Max’s Cool Beans: Awesome LED-Based Nixie Tubes

By Max Maxfield |

A Lixie is an edge-lit acrylic display that’s essentially an LED-based alternative to a Nixie tube.


It’s no secret that I love retro technology in general and the Steampunk genre in particular. One of the things I really like is Nixie tube displays, such as the Steampunk-inspired implementations that were hand-crafted by Dalibor Farny for my Nixie tube clock project (see Outrageously Awesome Nixie Tube Clocks).

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(Source: Dalibor Farny)

Sad to say, there are several problems associated with working with Nixie tubes, not least that the big, tasty ones are eye-wateringly expensive. There’s also the fact that you need to generate 170 V to power them, plus you have to be aware of weird and wonderful potential pitfalls like cathode poisoning.

Did you see my column about my chum Guido Bonelli’s Glowscenes project (see Nature Meets Technology in Light-Sculpture)? This project features layers of acrylic that have been etched with different designs. Tri-colored LEDs are used to individually illuminate the layers, which causes the etched areas to light up.

The reason I’m waffling on about this here is that Guido’s project reminded me of something called a Lixie that I saw some time ago. Created by Conner Nishijima, a Lixie is an edge-lit acrylic display that’s essentially an LED-based alternative to a Nixie tube.


These little beauties really do look rather tasty. I can imagine myself using them in all sorts of projects.  Seriously, I think just having a row of them displaying random numbers would be attention-grabbing, and I know myself well enough to be confident that I wouldn’t stop at a single row.

I think that these displays are something I could have fun building for myself, but I’m wondering how one would go about etching the acrylic. In order to ensure repeatability, you’d need a small CNC mill or perhaps a CNC laser. I remember someone mentioning to me that they’d recently seen a CNC laser going for around $400, but I can’t remember who told me or anything about it. If you’ve heard of anything like this, can you post a comment below? I’d also be interested to hear whether you are as enthused by these displays as I am.

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  • by  Conrad Mannering (edited)
    CNC laser you have already reviewed the $99 3 D printer, as a stretched goal it will have a laser head and they have shown it marks acrylic sheet. I am fairly certain it could manage a small milling bit and milling motor.
  • by  Max Maxfield (edited)
    @Conrad: "...I am fairly certain it could manage a small milling bit and milling motor." But "milling is so 20th century, my dear" -- I feel I owe it to myself to have lasers blasting around the office. As an aside, can a laser etch glass?
  • by  Elizabeth Simon (edited)
    you can still get in on the $99 3D printer for another 2 hours.... only $224 for the ultimate with laser
  • by  Max Maxfield (edited)
    @Elizabeth: "...you can still get in on the $99 3D printer for another 2 hours..." I'm sooooo tempted, but money is a tad tight just at this moment in time -- plus I'd like to hear from someone who already has one -- I think I'll wait until they are in production. Have you ordered one yourself?
  • by  Aubrey Kagan (edited)
    I must admit, I would hesitate to use a laser or etch- it would seem to me that the walls of the digit would be irregular and create non-uniform effects between digits when compared to the machining of a milling machine.
  • by  Max Maxfield (edited)
    @Aubrey: "...the walls of the digit would be irregular and create non-uniform effects between digits when compared to the machining of a milling machine..." As always, you make a good point.
  • by  Max Maxfield (edited)
    I must admit that I've been thinking about this quite a lot. I'm tempted to use sheets of 1.5mm thick glass rather than acrylic. I really fancy a big cabinet of these all flashing random numbers...
  • by  David Ashton (edited)
    I have seen this done by just drilling holes in the acrylic sheet to form the number - but then you get a dot matrix display effect, less if you use lots of small holes. If your acrylic is thick enough you can drill small holes in the edge to fit 3mm LEDs - then just hide this part when displaying them. A bit impractical when you have 10 sheets - you'd be looking at 40mm - over an inch and a half. But you can use this technique for almost any symbols - not just numbers.
  • by  Conrad Mannering (edited)
    @David Crusty is about but it depends on which site you are on (generally associated with login problems across UBM sites). However this site does have a Krusty Logo. @Max :- I always liked the Dekatron counter displays. Especially at higher visual speeds. A led imitation would of course go faster. I suspect David used and came across these in some numbers.
  • by  Max Maxfield (edited)
    @David: "...I have seen this done by just drilling holes in the acrylic sheet to form the number - but then you get a dot matrix display effect..." I've seen these also; for example: https://engineer.john-whittington.co.uk/2016/12/nixie-pipe-modern-day-led-nixie-tube/ I do quite like them -- but I think the milled/etched lines of the Lixie Tubes look better.
  • by  Elizabeth Simon (edited)
    @David " ...If your acrylic is thick enough you can drill small holes in the edge to fit 3mm LEDs - then just hide this part when displaying them. A bit impractical when you have 10 sheets - you'd be looking at 40mm - over an inch and a half. ..." I think that you'll need smaller LEDs then. I've seen some really small SMT LEDs (which is what they probably use in the Lixie)
  • by  David Ashton (edited)
    @Max... just looked at the John Whittington link. I'd agree about the engraving, it does look better.... but more hasslee for the hobbyist to do. Also I think you then get less "Splash" from one sheet to the adjacent ones - in his first pic it resembles your infinity mirror - though in the last video it's much better, especially when viewed head on. Lot of work though :-)
  • by  David Ashton (edited)
    @Elizabeth...SMD LEDs...yes I have seen some really small ones on display boards I have taken apart - probably 1 x 2 mm. I don't know whether you'd get RGB ones that small though. And VERY fiddly to solder....
  • by  Max Maxfield (edited)
    @David: @Elizabeth: Re the size of the LEDs I seem to recall that he's using NeoPixels, which come in 5mm x 5mm square packages. If you go to this Hackaday page ( https://hackaday.io/project/18633-lixie-an-led-alternative-to-the-nixie-tube ) and scroll down the page until you see the "Lixie Rev 1&2 Comparison (Dark)" video on the right, before you start the video, look at the bottom of the image -- you'll see thin slits where the light comes through -- as far as I know he's using 1.5mm think sheets of perspex
  • by  Elizabeth Simon (edited)
    Actually, having finally gotten to look at the video, David's 40 mm thickness is probably LESS than what he has. When looking at them from an angle you could see that they were quite thick. The sheets also appeared to be spaced apart a bit.
  • by  Max Maxfield (edited)
    @Elizabeth: "...Actually, having finally gotten to look at the video..." I think he's made the whole thing open source and posted all of his engineering drawings somewhere -- I don;t have the time to look just at this moment but I do remember seeing them.
  • by  Kevin Clark (edited)
    Everything old is new again. This type of display has been around since the 50's, using incandescent illumination. Non Linear Systems made the first DVM using them. It was rack mount size, and used stepper relays. I believe that the display was made by ITT, and called "Planar", but I could be in error. There were also rear-projection displays with incandescent lamps. Google "display edge lit incandescent", without the quotes for more details, or the Wikipedia article Lightguide Display.
  • by  Max Maxfield (edited)
    @Kevin: "Everything old is new again. This type of display has been around since the 50's..." I would love to see one of those early displays -- and also one of these new LED-based ones

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