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