Million Color DMX North Poles
Chuck Hutching's"Awesome North Poles" on Facebook. They weren't anything fancy but they were majorly successful in two ways. They were simple to construct, and they were inexpensive. The thought of RGB and the possibilities of this simple design were immediate and after a quick FB message I learned that Tim Fischer had thought the same thing, and was already working on it. Great minds think alike! With so many other projects for 2011 I decided to let this one sit a while and see what others came up with. Tim's design and development of the RGB globe top was incredible. The basics of it were the same small DMX decoders I had grown comfortable with and the look was better than I had imagined. As awesome as they were, I still wanted more. I had set my bar pretty high with my first North Pole and wanted to replace it with something even better. I knew I could come up with something that would give me even more color options and sequencing abilities, albeit at a slightly higher budget. Sticking with my own guidelines, everything in the display going forward has to be RGB and operated by DMX.
The thing I liked the most about Chuck's design was the center support and mounting method. A 3/4" PVC pipe up the middle of the pole slips easily over a piece of 1/2" rebar driven into the ground. Simple Coroplastic spacers hold the center support in place. It keeps them light weight while still supplying rigid support to the 42" tall pole. To begin we need to cut two of these circle spacers, one that matches the outside diameter of the pipe and one that matches the inside diameter of the pipe. Now, you could print patterns or measure and draw, I just traced mine with a sharpie. Using an exacto or utility knife cut them out, then measure and mark the center point of each. Again, it doesn't have to be super precise, I just used a tape measure. Place the 3/4" PVC Pipe over the center mark and trace around the outside. Cut the center hole out with a knife. It doesn't have to be nice or pretty, if anything under-size it a bit so that the pipe will fit tight when pushed through.
Next we want to prep the top of the pole. Now, there have been many different designs and methods but at $6 each these simple fixtures ad an elegant look with the tapered top mount that I think is just worth it. We'll end up using almost every part of this fixture so in the long run, it's about the same price as purchasing another $2 coupler and ordering the $4 plastic globe on-line. Remove the base from the fixture and remove all the "guts." It isn't hard to do, most everything unscrews or jsut tears out. What we want is just the plain metal shell. Don't throw anything away yet as we will be using some of those pieces later on.
Now we want to start on the pipe section of the pole. I purchased a 10'-0"long, 4" diameter PVC pipe which was enough to cut out three poles. Using a measuring tape measure form one end of the pipe 36 11/16" and run a piece of painters tape around the pipe. This will be the edge for us to cut along in the next step.
I used a vibrating multi-tool to cut the pipe along the edge of the tape. After cutting it to length I used mu orbital sander with a medium grit paper to smoooth out the rough edge. You don't have to have one of these tools, any saw will do, but I love mine and use it all the time. The thin blade accounts for about 1/16" of an inch leaving us with a pipe that is 36-5/8" long. After it's finished, put the coupler on the bottom of the pipe and drop in the smaller 3/4" PVC pipe, marking it at the top edge of the larger pipe. Remove the 3/4" piece and measure back another 1/2" from the mark for your final cut mark. Using the multi-tool or saw cut the PVC pipe to length. This should leave you with a 3/4" pipe that is exactly 1/2" shorter than the lerger pipe when the bottom coupler is in place.
The 3/4" PVC pipe fits through the middle of the two coroplast spacers we cut earlier. The larger spacer fits inside the pipe coupler as shown in the earlier pictures. The smaller diameter spacer fits in the middle of the pipe and prevents the 3/4" center pipe from moving. The pipe is 1/2" shorter in order to accomodate the small metal mounting strip that came with the light fixture. Next we want to mark off a 1/2" strip of pipe and cut and sand it like we did before. We're left with a 1/2" thick "ring" that we will cut into smaller pieces to act as spacers to hold the fixture mount in place. I cut each piece about 1-1/2" long.
Here you see the assembled ring in place, holding down the screw terminals for the ceiling fixture. Later on, when I discovered I needed to cut slots to accept the wiring for the RGB strip on the outside of the pole I had to modify this method. I ended up just using the piece I had cut out glued directly to the inside above where the metal mounting strip is.
Once we have the pipe measured and taped we want to slowly work along the edges of the tape, pushing it down firmly with your thumb. What we want to do is prevent the paint from running under the edge or bleeding past the edge of the tape. I used a bright vibrant red from Rustoleum that is made for plastic, Krylon Fusion is also great. Make sure whatever paint you use is made specifically for plastic otherwise it will peel off. Start out making a very light coat along the length of the pole. I can't stress enough how important patience is in this step. I ended up using four light coats with about an hour of dry time between. You can use your wait time to prep and paint the pipe coupler base and top cap flange. Clean both with acetone or denatured alcohol to remove any oils or residue and lightly coat them in paint. Now I used a dark metallic grey, also a Rustoleum color, but you can do whatever you want. Personally I think the darker color helps offset the pipe and make it stand out. Again, for best results, multiple lighter coats will give you the best finished look.
Because the all important patience is something I struggle with, I put the final coat on everything before I went to bed and let it sit over night to "cure" before attempting to remove the tape. Using this method I have almost always gotten a great perfect edge at the tape line. If you do get any of the bleed under the edge of the tape I recommend using an exacto or utility knife to "scratch" it off. On to assembly!
Here is the finished look of the assembled pole with the dome in place. As you can see, the tapered flange gives it a nice and elegant look and the darker color really helps to offset the stripes. Now, a pole is nice, but a million color RGB ULTIMATE POLE is even better!
Next we want to start on preping the RGB strip for the outside of the pole. When I laid out my measurements for the stripes I anticipated the length of the flexible strips. My measurements were laid out so that I could get 4 strips out of a single 5 meter long strip. I only need three strips per pole so 3, 5 meter strips would be enough for 4 Ultimate North Poles. This helped offset the cost per pole and it just plain looked good at that height. The RGB strip I used came from eBay, there are lots available for varying prices. I got mine, including shipping from China, for $20. There are clearly marked "joints" along the strip where it can be cut. Starting at the bottom of the pole wrap the strip along the white stripes and mark where it terminates at the top of the pole. Cut it (I used a pair of scissors) along the nearest joint. Using an exacto or utility knife, cut back the silicone jacket at the edge to exposee the copper leads.
Next we want to "tin" the copper pads, on the top AND on the bottom. Just heat the copper with the tip of your soldeering iron and apply a small bead of flux core solder to the pad. This will allow us to easily add the 4 core pigtails in the nest step. This is also a good time to test the strip for color, even though this strib was labeled +GRB, The "G" tab lit the Blue, the "R" tab lit the Red, and the "B" tap lit the Green. We want to make sure that we connect the correct color of wire to the right pad so that our RGB values match our sequencing software order. You can use the 12V supply these strips come with or any bench-top 12V supply.
In order to have the best joint from the wires to the strip, split the ends of each wire so that half the strands adhere to the top of the strip and half the strands adhere to the bottom pads. Take care to ensure that each of the wires is connected only to that pad and doesn't have any small or hairline wires running between pads. Just touching the tip of the iron to the pre-tinned leads should be enough. Be very careful with it at this point as the strip itself is very brittle without the silicone and the pads can easily break off. I learned this the hard way ;) On my later iterations I used hot glue to run over and support the pads/joints and it seemed to work well. I've spoken to other decorators who have used the same/similar method with success as well.
After coating the wires with Hot Glue to provide support for the ribbon slip a piece of heat shrink down over the joint and hit it with a torch. All I had for the proto-typed strings was black, when I do the rest I will use clear so that I can slide it over the first couple of 5050s and give it that much more support. These had some problems when I had to "bend" the wires over at the top of the pole. I ended up being able to fix them but it would have been much easier to have had them done correctly and without problems to begin.
Starting at the bottom coupler begin peeling the 3M backing off the strip and adhere it to the pole. Work your way around the pole until you reach the top. We want the pigtailed end to terminate at the top of the pole where the tapered cuff sits. As you can see in the pictures, the strips are spaced evenly down the pole, even though the white stripes are not. I wanted the "lit" stripes to line up at night even though the candy stripes visible during the day would not. Again, this was just my approach, you can do any stripe pattern you like or use the measurements in the attached document.
Here you will notice the small grooves at the top of the pole. I used a small sanding disc on my dremmel tool to give me a groove just wide and deep enough to run the wires through. You can see the two small tabs glued to the inside in the center picture. These are the tabs we use to keep the metal fixture mount inside the pole. These pictures also show the 4 DMX decoders (one for each strip and one for the globe on top) Each decoder has a female coupler that connects to the male ends wee soldered onto the strips in the last step. Now the poles themselves won't be water tight so it's important to keep all our inner connections waterproof. The decoders themselves can also be soldered directly to the strips but to be able to re-program or change them out I wanted to have the option to disconnect them or swap them out. The couplers arre 75 cents a piece so it was worth it to me to have that as a future option.
Here you can see the basic setup of the modules. After programing each one, label it with the corresponding channel and what it operates. It's easy to loose track of which one is which so keep your sharpie handy. The wiring on these is pretty simple and I won't repeat it here because I have an entire section on How I do my DMX wiring HERE. Following the same wiring diagram that I use for everything each of the decoders was wired to a female output cord. On the incoming side, there's still 4 wires on each decoder. It's just Positive and Negative Power (12V) and Positive and Negative Data. To minimize the amount of wiring I joined the inputs from all 4 decoders together and soldered them to a short extension wire, enough to reach the bottom of the pole. At the bottom of the extension we want to solder two plugs, a male and female (input and output), to allow them to be daisy chained in a row.
Plug in the incoming (male) end of the extension to ensure that all the decoders power up. Without DMX data they will start their color cycle running through Red, Green, Blue, and White. This was where I discovered that the labels on my strips weren't correct and had to unsolder and re-solder each of them. That's also where I discovered the strips are brittle and break easily if stressed. ;) There's something to be said for innovation and making mistakes, please learn from mine!
Now we're on to how to light up the dome. There's a few different options here but I'm going with what others have successfully used. HolidayCoro has released an all in one RGB Pole Topper that will also work with this design, I'm just cheap! To begin I took the small ceramic Edison base that we removed earlier and stripped all the wires and innards out so I was left with just a bare core. I kept the small metal strap that secures it into the center of the metal fixture flange.
Next we want to cut a short piece of the 3/4" PVC pipe. I used a 5" piece, one long enough to mount the RGB Modules to with enough to sit down in the bottom of the ceramic base. Super glue the PVC piece into the bottom center of the ceramic base then fill the surrounding area with hot glue. It doesn't have to be pretty, no one will see it, it just needs to work and this does! When the pipe is set I used a couple of drops of glue and a few zip ties to secure four of the modules around the pipe. The string of modules is wired at the end to a fourth male pigtail (the fourth module end inside). Again, I'm not going into great detail on this because I already show this in the RGB Wiring section of our How-To's.
Once our globe illuminator is assembled and connected, snap it in place on the metal flange, the same way it was before we dis-assembled the fixture. Make sure you connect the pigtails first as it might be hard to reach afterward! All we have left is to assemble the globe over the base and tighten the screws at the bottom to hold it in place. Now, I'm using the glass globe that came with the fixture but if having glass outdoors is a worry there are plastic globes that fit the same base. Crown Plastics has them at the best price I have been able to locate, just $3.60 each. I'll probably replace the glass globes with these if anything ever happens to them.
Video Wrap Up of the Ultimate North Pole Project