Introduction: Retro, Illuminated Tin Can Christmas Tree

About: I've been self employed most of my life. For better or worse, I'm a fountain of ideas. One of my best skills is brainstorming and problem solving, utilizing an extensive knowledge of novel technology and speci…

You can make this retro illuminated tin can tree that casts a warm, nostalgic glow wherever you place it, inside or out! Get creative! Use cardboard instead of wood. Paper tubes? Scale this up or down!

This is a versatile project that can take on a variety of appearances using different colors of retro C7 sized Christmas light bulbs, and using a diffusion covering or not.

Step 1: Supplies

Collect metal cans (and/or cardboard tubes) of various sizes. You'll need 25-30 cans (depending on the size) for a 2' tree.

Thoroughly wash your cans and cut out the bottom so both sides are open. Many modern cans are unable to be opened on both sides, in which case you'll need to use a 3/4" hole saw bit in a drill to make holes on the back sides of those cans.

This retro project deserves the warm retro glow from C7 sized Christmas lights. I recommend new Tru-Tone LED bulbs that really do look just like those classic big bulbs, but remain cool to the touch and aren't cause for concern like those blazingly hot vintage versions. You can also use cardboard tubes cut into short lengths with these LED bulbs without reason for concern. You'll need a light string for the bulbs, and 25 bulbs/sockets are a good amount for this project at our scale. These lights are commonly sold in quantities of 25.

We've used 1in. x 6in. pine boards for our framework, but you can use any rigid board product you have access to, including rigid corrugated cardboard for indoor use.

If you want to diffuse the light, we've used a sheet of plastic poster board from the craft store.


Saw, Drill/ Driver, 3/4" Hole Saw Bit, Hot Glue Gun

Step 2: Create the Tree Frame

Lay out your cans and or tubes on a sheet of butcher paper into the size and shape you want. Draw a triangle around your cans using a straight edge.

You'll use this paper template as a guide to build your frame.

If you are using sturdy cardboard for your tree frame, you'll need strips that are at least the depth of your tallest can/tube. With a cardboard frame, you can use adhesive tape or hot glue.

If you are using wooden boards, you can use this template to help you determine the miter angles by adding a second triangle lines around the first, using the thickness of the boards you plan to use for your frame. Draw short lines through the center of each corner to mark the angle of the cuts for your mitered corners.

Cut three boards for your frame using the paper templates you made to mark the angled cuts of your corners. Use boards that are at least as wide as your tallest can, about 5-6 inches. Glue/nail your frame together and allow to dry. Sand then paint, or stain your frame if desired.

Step 3: Glue Cans Together and Add Lights

While your glued-frame dries, use hot glue to hold your cans together in their laid out position. Place your frame over your cans and hot glue to the frame in a few places to hold them all in place.

Add Christmas bulbs to a light string sockets with clips. Clip a light onto the back end of each can. For any light bulbs that are run through the 3/4" holes you may have drilled, those will have to be threaded into their sockets through the hole in the can.

Step 4: Add a Tree Trunk (optional)

If you'd like, add a trunk to your tree.

You can use a small log segment as in our example, or a section of larger diameter cardboard tube, or a square framework of boards similar to the tree framework.

Step 5: Add Diffusion (optional)

You can add a piece of paper or thin plastic cut into a triangle and attached to the front of your frame for the diffused appearance from my cover image, or leave the front of your cans exposed for a more crafty, homespun look as seen above. I'm not sure which I like better. They both look great.

You can achieve many different looks with this project by changing up the light colors (or using all white bulbs), and with different framework styles or finishes.

Certainly you can use whatever light bulbs you may have access to, but this retro project deserves (and we think looks best with) vintage style C7 size light bulbs.

If you haven't yet heard of new Tru-Tone LED Christmas light bulbs, they have the same bright warm glow of those classic incandescent bulbs our grandparents had without any of the scorching heat and only a tiny fraction of the energy use, giving peace of mind to a project like this and anywhere they are used. They really do look just the same as vintage!

Tru-Tone bulbs are standard size and voltages to work in any light string you may already have. I used one from a childhood Christmas tree in the early 90's. Tru-tone also has pretty fancy vintage-style light strings with the twisted cords, some with fabric-wrapped cords and chunky plastic sockets like some of you may remember! I recommend checking them out!

Step 6: Detailed DIY Video


Check out this awesome detailed video of this project by friend Ron Farber of Farbulous Creations (also a featured Instructable contributor).

Reclaimed Materials Contest

Participated in the
Reclaimed Materials Contest