Monday, 2 January 2012

Elephant No. 92: Aluminum Can Luminaire

Making a luminaire or lantern from an aluminum can is something I've been wanting to do for a while, but I don't really drink beer, and I wanted a beer-sized can to work with. Luckily, we had guests last night who were willing to drink the canned beer we had, so today seemed like a good day to try it.

The Internet abounds in instructions on how to make various kinds of lanterns from aluminum cans, but most of them are extremely simple, and weren't what I had in mind. I had seen some stunning luminaires made with beer cans a couple of months ago, and crazily decided that this was the only kind of aluminum masterpiece that interested me.

Needless to say, aside from pretty pictures, there are no instructions on how to make the kind of detailed luminaire I wanted to make, other than the rather cryptic: "Use a Dremel® tool." This is not helpful to me. Not that I don't know what a Dremel tool is—I actually have two: a cheapo version, and a real Dremel—but how I would use this on an aluminum can was something of a mystery.

I started with an empty, washed Heineken can. I chose a beer can rather than a soda can, because I wanted the height that the larger beer cans have.

Next, I drew something on a sheet of peel-and-stick labels in pencil. I started from a photograph, because I wanted some sort of scene rather than a single elephant, and I wanted it to look fairly realistic. This is the photograph I chose:

Photo: Gary M. Stolz

I wrapped the label sheet around the can before I started, and cut something that fit both the circumference and the height of the can. I wanted to make a design that went all the way around, although it would have been just as good to make a one-sided design—and perhaps even better in some respects.

Here's where it got a bit tricky for me. When I was drawing the design, I wasn't thinking in terms of which parts would be cut away for the light to shine through, and which parts would remain opaque. Faced with my drawing, it took me awhile to figure out what to cut away—and also how to cut away so that I didn't accidentally cut all around an entire area and leave myself with a big, weird blank. Taking the somewhat easy way out, I opted to make a sort of stencil, shading the areas to be cut away.

I peeled of the back of the label sheet next, and stuck it to the aluminum can. I made a tiny fold in the middle of the top edge of the label sheet so that I could align it more or less with the centre of the design on the can. I don't know that it really matters, since the can will be dark when you light the luminaire, but it appealed to my sense of symmetry to pay attention to that particular detail.

Now comes what I thought would be the fun part, but it really wasn't. There are a number of challenges involved in cutting through this kind of thin aluminum, and I never did arrive at a truly satisfactory solution.

Despite the mantra, "Use a Dremel tool," I didn't—at least not at first. I prefer quiet hand-powered tools and implements to things that spin at 30,000 rpm. The first thing I tried was a small utility knife. This actually worked really well for the first few cuts. After that, the thin aluminum starts to work against you, buckling whenever you cut too close to a previous line. Two things happen in that case: the aluminum develops unsightly dents; and the aluminum actually tears.

Next I tried small scissors. I discovered that cuticle scissors worked best, because they have very fine blades and tips, and they have a slight curve, which was actually very helpful. The curved blade helps you avoid jagged right-angle cuts, which are virtually unavoidable with straight-bladed scissors, no matter how fine. And of course don't use your best scissors, because they'll quickly become dull.

This too has its limitations, however, the most important of which is the need to create some kind of pilot hole as a starting point for your scissors. The knife blade wasn't great for the reasons noted above, so I bit the bullet and dragged out the rotary tool. And safety glasses.

Surprisingly, the tool doesn't dig right into the metal. The metal is certainly not thick, so I found this a bit mystifying. Various cutting and drilling bits mostly glanced off the aluminum unless I kept the tool in one place. Other drawbacks included the inability of the cutting bit to go around tight curves, and the width of the cuts with any of the drill bits. I went back to the knife and scissors.

Eventually I figured out that, if I cut off the top of the can and put a piece of sturdy cardboard behind the design, I could cut a pilot line with the knife, then use the scissors. That's how I finished the rest of the design.

To make it a little less plain at the top, I scalloped a sort of treetop edge. Obviously this doesn't matter when it's lit up and in the dark, but I wanted it to look finished even when it wasn't lit.

Now I had to peel off the label material, which took me forever. It resisted any attempt to peel it off in large pieces, and mostly came away in bits, leaving a lot of adhesive behind. Eventually I got it mostly cleaned off, and ready to go.

I was a bit trepidatious about adding a tea light and lighting this, because if it looked stupid or raggedy or something, I was going to be pretty disappointed. Luckily, I love the way it turned out, although it was hard to photograph—and the camera doesn't do a 360˚ view, either.

A couple of people have asked me lately what my favourite elephants are so far. There have been a couple I've really liked, but I think this is probably my favourite—at least for now.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Although the notion that elephants can get drunk has been debunked by scientists, elephants are still often associated with various forms of alcohol. In 1955, the Danish brewing company Carlsberg created Elephant Beer, although its origins are more interesting than the usual associations with an elephant's wisdom, strength and size.

In 1901, brewer Carl Jacobsen commissioned architect J.L. Dahlerup to create a tower resting on four elephants, carved from Danish granite. Jacobsen's inspiration was the elephant obelisk at the Piazza della Minerva in Rome, which he had seen on his travels.

Each of the Danish tower's four elephants bears the initial of one of Jacobsen's four children: Theodora, Paula, Helge and Vagn. Installed at the entrance to the brewery, the Elephant Gate, as it was known, became a local landmark. Carl Jacobsen's motto, Laboremus pro Patria ("Let us work for our country") was inscribed to the west of the gate, and since that time, the elephant has been closely associated with the Carlsberg brewing company.

Carlsberg's Elephant Beer debuted in 1955 under the name Export Lager Beer, and featured an elephant on the label. Originally sold in Ghana, the Gold Coast, Nigeria and Malawi, Elephant Beer was launched on the Danish market in 1959. Elephant Beer is still brewed in Copenhagen, and by license in local breweries around the world.

Two of the elephants at the Elephant Gate, Carlsberg Breweries, Copenhagen.

To Support Elephant Welfare
World Wildlife Fund
World Society for the Protection of Animals
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Performing Animal Welfare Society
Bring the Elephant Home
African Wildlife Foundation

No comments:

Post a Comment