An age old DIY holiday decoration project for your front yard is the pie pan Christmas tree. This instructable describes how to update this project with the GE Color Effects color changing LED bulbs. The GE Color Effects bulbs look awesome in the pie tins at night, and they also provide improved electrical safety compared to using the older socket type glass/metal screw-in light bulbs with pie tins. However, one disadvantage for the GE Color Effects bulbs is that they do not have an easy-to-manage screw closure, therefore some hacking is necessary to "snap" the clear plastic bulbs off of the lights. After that the project is well, just a snap!
11 Pie Tins (Hefty or Reynolds E-Z Foil Pie Pans for 9-inch recipes)
GE Color Effects G-35 Bulbs (25 count)
1/4-inch Plywood and/or Peg Board (min. 2-ft x 4-ft)
Drill with 1" Spade bit
X-Acto knife or equivalent
Black electrical tape
Optional Supplies (Ruffled White Star for Tree Top):
5-mm Ambient Light sensor (Radio Shack)
Round PCB Kit (Radio Shack)
9v Battery Leads (Radio Shack)
LilyPad White LED (SparkFun.com)
Large roasting thick foil pan (for 7.5-inch square sheet)
Double Stick Foam Tape
Step 1: Prepare Pie Tins
The Hefty or Reynolds E-Z Foil Pie Pan for 9-inch recipes look great with the GE Color Effects bulbs.
The E-Z Foil pie tins are actually 8-3/4 inch inner diameter (inside the rim), which allows spacing them exactly 9-inches apart in this project.
Using an X-Acto knife or equivalent, cut a 1-inch diameter hole in the center of each pie tin.
A total of 11 pie tins are used: 10 for the tree and 1 representing the base of the tree. Optionally an additional small pie tin can be used to represent a star on top of the tree.
Step 2: Purchase/Test the GE Color Effects Lights
This project is based on the GE G-35 Color Effects 25-count light string.
Before you tamper with the bulbs, it's a good idea to test the operation. The Color Effects lights come with a controller that provides 8 different pre-programmed color sequences selected by push button control. A short study of the light show reveals that the bulbs sometimes light-up in groups of 3, with the last bulb (Bulb #25) being the "odd man out" acting by itself. Many of the patterns involve lights changing color sequentially, one at a time.
This information comes in handy for deciding the optimum positioning of the lights in the pie tin tree project. The pre-programmed Sequence No. 1 ( 5 Color Multi Function) is probably the best choice. Sequence No. 4 (red white and blue) is also great. Sequence No. 2 (blue and white) has potential use for Hanukkah. It is beyond the scope of this Instructable to discuss hacking the GE electronics to make up your own light show for the pie tin tree, but that's a future possibility.
These amazing lights are a little more expensive - I paid about $50 for mine on Amazon.com - but they are well worth it. To reduce cost, you can look for clearance sales after the holiday season. But be sure to inspect the bulbs inside the box in case a crafty thief switched out the contents on you, I found out.
Step 3: Construct a Christmas Tree-Shaped Base Board
For this project, the GE lights and pie tins will be mounted on a base board shaped like a Christmas tree, typically made out of 1/4-inch plywood or peg board.
If you have an existing plywood or pegboard base from an earlier version of this project (my case), you can retrofit for the GE Bulbs by enlarging the holes to 1-inch diameter using a 1-inch spade bit in your drill. Compared to the older threaded-style light bulbs, the GE bulbs are wider (approx. 15/16-inch at the base). They are also spaced more closely, about 10-inches apart (compared to the 12-inch spacing on the older style holiday lights). Given the need for some slack in the wires, any light bulb gaps in your artistic design over about 9.5 inches will require skipping a light or two to provide some slack in the wires. Skipping a light or two also helps to coordinate your final "light show" with the color change schemes pre-programmed in the controller of the GE Color Effects lights.
For those needing to construct a new base board, an approximate layout plan is provided for a 4-ft tree design with a 4-3-2-1 pie tin pyramid. For this design, the pie tins are spaced horizontally on 9-in centers, and each row is centered 9-inches above the next row. The project requires a total of 12x1-inch holes for the GE bulbs, with 10 holes for the tree pie tins, one hole representing the tree base pie tin, and one extra bulb hole at the very top. The very top hole is reserved for a white bulb representing a star on top of the tree, and as shown, this top hole is spaced about 6-in above the top hole in the tree.
You can actually make the base board out of one 2 x 4-ft board by cutting out the three parts that can be joined to form the tree shape (see picture in Step 5). But it is probably better to make a one piece tree base if a 4x4-ft board is available to start with.
Consideration must also be given to a method for hanging or mounting the tree. One approach is to hang the tree from a thin rope. In this approach, a small wood block can be secured to the rear of the base board to provide a place to mount an eye hook for attaching the rope. The rope needs to hang a little off-center to avoid conflicting with the bulbs in the top holes of the layout. Finally, you will probably want to paint the wood base with dark green spray paint for waterproofing and appearance.
Although larger pie tin trees are possible (given the 25 bulb count in the GE string) the 4-ft design looks great and is convenient for storage. If anyone is planning on larger tree designs such as a 5-4-3-2-1 pie tin tree or a 6-5-4-3-2-1 pie tin tree, you may want to space the tree rows at 8-inches to allow a denser packing of the pie tins which helps to make sure you can use all of the 25 lights in the GE string.
Step 4: Remove the Clear Plastic Bulbs From GE Color Effects Lights
The "secret" to this project is finding a good way to remove the clear plastic bulbs from the GE lights. As mentioned earlier, the GE Color Effects bulbs are not threaded, so they cannot be unscrewed. Instead the clear bulbs have been "snapped" into a green plastic base by the manufacturer, with no obvious way for the consumer to "unsnap" them to get them off.
One solution I've found is to build a bulb removal tool using an approximate 1x3-ft section of pegboard. As pictured, the removal tool features a nominal 1-inch diameter slot with a larger 1x2-in opening at the top. A 15/16-inch spade bit was used to make the slot in the picture, but presumably a 1-inch slot works just as well.
The idea (as shown) is to secure the GE light fixture in the slot, hold the board firmly or step on it, and then pull the bulbs straight out with a quick yank. Interestingly, you will note the bulbs are completely empty -- the tiny color LEDs are surface mounted in the bottom base of the fixture, and protected with a clear plastic lens cover.
Some precautions - most obviously, always unplug the lights before you take them apart. If the bulbs are pulled out at too much of angle, you may chip the plastic bottom of the bulbs. These damaged bulbs may still be usable however. More seriously, it is possible to crack the clear plastic lens cover over the surface mounted LEDs. The solution is to try to pull the bulbs straight out (maybe a slight angle is needed). It's also a good idea to work with the bulbs on a carpeted surface, as they tend to fall on the floor and crack.
The good news is that this project only uses up to 12 out of the 25 lights on the string. So there will be plenty of spare parts. Additionally, you can practice your technique on the unused bulbs in the design.
>>Once you get the hang of it, go ahead and remove all of the clear bulbs from the light string.
Step 5: Insert Pie Tins and Bulbs Into the Base Board
Determine which lights you will be using for the tree display, and which lights will not be used.
Here is the recommended placement, whereas Bulb #25 is furthest bulb out on the string:
- Bulb #25 goes to Top Hole #12 (STAR)(optionally is unused)
- Bulb #24 is Unused
- Bulb #23 goes to Tree Top Hole #1
- Bulb #22 is Unused
- Bulb #20-21 goes to Tree Holes 2-3
- Bulb #19 is Unused
- Bulb #16-18 goes to Tree Holes 4-6
- Bulb #15 is Unused
- Bulb #11-14 goes to Tree Holes 7-10
- Bulb #9-10 are Unused
- Bulb #8 goes to the Tree Base Hole #11
- Bulb #1-7 are Unused
An approximate wiring diagram is provided (see next section).
The unused bulb-less light fixtures can be covered over with black electrical tape at this point.
Next assemble the lights in the tree board as follows: first place the bulb base though the hole in the pie tin, then through the hole in the board, and then snap the bulb back into the appropriate socket on the GE light string.
At this point, you may find a loose fit of the lights, because space available in the the bulb fixture is a bit wider than the 1/4-inch board. To take up this slack, cardboard spacers can be used behind the board to give the lights a tighter fit. For waterproofing, cover the cardboard spacers with duck tape, or alternatively cut the spacers out of corrugated plastic "cardboard" sheets (e.g.; available from HomeDepot). Another option might be smaller holes (15/16-inch instead of 1-inch diameter) in the base board which may allow a tighter fit of the lights.
Note: In the pictures, one pie tin is removed to show the base. In my tree base, I used a 1-inch "slot" instead of a 1-inch hole, reflecting out-dated earlier version of the project before I figured out how to extract the bulbs.
Step 6: Wiring Diagram
See above wiring diagram for the project. The wiring diagram also provides a pie tin numbering convention.
Step 7: Create Star for Top of Tree (Optional)
Optionally, a "star" can be placed at the top of the tree. Historically I have used a clear white light bulb in this position. Hole #12 is reserved for this optional star LED light.
The star can either be a bare light, a small round pie tin, or a homemade star. For this Instructable, a 5-point 3D star is made out of thick aluminum foil cut from the bottom of a large roasting "pie" tin. There are many videos on how-to-make the 3D stars, but the YouTube video "5 point Star with One Square Paper" is particularly useful. Starting with a 7.5-in square of foil seems to be the optimum size. Each of the five points of the star are scrunched up to create "ruffles" for improved light reflection. Finally, cut a 1-inch hole in the bottom center for insertion into the tree just like the pie tins. Note that tin snips will be useful for cutting the thick foil. The photo above shows the final ruffled foil 3D star.
Now you may want to stop right here. The ruffled foil star looks quite fantastic as a color-changing star on the tree. But how about additionally changing the LED output to white-only for the star?
Enter a new gizmo tentatively called the "GE Light Thief". As shown in the attached pictures, there is plenty of room inside the bulbs to mount a photo-cell activated white LED. The bulbs are designed with weep holes ready-made for wire access, and it's easy to mount a 9V battery on the back of the board. The "light thief" allows the white star to fade and brighten in concert with the other pie tins.
A final future embellishment might be to put the star on a slow 555 IC timer circuit for intermittent appearance, to add even more variation to the light show.
Parts for "GE Light Thief" hack are 5-mm Ambient Light Sensor, 9v battery lead, Round PCB kit all from Radio Shack, and the LED is a LilyPad white LED from SparkFun.com. Double stick tape is used to adhere the assembly onto the clear plastic lens inside the light. A simple schematic diagram is provided above.
Note that once the "light thief" is installed, it is a bit tricky to get it off without needing to re-solder the battery wires on, so it should be installed last (don't forget the pie tin must be on the bulb too before attaching).