Introduction: Trapped Sea Glass Lamp
For Christmas this year, I planned to make a lamp for one of my best friends since she really likes ones that I've made in the past. We frequently take long walks along the beach (cheesy, I know, but running in sand is pretty relaxing!) so I wanted to channel those 6 years of beach memories in the form of sea glass.
The sea glass shards are trapped between two panes of acrylic enclosed in plywood cutouts. More plywood was used to form the box cavity to form the final result: a sea glass lamp that doubles as a box. Admittedly, I originally planed for this to be only a lamp, but I figured I'd add utility to this so it could also hold shells and other beach treasures from our future explorations. It's even covered in a thick layer of beach sand to add to the overall beach nostalgia.
The reason why I "trapped" the sea glass between two panels of acrylic is based on aesthetics: glue residue usually ruins projects by making the result look messy or smeared. I didn't want to see blobs of glue glowing through the sea glass if I glued the sea glass down. Alternatively, I wanted to press the sea glass into cement or solidified glue+sand, but decided that'd be too messy and prone to error. Thus I went with sandwiching the sea glass in place. The shards still rattle around a bit, and I find it a pretty pleasant sound. (note: my friend did too)
Side note: if you like this project, votes in the Make It Glow contest would be very appreciated.
Step 1: Materials
- sea glass (Hailing from SF, I luckily have the Pacific Ocean within two miles of home, hence my "long walks on the beach." However, you can also get a pound for a buck from your local dollar store.)
- laser cutter -- or scroll saw, if you're feeling confident (There are a few online resources for laser cutting, like ponoko.com, that you can use if you lack access to a laser cutter.)
- 1/8" acrylic (to trap the sea glass)
- light source (Up to you, but I wanted something low profile so it could fit in the lid of my box. I used fairy lights -- $1.25 a strand on amazon if you get 4 pack -- but if you don't care about low profile, you can use light bulbs or LED strips.)
- 1/8" and 1/4" plywood (or you could use cardboard, though it won't be as sturdy)
- vellum or thin paper (background for the sea glass)
- oil (to make the sea glass glossy -- this can be vegetable oil, olive oil, coconut oil, lotions, etc. -- see next step for more info)
- sand paper
OPTIONAL (for if you want to customize your lamp design): graphics software (I used Adobe Illustrator, but Inkscape is a free option, or you could use Corel Draw) See step 3 for instructions on customizing the shape, instead of having a star.
Also optional: beach sand. I covered the box exterior with sand, but you could avoid the trouble and just stain the wood.
Step 2: Prepping Sea Glass
Pick the sea glass that you want to use. I had plenty from years of walking along the nearby beach, fortunately, but you can also pick up bags from the dollar store or a local crafts store. Smaller shards are better, since they will fill in cavities better than larger shards.
Sea glass has a frosted, cloudy look from its natural tumbling. While usually I'd preserve the natural look, I wanted the glass to look glossy for this lamp, so I rubbed the shards with oil on a bit of scrap cloth.
You can use vegetable or olive oil, but the glass smelled funky afterward. If you don't mind coconut scent, I would recommend rubbing coconut oil. Otherwise, lotions work too, though some work better than others (hydrating lotions would likely have best results). In my case, I didn't want any scents at all so I went with regular unscented hand lotion.
Step 3: Lamp Design
I used Adobe Illustrator, but Inkscape is a free option, or you could use Corel Draw. Read on to learn how I made it. (plus click on the images above for step-by-step instructions in Adobe Illustrator -- if you use other softwares, the functions will have different names but should all be there! Google is your friend.)
First, find a reference image (or draw and scan your own) for your shape. For this puffy star, I used this picture. Import or paste it into your graphics software and use the Image Trace function to turn the image into a vector image. From there, decide how thick you want your box to be. Use the offset function to make two copies of the vector image, one slightly smaller than the other. All you need to know are these two skills: creating vector paths for your shape and resizing it using the offset tool. See the second to last image above for what final shapes you need to make using the two skills.
Step 4: Cutting Wood + Acrylic
I'm lucky enough to have access to a school laser cutter, but for those who don't, there are a few online resources for laser cutting, like ponoko.com. The file for cutting is attached below. Click on the layer names to see which layers are for what material (1/8" vs 1/4" wood, 1/8" acrylic).
Step 5: Trapping Sea Glass
To trap the sea glass for the lamp, I sandwiched the shards between two layers of 1/8" clear acrylic, which were held in place (and separated to provide a void for sea glass) by 1/8" plywood.
First I popped the acrylic cutout into the plywood and glued the edges carefully (don't get any glue residue on the acrylic!) before gluing a plywood cutout on top (no acrylic on that one) to create the frame for the sea glass. Next came the sea glass, before another cutout with glued acrylic was placed on top -- don't glue this layer yet! I shook everything to make the sea glass move and settle in to fill up all voids, before gently tilting and tapping to get the sea glass to expose excess free space (see third image above). I filled up that free space with extra sea glass shards before gluing the top plywood cutout with acrylic down, so that the sea glass became fully enclosed between the acrylic and plywood. Let this dry for ~10 minutes while you handle the next part: lighting.
Step 6: Lighting
I wanted low profile lighting options so it could fit in the lid of my box. I ended up choosing fairy lights -- $1.25 a strand on amazon.com if you get 4 pack -- but if you don't care about low profile, you can use light bulbs or LED strips.
Take one 1/8" plywood star shape (not cutout, but solid star) and one 1/4" star cutout with a gap (first image above). Glue the two pieces together before arranging the lights inside (second image). Let the wire stick out of the gap in the 1/4" plywood shape. Tape this arrangement down so the lights remain fixed even when the box is moved.
Cut out a star shape on your vellum or thin paper (what "thin" means is up to you: it's just to diffuse the light so thinner paper allows light through more than thick...) and glue it to the back of your trapped sea glass. Do NOT apply glue on the entirety of the paper -- again, you don't want any glue residue on your clear acrylic -- so just apply glue on the edges of the plywood and gently press your paper on top. Finally, glue the paper face on top of the 1/4" plywood and lights (third image above).
Now on top of this, glue the 1/8" plywood star cutout with a slightly thicker border on top (fourth image above): this is just to hide the edges of the acrylic for a cleaner look. Make sure you sand one side of this one before gluing so that it looks nicer! (no scorch marks from laser)
Step 7: Box Cavity
If you'd like to turn this lamp into a box, read on:
Cut out a few hollow star cutouts on 1/4" plywood (how many depends on how tall you'd like the box to be -- I settled at 9 total cutouts) and one solid star on 1/8" plywood. Stack and glue all the layers together as shown in the pictures above.The final hollow star on top should have the gap for the fairy lights wire to stick through (protruding from the lid -- see next step for what I mean).
If any of your pieces are slightly misaligned in the edge, just sand the protrusions down. Also sand the top most face so that it's nice and clean looking.
Step 8: Finishing Lid
If you want to turn the sea glass lamp into a lid like I did, glue a spare cutout centered on the bottom of your result from step 5.
To make sure that it fits into the box bottom, be sure to use the box compartment from step 6 as a guide! (as in, glue the cutout on the bottom and put this lid on the box before aligning the two halves' edges, thus ensuring that the star is centered for the box to close)
I also used a bit of ribbon to create a little loop for the battery pack to slide into, keeping it in place. Then you can slide it out to change batteries whenever they die. This will change depending on what light source you use though! Notice that the wire does stick out; this is what the gap on the top cutout of the box will accommodate.
Step 9: Sandy Exterior: Inner Layer
I could have settled for sanding and staining the wood as a finish, but I chose to cover the outside with beach sand. In hindsight I kind of regret it, but the friend actually appreciated it for adding to the beach-y look. It would look best with Hawaiian sand, or sand from beach resorts that you see on TV (so whiter or orange sand) but the sand from SF's Ocean Beach is pretty... dull. It looks like dirt, honestly. But hey -- character.
In any case, I mixed white school glue with water (roughly 4:1 glue to water) before painting it on my wood (I did a test piece first to see what it would look like). Then I took pinches of sand and sprinkled it on the glue before rubbing it in with the brush and my fingers. In terms of how I covered the box, I started with the sides before doing the top edges and ending with the bottom edges. Use a spare 1/4" cutout to cover the acrylic window and prevent glue from getting on the acrylic (see third image above) before painting the edges with glue and adding sand on top. Flip over and finish up the bottom before putting it down to dry (the 1/4" cutout should be raised enough that none of the glue+sand is touching down). Use a hair dryer to speed up the initial drying so your glue doesn't run down and solidify in droplets.
Allow this to dry for ~40 minutes (or however long for most of the white to disappear), but BE SURE to gently separate the lid from the box every so often to make sure they don't get glued together. Also gently separate the 1/4" cutout on the bottom from the acrylic to make sure it doesn't get stuck.
In the event that the lid+bottom or 1/4" cutout and acrylic do get stuck, just gently pry them apart by running a needle in the seam.
Step 10: Sandy Exterior: Finishing
After that first drying round, I painted another layer of glue and sand on top. This time, however, be strategic: you'll see some uneven parts in the sand that aren't smooth, so concentrate the sand to fill in those pockets. Wait for this to dry (use hair dryer for initial drying so the glue doesn't run). Remember to check the lid and bottom every so often to make sure they don't get glued together!
As the final layer, just paint a coating of glue+water on top as a final seal for all the sand that you added. Do some final touch-ups on the sand if you'd like, too.
Once everything is fully dried, check that you can separate the lid and box bottom! In the event that they do get stuck, just gently pry them apart by running a needle in the seam. This seam might tear unevenly (see fourth picture above) so just touch up the rim with more glue and sand.
Step 11: Finished
Now the sea glass lamp/box is complete! But of course, even the best of projects have room for future improvements; here are some of suggestions:
- Try different shapes -- maybe a heart for your SO, a circle to avoid corners, etc.
- Instead of having sea glass on just the top face, put sea glass on all faces of a cube (This was my original idea, but I ran out of time in the end. D: )
- Add tiny sea shells in with the sea glass: I would've loved to do this, if I had any small shells.
- Put sand in with the sea glass to fill the crevices between the sea glass -- maybe.. I considered it but decided against the idea in the end since I though the sand might cover the light and block it from shining through the sea glass.
- Arrange the sea glass colors to create a pattern instead of relying on random arrangement.
- Use different light sources (I really wanted to use EL panels for a more evenly distributed glow, but those are relatively expensive compared to the fairy lights that I used.)
As always, feel free to leave questions/comments about confusing steps, and enjoy the project!