Introduction: Iron Pipe Reading Lamp

About: Just a guy trying to make his way through this crazy world.

Hello again, and welcome to another installment of “What is he thinking?” With your indulgence, today we’ll take a look at the iron pipe lamp I built to sit next to my reading chair. I became enamored with the iron pipe movement a few years back and have been putting together “Lego for adults” (as the guy in the plumbing department of the local Big Blue refers to it) projects ever since. You can see the footstool I built for my reading chair and the quilt rack next to it, and I’ve made a few tables and shelves also.

As we all know, it’s difficult to read without light. So what good is a reading chair without a reading light? And since the chair is in my Gentlemen’s Lounge/Reading Room (read: bar) where my iron pipe shelves are, it seemed a good fit. Also, I had these really cool guarded switches salvaged from a decommissioned airplane (type and service to remain anonymous to protect…me) that just had to be a part of it.


Step 1: Design/Planning/Supplies

This iron pipe reading lamp went through numerous design iterations before I finally arrived at something I liked. I won’t bury this ‘ible under the mass of those designs, but attached is the final (HA!) drawing—and remember, I’m no Rembrandt, this is merely for planning/ shopping purposes...

I figured I needed the following components:

  • 2x 1/2in crosses
  • 2x 1/2in tees
  • 8x 1/2in 90deg elbows
  • 1x 1/2in x 2in nipple
  • 8x 1/2in x 6in nipples
  • 1x 1/2in x 24in nipple
  • 1x 1/2in x 36in nipple
  • 1x metal 2-gang junction box
  • 1x metal 2-gang junction box cover
  • 3x lamp sockets
  • 3x 40watt Edison bulbs (because they’re also cool)
  • 25ft of 2wire lamp cord
  • Wire nuts
  • 1x vintage looking plug
  • Black spray paint
  • And the aforementioned cool, guarded switches

And the usual tools:

  • Jackhammer, 40-watt phased plasma rifle, plunger, bunny slippers (ok, not really)
  • Drill, screwdriver, pliers, aviation snips

You’re probably wondering why I designed the base so large and stuck out so far forward. With my initial designs I was concerned about it falling over. Then it hit me like a ton of books (see what I did there?). If I make it big enough to hold books they would provide the anchor, act as a side table, and also add to the Gentlemen’s Lounge/Reading Room aesthetic. I’ll call that a win-win-win.

Step 2: Shopping and Replanning-On-The-Fly

Remember that HA! moment from the previous step? Well, I got to the hardware store and had to start revising my plan (doncha hate it when that happens?). Originally I had planned to use the junction box vertically in the middle of the upright, but when I laid my hands on one I realized it was too flimsy for that—it just wouldn’t hold the weight of that whole upper structure with enough stability for my taste. Equally important, it wouldn’t sit true vertical, and that just wasn’t cool. So installing the box horizontally would work, but I didn’t like the way it looked with the punchouts un-punched (as it were). So I wandered around the store for a bit until I saw a metal strainer with a smallish mesh that I figured would look kinda industrial if placed inside the box.

The next dilemma was the sockets. There was no way they were going to fit inside a 1/2in 90deg elbow. I should’ve figured that, but didn’t. Also, there was no way to make the electrical connections in that small of a pipe (my soldering kung fu is weak at best). So I ended up with 3/4in 90deg elbows, 3/4in “close” nipples, and a 3/4in to 1/2in reducer tee. This change still looked cool in its own right, probably because the 3/4in fittings are pretty big and beefy—and heavy. I was concerned that three of them were going to make the whole thing too top-heavy. So I decided to cut back to two lights vs three and up the volts of the bulbs.

Nipples I found online (so to speak) along with some of the other fittings (leftovers from other projects) for way cheaper than anywhere local. Now as much as I like to support the locals I prefer one-stop shopping vs one store for some, another store for others, etc. This site is an excellent source for pipe fittings (and you thought I was making up the part about “nipples” didn’t you?). The final parts list is in the last step of this ‘ible.

Step 3: Prepping (Cleaning and Painting)

This is the worst part of iron pipe building. Iron pipe has to be covered with something or it rusts mightily and rapidly, but that gack (that’s a technical term, I didn’t lose anybody did I?) the pipe comes covered in is gnarly stuff. Don’t bump up against it or it’ll stain your clothes—and where’s the fun in that? Conveniently enough, TSP (found at pretty much any hardware store) is like magic on the stuff. Be warned though, don’t do this step in a sink you’re fond of. That gack comes off and sticks to the sink too. Use a 5gal bucket or a utility sink—and wear gloves! Once all the gack is removed from all of your pieces dry them quickly and thoroughly. You can watch as they rust; it happens that fast.

Next, I moved the pieces to my painting area (yeah, the backyard). I use wire hangers bent to hold the pieces while painting/drying. I like the Rust-Oleum High Temp in flat black. It goes on well, dries quickly, and is solid. Make sure you hit everything everywhere, inside and outside threads included. Depending on how thick you laid on the paint it should be dry and workable in about an hour, but I usually give it two just to make sure.

Step 4: Assembling and Cording (The Pictures Are Very Helpful Here)

Once the paint’s dry it’s time to start assembling. In the interest of brevity, all fittings in this paragraph are 1/2in fittings. I started by putting the base together and making sure it sits flat on the floor. That was a tee with a 10in nipple in the short side and two 3in nipples in the long side openings; these two got a 90deg elbow each for feet. The 10in nipple went into a cross, set parallel to the tee. The cross got two 3in and one “close” nipples, with the 3-inchers getting 90deg elbows for feet again. The “close” went into another cross, which I installed perpendicular to the first (and I dared to put a drop or three of Loctite on these threads—for extra peace of mind). This is another change from the original drawing, and provides a little extra stability, a way to attach the upright to the base, and a convenient port for the lamp cord. I also installed the 36in nipple (the bottom upright) into the top opening of that cross before moving on.

Next, I cut two pieces of the lamp cord about three feet long and ran them up into the 1/2in x 24in nipple (the top upright). I attached the 3/4in to 1/2in reducing tee to the end and ran the cords into it before threading on 3/4in x 1.5in nipples and the 90deg elbows. Being this is such a short run I could have waited until after putting on the elbows, but for longer runs and/or lots of turns/connectors threading earlier is better. You’ll notice I left the elbows so that the bulbs sit horizontally. It seemed to me that I would get better lighting for reading this way because the bulbs “push” their light out to the sides, and I’d rather have that light directed towards my reading than towards the wall. Knowhutimean? If you make this lamp, you’re free to orient the bulbs in whichever direction floats your particular boat. Once the sockets were electrically connected I press-fit them into the elbows. Pretty slick, if I do say so myself. Still a little snug using wire nuts inside those 3/4in elbows and the tee, but much more workable than the 1/2in was.

This is a good time to take a break and talk about something related, but completely different. To my mind the era look I was aiming for calls for twisted-pair cloth cord. It’s getting easier to find, but I made my own. What I did was take the 2wire lamp cord and split it. Then I removed the guts from two equal lengths of black paracord (HURRAY! PARACORD!), and slid one paracord outer sleeve over each half of the split lamp cord. To get that twisted-pair effect I clamped one end of each cord into my bench vise, inserted the other ends into my cordless drill chuck, and slowly spun them up. WARNING: Slowly is important, otherwise it will start whipping about, and curling, and kinking. Take your time with this step and you’ll be happy with the result; don’t and you won’t be, and you could injure yourself. The key is to hold the lines fairly taught and slowly move the drill toward the vise to account for the length you’re taking out of the cord by twisting it. The finished twisted pair will hold its shape pretty well depending on how hard you crank it, but securing the ends until you’re ready to make connections is a good idea. I didn’t worry about prettying up the ends of the paracord sleeves (other than a mild singe to keep the paracord from fraying) because they’ll be inside other pieces. Sorry, no pictures of this process, my hands were kinda full. If I didn’t make it clear enough, the websites here and here should help.

Once I had that done I attached the plug to one end of my homemade twisted-pair cloth cable and inserted the other end into the remaining opening of the cross on the end of the base and up the lower upright.

Step 5: Wiring

Yes, now to my cool, guarded switches. The pic doesn’t show it, but these switches were made before I was (that’s pretty old). I looked up the part numbers and and determined they’re rated for 110volts, and a quick function check confirmed they didn’t “leak” and did still work. I drilled 2x holes in the bottom of the junction box (now the top of the switchbox) and placed them accordingly.

The switchbox itself presented a bit of a challenge. Wiring the switches was pretty much a no-brainer, but how would I attach the upper and lower uprights? I ended up attaching a 1/2in coupling to each upright, then used 1/2in “close” nipples tto penetrate the box (so to speak) with conduit lock nuts inside. It helped with the industrial look and seeing as this is a set-and-forget item, it won’t get much manhandling.

Aviation snips made quick work of the mesh strainer, which I wedged around the interior of the switchbox to be visible from the exterior through the punchouts. This further helps the industrial vibe and “provides cooling air flow.” Riiiiight…

And speaking of cool, did I mention the cool, aircraft-grade, guarded switches?

Step 6: Done

So, the final parts tally ended up as:

  • 2x 1/2in crosses
  • 1x 1/2in tee
  • 1x 3/4in to 1/2in reducing tee
  • 4x 1/2in 90deg elbows
  • 2x 3/4in 90deg elbows
  • 2x 3/4in “close” nipples
  • 3x 1/2in “close” nipples
  • 4x 1/2in x 3in nipples
  • 1x 1/2in x 24in nipple
  • 1x 1/2in x 36in nipple
  • 2x 1/2in couplings
  • 2x 1/2in conduit lock nuts
  • 1x metal 2-gang junction box
  • 1x metal 2-gang junction box cover
  • 1x wire mesh strainer
  • 2x lamp sockets
  • 2x 60watt Edison bulbs (still cool, and same output as the plan)
  • 25ft of lamp cord
  • 20ft of paracord
  • Wire nuts
  • 1x vintage-looking plug
  • Black spray paint
  • And the oft-mentioned cool, guarded switches

Thanks for reading, and happy piping! Also, if I may make a mostly shameless plug for the Indoor Lighting contest I've entered this in…

Indoor Lighting Contest

Participated in the
Indoor Lighting Contest