Welcome to my guide to working with LEDs and toy soldiers. In this tutorial I will discuss the principles behind selecting LEDs and designing your circuit. The Advanced Tutorials discuss the actual process of inserting them into models, what we’re discussing here is essentially the preliminary paperwork! I’m going to assume you know roughly what a soldering iron and an electric circuit are, but otherwise I’ll attempt to start from the basics.
1. How many LEDs? First of all, how many LEDs are you going to use? This will depend on what you’re planning with the model. Try not to get carried away until you’ve had a bit of practise; I’d recommend starting with just one LED in your first model. If you’re determined to do more on your first go then please make sure you read the rest of this guide before making your mind up.
Designer’s Notes: The Philosophy of LED miniature design!
LEDs can make your miniatures look awesome, but not if you overdo it. When deciding where to put LEDs, try and think about the lore and artwork. For example I’ve put LEDs in the eye lenses of Space Marine helmets, because these are often described as glowing in the lore, or pictured with a sinister glow in artwork. But I wouldn’t put LEDs in the eyes of an Ork Nob, for example, as these are never described as glowing. An Ork Weirdboy on the other hand…
I find the best LED effects are almost like ‘sleight of hand’ magic tricks – people are left wondering how you’ve done it! If you have visible wires and giant batteries concealed in oversized bases, then it’s really obvious how it’s done and is less impressive. But if you can hide the electronics in such a way that at first glance the model still looks like the original miniature, only with awesome glowing eyes/guns/whatever, then that is what will capture people’s attention!
2. Where do I get this stuff? There are plenty of places to buy LEDs and other electronic components online. You’ll certainly be spoiled for choice on eBay, and indeed Amazon (if you can dig them out from amongst all the LED light bulbs and fairy lights). My personal favourite supplier is Rapid Electronics. You’ll need to create an account, but they have a great selection, lots of technical information on your LEDs (which you’ll need for part 3 below) and really fast delivery. Another excellent and reputable supplier is RS, or Radio Spares as they used to be known. You might also consider Farnell.
My preferred type of LED for use in 28mm infantry models are these TruOpto miniature 1.8mm LEDs. They come in a variety of colours and are comparatively quite bright. Make sure you double check the forward voltage though, as it varies for these LEDs depending on colour.
Other components, such as batteries, resistors and switches are also available from Rapid Electronics.
3. Designing my circuit. Once you know how many LEDs you want and what their properties are it’s time to design your circuit. If all the LEDs in your circuit are identical then they can simply be connected in parallel. Parallel means that all the anodes are connected to the positive side of the battery and all the cathodes are connected to the cathodes, as opposed to series where the cathode of each LED would be connected to the anode of the next one, one after the other. If you don’t know about anodes and cathodes, then don’t worry I’ll explain later. If the LEDs are different, then you’re going to need to either supply them from separate batteries (tricky in a 28mm model), or add additional resistors into the separate parallel ‘branches’ of the circuit to balance the current.
There are a couple of formulas that you’ll need to know to optimise your circuit, but rather than doing the calculations yourself I’d recommend using this site: https://ledcalculator.net/
The site contains useful links to interesting information on LEDs if you want to do some further reading, but for now let’s concentrate on the information the circuit designer asks for. It’s going to need to know the following…
Power Supply Voltage: The total voltage of all the batteries you are using in the model (see section four below). If you’re following my tutorials then this is likely to be 3 volts.
LED Voltage Drop: Also known as “forward voltage” or “forward bias voltage” and often abbreviated as Vf, this is the voltage your LED is designed to operate at. Sometimes Vf (typical) and Vf (max) values will be given. Use the former in this calculation. LEDs are too compact to have this information physically on the product, but the information should be available from the supplier. If using Rapid Electronics, click the ‘Technical Details’ tab on the product page for your LED. Exceeding the Vf (max) will destroy the LED very rapidly, if not instantaneously.
LED Current Rating: Also known as “forward current” and often abbreviated as If or If (max), this is the amount of current your LED will draw from the battery. Make sure you enter the value in mA (milliamps).
Number of LEDs: This is the number of LEDs you wish to use in your model. If it’s just one, then enter ‘1’.
The website will then show you how to wire your circuit! Depending on the numbers you’ve entered it may recommend inserting resistors into the circuit. If it recommends 1 ohm resistors then these can be left out to save space. The combined resistance of the wiring and connections in the circuit will effectively act as a 1 ohm resistor.
If you don’t want to have to keep taking batteries in and out then you might want to consider a switch. A single switch can be inserted into your circuit on one side of the battery, either before or after, it doesn’t matter. Generally you’ll need a small switch, I’d recommend searching for ‘miniature’ switches to find switches that are small enough. Here are some miniature slide switches on Rapid Electronics.
4. Where’s the current coming from? Once you know how many LEDs you’re using and how they’re going to be arranged, you’ll need to consider your power source. If you want your miniatures to be usable in game then you’ll be using batteries as your power source. As a general rule each LED will require 3V, so that’s one 3V battery or two 1.5V batteries. Although I’ve put this section fourth, in reality the number of batteries that you can cram into a model is often the limiting factor. If you have designed a parallel circuit then you’ll only need voltage equivalent to the requirements of one of you LEDs, as they can “share” the voltage.
In terms of what batteries to use, you can use AA or AAA batteries in larger models if you have the room, but for 28mm scale single models often a coin cell is a better choice. These have a number of advantages; they’re flat and circular so they are easily concealed in a standard base. Also, they are available in 3V iterations, rather that 1.5V, so take up even less space. I particularly recommend CR2032 batteries. These are intended for use as clock batteries in computers so last a long time. Also, very compact batteries holders are available. If you conceal the holder in the base of your model facing downwards, then the battery will be very easy to change or remove from underneath when not in use.
5. Soldering LEDs. Finally, here’s a couple of tips for working with LEDs.
- LEDs are diodes, so they care about polarity, i.e. which way they are connected to the battery. The longer leg is the anode (positive) side, and the shorter leg is the cathode (negative) side. Many LEDs also have a flat edge on their case above the cathode to further help with identification. Here’s a helpful visual summary.
- LEDs can be damaged by excessive heat when soldering. If your soldering iron has a temperature setting then I’d recommend not going above 300 degrees C, unless you have specific information from the manufacturer that they can withstand a higher temperature.
- A lot of LEDs have little notches near the top of their legs. Try not to cut or solder above these if you can help it, as you’ll increase the risk of damaging the LED.
- Most LEDs are highly directional, and will be brighter when viewed from certain angles than from others. Make sure they’re pointing the right way when they go into the model.
- Don’t be afraid to cut or file down the case of the LED. It’s just plastic and has no effect on the operation of the LED itself. Just make sure you don’t disturb the p-n junction (the silver bit shown in the diagram linked to under the first bullet point).
So that’s about it for LED circuit design. I hope you found all that useful.
All these tutorials are entirely free; the only payment I really need is seeing everyone’s awesome LED armies on the battlefield! Having said that, if you found these tutorials useful and you’d like to buy me a coffee to say thank you (or help keep my supplied with LEDs and website fees so I can post even more tutorials) then please click the button above. Thanks very much in advance.