Note: This is one of the most advanced tutorials we have posted on Gunpla 101! It requires custom wiring. Be careful and practice electrical safety when following Nanochi’s tutorial.
LED stands for “Light Emitting Diode” and refers to any semiconductor device that emits light when electricity passes through it. Since LED lights can be very tiny and come in bright colors like red, blue, and green, they’re perfect for adding personality to Gunpla.
When I build commissioned Gunpla kits for my clients, I am often asked to use LEDs to make the model’s eyes or weapons or backpack glow. My process is actually quite simple, so I thought I’d make a tutorial for Gunpla 101 about how I do it.
A Quick History of LEDs for Gundam Kits
The first time Bandai Hobby experimented with LEDs was with the Master Grade MSZ-006 Zeta Gundam back in 1996. This was only the fifth Master Grade ever made! Because it’s so old (26 as of this tutorial) and the technology was so early and experimental, the included LED is only able to light up the cockpit for the Wave Rider on the backpack.
Fast-forward to 2011, Bandai introduced a 1/100 GN Drive LED unit that could be used for a number of Gundam 00 Master Grade kits. Finally, Gunpla kits were able to have mechanical LEDs without a lot of tricky wiring. Then, in 2014, a full LED kit was made for Perfect Grade Gundam Unicorn to light it up all over. [Editor’s note: check out our PG Gundam Unicorn build to see how it looks!] Even more recently, in 2017, the PG Gundam Exia received its own unique system of LED pipes and modes to light up each segment individually.
In other words, LED units have been limited to some Master Grade or Perfect Grade kits. But what if you would like to add LED lighting to any Gunpla kit you choose? You can do that!
Materials and Getting Started
In this tutorial, I’ll be showing you a simple example with the Moon Gundam that will allow us to light up its head, adding more character and interest to the kit.
Here are the tools I used:
- HGUC Moon Gundam
- Vallejo Black Mecha Primer
- Tamiya Clear Green Acrylic Paint
- 1/32 Router Bit
- Mr. Hobby Chip LED
- Mr. Hobby Battery Box
- CA glue (super glue)
- BSI Instant Set
- Hobby knife
- Metal file
Make sure you are using the right voltage for your LEDs. Some LEDs come in 3 volts and some in 5. Do not use a 5v power source for 3v LEDs as you will burn them out. If you must use a 5v power source, please use the appropriate resistor when you solder. Use gloves and protection when soldering and be sure to use a proper volt calculator to find the right resistor.
Before beginning this tutorial (and several times during the process), you should test your LED to make sure it’s functional and doesn’t short out. Nothing sucks more than finishing up a build only to find out the LED doesn’t light up.
In order to figure that out, you’ll need to take your Chip LED and Battery Box and connect them in a circuit—so the LED is connected to the battery by wires on each side.
Decide Where to Put Your LED
In order to help me decide, I’ll look at art or screenshots of the Gundam the kit is based on. Sometimes it’ll be shown with special effects that will give me inspiration. For the sake of this tutorial, we’re going to decide to put the LEDs in the head to make the eyes light up—a fairly common effect in most Gundam series and official art.
For the Moon Gundam, I decided to place the LED between the eyes so it would also be positioned in a way that it could light up the cameras on the head, too.
Make Room for Your LED and Wires
In order to make the eyes light up, we’re going to need to accomplish two things: first, we’ll place the LED behind the faceplate where the light will shine through and second, we’ll need to make sure there’s room for not only the LED, but the wires that connect it to the battery box, inside. The battery box will not fit inside most 1/144 High Grade Gunpla without heavy modification, so you’ll also need to consider that you will need room to trail the wires internally through the kit out discreetly below the backpack.
Since the Moon Gundam doesn’t actually have holes where the eyes are, we’ll need to cut those out. First, mark indentations with a hobby knife. Next, use a dremel with a tiny 1/32 router bit. Finally, sand and smooth the eye holes evenly with a metal file.
Next, measure the size of the LED and test if it’ll fit inside the head. This is where you may need to use your dremel to enlarge the inside cavity so both the LED and its wires can fit inside with the front and back pieces of the head still capable of snapping together. Remember you’ll also need to enlarge the hole at the bottom of the head (between the head and the torso), so the LED wires can continue on through before exiting lower down the model; in the case of my Moon Gundam, underneath the backpack. Thread these through the Gunpla, using your dremel along the way, making a path that’s wide enough for the wires to fit in and out of easily and not so tight that the wires will break if you pull them out.
Paint Inside (Yes, Inside) The Gunpla
After cutting and modifying to make room for the LED, you will want to paint the interior matte black. There’s a good reason for this: you want to reduce the amount of light that will bleed through the plastic Gunpla parts when the LED is lit up. LEDs are so bright, they can easily be seen through thin plastic, especially white Gunpla parts. Painting the interior black will block out almost all light that could escape through except where we want it to.
You can use this same time to paint the clear parts of the Moon Gundam’s head—in this case, the clear head camera. I painted mine Tamiya Clear Green so it would appear as if a green light was shining through.
Install the LED
Once you’ve checked (and rechecked) that your primed and dried Gunpla parts have enough room inside for the LED and wires, it’s time to install. Place a dab of CA glue (super glue) in the space you want the LED to be, being careful to avoid any clear Gunpla parts nearby.
Then, place the LED where the glue is, lining it up where you want. While still holding the LED in place, put a drop of BSI Instant Set on top of the dab of glue and LED. This will instantly cure the glue, creating a strong bond instantly. By using both super glue and instant set, we can be completely sure the LED will hold steady.
Thread the wires through the kit, and rebuild the model to completion around it. When I’m routing wires, I choose to direct them through the roomiest cavities inside the Gunpla to avoid anything that might pinch the wires together and chafe them, breaking the circuit. This doesn’t only improve the longevity of the wires, it also makes the process simpler for me! This is true even for kits with pre-built LEDs like the PG Unicorn or PG Exia.
Test and Admire
Put the kit back together and connect your circuit. If the wires aren’t pinched, the LED and the battery should be connected, and you’ll have a lovely glow emanating from your Gunpla head.
Once you’ve mastered the basics, there’s no limit to what you can do with LEDs and models. For example, I used multiple LEDs with a Bandai Vegeta Saiyan Pod kit to make the kit glow all over anywhere that would previously have been “lit up” with metallic green stickers. All you need is a roomy enough mecha kit, long enough wires, and plenty of imagination.
Nanochi got interested in Gunpla after building the MG Infinite Justice. Today, she is an award-winning modeler who builds Gunpla for commission. You can learn more about her work on Twitter and Instagram.