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I’ve been creating with paper since I was a kid – so when I began working with electronics, combining circuits with paper became an instant passion. I’ve even launched my own line of paper circuit kits, one of which is now live on Kickstarter. To find the best LEDs for my kits, I journeyed beyond the traditional 5mm LED to consider alternative shapes and sizes.

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I’ve tested many LEDs and have found that there are limitations and advantages to each of them. In this post, I’ll share what I learned while making my paper LED creations. No matter what you build your projects with, I hope this post will help you choose not just any LED, but the perfect LED for your next project!

*I will focus on the physicality of the LED, not the power requirements or electrical capabilities. Remember to also refer to the LED’s data sheet to make sure it fulfills the needs of your circuit!


 

Questions to ask yourself while choosing an LED:

What should the shape of the LED be?

  • Notice whether or not the LED will be visible in your design.
  • How will the look of the LED affect the visual design of your project?
  • Is the LED the right shape to be concealed properly or complement your design?

What should the shape of the LIGHT be?

  • Think about what shape the light itself should be.
  • Are you illuminating a specific spot or large area?
  • Should the light be visible from the side? What should it be shaped like?

What should the size of the light be?

  • Think about the distance between the user and your project.
  • Would a larger or smaller light source improve your design?
  • Is the LED the main event or a subtle indicator? Does its size reflect its importance?

To diffuse or not to diffuse?

  • Think about the quality of light that is right for your project.
  • Should the light be soft like a cloudy day or hard like a spotlight?
  • Should the light be even or fragmented?

 

The great, and the not-so-great, about LEDs I’ve tried:


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The 5mm LED (aka the old stand-by)

Great for: Being common and cheap. Use these to prototype even if you plan to switch to another type of LED later.

Not-so great for: Concealing in small projects.


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The 3mm LED

Great for: Concealing between paper. Plus, even with its small size, it offers long wires that are easy for kids to use.

Not-so great for: Emitting light from the side. It is most visible and looks the nicest from the top of the LED, so even though it fits nicely laying flat between two pieces of paper, the visual balance of the light isn’t very pleasing.


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The 10mm LED

Great for: When you’re looking for a light-bulb like impact. These are great for robot eyes or flower centers, like in my light-up paper flower kits.

Not-so great for: Concealing the light source – these are large, loud and proud!


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The straw hat LED

Great for: Wide angle light! Straw hat LEDs have a wider viewing angle of light. Use these when you are illuminating a large area, or a small area that is close to the LED, like Rudolph’s nose in the example.

Not-so great for: Focused light. Because so much light is directed sideways, light will leak around the sides and even back of the LED, so be sure that’s ok if you use one of these.


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The square LED

Great for: Focused light! The light is directed straight out of the top, and the shape of the light itself even looks square just like the LED. These can look very modern if the project calls for it. (And they also make great “Flames” for candles!)

Not-so great for: Smooth light. The square shape acts like a prism and spreads the light unevenly. If you shine it at a piece of paper, you will see some areas are more illuminated than others.


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The 4 Pin LED

Great for: Laying flat on a piece of paper or other thin surface. You can also get these in 3 color (RGB) variations, which can be easier to wire with copper tape than a standard RGB LED (not pictured).

Not-so great for: Narrow spaces. These are wider than 5mm, so if you are looking for short AND thin, you may want to check out the next variety:


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The Surface Mount LED

Great for: Super tight spaces. There are many varieties, and some are almost as thin as paper. Choose your shape carefully based on your projects needs.

Not-so great for: Big impact. The tiny light source can be hard to see in some cases, and they are easy to loose while working with them because they are so small.


And many more…

This is just a small sample of the shapes, sizes and types of LED’s out there, but I hope this will give you a few ideas and get you thinking about what possibilities are out there. Did I not include your favorite kind of LED? Please comment below, and share what it’s great for and not so great for. Thanks for letting us know!

If this is your first time tinkering with electronics, please check out my paper circuit kits to get your feet wet in the world of circuits, or take a look at my Kickstarter where you can make 10 light-up paper flowers (called Electric Embellishments) for just $25. Invite your friends to start making today!