin the Wire Ends First
Tin the Wire Ends First

Step 7:  Feed the wires through the holes in the frame and solder the wires to the LEDs.

Make sure you keep track of the polarity of the LEDs and connect the positive to positive:

Soldering the LEDs to the wires
Holding the LED in place with my extra set of hands

Don’t use too much solder, it doesn’t take much.  The fresher the solder the better (ie you just melted it off the spool and there is flux mixed in with it).  Here’s a picture of all the LEDs soldered:

LEDs Soldered to the wires
LEDs Soldered to the wires

Step 8: Test the LEDs.

Double check your wiring first and then power it up to make sure everything is good.  Here’s what mine looked like:

Testing the LEDs--they work!!!
Testing the LEDs–they work!!!

And with the spacer slipped in the frame:

Testing Out the LEDs in the Frame
Testing Out the LEDs in the Frame

Step 9: Create a path  in the spacer frame for the wires to run out.

I need to create channels for each set of wires so they can run out without causing the frame to bend.  I chose this type of Dremel router bit:
Dremel Router Bit For Channeling for the Wires
Dremel Router Bit For Channeling for the Wires

I cut a little path for each wire to get to the back:

Wire Channel in Spacer Frame
I routed a path for the wire to run out

With the spacer frame in place I marked where I needed to notch the back out and then cut some notches so the wires could get out:

Notching the back to allow the wires to run out
Notching the back to allow the wires to run out
The notched back
The notched back

I then installed the spacer and the back, with the wires running out the notches:

Wires Running Out the Back
Wires Running Out the Back

And this is about where the circuit board will be glued in place:

Wires Running Out the Back and Circuit Boare in Place
This is about where I’ll hot glue the circuit board in place

Step 10: Glue the wiring in place to hold the LEDs straight.

I installed the spacer frame in the outer frame but the LEDs pointed in every which direction since nothing was holding them in place.  Because I located the LEDs close to the picture, they appear like little spotlights on the picture and so it really matters that they are all straight.  If you place yours farther away from the picture it may not matter as much.  Push the LEDs tight down in their place when you are gluing the wiring so it will hold the LED in place:

Hold the LEDs flush when gluing the wiring
Push the LED flush

Then hot glued the wires, one at a time, in the channel, to hold them in place:

Hot Glueing the LED Wires in Place
Hot Glueing the LED Wires in

Three down and one more to go:

LED Wires Glued in Place
3 LED Wires Glued in Place

Step 11: Router out a spot for each LED’s glue glob so the spacer frame isn’t bowed up.

When I put the spacer frame inside the outer frame, with the newly glued LEDs in place, the extra thickness the glue creates caused the spacer frame to bow up in the middle.  So I used my Dremel router bit to make some space:

Notches for the glue globs
Notches for the glue globs

Step 12: Test out the LED-lit frame.

It is looking great:

Testing it Out
Testing it Out

Step 13: Hot glue the LED driver circuit on the back of the frame.

Take note of how the cord will connect to the circuit board (so it hangs down in a good place and doesn’t naturally get pulled out of the socket).  Now that everything is working I glued the circuit board on the back of the frame.  Leave enough slack in the wires so you can take it apart again (to clean the glass for example).

Hot Gluing Circuit Board on Back
Hot Gluing Circuit Board on Back
Circuit Board Hot Glued On Back
Circuit Board Hot Glued On Back

It’s not going anywhere 🙂

The finished product:

LED ShadowBox Finished Product
LED ShadowBox Finished Product


Step 14: Give it away.

It’s so fun to feed your kid’s imagination and have fun doing it!  My daughter loves it.  It even looks neat when the lights are on:

LED Shadow Box-Kids Love It
LED Shadow Box-Kids Love It
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