Help me turn a toaster into a lamp
April 26, 2012 2:43 PM   Subscribe

I have an odd fascination with lighting. I want to learn how to rewire various consumer electronics into functioning lamps without electrocuting myself and/or burning down my apartment building.

I admit to not paying attention during my high school engineering classes, and thus know next to nothing about electricity. I guess mostly I'm asking to be pointed to pretty basic information about electricity, specifically regarding DIY lighting if possible; preferably short, to the point, and with lots of pictures in an effort to be gentle to my ADD. Most of the resources I've found thus far go way too in depth for what I think I need.

Alternatively, a step by step list of how to turn, say, a toaster, into a lamp. A list of materials I might find useful would also be great. Alternatively, if it's simpler than I'm thinking it is and all I need do is be conscious of wattage/voltage or something, detailing that would be greatly appreciated.

posted by krakenattack to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (13 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Searching for make a lamp on Amazon will turn up kits that contain the guts of a lamp. You just need to thread the cord through something interesting (like a toaster) and sturdily affix the socket in a place where the light bulb heat isn't going to set anything on fire. Doesn't require much knowledge of electricity, other than the basic rules of don't put it near water and throw it away if the cord's insulation gets damaged.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 2:54 PM on April 26, 2012

As an electrician, I can tell you that is pretty easy - easy if you have a basic understanding of electrical work.

You really only need four items to create a lamp:
Lamp-cord wire.
A switch.
A plug cord-cap.
And a light socket.

These items can be mounted and run in various ways through almost anything. I would suggest researching and reading up on basic electrical work in construction. These items all seem very simple to me to wire together, but starting from zero knowledge, it might seem complicated.

Also, I would advise you to err on the side of safety. Learn first. Build safe things first, where the bulb (a heat source capable of starting a fire) is away from other components. Also, wiring this items together correctly is a safety concern. Bad wiring is fire hazard. Learn to make good wire connections. I would also suggest that until you have an understanding of wire gauge, that you use 12awg wire. 12awg wire is probably bigger than you need, but until you know the basic of an electrical load calculation, 12awg will keep you safe.

This all might seem complicated, but trust me, it is not. Any apprentice electrician can do this after just a few weeks on the job. If you take the time to learn about electrical circuits, you will be able to figure it out.
posted by Flood at 3:22 PM on April 26, 2012

Another basic safety tip: never use electrical wiring or electrical connections for structural purposes. That is, do not ever hang your lamp from its own power cord (unless you've bought a special reinforced cord intended for this purpose and properly secured it at both ends) and be sure that you "strain relieve" any connection that might conceivably get tugged on (i.e secure the insulated wire to something solid inside the lamp rather than relying on a solder connection or wire nut to hold it together.)
posted by contraption at 3:23 PM on April 26, 2012

And if you happen to know any electricians or have one at your house for some other work, it couldn't hurt to have them look over your first few projects to bless them for safety and offer any advice on things you could've done differently to make them safer/more attractive/cheaper/easier to put together.
posted by contraption at 3:28 PM on April 26, 2012

If you REALLY want to do it safely, purchase an AC-to-DC transformer designed for powering DC LED bulbs -- so that you're not mucking around with the 120v AC current and high-temperature bulbs that'll burn down your house -- and run the nice, safe, low-voltage DC through the object. Keep the run short, keep the wire gauge large (in diameter, not number) and you'll be fine.
posted by davejay at 4:16 PM on April 26, 2012

If you want to play it even safer, start by using LEDs and batteries. A simple circuit just needs an LED, a battery, a resistor, and a switch. The only even marginally complicated thing is to choose the right resistor, and the worst that happens from getting that wrong is you might blow your LED (which cost like 30 cents to replace). You can make mini lamps or not-very-bright artistic lamps this way, and work up to using "real" electricity when you've built some confidence.
posted by lollusc at 4:40 PM on April 26, 2012

I'm seconding the battery suggestion. AC mains voltage is scary to work with and potentially deadly to learn about electricity with. Stick with low-voltage DC until you're comfortable.

Keep in mind that you can also getlow-voltage DC bulbs that can expand your options beyond the little LEDs you get at Radio Shack. You can also get DC power sources (aka wall warts) to power your lamps instead of batteries.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 4:57 PM on April 26, 2012

One fairly foolproof way to work safely on a simple high voltage circuit (one like a lamp, without any charge-storing components) is not to touch the wiring at all unless you are holding the disconnected power plug in one hand.

But don't get so worried about the hazards that you give up on the project. Your caution is warranted and the danger is certainly real, but it's much more on the order of, say, learning to chop vegetables with a sharp knife than learning to disassemble a bomb; you just need to develop a few good habits and understand some very simple principles in order to proceed safely. I've met professional electricians who (safely!) wire up whole houses by following rote rules and looking up numbers in tables, and who when pressed have only the vaguest idea of how electricity actually behaves outside of that controlled environment. You don't need a physics degree, really you're just constructing the simplest circuit there is.

If you do start with LEDs or any other low voltage lighting system, you'll be making things safer while complicating the circuit design; now at minimum you need to consider the current rating of your power supply and whether it's enough to run your bulbs, and the voltage of the bulbs vs that of the supply. You'll also be adding significant expense compared to the $5-$10 worth of parts you'd need for a lamp that runs on regular household current.
posted by contraption at 6:16 PM on April 26, 2012

What qxntpqbbbqxl said, or you can find the basic bits (e.g. without the harp for the shade) like this elsewhere.

I've also seen kits like that with a small figure-8 style plug and socket at the lampholder base - so that the cord can be detached, fed through a ½" cable clamp grommet-sized hole, and re-attached without having to do any actual wiring work - but I'm buggered if I can find any on the net. I think I've seen them in craft or homewares stores locally, so you might check out some of those.

(As much as I've ranted against people DIY'ing electrical work here before, I personally lean towards contraption's view of the level of danger involved. But if you're not comfortable with your ability to not screw it up, there are alternatives.)
posted by Pinback at 9:04 PM on April 26, 2012

Do a google search for instructables. Once there do a site search for lamp, you will probably find ideas there. BTY it is not very expensive to join the site.
posted by malhaley at 2:54 AM on April 27, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for the answers so far, very helpful!

I was hoping to get info on whether I can actually just take apart a thing (like a toaster) and run the wires, say, away from the heating elements and into a lightbulb. I have this idea that somehow I'll be able to use the plunger thing to turn the lamp on. Is that even possible or am I crazy?
posted by krakenattack at 8:56 AM on April 27, 2012

Best answer: You can do exactly what you describe but you need to understand a few basic concepts first or you could run into trouble.

(1) Identify the hot wire(s) and keep them well-insulated and away from all exposed metal. This is so you don't accidentally electrify the entire toaster/lamp/whatever. When you're working from a kit or a pre-made lamp this is easy, because everything's already designed to do this. When you're hacking apart a toaster it's a lot more complicated, because you need to explicitly create something you've only ever seen embodied implicitly before.

(2) Know the basic rules of electrical safety. Wear rubber-soled shoes; don't work right next to big easy-to-hit sources of Ground (eg, your kitchen sink, radiators); when something's plugged in, keep one hand in your pocket until you know absolutely-for-sure that it's safe.

(3) Learn how to test for safety -- get a real AC tester (not a multimeter, this tester actually applies a load to the circuit) and learn to use it to test your basic assumptions about what you've built. (eg: I think points A and B are connected. I think there is no path from this metal screw to the hot wire. When I plug it in, all of these bits of exposed metal are at 0 VAC.) Nobody ever got hurt because they expected an accident and then it happened -- the whole notion of an "accident" is that something happened contrary to your assumptions. So test, test, test, even stuff that seems obvious and a waste of time.

(4) (varsity level) -- Learn how to make long-lasting (eg, gas-tight) splices and other electrical connection. In my town, the electrical inspector will open up an electrical box, grab a pair of wires that are connected by a wire nut, and pull them apart as hard as he can. A good connection can handle that.

Most 120VAC shocks are not that bad -- they will hurt enough to remind you not to do that thing you just did, but nothing more (provided you have no other conditions that might make you more susceptible, like a pacemaker). However, you have to rule out the Bad Shocks, the ones that travel through a lot of your body (eg, arm-foot) or, worse, across your chest. That's easy when you're working on something (one hand in pocket, wear rubber soled shoes), but once the lamp crosses the line from "Project I'm Working On" over into "Appliance In My House," you need to be able to feel confident that what you made is actually safe, not just safe-if-I-treat-it-right.
posted by range at 9:58 AM on April 27, 2012

The plunger thing on a toaster is a type of switch.

You absolutely could take a toaster apart, re-wire it, and install and wire the light socket, and set it up for the toaster plunger to be the on/off switch.
posted by Flood at 12:29 PM on April 27, 2012

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