Introduction: Paper and Wire Lantern

This instructable will describe how to make a paper and wire lantern using techniques used by nebuta lantern makers in Amori, Japan. I will show the basic process with a few simple lantern structures and using the micro:bit with 8 LED lights. However this technique can be applied broadly to any size lantern, and with any assortment, number, type and style of lights and/or microcontrollers.

Step 1: Supplies

To complete all steps of this process (some are optional) you will need the following:

  • copier paper (or other thin white paper)
  • parcel post twine cut to ~9 inches
  • 16-12 ga galvanized steel wire (12-14 ga for large projects, 16 for smaller)
  • india ink
  • dye or other paint (I use this dye)
  • paraffin wax
  • white glue
  • wire cutters
  • pliers
  • paint brushes
  • hot plate

For the electronics I will use the following, but you can change out the type of lights or microcontroller as suits your needs, supplies and budget.

Step 2: Prepare the Glue and String

The string should be precut to ~9 inches in length and you can pour the glue out into any container to access it easier. I like to use a yogurt or other container lid for this purpose.

Step 3: Making the Wire Structure

To make the wire frame you will use the pliers to bend the wire to whatever shape you want and the wire cutters to cut down the wire to the proper lengths. You will likely need to use multiple pieces of wire to accomplish the shape you want to make. It is important while constructing your shape to keep in mind you will be covering it in paper. Keep the area of the shapes you make with the wire smaller than the area of a piece of paper. If one is larger you can use a piece of wire to go across that shape to split it into two smaller areas. For this first part I'll be making a triangular pyramid, so I will make four of the same size triangles that I can attach together.

Tip:Try to keep the wire shapes you make as flat as possible. This will make the application of the paper much easier. However, if your structure needs to curve or bend, try to make each section of the wire only bend/curve in a single direction. This is because paper is flexible in one direction but not great at bending in two directions!

Step 4: Decide the Type of Wire Connections

While making the wire structure you will need to connect the different wire sections together. To do this you will use the glue and string. In all type of connections you will begin by folding a pieces of string in half over one of the wires in the connection. Then dip your finger in the glue and wipe it along the piece of string so that the string is covered in glue. Then you are ready to begin the string wrapping for that particular connection.

There are three ways the wire may come together: end-to-end, side-by-side, and criss-cross. The first two are parallel connections, the latter is a perpendicular connection. The two connections types are shown in these first images and described in the next two steps.

Note: For my project here with 4 triangles being connected I only used that parallel connections - there are not criss-crossing wires.

Step 5: Connecting Parallel Wires

End-to-end or side-by-side: These two types of attachments mean you have two pieces of wire that lay flat, parallel to one another. In this case you will begin with the string draped over a single wire, then wrap both ends of the string around both wires. If it is end-to-end you will continue wrapping towards the end of one wire and then finish wrapping around the single wire. If the two are side-by-side you will start in a corner where the two connect and just keep wrapping around both wires until you run out of string.

These pictures show the end-to-end method.

Step 6: Connecting Perpendicular Wires

Criss-cross: To connect perpendicular wires you will again start with the twine folded in half across one of the wires and covered in glue. Then you will wrap the string around both wires diagonally in one direction and then diagonally in the other direction (so you get a kind of X shape with the string). To tighten the string you then wrap around in a circle (direction does not matter, here I have shown clockwise) on the outside of the wires. That means go over the top wire and under the bottom wire so you are pulling them towards one another. When you get about an inch or so left in the string, wrap the tail around the nearest wire.

Step 7: Fitting Paper to the Wire Frame Sections

Once your wire structure is built, you are ready to begin the papering process. To do this you will paint around a single section of your wire frame, getting a layer of glue over the entire surface of the wire edges of that section. Then you will take a pieces of paper and press it to the surface of that section, running your fingers along the whole outline of the section so that some of the glue transfers from the wire to the paper. Then remove the paper from the wire frame.

On the paper should be an outline of glue showing you the exact shape of that section of your wire structure. Cut around the outside of that glue line. This should give you a piece of paper that exactly matches your wire structure section. After cutting the section, place it back on wire frame, pressing all the edges down and wrapping extra parts around the wire (this will help secure them onto the frame).

Step 8: Complete the Papering

Continue papering until you have covered the entire structure (except the bottom). On the inside you should be able to see the wire frame, but the outside should be completely covered in paper. It is ok for the paper edges to overlap and be glued together - in fact that will help them stay together better.

As you can see this is a different shape than the triangle one, but the same idea applies. I chose to show a different shape from here on out so you can see how flexible this method is to different sculptural shapes.

Step 9: Painting and Waxing

The next steps are to paint and wax your lantern. These can be done in any order you would like to get the aesthetic you prefer. Practicing on scratch paper is recommended.

The traditional nebuta technique is to begin with the black india ink as accent areas (no light will come through in these areas), then outline them and make patterns with the wax (extra light will come through these areas), and finally to add color that transitions from dark next to the wax to lighter further from the wax.

Step 10: Painting With India Ink

The india ink is very black and you don't need much to create strong accent lines or patterns. It is great for creating shapes or patterns and go give contrast to the design.

Step 11: Painting With Wax

Adding wax to your lantern will allow more light to pass though areas of the paper where the wax has been absorbed. To prepare the wax you will need a hot plate (or something to heat the wax - a crock pot that can hold a specific temperature are best). Heat the wax until it has fully melted but is not smoking. Use a paint brush to brush on the wax. You will know if it has absorbed enough by the paper changing to a grey color. If the paper is still white the wax is not hot enough and is not being absorbed the the paper. This step really adds a lot of fun and wild contrast! Enjoy!

Tip: Practice with this first. The wax is fairly hard to control when it is hot. It likes to run and expand upon contact with the paper. Also be careful not to leave your brush in the wax container as it will melt or burn depending on the material it is made of!

Step 12: Painting With Colored Dye

Another option is to add color paint to your lantern. The dye used here is best if used premixed (I am just mixing on a lid, but I would recommend having small containers for each color). Have water handy to dilute the colors. Have fun with this!

Tip: Colored paint can give your lantern a lot of character, but if you are using colored lights (like RGB LEDs) inside the lantern you may want to carefully consider what color scheme you will be using with the lights and if you need the colored paint as well.

Step 13: Adding Wax to the Colored Regions

A final step to the painting that you can add is to add another layer or patterning of wax to the colored paint. This will illuminate the colored parts of the lantern where you add the wax. It can add a nice second dimension to the lantern, but is not necessary.

Step 14: Using the Micro:bit

Here we will use the micro:bit to power and run a few LED lights to light up the lantern. However, other microcontrollers and types of LED lights could be used as well for this same purpose.

First take a look at the micro:bit and identify where different parts are. The first image (from the micro:bit site) indicates where the parts are that we will use. I have pre-soldered 8 LEDs to the micro:bit (for a solder tutorial see here) as can be seen in images 2 & 3.

Connect the micro:bit: Using the power cord, connect the micro:bit to your computer (see image 4 above). A yellow light on the back should light up. If you have a new board, it will walk you through a few buttons to press to make sure it is working. If you are in a workshop of mine you can check that it is working by pressing the button on the front labeled "A". The LEDs should light up with different colors. The board is running a pre-loaded program.

Program the micro:bit: Open this webpage you should see a screen that looks like image 5 from above. Click on the file below (called microbit-workshopLEDlightsFinal.hex) - it should download to your computer. Find the downloaded file. Drag and drop the file onto the right hand side of the webpage you opened. You should now see a screen that looks like image 6.

To run a program: To actually test if this program works, push the big download button on the screen (its is purple and reads Download). Once the download is complete find the icon that represents the micro:bit. Drag and drop the program you downloaded onto the microbit. You should see the yellow light on the back flashing. When it stops flashing push button A to see if you now see 4 orange lights and 4 blue lights. If so the program was successfully downloaded and you are ready to start programming your own light patterns!

Step 15: Design Your Own Light Pattern

Look through the program you just ran on your micro:bit. The basics of the current program are: When the micro:bit starts it looks for the LED lights on the 2nd pin (you can see them labeled P0, P1, and the lights are connected to P2). The program then says when Button A is pressed light the lights in a certain way (4 oranges and 4 blues). Then when Button B is pressed to move the lights forward by 1 space and leave the others off. Try changing some of the colors to see what patterns you like. See how this works with your lantern. You can also look in the "neopixel" blocks for some other light options (above image).

Now that you are a pro you can start expanding what you try with the micro:bit and lantern making! Here I show an example project I made of a tree lantern where the design of the lights came from data from a hydroponic garden. This project used Arduino, Raspberry Pi, Grove Pi, sensors, and ~230 neopixels; you can check out the process here!

Lights Contest 2017

Participated in the
Lights Contest 2017