The holidays are right around the corner and your mind is probably turning to the outdoor holiday decorations. Tired of the same old thing, year after year? What could you do to spice up the old decorations this year? How about a Holiday Light Tunnel! It is super easy to make and your neighbors will be super impressed! Kids will love walking under and through the tunnel. And it makes a great platform for hanging and organizing your decorations, making it a much more interactive experience, spreading the holiday cheer!
I have built a Holiday Light Tunnel for three years now, learning something new each time. I have created this instructable to share my knowledge and experience so that you can build your own tunnel. And it will be really easy. The parts are easy to find, cutting and prep is minimal, and assembly is not complicated. You will have your own tunnel up in no time!
The tunnel is basically a series of arches or hoops that span the sidewalk in front of my house. So, a basic requirement is to have some kind of grass or soil on both sides of your sidewalk (or wherever you plan to place the tunnel). In my case there is a parkway on one side and my yard on the other, and my neighbors can walk through the tunnel on their evening walks.
My version here is all decked out for Christmas, but you can adapt it to any holiday you want. Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, heck you could even use this for Halloween!
Step 1: Parts List
Building your own tunnel is easy, and I think these instructions are straight forward. But if you have any questions or feel that something is not clear, then please feel free to comment or contact me. I am happy to answer any questions!
The basic idea is that the tunnel will be comprised of a series of arches. The arches will be secured to the ground using metal rebar at each end, with the tubing just slipping over the rebar. Then the arches will be attached together by some lateral tubing that will help reinforce it and keep the structure sturdy.
As I mentioned, the parts are easy to find and you should be able to find them at any local Home Depot or Lowes. This parts list will assemble into a tunnel that has 6 arches and will be about 25 feet in length. Depending on the area you want to place your tunnel, and how many arches you want, you may need to modify this list.
- 12 1/2" metal rebar in 1' length (2 per arch)
- 20 1/2" white PVC tubing in 10' lengths (2 per arch + some lengths used to connect the arches laterally)
- 6 1/2" 3-way white PVC connectors (3 per "end" arch, there are always 2 end arches)
- 12 1/2" 4-way white PVC connectors (3 per "in-between" arch, varies with how many in-between arches used)
You should be able to find all of the PVC tubing and connectors in the plumbing/sprinkler aisle of your local Home Depot/Lowes. The rebar should easy to find as well, though location can vary. Be sure to try inserting the rebar into the PVC tubing to make sure it can easily slip in and out. You don't want it to catch or bind.
The 1/2" PVC tubing is sturdy enough to be assembled into a lightweight structure, but flexible enough to shape into the arches, which makes it ideal for this project.
Don't buy or use any PVC glue/adhesive. I have found that tightly dry fitting the pieces together is sufficient for assembly, plus it makes it easier to store between seasons since you can break it down to smaller lengths.
Step 2: Cutting & Prep
Once you get all the parts home, then you are ready to cut and prep the PVC parts.
Cutting is very simple. You want to cut each 10' PVC tube into 2 5' tubes. Essentially you are just cutting each tube in half. You can use a simple hand saw to do the job. The cuts don't have to be super accurate, a 1/4" difference is not going to affect things. But make sure to measure twice and cut once. Otherwise you'll be going back to get replacement parts.
Why any cutting at all? Why not just assemble the tunnel together with the 10' tubing? You could do that. In fact, that is what I did the first time I built a tunnel. And when there was any slight gust of wind the tunnel would lean and almost fall over. The tunnel needs some lateral supports so that it is more sturdy, and cutting the tubing into 5' lengths allows connectors to be added that will connect the lateral supports. Remember that the tunnel will be supporting the weight of any lights or decorations you place on it, so stability is key.
In addition, you could spend some time lightly sanding the outside of the tubing to remove the printing that is usually found on PVC tubing. This tubing is typically used for sprinklers, and are buried underground, so no one cares about seeing the printing. But I have found that after the lights and decorations are added, and everything is lit up at night, no one even notices the printing. I don't think any removal of the printing is required, but you may feel differently.
Prepping is also very simple. You want to dry fit all the PVC tubing together to form the lengths that will make up each arch. Every arch will use 4 of the 5 feet PVC tubing. If the arch is an "end" end arch, meaning it will be located at one of the two ends of the tunnel, then the PVC tubing is connected together using the 3-way connectors. If the arch is an "in-between" arch, meaning it is between the two end arches, then the PVC tubing is connected together using the 4-way connectors.
Start off by taking 4 pieces of tubing and attaching the 3 connectors to the ends of 3 tubes (see the first and second pictures). Again, dry fitting should be fine, just be sure to push the connectors on tightly. Once the connectors are on the tubes, then start connecting the tubes together at the other end of the connector. None of the connectors should end up on the ends of the arch, they should all be "inside" the arch.
The connectors should all be oriented in the same direction. A trick I learned for this is to use the ground to set the orientation of the connector by making sure it is "flat" against the ground. Then when attaching another length of tube, make sure its connector is also flat against the ground in the same orientation. That is usually good enough to ensure the connectors are all lined up (see third and fourth pictures). For the 4-way connectors it is not as big of a deal, they will more naturally lay flat, but you don't want the connectors twisted away from each other. It will make the structure less stable and less attractive when you start the tunnel assembly.
Each arch will be 20' in length. Each 5' segment should be flexible enough to bend into an arch, and the arch will have plenty of clearance for people walking through the tunnel.
Now wasn't that cutting and prepping easy? With the parts list in this instructable you should now have 2 "end" arches and 4 "in-between" arches ready for tunnel assembly. In addition to the assembled arches, you should also have 16 5' lengths of tubing. Don't be alarmed, those pieces are going to be used for the lateral supports.
Step 3: Laying Out the Rebar
Accurately laying out the rebar is key for a stable and attractive tunnel, and it is about as easy as the cutting and prepping. You will need a hammer for this part of the instructable.
Each arch will be secured at each end with a piece of rebar that has been hammered 6" into the ground. That leaves 6" of rebar above ground that the tubing can slip over, effectively securing the end of the arch. The rebar will be completely covered by the tubing, so there is no danger of someone tripping over or falling onto the rebar and getting injured.
The distances that the pieces of rebar are laid out from each other is important. The first tunnel I built, I placed the rebar too close to each other, and my arches "bulged" out and looked kind of funny. If you are going for that look, you can always do that, but will make the arch a bit less stable.
Through trial and error, I have found that the two pieces of rebar, one for each side of a ~20' arch, should be placed approximately 114" apart. This makes for a "traditional" looking arch that provides the most support. My sidewalk is about 54" wide, and to better accommodate my decorations I place one rebar 3' from the sidewalk on one side and 2' from the sidewalk on the other side. But you can do that however you want or have space for, as long as they are about 114" apart.
Before hammering in any of the rebar, you want to also get a sense of where your tunnel will start and where it will end. The tunnel in this instructable will be about 25' long. So, I make sure the start and end will fit into my yard and parkway. I also make sure that the in-between arches won't be interfered with. In my case I have a tree in the parkway. I make sure the tree will be comfortably between two arches. This is easily done by translating the tunnel along the sidewalk until the layout works. You should also take into account other things like sprinkler heads, etc. You don't want to hammer the rebar through your existing sprinkler system.
Once you have worked that out, time to hammer in the rebar for the first arch. When hammering in the rebar, take a close look at it. Usually the rebar is cut to length by a big metal cutter, and this cutting process can leave one end of the rebar with a slight protrusion. It can sometimes be hard to slip the PVC tubing over the end of the rebar with this protrusion. You can spend time filing it down to make it pretty. Or you can do what I do, which is to just hammer the protrusion end into the ground, leaving the cleaner end above ground. One year I made the mistake of leaving the protrusion end above ground (just wasn't paying attention), and then later disassembling the tunnel became a headache as I could not extract the rebar from the tubing. It took 2 pliers and a lot of coaxing to extract it.
Hammer in the first two pieces of rebar for the first end arch about 114" apart, leaving about 6" above ground. You want them to roughly line up with each other across the sidewalk. Most sidewalks have lines conveniently imprinted, and I use the extra PVC tubing to make sure they are roughly lined up.
After you have hammered in the first two pieces of rebar, you can lay out the second two pieces. Each arch should have the rebar approximately 62" apart. This will accommodate the 5' lateral tubing with a little extra for the connectors. So, place the next rebar 62" from the first rebar, and also 114" from each other. See the diagram that illustrates this.
Now just keep laying out and hammering in the rebar for each arch until all done.
That was a long, detailed explanation, but it wasn't that hard, right? And now you have accurately laid out the rebar and you can start assembling the tunnel itself.
Step 4: Assembling the Tunnel
Start with one of the "end" arches that you assembled earlier. Verify that the tubing and connectors are tightly connected together. Then slip one end of the arch over one of the rebar you laid for the end of the tunnel. This may be a bit tricky and unwieldy since you are trying to wrangle a 20' long piece of PVC tubing. It is helpful if you can enlist the help of another person for this wrangling. Once you have the one end over the rebar, then carefully bend the arch until the other end can slip over the rebar on the other side. Both sides should slip easily over the rebar, but should be stable. You shouldn't see any of the rebar once the arch is in place. The arch will wobble, but it should stay upright.
Make sure the arch looks good, and not bent funny and not "bulging". You know what a good arch should look like. Make sure the tubing and connectors are tightly connected. Make sure the remaining opening of the connectors is oriented in the direction the next arch will be installed. You can just twist or turn the entire arch so that the opening of the connector is pointed in the right direction.
Now take one of the "in-between" arches that you assembled earlier. Verify that the tubing and connectors are tightly connected, and slip the ends over the next set of rebar. More wrangling will be involved, but now you've had practice and it is easier, right? Make sure the remaining openings of the connectors are oriented toward the direction of the first arch and where the next arch will be installed.
You now have two freestanding, slightly wobbly arches installed next to each other (see the first picture of the arches). Take 3 of the 5' lengths of PVC and fit them as lateral spines into the connectors of both arches. Unless you are a giant, a step stool or ladder will be needed to install the lateral spine at the top of the arch. You now have something that is no longer wobbly (see the second picture of the arches). Repeat the installation of the arches until you have installed and connected all of the arches together (see the last picture of the arches). Double check the tightness of the fittings. The tunnel should be very stable at this point and ready for decorating. (You will have one 5' length of PVC tubing left over. Feel free to bring out your inner Jedi and used it as a pretend light saber. Please do not hit anyone with your pretend light saber, that would be naughty of you. You have been warned.)
Step 5: Decorate!
Now comes the fun part, decoration! The arches and lateral spines are an excellent platform for hanging holiday lights and decoration. Decorations can be placed along the side of the tunnel for neighbors to enjoy as they walk through your holiday tunnel. Besides the lights hung on the arches and supports, I have a lighted snowman, deer, and other types of lights "inside" the tunnel.
- The first year I wrapped the light strands around the arches. This took a lot of time and effort to wrap around each arch and spine. It's more involved than you might think. The next year I got smarter and used 8" plastic zip ties to attach the lights to the arches, no wrapping. This works really well, and you can get zip ties at Home Depot or Lowes. The only problem I had with this is I felt it was a lot of waste. It takes almost 100 zip ties for my installation, and they can't be reused.
- This year I am going to use some 3D printed hooks that I designed to attach lights to the 1/2" PVC tubing. I prototyped them last year, and this year I have 3D printed them in a matching white color. It will take about 10-12 hooks per arch. But I can reuse them from year to year. If you have access to a 3D printer, you may want to consider using them yourself.
- Even though the arches are bent to form the tunnel, they are still 20' in length (I know, it is obvious). You can use this information when buying light strands, to make sure they are sufficient length.
- Most light strands have plugs on both ends so they can be connected together in series. You can take advantage of this to use the strands like an extension cord and run power to the other side of the tunnel. You can then install decorations on both sides of the tunnel. This avoids having an extension cord running across the sidewalk that people can stumble over. As long as you don't string too many electrical decorations together and blow a fuse, it should be fine.
I am hoping to get fancier with the decorations each year. I would like to spend some time programming an Arduino with a motion sensor and relays to trigger some kind of light animation when someone walks through the tunnel. One could get really fancy with long strands of Neo Pixel LED's. And having some festive holiday music would help set the mood. Think about the possibilities!
Step 6: Storage
Thinking ahead to when you will tear down the tunnel after the holidays, storage is straight forward. You can break the tunnel down into the 5' tube segments. You can leave the 3-way and 4-way connectors on the ends of the segments or remove them and put them into a bag. The rebar can be pulled up, cleaned off, and also stored in a bag. I use blue painters tape to put the tubing into bundles that I store in the garage rafters until I pull them out for the next year.
Step 7: Enjoy!
I hope that you decide to use this instructable to build your own Holiday Light Tunnel. It takes some time to assemble and decorate, but it is easy to do. And if your neighbors are anything like mine, it makes a lasting impression. I'm the guy in the neighborhood with the "Christmas Tunnel". :-)
If you build and decorate your own tunnel, I would love to see pictures and hear about your experience. If you come up with some novel extension or decoration, please let me know.