Decorative Aspen Branch Light

Initial Design Process

My original idea for this project was to create a thing. I knew that I wanted to make something cool, so I looked up pictures of upcycled projects on Google. I saw a lot of cool things, and I thought that I wanted to make something out of doilies. I had in mind a doily vest, maybe I would even have dyed it a cool color. So I went to the thrift store hoping to pick some up. I didn’t find any doilies. I found a bunch of random objects, mostly made out of wood. I thought that I could use all the objects I picked up and make something cool, something rustic modern, out of the various dark stained woods, light box, and candle stick.

Objects from thrift store.

Objects from thrift store.

I sat on this stuff for a week and a half. As hard as I thought, I couldn’t figure out what to do with this stuff. I was talking about the project with my best friend, and he told me to throw out all the stuff I bought, figure out what I actually wanted to make, then buy the materials, rather than letting the materials define the project.

Inspiration and Implementation

I had the idea to use some natural elements in my project. During Senior Design, we were given “Design Heuristics” cards, one of which suggested to use naturally occurring objects to spruce up an idea. This gave me the idea to use an aspen or birch branch and wrap lights around it, covering up the wiring with silver colored wire for decoration. The aesthetic I was aiming for was rustic modern.

I love trees, especially aspen and birch trees, and I was able to find a few fallen branches and logs on a hike by Nederland High School. The color of the bark was fantastic, and I was excited, until I ended up breaking most of the delicate twigs while trying to load the branches in my car. I still wanted to use the sticks, but I didn’t know how to strengthen the branches, and knew if I would probably break most of the remaining branches just while trying to wrap the wire around them. Using newly cut branches would be an option since they’d be nice and springy, but they would dry out eventually and leave me with the same issue of brittleness. Plus, I didn’t want to chop any living branches off of trees, because that would be rude, and probably illegal. I decided to use the thicker parts of the branches and make a teepee light. The thicker areas aren’t too brittle, and they shouldn’t present any issues. I would arrange the branches around in a circle and wrap the top where they leaned on each other with the silver colored wire. I wasn’t too sure how to tie in a base or the lighting, but I thought the teepee would be a cool looking light. At this point, I was still going for a rustic modern aesthetic.

This 'Tipi' lamp is similar to what I was going for, but mine would be much more rustic.

This ‘Tipi’ lamp is similar to what I was going for, but mine would be much more rustic.

Then I had the idea to cast a base out of aluminum cans. I’ve had a ‘backyard foundry’ for about a year now, inspired by YouTuber Grant Thompson – “The King of Random”  (click for video). I’ve never had a lot of success with casting anything other than randomly shaped ingots, but I’ve been reading up on how to make successful casts. I figured I’d give it a go, and I have some dense pink insulation foam from the hardware store, and some sheets of foam core I found in the recycling by the engineering center. I tried to cut the high density foam with a hot knife cutter, but broke the tool. (Fixing that will be a different project, yay!) I cut out some foam core with a box cutter and glued it together, removing the paper, of course.

Foam core circles for casting a base.

Foam core circles for casting a base.

When the glue had dried (I was impatient, so it didn’t really) I dipped it in some Plaster of Paris I got at ReSource, which I mistook for my bag of drywall compound (also from ReSource). I dried the whole mess with the blow dryer I use to move air around in the bucket furnace, and buried it in sand. It’s really difficult to get sand to fill inner cavities, and took about 10 minutes to get it buried well enough. I fired up the furnace and starting trying to melt way too much aluminum at once. After about 4 hours and half a bag of charcoal, I was pretty frustrated, so I poured the metal, knowing that I didn’t have enough metal to fill the mold and melt the foam.

Furnace with a couple ingots heating up.

Furnace with a couple ingots heating up.

A tip for anyone attempting to melt aluminum using one of these furnaces: get a big bucket, like a 5 gallon metal bucket, and use that for the furnace body. It’s the perfect size to put half an empty propane can in and still get decent heat all around it. Also, wear something to protect yourself from fumes. After 4 hours of half inhaling charcoal dust, smoke, and aluminum fumes, I felt pretty crappy. I had a dust mask on (the cheap white kind you can get at any hardware store) and it didn’t do much. It kind of keep the dust out of my nose, but all the fumes were able to get it. I was also wearing a face shield, but that does nothing to protect your eyes from smoke, which I can tell you burns real bad. In the future, I’m going to either build a better furnace, or buy a real one (they’re expensive, but worth it, if just for less frustration). That’ll both speed the process up, so I won’t be exposed to junk for so long, and actually work so I’ll be able to perfect the casting method rather than struggle to get the metal to melt.

So the cast failed (I may be able to use the resulting pieces in a future project, so stay tuned for that). I wasn’t surprised, seeing as I had guessed that it wouldn’t work, and I had come up with a backup plan about an hour into the heating process. I have a bunch of empty plastic nut jars in the garage for storing various tools and hardware. Many of them are just waiting for stuff to be put in them, so I decided to sacrifice one of the lids and use it for a base, if the cast didn’t work. I wrapped it with electrical tape, because I thought I would put the aspen sticks inside the lid and wanted to make the outside of the lid look smooth.

It works!

The circuit works!

Earlier in the day, I had been playing around with some LEDs and a light up button I got at SparkFun. I’ve always wanted to include LEDs in a project, and I found some awesome color cycling ones. I couldn’t decide on a single color, and I figured it would be interesting if the lights changed colors, so I went with the RGB ones. I also didn’t think the light would be super useful as a lamp, I just wanted it to cast neat patterns and be kind of relaxing, so again, the RGB LEDs were a good choice. I decided to solder the circuit, then wrap the string of lights around a stick in the middle of the teepee and have the button in the base somewhere. I glued the center stick to the plastic lid base and put the batteries and button around it. the purpose of the center stick is to serve as a mount for the LEDs, and to provide some structure for the other branches to lean on. My soldering skills are far from amazing, and the resulting mess of wire, electrical tape, and batteries needed be be concealed. I have a bunch of fabric left over from various sewing projects, so I grabbed some plain black fabric that I thought wouldn’t draw attention and used it to cover the wiring.

Progress has been made!

The center stick attached and wire up!

In order to hide the wiring, I had to completely cover the top of the base with fabric, so the sticks couldn’t go in the base anymore. I started leaning them up against the base and tried to gather them and wrap them with wire at the top, but it wasn’t going well. I ended up deciding to glue the sticks around the base and see what happened. At some point, I ran out of short sticks, so I cut the rest down to size using a hand saw. I ended up not doing anything with the big log I found, and I had a small pile of sticks left over, so I’ll either return them to the wild, or use them in a future project.

Fallen aspen branches.

The fallen aspen branches.

The sticks were unevenly shaped and curved, so they ended up not doing what I wanted. They didn’t all lean in towards the center, so I ended up not wrapping them with wire to make a teepee shape. The center stick isn’t really serving as a support for the rest of the branches, seeing as they’re supported by the glue around the base. I did attempt to wrap wire around individual branches to try and tie in a modern look, but it didn’t look right, so I abandoned the attempt. The aesthetic I ended up with is rustic, and I think it works well and looks really nice. The LEDs mostly hang out around the red and green, but they do go blue for a bit, and cycled through intermediate colors, which is really cool.

When it's lit up.

The finished light, all lit up.

Design Loop Comparison 

The “design loop” that my team and I came up with was nothing like what my actual design process was for this project. The idealized process lacks key steps, such as my initial mistake of getting materials before having a project idea, realizing the plan I had wasn’t going to work, the failed cast for the base, and having some sort of backup plan.

Linear design process.

Linear design process.

The image below shows the actual design process I went through to build my decorative aspen branch light. As you can see, it isn’t linear, there is a dead end, and there are several loops and steps that can go back and forwards. A key feature of my actual design process is that the ‘finished’ product is never really finished. While this particular graphic doesn’t hold true for every design and project I’ve ever done, I believe that nothing I make is ever really finished. While at some point I will either get bored with making it better, or say it’s good enough and leave it alone, I always find ways to improve it, or find something wrong with it that I want to go back and fix. It’s not always a bad thing. It’s just the way it goes.

My actual design process.

I’d say my typical design process is usually very similar to what I went through for this project, although I can say I’ve never before let materials define my project before having an idea for a project. I know some people can think like that, but it just doesn’t work for me.

The Result

So real quick, I’ll list out the materials I used in the project (the final version), and where I got them from.

  • Aspen branches (found near Nederland High School)
  • Plastic lid (from a jar I found in the garage)
  • Hot glue (my craft cabinet)
  • Electrical tape (my project shop)
  • Cycling RGB LEDs (SparkFun)
  • Light up button (SparkFun)
  • Solder (ITLL Project Depot)
  • Wire (SparkFun)
  • 9 Volt batteries (my house)
  • 9 Volt battery connectors (ITLL Project Depot)
  • Black fabric (left over from sewing projects)

A lot of the objects I used were either just laying around my house somewhere, or I bought them new. The parts I would count as being up cycled are the branches, the fabric, and the plastic lid.The finished product!
When it's lit up.Functionally speaking, the light is just for decoration, possibly for relaxation or ambient lighting. The form of the finished light is natural and a little wild. To me, it resembles a tangled ring of tree trunks, and the front where the button is looks like the entrance to the inside of the grove. When the lights are on, it’s as if there someone is performing magic between the trees. The only specifications and goals I had for the design were that it worked and that it looked cool. I’m confident that I’ve achieved these. I’m also happy with how it turned out. I wouldn’t say I’m disappointed that it didn’t turn out as I envisioned it; it’s got character the way it is. Forcing it to fit my original vision would have been a mistake. Letting it ‘evolve’ as I build it was truly the only way to go. As far as achieving my aesthetic, I don’t think that it fits into the rustic modern aesthetic, but it certainly is rustic. Again, that’s fine. I like the way it turned out.

What’s Next?

As I mentioned above, I don’t believe anything I ever make is ever finished. There’s always something I can improve or change. As far as the aspen branch light goes, I don’t really like the base. It’s a bit wobbly and the branches do not feel solidly attached. I would like to get my aluminum melting equipment into working order, and try again to cast a base for it. Ideally, I’d cast it with a nice hole for the button to mount to, and polish the base so it looks modern. Then I’d like to drill internal holes into it that conform to each aspen branch and mount the branches inside the aluminum. I don’t think I would go for the tee pee shape, or wrap wire around any of it. I would like to coat the branch parts with a sealant to hopefully keep the bark from falling off. If they get too dry and old, the bark falls off. If I put the light somewhere and don’t touch it, chances are it’ll be fine. I also don’t really like how the LEDs go about halfway up the center branch, and that there’s the black fabric around that branch. I’d like to laser cut a little torus shape with holes for the LED leads, and mount up to 10 LEDs on it. It would sit around the base of the center stick, and cast light more uniformly. This would make the center stick to look more natural.

For now, I think it’ll hang out on a table in my room. I’m in the process of building a desk (different project, doesn’t have anything to do with this course, but I may post about it anyways…), and when I finish it, I think I’ll put the light on it. I’ve got a load of lights on the underside of my loft bed, and I’d love to add more, so the aspen light will make a good addition. It’s also fun to look at, so I think that would be a good place for it. I may or may not decide to make any improvements to the light. If I run out of other projects, I would give it a go, but I don’t see that ever happening.

This was a really fun project, and I’d love to do more upcycling in the future. I would especially like to make something completely out of old things, not using any new materials at all. I think that would be awesome.

Aspen Light Colors


Thanks for all the comments! If you’ve got any questions, please leave them, and I will respond to them.

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53 Comments. Leave new

  • The shadows were really cool, kinda spooky. If you make more, consider using different color LEDs. There’s also a warm white type LED

    Reply
  • I’ve just read through your entire post, and it’s unfortunate you weren’t able to get the casting to work. It sounds like an extremely time consuming process! I really liked the inspiration photo you had with the Tipi lamp. To me, that design represents both the aesthetic of rustic and modern. I agree with what you said, your piece represents more of a rustic aesthetic than it does modern. In my opinion, this is because the branches are uniform like they are in the Tipi lamp. The differences in each branch gives a much more natural feel, but I think modern tends to feel more flat and intentional than it does natural. Like I mentioned before, I think the use of LEDs made this project special. The shadows casted by the branches to the outside does give that feeling of magic that you described. As far as improvements go, I would recommend shaving down the tiny nubs on each branch to give it a smoother look. However, that might take away from the rustic feel but it’s just an idea. Good job!

    Reply
  • LOVE the shadows the branches create with the LEDs! Looking at the branches photo that you were going for, I think getting string lights like these could help you achieve your inspired look: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B014R170LO or if you want multicolored lights http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0176J7780

    Reply
    • Oops I published my comment too early and can’t edit it! I just wanted to add that I love the overall look of it, like some kind of twinkling forest. Overall, love it!!

      Reply
  • Nicholas Flood
    February 6, 2016 3:40 pm

    I like the organic look. I wonder how it would look if it had leaves as well. Good work!

    Reply
  • Kenzy O'neill
    February 5, 2016 9:02 pm

    This reminded me of a candle I saw once with branches all around the edge, nice aesthetic with the vertical branches. I think if you added more lights it would help with the overall appearance.

    Reply
  • Cool use of LEDs and light changing. It was good to hear the evolution of your design and seeing what you thought, how it worked out (or not), and then where you went from there. Have you thought about trying to add a top to piece? It could make it look more like trees, as well as provide support

    Reply
  • Brandon Boiko
    February 3, 2016 9:15 pm

    Very interesting. I love the simplicity of your project, the fact that you didn’t have to use any complex micro controllers and it still turned out amazing is impressive. Great work!

    Reply
  • That’s a cool idea! Ilike the idea of using scrap wood and sticks for furniture. Especially after a windstorm, you could collect all of it and make some great thing with it. It’s a cool mixture of the natural and modernized aesthetics of the wood and the LEDs.

    Reply
  • Nicholas Flood
    February 3, 2016 4:53 pm

    Interesting idea to combine a “rustic” aesthetic with leds. I don’t think the power button should light up though. The blue light stands out too much from the green leds and draws the eyes away from the main display. Good work!

    Reply
  • Anfal Abdulrahman
    February 3, 2016 2:47 pm

    Beautiful integration of natural looks and functionality, nice work.

    Reply
  • chris coffman
    February 3, 2016 1:54 pm

    This looks so great when it is dark and lit up. Very cool use of wood.

    Reply
  • Samantha Maierhofer
    February 3, 2016 1:44 pm

    I like that you were willing to scrap everything and start from scratch and iterate your design. Looks very cool and artistic, especially with the lights off. Is there a way to tweak the design to have the lamp light up more? Cool piece of art!

    Reply
  • You might try using dimmmable christmas lights to give a brighter appearance. I’ve always thought that white lights and aspens are complementary. Nice work!

    Reply
  • I like the idea of using branches for any projects, however, they are very ambitious to use and make them look exceptional. I would look into maybe angling them into a spiral or something like that.

    Reply
  • Sreyas Krishnan
    February 3, 2016 12:30 pm

    Love the natural appearance; this would look great on a mantle!

    Reply
  • I like the natural and spiraling shape of the lamp. I think it would make a great center piece for a dinner table.

    Reply
  • Great looking work. The branches and overall aesthetic is just really good looking. I would love to have something like this in my apartment.

    Reply
  • Joseph Yoshimura
    February 3, 2016 12:26 pm

    This product looks so natural and cool. For some reason it reminds me of something that you would see in a play. Great choice of material and coloring!

    Reply
  • Awesome! I like the lights in middle and how they cast a shadow because of the branches. It’s really well done, you couldn’t tell if there were LEDs attached to it, it’s very clean. I think if you used all one color it would make it pop more, or try using more LEDs. Good work and execution,

    Reply
  • Thomas Brunsgaard
    February 3, 2016 12:26 pm

    This looks like something you would find in a boutique store. It would be really cool to add even more LEDs so that you could use it as table lamp. Nice job!

    Reply
  • Interesting use of the branches and lights. I like how it maintains a rustic look. May want to use slightly brighter lights, but as is kinda looks like gremlin eyes hiding in the branches which is fun.

    Reply
  • Jacob McCormick
    February 3, 2016 12:26 pm

    Nice idea, i like the use of the local Aspen trees.

    Reply
  • David Holliman
    February 3, 2016 12:26 pm

    Very cool–if you wanted to take this project further, I think there’s potential to develop the branch arrangement or even add other natural materials (moss, evergreens, etc.).

    Reply
  • I like the swirl of the branches! Perhaps a single color LED would give a more natural atmosphere.

    Reply
  • Jakob Oreskovich
    February 3, 2016 12:26 pm

    I really like the color changing LED’s. Are the two-lead LED’s a set pattern then? Looks like it would make a great corner-piece.

    Reply
    • Ashley Zimmerer
      February 4, 2016 6:45 pm

      Yeah, they go from red to green to blue, sometimes an intermediate color in between. I’d like to use 4 lead ones at some point and an Arduino to set the color myself.

      Reply
  • Brittany Warly
    February 3, 2016 12:25 pm

    I like the rustic, natural look you achieved, and the LED’s look pretty cool. It would be nice to have this low light sometimes cause its relaxing.

    Reply
  • Rachel Grosskrueger
    February 3, 2016 12:25 pm

    I love your original approach to this project. I really like the idea and inspiration for this project and I think it looks really beautiful! I think more lights could help add some more depth. There are also these things called throwies that are really simple to use and setup!

    Reply
  • Shawn Sprinkle
    February 3, 2016 12:25 pm

    Looks really cool! Would you choose different LEDs in the future?

    Reply
    • Ashley Zimmerer
      February 4, 2016 6:46 pm

      I might. I like the cycling ones, but if I was going to use this as a light source, I’d use bright white LEDs.

      Reply
  • I love the organic look combined with the LEDs! It turned out really well.

    Reply
  • Meridith Richter
    February 3, 2016 12:25 pm

    I like the aspen branch idea a lot. It would be neat to see the LED’s come up a little bit out of the base and be dispersed throughout the branches.

    Reply
  • I like how you kept with a specific type of tree and not just grab any branches you could find. I think it would be cool if you had more green, brown/nature colors LEDs in general to the project. I think it would be cool if the LEDs went all over the place.

    Reply
  • love the idea. one suggestion is maybe using more leds and wire to the tips of the aspens. Excellent project though it turned out amazing!!

    Reply
  • I like how this turned out! Even from what we talked about a few weeks ago in our team meeting, I think your evolution of the project turned out really well. Super cool decorative / center piece, which is probably more useful than an actual big lamp to put in a corner!

    Reply
  • Peter Brunsgaard
    February 3, 2016 12:24 pm

    I would love a little more of a pattern or possibly some symmetry with the LEDs. Otherwise, it looks good!

    Reply
  • This is an cool project. I like hearing your design process. It seems similar to mine. What was the aesthetic you were going for and why did you choose those colors of LED? This was a cool idea. Would it be more of a night light sort of feature?

    Reply
    • Ashley Zimmerer
      February 4, 2016 6:50 pm

      Originally I was going for a modern rustic aesthetic, but it turned out more in the rustic part of the aesthetic than modern. I just really like the cycling ones. I was trying to decide what color to use, and I didn’t think anything really fit, other than white, but I didn’t want to use white. Then I found these and they didn’t need a controller, so I decided to go with them. It could be like a night light, I was thinking more just ambient lighting, kind of like to have in the background while reading or working. Not a light source though.

      Reply
  • Chip Bollendonk
    February 3, 2016 12:24 pm

    I really like how the branches are all different heights, it gives it a pretty appealing aesthetic. Where did you get the LED’s? I bet it would work just as well with any other [brighter] light, if you’re concerned about them being dim.

    Reply
    • Ashley Zimmerer
      February 4, 2016 6:51 pm

      I got the LEDs from SparkFun. I like that they’re so easy to hook up and don’t need a controller.

      Reply
  • Ryan Yankowsky
    February 3, 2016 12:24 pm

    Interesting use of branches to make a forest look, a bit more light… actual lights v/s led could add warmth and brightness to the lamp. Looks great!

    Reply
  • I like that you went with the flow and adjusted your design as needed. The natural woodsy look is cool.

    Reply
  • Sounds like you learned a lot during this project. I like the fairy land look.

    Reply
  • Its great that you went through so much iteration for your product. I also like that you wanted to highlight the nature aspect of it and hid the wiring.

    Reply
  • Brendan Warren
    February 3, 2016 12:24 pm

    I really like the rustic aesthetic! This would look great on a side table in a mountain cabin. How did you program the lights to change smoothly?

    Reply
    • Ashley Zimmerer
      February 4, 2016 6:52 pm

      They’re cycling LEDs so they change automatically. I didn’t want to deal with a bulky Arduino or anything.

      Reply
  • I’m a huge fan of the branches with LEDs aesthetic. It might be nice to add a few extra bright white LEDs just to give you some extra brightness. Or like you said, LED’s in the base- you could use an RGB LED strip and circle it around a ring on the base.

    Reply
  • Very cool idea, I love the natural materials and the swirling look you were able to get with all the branches; it makes it all very flowing.

    Reply
  • I really like hearing about your design process. Seeing how you pivoted your design direction as obstacles presented themselves really adds to the project.

    Reply
  • Gardner Nichols
    February 3, 2016 12:24 pm

    Interesting lamp. The form is really nice and unique from the normal “branch lamp”. I do wish the lights were brighter or more effective however.

    Reply
  • Nice job, it looks very organic. I can see your lamp fitting right in with the “log cabin” aesthetic or any rugged, outdoorsy theme.

    Reply

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