DIYdiy projects

diy project: paper marquee letter lamp

by Brenna

I’ve always had a love of fonts. I have a collection of magazine pages torn out for their interesting fonts. I have books about fonts, bookmarks on my computer for font-dedicated websites, not to mention the hundreds of fonts I’ve downloaded. I want to be surrounded by gorgeously shaped letters. What better reason to make a vintage-inspired marquee letter? It brings light to those who don’t appreciate it for its lovely shape alone, and reminds us all of a time when beautiful lettering was done exclusively by hand. It’s like an ode to the E. — Brenna

CLICK HERE for the full how-to after the jump!


  • printed letter
  • 3/16 foam core board
  • ruler
  • X-Acto knife
  • cutting mat
  • tape
  • pencil
  • a nickel
  • string of c7 LED lights
  • white mat board (should be white on both sides and have a white core)
  • hot glue
  • white glue or tacky glue


1. Choose a font that you like for your letter. It should be bold. Enlarge it as big as you can while still fitting on one piece of printer paper. You can print it in gray so you don’t use a lot of ink.

2. Have the letter enlarged at a copy store. You can do it on a copy machine, or they can do it for you. The finished letter should be about 21 inches. If you are doing multiple letters, just make sure they are the same height.

3. Use a couple of pieces of tape to secure the enlarged letter to the sheet of foam core. Using the X-Acto knife and the cutting mat, follow the lines to cut the letter out of the foam core, using the ruler to help with straight lines. Try to keep the blade of the knife as perpendicular to the cutting mat as you can (this helps the side pieces go on smoothly).

4. Use the ruler to help mark the spots for your lights. Start at the points where the lights will intersect (such as where the leg of the E meets the back of the E). Space the lights as evenly as you can, keeping them about 2 inches apart. Just make sure you have enough bulbs on the string of lights for the number of holes in the letter.

5. With the X-Acto knife, cut out about a half-inch hole for each light and enlarge it by using a marker or wide pen. Use a nickel to press down the top layer of foam core and round out the hole to take the shape of the base of the light bulb.

6. If you are using regular bulbs, hold the socket to the back and screw the light bulb into the socket from the front. There must be a big enough opening for the bulb or it won’t screw in properly. If you are using LED bulbs, pull off the outer shell and snap it back on after inserting the LED light into the hole.

7. Insert the bulbs around the entire letter, tucking the cord as you go. End the plug of your cord in a convenient place to plug in your letter.

8. With the X-Acto knife, ruler and cutting mat, cut several long strips of the white mat board 3 inches wide.

9. Place the letter face down on a flat surface. All of the lights should be touching the flat surface. The light bulbs act as spacers, allowing the side panels to be applied uniformly.

10. Cut a strip of mat board to fit each side of the letter. Measure carefully and consider where the pieces will join and whether you will need an eighth of an inch extra to overlap at a corner to form a clean seam.

11. For the curved areas of letters, gently bend the mat board to take the curve of the letter you are working with and press the mat board against the edge of the letter to measure for the length needed.

12. To glue the side panels on, put a small bead of hot glue on the side of the foam core. With the edge of the 3-inch strip of mat board on the flat surface, press it against the edge of the foam core creating a 90-degree angle — remember, the bulbs act as spacers to get the panels on uniformly.

13. Work around the letter, applying the edging panels to all sides.

14. If you’d like, you can cut a small hole for the cord to pop through, but otherwise, you are done!

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  • What?? This is totally and completely awesome! I will definitely be trying this out…love the flexibility of the shapes you can create from the foam core board too!

  • Oh my goodness! A week or so ago, I had pinned a marquee letter lamp sold by Urban Outfitters, with the comment that I should figure out how to make it myself. I want a red “I” for my son’s vintage circus room! Thanks for the how-to. I’ll definitely try this and save some $$…some red mat board and my favorite circus font and I’m all set!

  • If you actually loved ‘fonts’ as much as you claim, you would call them ‘typefaces’. ‘Fonts’ are what stay at home moms use to make their christian newsletter look jazzy.

    • Comic sans

      Check the comments above- I think we’ve gotten the message loud and clear. A love and enthusiasm for something doesn’t always mean you know all the appropriate terms- but don’t worry- all the angry typeface fans schooled me pretty hard.


  • I love this project!! Now I’m curious about all the font/typography websites out there. Could I suggest a roundup / best of post?

  • This is brilliant and as a graphic designer myself…I don’t care if someone calls a typeface a font. It is a font!

  • This is just too good…tell me a kid who wouldn’t want this for his/her room..i think i’d like an M for my own room..i am so going to give it a shot…one of the best diy posts ever..thanks a ton grace! xx meenal

  • I love this idea! Thank you so much. I wonder if it would be super had to do an ampersand shaped one.

  • Is there any concern about fire/heat with the bulbs resting on paper, and a mess of wiring in the back?

  • Grace, any griping about typeface vs fonts is ridiculously snide and just an excuse to appear superior. There are constructive ways to inform and that wasn’t it. Font or typeface… this is a brilliant idea. I too had found something similar on UO and was looking around Etsy and Craigslist for a cheaper option. A cheaper, custom, DIY option? Genius and truly inspired. Thank you!

  • Love this project! This would look great at a wedding reception with the couple’s initials, or even spelling the word “love.” Fun!

  • As a new bride, this is a cool way to celebrate our new shared last name initial (V)! Very fun! Thanks so much!

  • “What’s in a name? that which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet;”

    Font or typeface, this is a fun project.

    Comic Sans – go play somewhere else.

  • This is brilliant! I’ve been eying the “real deals” for aging and wallowing that I can’t afford them. I will most definitely have to give this a try.

    I, too, am curious about any fire safety issues though.

  • This is so SOOO rad! What a terrific idea!

    And Grace, you are so very gracious. :)

  • If you are concerned about fire…treat it like a candle and only leave it on when you’re home.

  • Can’t imagine how I missed Brenna’s talent until now. This is a superb project. Scooted over to her blog, too, and found the adorable birch twig letters. How lovely!!
    PS: grace: you nailed it: we may not know what we love by its “proper” name, but like the Supreme Court ruling on porn: We know it when we see it!

  • I just made a complete word of these for our 30th birthday party this weekend- I used the cardboard letters sold at craft stores which was an easy way to design them!

  • So gorgeous! Will definitely be trying it out.

    PS. I find it laughable and ironic that the font vs. typeface comment came from someone who calls themselves Comic Sans… the most horrendous font ooops, I mean typeface known to mankind. As a Graphic Designer I can’t even say ‘comic sans’ without dry retching a little.

    • thanks heather!

      i am so, so lucky to work with an amazing team of DIY contributors and have the help of kate pruitt, our diy queen and the best diy (and before & after) editor a blog could ever have.

      g :)

  • What a cheap and pretty DIY! I was thinking…maybe instead of cutting out holes with an exacto knife, a drill bit would be even quicker and more precise if you have a drill.

  • I’ve been a practicing graphic designer for 30+ years and I refer to fonts as “fonts” mostly. Anyway, LOVE this and am going to the art supply store today!

  • Hi all, thank you for all of the kind comments!

    I just wanted to add that if you are at all concerned with heat from the bulbs… use the led’s, as they do not emit heat. Still concerned? I love Samantha Lewis’ suggestion of treating it like a candle, and only leaving it on when you are home.

    have fun and enjoy!


  • Love it!

    Would like to hear from anyone who’s tried a curvy letter like “S”…I suspect getting the mat board to stay might be a bit more challenging….

  • This is too adorable. I’m afraid to show it to my daughter because she’ll want me to make her one right this minute.

  • This is SUPER cute! I am actually really concerned about this being a fire hazard. It seems to me like the light bulbs might get pretty hot. Since the letter is made out of “paper” that doesn’t make for a good combination.

  • love this DIY, but im with comic sans on this one – i’m studying to become a graphic designer and they should never be called fonts!

  • I heart this so much… perfect little DIY project for this next weekend! I plan on making one for my office and another set of initials for one of my weddings this summer. So cute, thanks!

  • If you’re concerned about the heat of the bulbs with the paper, use LEDs. They put off an extremely minimal amount of heat, and are much more energy efficient. I made a wreath for our door with plastic bags, and used LEDs to light it up. After 8 hours of the lights being on and touching the plastic, the bulbs were still cool to the touch!

  • So I bought the foam core and lights and tried my hand at this project tonight….can you give me some pointers?? I used an exacto knife and it’s not cutting through the foam core, it’s leaving the edges all uneven. I wanted to do an R an E and a J….all for me, my boyfriend and our son. The foam core didn’t curve for the R, for the siding….

  • i was pretty confused with the ‘font’ or ‘typeface’ thing. i googled it, and still am confused until now. what’s the bloody difference? this project is so AWESOME! thumbs up!

  • I used to do a lot of similar projects, but lately I couldn’t find the time.
    Thank you for the nice inspiration. I think I’ll get right back to it.

  • I would love to do this with a L made out of metal, that used to be part of my school’s sign. Do you think that would still be safe? It’s not like the electricity from the lightbulb would ever be in contact with the metal. Right?

  • jill, the foam core is used as the letter front only… not for the siding. as far as cutting smoothly, try using a sharp blade and holding the handle as straight up and down as you can while you are cutting the curves of your letter. for the siding… use the mat board. this is a thinner white board material, like heavy posterboard, and not as thick as the foam core. ask for it at your art or framing store. it will bend and conform to the curved sides of the letters like the r and the j.
    good luck!

  • Brenna, I am in love with this. We will be trying our hand at making this project for my group’s Craft Explosion coming in October. I am with Marissa and would love to know which font you used for your letter. It is the perfect look for this!
    Thank you

  • Forgot to also ask, where did you find your C7 LED lights? I’ve had a hard time trying to find them.
    Looking forward to your responses.
    Thank you

  • Just thought I would ask … won’t the heat from the lightbulbs react with the connecting paper letter? Is this a fire hazard??? I am trying to think of alternative materials that could work better because this is a great idea.

  • Thank you for this awesome tutorial! It is so helpful for me, I’m going to be making my own marquee board and this was so helpful! Thanks for sharing!

  • I don’t understand how to put the LED bulbs into this GREAT craft… I can’t find any part that ‘pops off’ my string of lights or whatever you said to do… Can someone help Me please… Thanks

  • Thanks for this DIY project. The instructions are really clear, so I appreciate that! Just wanted to add that I found it a lot easier and cleaner to finish up the holes by pushing a thimble through the large pen holes instead of doing the nickel technique. I did a few with the nickel, and they weren’t very clean, and then I realized the thimble was also the perfect size for my lights, and they turned out perfectly circular and clean. Thanks again!

  • Hi! Absolutely love this project been looking to do something like this for ageeees but always find the instructions aren’t so clear or it is not always easy to get the tools. But this is perfect and Asia plan to do it over Easter. I was wondering if anyone could recommend any vintage style fonts that you can find online or on Microsoft word. Also is it possible to spray paint / paint the letter any colour before putting lights in.

    Thanks Beckie :)