You can turn almost anything into a lamp. All a lamp is is a cord with a plug on one end and a bulb socket on the other. Somewhere in there is a switch. It could be a toggle or button or a key or a pull chain built into the socket – or if you’re adventurous, it could be installed in the cord, where you can choose a toggle, roller, button or even a dimmer. The trick is getting that cord, plug, socket and switch into, on to or around something cool.
The biggest hurdle to that is the plug and socket on either end of the cord are too big to fit through a reasonably sized hole.
(Watch this all come together in the video if you don’t want to read all this.)
The solution is feeding only the cord through the hole. That means separating the various parts. You can get lamp wire from the home center that has a plug on one end and nothing on the other.
Just install the socket.
This is a good option if you’re just going to make one or two lamps. If you want to do this a lot, you can get spools of lamp wire and cut it to any length you want. You then have to install both the plug and the socket. It’s a simple operation.
The other option is to disassemble an old lamp and strip the usable parts. I like to do this with something that’s past it’s useful life and give it a new chapter. In this case, I couldn’t find such a lamp so I had to swallow my repurposing pride and buy the parts at a hardware store.
What are you going to turn into a lamp? It has to be large enough that it will support the bulb and socket. That’s pretty much the only rule. You could use a shoe, a vase*, a rock, a doll, a hat, plumbing parts or a tree branch (not a comprehensive list). I found this branch in a pile of trimmings at the base of an oak tree.
And just to demonstrate how simple this is (and because I don’t have shop – or a house – right now) I’ll do this whole project on a tree stump rather than a workbench.
Step 1 – Drill for the Socket
This may not be necessary if your chosen lamp body already has a recess where the socket will fit, but if it doesn’t (like my branch), you have to drill it out. Use a spade bit a little larger than the exterior diameter of the socket. In my case that was 1 1/8-inch. I used a spade bit that size, but it would have been better to go up to 1 1/4-inch, because the fit was a little too tight.
You have to drill this larger hole first because the point of the bit needs something to dig into. If you start with the small hole, the bit could wander when you start the large one. This hole only needs to be as deep as the socket, including the wiring at the bottom, so add about 1/2-inch for that. You can eyeball it or put a mark on your bit so you know when you’re at the depth you want.
Make sure you’re socket hole is at a right angle to the body. Use a square or a level to check this. I used a torpedo level, because I knew my workbench (stump) was a level surface to work off.
Bore the hole, allowing the bit to cast off the sawdust as you go.
Step 2 – Drill for the Cord
The lamp wire is pretty thin, so this hole only has to be 3/8-inch.
I started straight down from the center of the socket hole, because it didn’t matter exactly where the cord came out on the other end. If your body needs the cord to come through at a specific spot, start drilling from there, but it’s a bit more of a challenge to meet up with the socket. Make this as straight a shot as possible for the next step.
Step 3 – String the Cord
With the lamp I’m making, it’s not fair calling this an entire step, but if your lamp body is large or complicated it can be a little involved. The cord is stiff enough that you can usually push it through without having to fish for it. Remember that you must start from the bottom and work toward the socket hole. Once the cord appears in the socket hole, pull through enough slack that you can comfortably work with it.
Step 4 – Wire the Socket
Here’s the thing about electricity – you can get it wrong and whatever you’re making might still work. All that you’ve sacrificed is safety. But you’re not wiring a game room/workshop, with power for a Galaga machine and a welder, you’re just making a lamp, and they make it easy for you to get it right. All you have to do is pay attention.
If you bought a lamp wire with the plug attached, the other end has already been split and stripped. One side of the cord has a little rib running all the way down its length. The other side is smooth. Sometimes it’s easier to feel the rib than see it. The ribbed side is the “Neutral” wire and the smooth side is “Hot.”
Look at the bottom of your socket. There are two screws. One is silver and one is gold. The silver screw is neutral. The gold screw is hot.
Loosen (do not remove) the silver screw – form the stripped end of the ribbed wire into a hook – wrap the hook around the screw – tighten the screw, holding the wire in place. Do the same thing with the gold screw and the smooth wire.
What if you get this backwards? – The lamp will work. But – The hot wire should deliver power to the little gold tab in the bottom of the socket. (That thing that will shock you if you touch it.) Reverse the wiring and the hot wire delivers power not to that tab, but to the threaded, metal socket that the bulb screws into. So – with the switch on, you can get a shock by touching the socket rather than the tab. This is bad.
Pull the slack back through the lamp and seat the socket into the hole you drilled for it.
Step 5 – Install the Switch
You might have used a socket with a built-in switch. In that case, you’re done. You could also be done if the only way you turn your lamp on is to plug it in. Maybe you have an outlet controlled by a wall switch. But installing a rolling switch is so simple it’s hard to pass up. Also most people don’t know how simple it is, so it make your lamp that much more impressive.
Pick the spot on the wire where you want the switch. Sometimes they’re very close to the lamp – sometimes it’s better if they drape further away. That’s up to your design. I wanted mine fairly close to the lamp.
With a sharp knife, split the connected lamp wire apart for about the same length as the switch, so there’s a gap between the smooth side and the ribbed side.
Remove the screw from the middle of the switch. Sometimes there’s a tiny nut on the other side – don’t lose it.
One side of the switch holds all the workings. The other side is hollow and has a channel where one side of the wire can pass all the way though. The channel for the other side of the wire is blocked in the middle by a little wall.
Cut the smooth (hot) side of the wire in half. It’s really easy to cut, strong scissors will do it. Set the ribbed wire in the channel going all the way through, and the smooth wire in the divided side.
Look at the other side of the switch. There are tiny metal prongs at either end.
Put the switch back together and screw it down tight (with the little nut if there was one). As the switch pinches back together, those prongs pierce the insulation on the hot wire, bridging the gap when the switch is in the “On” position.
You just made a lamp.
Depending on what you made it out of you could hit it with some spray polly, or paint it or leave it as is – that’s all up to your design. Now that lamp making is in your arsenal, you never have to sit in the dark again.
*Traditional option, i.e. trite.