Arduino Powered Sutro Tower Tree Topper With Lights and Fog

Introduction: Arduino Powered Sutro Tower Tree Topper With Lights and Fog

About: Designer & Artist living in SF

For my first ever Arduino project, I decided to make a Sutro Tower tree topper for my Xmas tree. This is one of my favorite San Francisco landmarks and was a guide the first year I lived in the city when I didn't know where exactly I was.

See a video of it in action here


  • Sutro Tower model from SF MOMA gift shop
  • Red and white acrylic paints and brushes
  • Masking tape
  • Glue gun
  • Arduino Uno
  • Breadboard
  • 12v power supply with 2.1mm/5.0 (or 5.5) mm centre pin positive input
  • 25 feet red and black wire
  • Wirecutters
  • 6 red LEDs
  • 6 220 OHM resistors
  • 9V battery for testing
  • Soldering iron
  • Solder
  • Heat shrink tubing
  • White and red electrical tape
  • Plastic box for housing boards
  • 3 yards white sparkle organza
  • Batting
  • White thread

Step 1: Get the Tower Model

There are many cool ways one could create a Sutro Tower model. Luckily Laurence Srinivasan has created a wonderful and perfectly sized 3D model of the Sutro Tower that's available for sale at the SF MOMA gift shop, which is where I picked up mine. They are also available online here.

Step 2: Paint All the Pieces White

It's a shame to destroy the pretty wood finish of the model in order to have its true colors, but red and white is a must for the holidays and let's face it, it looks like a giant candy cane. Start by painting all the pieces of the tower with titanium white acrylic paint. The outer edges will call for a couple extra coats since they are especially dark to begin with.


Step 3: Mask the Sections You Want to Keep White and Paint the Red Sections

Using a photo as a reference, with blue masking tape, tape off all the white sections before painting the red sections. Then use a few coats of basic red acrylic paint to get the desired shade of red.

Step 4: Step 4: Hot Glue Construction

The model comes with glue dots but they don't hold very well, especially after the wood had been painted, so a glue gun is necessary for stability. With the glue gun, glue all the center connectors to one piece, then glue the surrounding pieces to their respective center connectors, and then attach the top.

Step 5: Step 5: Build the Test Circuit for the Lights

Luckily Arduino has a very simple and easy to follow array tutorial using 6 red LEDs, which is used as the basis for this project. Wire the 6 LEDs with their resistors to the breadboard according to the tutorial to create a test circuit. The tutorial can be found on the Arduino site here.

Step 6: Step 6: Program the Lights

Once the test circuit working, it's time to get creative with the light show. I happened to find this Knight Rider simulation program that I liked a lot which can be found here. One of the great things about programming each light individually with the Arduino is that you can always reprogram the sequence it if you change your mind.

Step 7: Step 7: Hardwire the LEDs

Now that you've got the test circuit running and it's programmed the way you want it, it's time to make a hard wired version of the LED connections you have on the breadboard. Measure the wire from where you want the light placed on the tower to where it will connect to the Arduino and breadboard, cut both a red and black piece of wire about this length. Get out the soldering iron and start connecting the resistors to the positive ends of the LEDs, then solder a piece of red wire to the resistor and solder a black wire to the negative side of the LED. Once your connections are soldered, cover the exposed wires with heat shrink tubing and take a lighter to them to shrink. A 9v battery is good to have here so you can test the connections you made to make sure they work.

Step 8: Step 8: Test Your Connections

Use your new soldered connections to recreate the sample circuit you made with the Arduino and breadboard. Hopefully they will work as expected. Now is a good time to troubleshoot if they don't, since you'll soon be attaching them to the tower with electrical tape.

Step 9: Step 10: Tape the Lights to the Tower With Electrical Tape

Now it's time to attach the lights to the tower. Place the lights where you want them and wire them up through the center of the tower. Cover the wire with red and white electrical tape.

Step 10: Step 10: Dealing With the Wires

Now you should have a wonderfully lit tower, but there a bunch of wires everywhere. To house them, I used a plastic box that I got with a getting started with Arduino kit from Radio Shack. You can probably find something similar at the container store. Carefully heat up a knife with the soldering iron and cut a hole in the plastic for the wires as well as a hole where the power supply for the Arduino would be attached. Luckily the wires will be covered by fog, so they won't be seen much. Rewire the board so it's in the box with the Arduino and the power supply is now connected.

Step 11: Step 11: Make the Fog

Cut the organza yards in half down the middle. Fold the pieces in half and sew the 3 detached sides almost shut like it shut like you would sew a pillow case. Turn right side out and stuff with the amount of batting you desire to create your fog. Sew the remaining hole shut. Now take the pieces you just sewed and get creative running them through the machine to make the fog bunch in certain places. I used a basting stitch and pulled it to cause the fabric to bunch in certain places and also ran over certain areas to bunch the fog.

Step 12: Step 12: Attach to Tree

The pieces are complete and now it's time to put them in the tree. Carefully take the tower and its wire box to the tree and gently place it up on the top. If you have a taller tree, you will probably need to have an extension cord to plug it in. Once it's plugged in, BE SURE TO PAY CLOSE ATTENTION TO THE BOX AND THE WIRES IN CASE THEY GET HOT. I don't recommend leaving homemade electronic devices in an Xmas tree unattended for too long, as it could be a fire hazard.

To hide the box and the ugly wires, drape the fog around the top of the tree. Et voila! You have your own mini version of Sutro Tower and Karl the Fog.

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    7 years ago on Introduction

    This is so cool! One of the most unique tree toppers I've ever seen, at least. Love the addition of the fog too!