Milk bottles, once a stalwart household companion, have been through a rough patch. In the sixties, over a quarter of Americans had milk delivered; by 2004, it was less than one percent. However, the rise of organic foods and CSA's have brought delivery back. Instead of flimsy plastic cartons, our local market sells milk in beautiful, thick glass bottles.
I combined two quart bottles with some IKEA Ledberg LED strips and a few scraps of fence post to make a pair of reading lamps. Flanking the couch, they are simple modern pillars by day and smooth, atmospheric lights by night. Using mostly salvaged material, they cost about $20 each, and took about 8 hours to put together.
You will need these tools:
- Table saw
- Chop saw or hand saw and miter box
- Small craft saw
- Drill press (preferred) or hand drill
- Soldering iron
- Wire nippers
- Wire strippers
- Tape measure
- Rubber gloves
- Steel wool
You will need these materials:
- 1 quart glass milk bottle
- 6-8" scrap of 4x4, pallet wood, or similar
- Electrical tape
- 4 rubber cone-shaped bottle corks
- Self-adhesive weatherstripping
- Rubber epoxy
- Frost spray paint
- Clear spray lacquer
Step 1: Preparing the Bottles
I spent a fair amount of time in some online home-brewing forums to discover the best way to remove the labels on the milk bottles. Everyone swore by Star San, a mild phosphoric acid that is used for sanitizing brewing equipment. Even after soaking overnight at twice the recommended concentration, Star San had only succeeded in lightly fading the labels.
Turns out milk bottles have something called Applied Ceramic Labeling, a baked-on graphic meant to withstand thousands of high-temperature wash-and-reuse cycles. To remove it, I applied Armour Etch and let the bottles sit for about half an hour. Using rubber gloves, I then scrubbed the bottles with steel wool, which both ate away the label and lightly frosted the glass. I put Armour Etch inside the bottles as well, sloshing it around to etch the inside surface of the glass. However, the process left a splotchy finish.
To even it out, I washed the bottles thoroughly in hot soapy water, then applied several coats of frosting spray paint. It adhered well to the roughened glass, but I added several coats of clear spray lacquer on top to ensure the frosting coat wouldn't chip.
Step 2: Base Construction
Aesthetically, I wanted the base to be the same dimension as the footprint of the bottle, so that the column of wood plus glass appeared as one rectangular volume (more or less).
I found some scrap wood -- perhaps cedar fencepost, but was hard to tell -- and cut 2 6" sections on the chop saw. If I was repeating this design, I would make the base about 2" taller, as it was tight to fit in the LED strips.
Using a drill press, a Forstner bit, and a chisel, I gradually carved out a cavity in each base that would accept the neck of the milk bottle. I did a lot of guessing and checking -- sketch a profile, drill out, test fit, rinse and repeat. In the center, drill a 1"-diameter hole all the way through the base to accommodate the cord.
In the end, I got the bottles to fit very tightly. Adding a couple of layers of electrical tape around the neck also helped secure the bottle, adding some friction between the wood and glass. To finish it, I added a few layer of hand-rubbed beeswax.
Step 3: Building the Fixture
IKEA Ledberg lights cost about $15, and are designed as under-cabinet strip lights. Each unit plugs into the next, end-to end. In order to configure them differently, cut away the plastic on the socket end of the strips to expose the metal leads. Only cut away the plastic on two of the three strips; you need to preserve one socket so that the fixture can plug into the switch/transformer/cord unit.
Next, use a table saw to cut a thin strip of plywood into an equilateral triangle about 3/4" to a side. Sand down and round off the sharp corners. Trim to length of Ledberg strips. Use super glue to attach the strips to the plywood, forming a triangular prism with lights facing evenly in three directions and the socket/plug ends alternating. If you don't have access to a table saw, a wooden dowel would also work.
Add some self-adhesive weatherstripping the the bottom 2-3" of the fixture and wrap tightly in electrical tape. Test fit into the base of the lamp. The fixture should fit tightly into the central cord hole so that it sticks straight up. Finesse the fit with more tape and weatherstripping or by chiseling away at the base as necessary.
Step 4: IKEA Hacking
Once the 3-strip fixtures have been assembled, solder the plug and sockets together in series, making one new connection at either end of the fixture. I used small scraps of speaker wire. It was a bit tough to solder such a tiny connection, and I melted a little plastic, but it worked. Test that the new light works by plugging in the switch/transformer/cord unit into the socket end of one of the strips. Wrap the new connections in electrical tape.
Step 5: Assembly
After test-fitting all the components together, I realized the base of the lamp needed a little gap underneath to accommodate the bending radius of the cord. I drilled four shallow counterbores with a Forstner bit, then glued in four rubber corks with rubber epoxy. This makes the lamp a bit more top heavy and tippy; if I were to do it over again, I would make a base plate from concrete, brass, or something else with more mass. On the other hand, the feet set off the base, and add a light mid-century touch.
Secure the power cord with a staple, then feed the fixture in from above and plug into the power cord. Flip over. Cap off with the milk bottle, plug in, turn on, and enjoy!