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electric rose close up- many petals

Electric rose with conductive tape and an LED

Conductive tape should be sold right alongside duct tape in craft stores. It is great stuff. How amazing that it acts like a wire and carries electricity between a battery and components like LEDs, buzzers, and motors. And you can take it anywhere. I mean anywhere. Planes, trains, automobiles, Maker Faires, libraries, other people’s living rooms. Can’t say that about a soldering iron.

I’ve used conductive tape with kids as young as two or three and with adults in their seventies. Together we’ve added LED bling to a purse, invented an electric rose, made a tarantula for Halloween, decorated a Christmas package, and lit up dozens of shoe box dioramas. It’s a crowd-pleaser! And everyone always asks the same question: “Where do you get this stuff?”

I’ve bought and tried them all, so I’m summarizing some key findings from my own research to save you a similar substantial investment in conductive tape R&D.

toothpaste cap lamp shade

Conductive tape & a battery light up an LED under a toothpaste cap

In my search for the perfect conductive tape–stickier, sturdier, more conductive, conductive on both sides–I couldn’t find what I wanted from a retail source. So I got a wholesale license. (You think I’m kidding. I’m not.) My new best friend Kyle at a local “slitter/converter” company helped me to navigate the process of purchasing several different “logs” of conductive tape and cutting them up for conductive crafts. But don’t feel you have to buy tape from me. This is more like a “Got Milk” campaign–I don’t care where you buy the tape, as long as get some and start having fun.

My favorite conductive tape is a ripstop nylon conductive tape which you can find at my new site, Conducti.com. I know of no other tape that matches the adhesive force and excellent conductivity (low resistance) of my precious acquisition, which I’m calling Z22 Nylon Conducti Tape. It’s the best choice for most projects because it doesn’t tear and it’s conductive on both sides (Z for Z-axis). You can find reasonably similar tape at Inventables.com and other DIY technology hobby sites, and depending on your project the difference in the level of conductivity and adhesive force may not be significant. Where you really see the difference is in the comparison to the metal foil tape sold for stained glass projects–a low-cost favorite among educators but not much of an improvement over the aluminum foil in your kitchen drawer.

Here are some things to consider when choosing conductive tape for your project:

tape sampler

Copper conductive tape, Aluminum “blocker/conductive” tape, and ripstop nylon conductive tape

Ripstop nylon vs. metal foil?

1) Nylon: The nylon “ribbon”  used in some conductive tape can bend without tearing, so it’s a good choice for projects that will get moved and bumped or where you need the tape to wrap from one side of an object to the other. (Tiny metal particles are added to the nylon to make it conduct electricity.) In addition, I’ve found that the conductive adhesive on these nylon tapes is generally superior to the average copper tape you’ll find online.

2) Metal Foil: Metal foil tape usually costs less and is shiny and pretty. However, it tends to tear when it is creased or flexed. Use it as a cheaper alternative to nylon when you are laying longer stretches of tape on a flat surface (like my shoe box doll house). I like to have the nylon tape on hand when it’s time to create an on/off switch because the copper will rip if you bend it frequently.

IMG_9564

Copper foil “power rails” provide the wiring for this shoe box doll house,

Conductive on one side or both sides?

1) Both sides conduct: It’s easiest to work with tape that is conductive on both sides—the ribbon side and the sticky side. This is Z-axis tape–it conducts through all the laters. You can stick it to the side of a battery or tape it to the leg of an LED.

2) One side is neutral or just a little conductive: The most economical tape tends to have a sticky side that doesn’t conduct at all or doesn’t conduct very well. It’s good for long, straight power rails, but once you cut the tape and want to connect a new piece of tape, the lack of conductivity through the tape makes it challenging. I rarely use this tape on its own–I’ll switch to the Z22 Conducti Tape to attach LED’s and components to the surface of the metal foil tape.

3) One side blocks: Sometimes it’s handy to have tape that blocks electricity on one side and conducts electricity on the other. You can use it to prevent a short circuit between top and bottom of a button battery, or between two legs of an LED.

Sticky on one side or both sides?

1) Double-stick: Some Z-conductive tape is conductive on both sides AND sticky on both sides too! Nirvana! You can attach two batteries in series with this double-stick tape between them, then use a strip of conductive tape along the length of the two batteries to make a flashlight with an LED at one end. Cover it with duct tape and you’re done!

2) One side is sticky: Most tape is sticky on one side only. It’s more economical and fine for most applications. When using inexpensive metal foil tape, I don’t rely on the sticky side even if it’s supposed to be conductive. It’s better to fold over a tab so that the shiny top surface of your metal foil tape is making contact with the shiny top surface of your next piece of tape.

Just get your hands on some conductive tape, any tape, and get started!

It’s time to give conductive tape a whirl. Check out some of my own wacky projects at Conducti.com for inspiration and let me know what you invent. Attach a flashing blue-red LED to your Hot Wheels police car. Tape a circuit onto a place mat to trigger a buzzer with your spoon. Make quizzes more fun with LED’s that light up to reveal the answer…

What are you waiting for? There is an unexplored universe of combinations out there.


Related

Comments

  1. chuck says:

    I’ve made my own ‘resistive tape’ with two sided scotch tape and VHS tape. VHS tape has a moderate resistance which increases with distance. The longer the tape, the higher the resistance. It can be used like a DIY variable resistor for controlling oscillators and noise circuits. Stick the tape to a flat surface, connect one side of the circuit to one end of the tape and ground the other end. Touch a lead from the other side of the circuit at different places along the tape to control pitch or other circuit parameters. Use this set up with a simple sound circuit like the Atari Punk Console to create inexpensive diy ribbon controllers.

    1. Thanks Chuck! I’m racing out to Goodwill to buy back my VHS tapes right now! At $2 a reel it’s such cheaper than conductive tape. Seriously, that is a great application. I like the nice linear relationship that makes it easy to play with the concept of resistance. What do you use to connect the VHS tape to your circuit?

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  3. Todd DeWitt says:

    Forgive the noob questions, but I’m not sure how this works.

    Is this meant only for making connections? Or can it be used to transmit data. Could you have one piece of tape touch another to complete a circuit? For example, a glove covered in tape connected to an arduino touch another piece of tape connected to another arduino and send a small packet of data (assuming the sender constantly sends and the receiver always looks for the signal)?

    Thanks,

    Todd

    1. hellenga says:

      Yes, Todd–You can send data over the tape and complete a circuit. I attached it to a Lilypad MP3 player intended for e-textiles (https://www.sparkfun.com/products/11013). I threaded 1/4″ strips of tape through the holes meant for conductive thread and tied a knot–much faster than sewing! As for gloves, the texting gloves are so cheap and ubiquitous (under $5 on Amazon) that you might start with those and then add the nylon tape where you need it. If you used tape to connect a battery to a texting glove, you could connect the conductive fingertips. If the thumb is the ground,touch your thumb to each finger to light up a different LED.

      1. Todd says:

        Thanks for the info! I’m actually looking to do a full glove for a variant on flag football.

  4. marcolinuxBr says:

    I think that wirewrap is second best. Small, multicolor and can be holded with glue or tape. But I agree with you: tape is more versatile. Nice post! Write more next year!

    1. Agreed. Every once in a while when I’m trying to get something done I think–Hey! Wire is an option for this project! I’ve been immersed in a sea of tape and thread and sometimes forget the obvious. Thanks for your comment–wire wrap is not only prettier but cheaper too.

  5. mike hogan says:

    If you can stock anisotropic tapes (e.g. z axis only, y axis in narrow strips only, z axis and y axis in narrow y strips etc) I would be an eager customer. 3m produces conductive tapes in every imaginable combination for cell phone applications. These can be purchased at places like digikey, but the quantities are excessive for designers/hobbyists (and so the priced are prohibitive). Small kits of these anisotropic tapes would be awesome.

    1. A kindred spirit! So nice to know I’m not the only one who’s been poring over 3M data sheets:) I’ll look into the anisotropic tape. When you just need a few inches of tape for a project, paying $128 for a whole roll from DIgiKey is a bit much. And electrical resistance is not one of the sort terms on their products (hence the need to dig into those data sheets). Thanks for the suggestion.

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