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Let it Glow, Let it Glow, Let it Glow: Black Light Basics


First, let me start by saying that those regular incandescent black light bulbs (commonly sold at dollar stores and party stores) that fit into your average lamp are pretty much useless (not to mention dangerous, since many of them heat up quite a bit).

The energy-saving compact fluorescents are nice inside of a white lampshade, and will make whatever is above it glow (seen in the picture to the right). They also do ok if you put them in a desk lamp (I like to use ones that come with a clamp as spotlights for my indoor decorations). Keep in mind they need to be close to the object to make it glow, and you have a limited span of coverage. They also emit a soft blue light.

New and exciting LED technology is evolving even as I type this, but I've had limited (read: no) personal experience with black light LEDs so I'll leave that out of this article.

The fact of the matter is, if you want to make a section of your haunt or a room glow, you need to invest in a large black light florescent tube that is housed in a fixture.

BL versus BLB

There are different types of black light fluorescent bulbs: Black Light (BL) and Black Light Blue (BLB). BLB lamps have tubes made of special deep blue filter glass that absorbs nearly all the visible light but transmits ultraviolet. Ideally, you want a BLB lamp. It should state on the box AND somewhere on the bulb itself whether or not it is BLB.

Safety

Not to be a party pooper, but I should mention some relevant safety concerns. Because black lights emit ultraviolet (UV) rays, you should take precautions to limit extended exposure (especially direct exposure to your eyes). The general warning is that unshielded lamps should be installed at least 40 inches from people. Although it's fun to play under black lights, consider arranging them so they are pointed at your displays as opposed to your visitors.

Positioning

You want to arrange the area so that visitors don't walk between the light and the objects you want to glow. If they do, they'll block the light (hindering or extinguishing the glow), and there is an increased chance of someone coming into contact with your light fixture.

I've read suggestions of having the light overhead, attached to the ceiling or a homemade trellis-type structure. You can also have it lit from an angle slightly below the target which gives an interesting effect.

I've had success with positioning my light vertically, and found it gave the best coverage. The problem with this is that it's harder to hide the light and it can - depending on where the light is - increase the chance of the light getting knocked over. Use common sense. If you're interested in making your own vertical stand, Martha Stewart offers a simple how-to.

Materials That Glow

Obviously, anything that claims to glow in the dark will work. Instead, think about trying some of these common items that will also glow under black light. Do your own experimenting to find the results you're looking for:

  • White Paper
  • Neon-coloured items
  • Club Soda or Tonic Water (Mountain Dew apparently works too)
  • Vitamins (Vitamin A and the B vitamins - thiamine, niacin, and riboflavin. Crush a vitamin B-12 tablet and dissolve it in vinegar.)
  • Uranium or "Vaseline" glass (pictured right)
  • Antifreeze
  • Laundry Detergents, Starches and some Fabric Softeners (These use bluing agents or fluorescent whitening agents that react. Look for products that claim to have whitening agents in them. Woolite and Liquid Tide are common favourites)
  • Tooth Whiteners
  • Some dish washing liquids
  • Petroleum jelly
  • Fluorescent highlighters (Remove the felt tips from the markers and submerge in water)
  • Chlorophyll (The mash from ground up green plants apparently produces a blood red colour. One idea suggested grinding spinach or swiss chard in a small amount of clear alcohol and pouring it through a coffee filter. Use the remnants in the filter - not the liquid.)
  • Postage Stamps
  • Some Minerals and Gems (Fluorescent rocks include fluorite, calcite, gypsum, ruby, talc, opal, agate, quartz, and amber.)

And of course, you can buy various types of paints as well:

  • Fluorescent paint
  • Invisible black-light paint
  • Phosphorescent paint
  • Street Marker paint

You can even use the water you cleaned your brushes in.