Turn an antique bottle into an incandescent bulb!
May 27, 2007 4:43 PM   Subscribe

Craftiwork Filter: Help me turn an antique bottle into a light bulb/fixture. The incandescent sort.

This is a long-running idea of mine. I am not an electrician, but I understand the basics involved: one (airproof) antique bottle, inert gas, and a robust filament suspended within, then sealed. (If I'm wrong, tell me!) But I know zero about how to acquire the filaments, gas, or "blank" screw bases. I am looking to make this a hobby, potentially a money-making sideline (custom designer light fixtures go for hundreds and in some cases even thousands online, although I don't expect anything approaching those prices, of course) if it's cost effective. I know that I can purchase potentially hundreds of antique glass bottles for far less than five dollars apiece, but I don't know about the other supplies.

There are a few "make your own lightbulb" resources online, but they're pretty much experimental/temporary and I hope to make them relatively permanent. I realize that I could suspend LEDs within the cavities, probably at less cost and trouble, but the look would obviously be vastly different and just wouldn't be the same (although if you have any suggestions on this, by all means share them.)

I want to make two different types: 1) smaller bottles, transformed directly into actual bulbs, complete with screw, which could be fitted into a standard socket, and 2) larger fixtures meant to be plugged into the wall. My initial idea was for an arc lamp but upon research I have discovered that they never posessed significant longevity (extra points if you prove me wrong!)

Advice, words of wisdom, ideas, supply recommendations, practicalities, diagrams, personal experiences, etc. welcome (and begged for).
posted by Phyltre to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (10 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Wow! Very ambitious. I have no expertise in how a light bulb works, other than "turn on the switch." However, on the "practicalities" side, I actually like the idea of using LED lights. This will not satisfy your quest for purity, but it may be more practical, especially if you want to market them. The end result to a potential buyer would be the same. Yes, there is a marketable coolness factor to having the bottle become an actual bulb. But it may be more marketable to be able to say, "these use proven LED technology, and the light will last x thousands of hours."

Good luck. I'd love to see the finished result.

(Consider fiber optics as well... just for decoration, not a lot of light output.)
posted by The Deej at 5:04 PM on May 27, 2007

Flexible neon
posted by hortense at 5:14 PM on May 27, 2007

Not exactly an answer to your question, but you might consider using a flicker flame type-filament. If you've never seen one, they glow orange, but the orange spot dances up and down the filament part such that it looks like a candle. Given that the filament is a lot thicker than your standard incandescent, it might be easier to work with (and hold up longer).
posted by mjbraun at 5:32 PM on May 27, 2007

Producing a bulb that has a standard screw-type and can be used in a standard lamp could be problemmatic, because it means you'd have no choice but to have the full 120V across the filament. Unless you have a lot of technology at your disposal, I don't think you're going to be able to manufacture a bulb that has much of a lifetime at full line voltage. Your best bet will be to use a reduced voltage. This has several advantages:
  • Lower operating temperature - the filament in standard bulbs made for efficiency and light output reaches several thousand degrees celcius! Since the base is ultimately in contact with the filament, it has to be able to withstand heat and also provide enough insultation so as not to melt/burn the socket. This will be easier for a DIYer the cooler you run the filament.
  • The lower the voltage/temperature, the longer the lifetime of the filament, all other factors being equal. Since you're not making a commodity disposable part here, it's more important that you err on the side of lower light output for longer life.
  • Color temperature - it will have a much more warmer orangish glow at reduced voltage, much like you would expect from an antique or "old timey" bulb, rather than a hot blinding white that you can't look directly at. And since I take it the point of this project is to be able to actually admire the bulb, you don't want it to be blinding hot white.
As far as practicalities, you are going to want to find a local glassblower that you can team up with I'd imagine. You'll also probably need access to an electric welder of some kind to attach the screw. The argon or nitrogen fill gas shouldn't be a problem at all, any welding supply outfit should be able to give you a tank of that.
posted by Rhomboid at 5:36 PM on May 27, 2007

Inert argon gas is a staple of welding, and easily available at welding supply stores. Helium is also inert, and available at department stores in disposable cannisters for about $30 (for filling balloons), but will limit the life of your bulb, as it will diffuse through the materials and escape over time. Ie, you could use helium for some cheap test-runs and prototypes, then once you're more serious, switch to argon. Or just use argon from the start.

Incandescent filaments are made to incredible standards of purity and are almost impossibly delicate - not in the sense that you can't handle them, but in the sense that if you do, you will vastly shorten the bulb life. Possibly to mere minutes.

The solution is to buy an incandescent bulb, and extract the filament without touching it. Basically, remove the outer glass bulb, and then extract the glass stem that supports the wires and filament. Don't touch the filament, just transplant the entire stem into your new bulb.

I know of a book with some practical first-hand advice on doing this sort of thing. It may be of use to you. (An incandescent lightbulb and a thermionic valve are very similar devices)
posted by -harlequin- at 5:42 PM on May 27, 2007

For greater aesthetic appeal and longevity for little extra outlay, include a dimmer. They're only $7 at a store, and you can get ones that screw in between the bulb and the fixture. Thus, dress them up as part of the bulb, killing two birds with one stone because it also solves your problem of installing a good lightbulb screw-base socket connector.

Another thing that might be worth experimenting with would be using the filaments from 240V bulbs for your 110V bulbs, thus (I think) resulting in the filament running well under its intended brightness/heat, and thus gaining you some wiggle room, given that your bulbs are not going to achieve the high specs of mass-produced bulbs. I suspect a 120W 240V bulb running at 110V would look more like a 60W bulb but last longer. The socket fittings are the same for both voltages, so just order some 240V bulbs online and stick them in a socket at home and see what happens.
posted by -harlequin- at 5:54 PM on May 27, 2007

Standard incandescent bulbs are still vacuum evacuated before being filled and sealed with inert gases. You won't get anything like decent filament life without being able to pull high vacuum during manufacture. That raises safety issues for using ordinary bottles in larger sizes as your base manufacturing stock. The entire manufacturing process for incandescent bulbs is a now a highly automated process, and which relies on close tolerance manufacturing methods and first rate materials quality control to achieve the kinds of service life consumers expect. I think you'd find it hard to replicate this on a craft scale.

Short of LED inserts, I would think your best bet, from the practicality, liability, and user replacement standpoints is going to be to engineer a fixture which can use a jar as a shade, but which has a central core that is made from UL approved components and light bulbs. Without UL approval, you have little hope of getting retailers to agree to sell your products, or to get business insurance for yourself. By using standard components which have UL approval, in applications for which they are designed, you significantly offload this liability burden, freeing you to concentrate on the design and esthetitics of building your product, and launching your business.
posted by paulsc at 5:55 PM on May 27, 2007

Step one: Get a fully adaptable lightbulb making machine

Step 10 obtain inert gas cannister
Step 12 test vacuum pump
Step 14 select best Tungsten filament

Step 19 warn neighbors
posted by longsleeves at 8:06 PM on May 27, 2007

I'd love to see the flexible neon, noted above, spiraled inside a wine bottle. Hmmmmm
posted by The Deej at 8:10 PM on May 27, 2007

I would definitely never buy bulbs made from old bottles.

I would also probably never buy any fancy old bottle with a bulb inside it lamps, but that's just because I have no money.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 8:28 PM on May 27, 2007

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