I've been experimenting a lot with sculpting leather and I wanted to try using this technique to make a leather lampshade. Soaking veg tanned (unfinished) leather in water turns it into an almost clay-like substance that can be sculpted easily by hand, and keeps it's shape after it dries. I combined this technique with laser cutting to create a set of pendant lamps with an organic, flower like, shape.
The whole process turned out to be fairly simple, and resulted in unique and sturdy lamp shades that definitely have the sort of floral-noir, ambiguously biological aesthetic I enjoy. I feel like these lamps would be equally at home hanging in a haunted swamp, or swimming through the depths of the sea (though they should, of course, never be submerged in water).
Laser cutting made this project a bit easier, but you could certainly achieve a similar form using hand tools, so don't let a lack of technology stop you from trying this project. This is just one of a host of different applications I can imagine for this leather sculpting technique.
Step 1: Supplies
- Leather - 2-5 oz veg tanned milled leather, about 9 square feet to make two flowers.
- Leather dye if you want the lamp to be a color other than the natural color of your leather. I used black Pro Waterstain and yellow Cova Color.
- Rivets - I used small black ones
- A hammer
- A very hard surface or anvil
- A rotary hole punch
- Wool Daubers
- Paint Brushes
- Exacto knife
- Cups for water and paint
- Bottles to drape your leather over - I found that a large Kalua bottle was a good shape for the lamp I was trying to make
- A pot of baking dish for soaking the leather
- A towel
- 2 hanging light bulb sockets
- 2 light bulbs
- 15 ft of lamp chord
- 1 in-line switch
- 1 plug
- Electrical tape or heat shrink tubing
- Wire strippers
- A soldering iron
- A laser cutter or patience with scissors, an exacto, and a hole punch
- A computer (if you are using a laser cutter or like drafting patterns digitally)
- An oven for curing your leather (optional)
Step 2: Design the Shade
To design the exact shape of my shade, I looked at a lot of incredible flowers online for ideas. I love the hanging trumpet form of Datura flowers, and the slightly creepy aesthetic of some orchids like this one, which is actually called a Dracula Orchid.
I took these influences and sketched a simple design that I hoped I could create with a single draped piece of leather.
Then I drafted a pattern for my design in Adobe Illustrator by dividing a circle into thirds, creating one petal, and then arraying it around the circle.
I laser cut the pattern in paper and tested it by draping it over a bottle and folding it. It took a few iterations to get the proportions right.
Step 3: Cut the Leather
Once I had a good paper mock up, I scaled down one of the shades and altered it slightly so one flower would be smaller than the other. Then I laser cut my patterns in leather.
Though using a laser makes this faster, you could definitely make a similar design by tracing your patterns onto leather and cutting with scissors, an exacto and a hole punch. However, these days, getting access to a laser cutter isn't too difficult. You could send your file to a service like Ponoko, or, better yet, find a local maker space in your area and learn how to use a laser cutter yourself. Maker spaces are popping up all over the world, and they are great places to create, learn, and find community.
I used one of the 120 watt Epilog lasers at Instructables and I found that these settings worked well for my 4-5 oz leather.
All lasers are different, so I always test my settings first. If you don't have access to a laser cutter, you could send your files to a service like Ponoko. Or you could try cutting a pattern like this out by hand with scissors, and exacto and a leather hole punch.
Step 4: Drape the Leather
To help get some of the laser soot of my leather, I first rinsed it in the sink, then I fully submerged it in a baking pan of very warm water.
After all the bubbles had stopped rising from the leather, I took it out and patted it dry with a towel.
Then I slid the center hole down over the neck of my bottle and began shaping the folds with my hands.
It was really quite easy to get the leather into a good shape and it only took a few minutes.
When I was finished sculpting, I left the leather draped over the bottles to dry overnight.
Step 5: Dye the Shade
When my shades were fully dry I painted the outside and inside with different colors.
I used a wool dauber to apply black Pro Waterstain to the outside of the leather of each flower. I kept the leather on the bottles while I applied the dye to help them keep their shape.
To create a nice greenish yellow color for the inside of the flowers I mixed a tiny bit of the black Waterstain into yellow Cova Color, and applied it with a dauber and a paintbrush.
When I was done, the flowers had deformed slightly, so I formed them back into shape on their bottles and left them there to dry.
Step 6: Create the Shade Caps
The holes in the tops of my shades were a bit too big to stay on my light sockets, so I decided to make small leather caps to go over them that would resemble the sepals of flowers.
I laser cut these as well (though you could easily hand cut them) and then wet formed them in the same way as the main shades, draping them over other bottles I found in the kitchen.
I let them dry enough to keep their shape, then put them in a 250 degree oven for about 25 minutes, checking them often. The oven hardens them more than air drying, and helps them keep their shape.
When they were dry I painted them the same colors as the main shades.
Step 7: Attach the Caps
I attached my caps by punching 3 holes through both the leather of the cap and main shade, and then attaching the two with small black rivets.
Step 8: Wire the Plug and Switch
There are many kinds of plugs and switches that can be used for lamp cords. You could also just as easily buy a cord with a plug already attached, but I chose to wire mine myself.
The plug I chose was very simple to wire. First I removed the inner plug mechanism by squeezing the prongs together and pulling out. I trimmed the cloth covering away from the end of my cord and used a small piece of heat shrink tubing to seal the loose thread ends. Then I slid my wire through the black plug housing and out the other side. I opened the two prongs of the inner plug mechanism, slid the end of the wire inside, and then pressed the prongs together again so they pierced the two strands of the wire, creating a connection. Finally I slid the whole assembly back into the black plug housing.
To wire the switch, I stripped away about a 1" section of the cloth covering my cord a few feet in from the plug. Once again I sealed the loose thread ends on each side with heat shrink tubing. Then I divided the wires and cut away a short section of one of them. I unscrewed the switch housing and placed my wire inside. Then I put the switch housing back together, making sure that the little prongs on the upper half of the switch pierced the strand of wire I had cut, not the uncut strand. This allows the position of the switch to control the flow of electricity between the two cut ends of the wire, thus turning the light on and off.
Step 9: Create a Y in the Wire
I wanted my two flower lamps to hang off separate branches of lamp cord, so I needed to create a Y in my wire. To do this I first measured about how long I wanted the two branches to be. I decided I wanted my larger lamp to be 25" from the Y and the smaller one to be 15".
I cut off a 15" section from the end of the cord, then measured 25" in and stripped away about 1.5" of my cloth cord covering. Then I separated the wires and stripped the insulation off one small section of each strand of wire, making sure to stagger these openings at least 1" apart so there would be no chance they could contact eachother. I stripped the ends of my 15" cord and soldered each end to one of the the sections of exposed wire.
Then I covered the whole thing with heat shrink tubing.
Step 10: Wire the Sockets
Last, I attached my two light sockets.
Before wiring each one I threaded both shades onto the wire through the small hole in the top of the leather caps.
I unscrewed the two parts of the outer socket housings and then threaded the ends of the two branches of chord into the top half of the two sockets respectively. I tied a knot close to the end of each cord so the weight of the lamps wouldn't be resting on the electrical connections themselves.
Then I cut away the cloth cover on the end of each cord, divided and stripped the two ends of the wire. I loosened the two screws on the inside of the socket fixtures, wrapped the bare ends of the wires around the base of the screws and tightened them down again. Then I screwed the socket housings back together.
Step 11: Cover the Y
I wanted to cover the Y in the wire with something other than just heat shrink, so I created a simple leather cover, which I dyed and attached with rivets. This also helped hold the two branches of the wire apart a little, making the flowers hang more smoothly.
Step 12: Turn on the Lights
I put two teardrop shaped bulbs in my sockets and hung them by a hook.
The green on the inside of the shades picks up the light nicely, and the cut-outs in the leather cast interesting shadows on the walls and floor. They definitely have a very botanical, almost living feel to them, and I think they look equally beautiful with the lights off.