Tiki Torch Tree




Introduction: Tiki Torch Tree

About: There's no Home Depot in Korea.

Make a Tiki Torch Tree out of copper pipe. Once it weathers, you'll have a green, natural looking pièce d'art.

We built this in one evening. Allow two hours for the tree. Plus another two hours to make and prep the torches. Making and soldering the leaves took another evening plus a few hours for the soldering.

In each step we will first detail exactly what we did, then follow with any afterthoughts.

Step 1: Materials

What we used:
- 15 meters copper pipe. Ours was 9.5mm, about as wide as your pinky.
- Hacksaw (or some other way to cut the pipe).
- Dremel or heavy sandpaper to smooth the rough edges.
- Plastic zip ties (about 8 inches long).
- A base to mount your tree. We used an old grinder we found for free. I saw a lot of stuff in the plumbing store that would work though. Be creative and recycle if you can.
- Planter, and rocks or dirt to fill it with.
- Oil lamps. The instructable by Sappho and the comments attached thereto are very helpful: https://www.instructables.com/id/Glass-Bottle-Oil-Lamp/. We loosely braided & salted three strands from a mop head for each wick, used metal coffee drink bottles as torches, and filled them with soybean oil (cheap yet stinky). Check out Sappho's instructable for more/better ideas.

Miscellaneous items you may want handy:
- Something to help you bend the pipe. (We used a length of heavy duty garden hose. Didn't work too great. Suggestions on how to bend pipe are very welcome.)
- Pliers to help you bend the pipe to secure it to your base, if need be.
- A rubber mallet.
- A level for making sure the tree stands straight.
- Tweezers to help thread the wicks.
- A phillips-head screwdriver for making holes for the wick.
- Safety goggles.
- Gloves for handling metal.

Step 2: Cut the Pipe

What we did:
We cut15 meters of copper pipe into sections using a hacksaw. We made five long sections to hold torches and four shorter sections to use as accents.

The long sections varied in length so as to create a tiered effect. Our longest two sections were 2 meters. They ended up being about 6 feet tall when bent. (Sorry. As an expat, I measure metric and eyeball imperial!)

As I was cutting, I dremelled the ends to make sure I didn't jab myself later. Belatedly
put on safety goggles. Saline eye flush fail. Please take proper precautions.

Step 3: Make Your Trunk

What we did:
We straightened the pipes. We aligned the bottom of the pipes. Then we wrapped zip ties around the bundle of pipes to create a "trunk."

We put zip ties at ten inches and again about a yard up the trunk.

We went ahead and attached it to our base. The base we used was an old grinder. We bent the bottom of the pipe and fit it into the holes in the grinder. We pushed the pipes through about three or four inches. We bent them outwards using the section of garden hose and then beat them flat with the rubber mallet.

These "roots" allowed the tree to stand up while we bent the branches.

What might have been:
If I was doing this all over again, first, I would bend the pipes (step 4) before securing them either with zip ties or in the base. This might have prevented kinking. I'll talk about that in the next step.

Second, I wouldn't use a base. I would just zip tie the trunk and stick it in the planter. Our base was too elaborate. I could have used a piece of pvc pipe and bent the trunk out into roots to help it stand while I fashioned it.

I thought the base was a good idea because I wanted something heavy in the planter to pile rocks and dirt on top of so as to make it even more secure. Perhaps that was overcautious given the end weight of the full planter.

Step 4: Bend the Branches

What we did:
Bend the pipe creatively to look like tree branches.

We started on the small accent branches and worked up. We bent the end inward to avoid a later eye-gouging. Just to be even safer, we covered the ends of potentially dangerous branches. We used the rubber stoppers that came on the ends of the pipe. Black electrical tape would work too. It's not pretty, but we have accident prone children (aren't they all!).

For the taller, torch bearing branches, we twisted the ends into curly-Qs to hold the torches. Allow a foot of pipe or more to form the torch holders.

What might have been:
We had a hard time bending the pipe without it kinking. There are pipe bending sleeves you can buy. We live in Korea. I don't even know how to say "pipe-bender" in Korean. So we improvised. We tried a segment of heavy duty rubber hose -- great but you can't get the hose off once the pipe is all twisty. So we tried bending around wine bottles, mag lites, a bottle of tobasco sauce, etcetera.

A friend suggested a tight fitting spring instead of a rubber hose... Any comments on this part would be much appreciated. I think if I had bent the pipes before zip tying the trunk, it would have been much easier.

Oh well, it looks rustic.

Step 5: Make the Torches

What we did:
After reading the instructable by Sappho https://www.instructables.com/id/Glass-Bottle-Oil-Lamp including the comments and after some additional experimentation we settled on the following design. 

For the wick, we loosely braided three cotton strands from an unused mop head. (Use 100% cotton. Don't braid too tight or it won't wick.)
We put these braids into one cup of heavily saturated salt water and microwaved till it boiled (just over 4 minutes in our microwave).
We squeezed out the excess water, put the braids into a flat microwavable dish, covered them with salt again, dumped off any excess salt, and returned them to the microwave to dry them (about 2 minutes).
We knocked off any excess salt.
The wicks were then very stiff.

For the torch itself, we used metal coffee drink containers popular here in Korea.
We punched a hole in the screw-top lid using a phillips-head screwdriver and a rubber mallet. Don't make the hole too big or your wick will fall back into the container, which is a pain and marginally scary. Don't make it too small or the oil won't wick.
We threaded the wick through the hole using tweezers and fingers.
We pulled half an inch through the hole.
We filled the container nearly to the top with soybean oil (cheapest).
We put the remaining wick into the oil and screwed on the lid.
We put the container upside down in a juice glass in order to prep/saturate the wick. 
The rim of the juice glass prevented the wick from touching the bottom of the glass.
We left it for 1 hour.

What might have been:
There are so many varieties of DIY lamps. Getting the wicks to burn oil without burning out took patience, trial, and lots of error. We used metal containers to avoid the danger of breaking glass. (You might have noticed how risk averse we are.)

Yes, we could have used a different oil. I wanted to use a mixture of citronella oil but could not find it in Korea. If you live on a U.S. military base that stocks tiki torch oil (and good beer) in the PX, then help a brother out.

I could have made a molatov cocktail? Please avoid speculative comments to this effect. Yes, maybe if I was using grain alcohol, and maybe if I was using a glass container... That being said, I haven't seen anyone use a metal coffee drink container like we used, so if you recognize a hazard, please let me know. I don't plan on burning anything other than soybean or grape seed or possibly canola oil. Olive oil costs an arm and a leg here.

Step 6: Plant Your Tree

What we did:
We put the tree in the planter and began covering it with rocks, filling in the gaps with leftover potting soil. We used a level to be sure the tree was standing up straight. Then we continued to add rocks, soil, and recheck the level till the planter was nearly full. We topped it off with decorative garden rocks.

We then clipped the uppermost zip tie. It all held together pretty well.

What might have been:
I had to leave the bottom zip tie intact. I'm thinking about ways to replace it while maintaining the structural integrity and aesthetics of the trunk. Perhaps copper wire...

Step 7: Insert Then Light Tiki Torches

We finally finished the Tiki Tree.
We replaced the zip tie with copper wire.
We painted the aluminum coffee cans copper.

We also made leaves using thin copper sheets and soldered them to the tree. If you want more info on how to do that, let me know. I just watched a bunch of videos online and went for it.

Here are some pics of the final product.

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    2 years ago on Introduction

    I haven't tried it myself yet, however I too have watched many videos and read many articles on bending copper without it kinking... By what I gather, a reasonable solution is to fill the copper tubing with water and bring to almost frozen. Then when you bend it, the pressure of the slushie/ice inside prevents kinking from happening.


    8 years ago

    great idea, looks amazing! could use some thinner copper wire and wrap it around the tree like a vine so that you don't need the zip ties


    11 years ago on Step 6

    the copper wire sounds like it would work well. and if you started where the upper zip tie was it prolly wouldn't look that bad.

    Bosun Rick
    Bosun Rick

    11 years ago on Step 4

    You might be able to shape the copper pipe branches by filling them with fine sand, and gently applying pressure while rolling the pipe on the edge of a table or workbench. The garden hose or screen door spring idea will help prevent kinking in addition to the sand (regular cooking flour inside the tubing MIGHT also work).
    Small copper tubing is usually reasonably soft, and can be 'worked'; you just need to take your time. Rigid copper pipe can be worked in the same manner, but I would use a propane torch to help soften it during bending (this will give a neat color change effect when it is heated too).
    Once you get the shape you want, dump the sand or flour out, and continue the project


    11 years ago on Step 7

    This is beautiful and a great use for the coffee cans. How about using the aluminium bases that tea lights come with as snuffers? If they would fit, you could put a little ring around the bottle necks and chain to the 'cap'. It would also keep your wick dry and your oil from evaporating I think. There are also attachments for copper pipe that might replace your zip ties, or you could look for copper coloured tape to cover the ties. I like the idea of adding leaves and vines with more copper.


    Reply 11 years ago on Step 7

    Thanks. That's a good idea for the cap. Weather protection is important as it is hard to light after a rain. We replaced the zip ties with copper wire, we painted the coffee cans with copper paint, and are working on the leafing this weekend. Will post an update on Monday.


    Reply 11 years ago on Step 7

    Oh, the leaves look wonderful! How about more caps from the coffee cans for snuffers/caps? You could try to flare the edges with pliers or heat them and hammer them over yet another cap slightly. Maybe pinch the very top edge of the caps that are in place for the wicks too, or try to dome them up a bit to reduce the size. Or you could cut the bottoms off of a few more coffee cans, making them deep enough to fit to where it starts to taper in. That may not work as a snuffer though, but sure would as a cap.