Hanukkah is the festival of lights. The illumination from a Hanukkah menorah (hanukkiya, if you want to be accurate) sheds a peaceful glow, meant to be displayed to the world, preferably in your front window.
However, in my place at least, sticking a burning candelabra in your front window is just asking to set the house on fire.
That’s where LEDs come in.
There are all kinds of beautiful, expensive electric menorahs for sale, but it’s a lot more fun to make your own LED menorah.
Now, if you are a technical wizard, Instructables offers other pro-level light-up menorah instructions. Go for it if you like! In my case, with the most rudimentary electronics knowledge and no desire to do a crash course in electronics for this project, I decided to make my own (almost) idiot-proof version.
Step 1: The Backstory
It all started during the Schoochamaroo Challenge: Bling contest, when I was shopping for bling at AC Moore. I came across this string of LED lights with a battery pack, already assembled, and I thought it might be good as an embellishment for my candle-powered carousel.
When I opened the package, though, I discovered there were eight lights. Bingo! With Hanukkah coming up, I thought I’d have a go at making my own LED menorah, which I have always wanted but could never afford the ones I liked. All I’d need to do would be to integrate an additional LED, add a switch, and apply a structure to the candelabra.
Easier said than done.
On another shopping trip, I stopped in at the local Radio Shack. It was a painful experience. You know what it’s like if you’ve tried to do something like this before. They were displaying a cool project flyer for a light-up holiday card, and I thought I could get some ideas from it for my hanukkiya. So I took the flyer and started shopping for parts.
They had not one single part from the project in stock.
After gently berating the sales clerk for offering a project with none of the parts for it in stock, I left with a couple of different packages of LEDs and no switch. Their stock of switches was especially tiny, but I thought I might be able to reuse one from a project that had dead-ended a couple of years ago. And no, there are no other electronics supply places near me that I know of.
Step 2: Materials and Tools
- Shapelock plastic
- Rice lights. The set was originally $2.00, but as of 12/28, they are 80¢ each at AC Moore!
- insulated project wire
- electrical tape
- knife & cutting board
- wire cutter/stripper
- permanent marker
- solder & soldering iron
- cooking pot, water and tongs
Step 3: Adding an LED: Part One
The first part of the process is to integrate the last LED into the bundle. First, I marked which was the positive wire with a permanent marker. (It’s the one leading to the positive end of the battery.) To see what I was dealing with, I cut open the bundles to spy upon what was inside. Surgery! What I found was the bundle of smaller wires crimped with the wires leading to the battery holder.
To test the blue LED, which would have been the more appropriate color for my creation, I stripped the ends of the wires and twisted them onto the LED’s leads. The wires should be long enough to approximately match the lengths of the existing LEDs, or maybe a little longer. I have a bunch of wire someone sent me for a craft project, so I used that.
I then touched the longer positive lead wire to the crimp on the positive bundle, and the negative to the negative bundle.
This is part of the (almost) idiot proof process. I thought I knew what I was doing, but the LED wasn’t lighting up! I tried a bunch of different things, from changing the leads I was touching, to changing batteries, to getting a CR-2032 battery out of my heart rate monitor to see if the LED was just incompatible, to bring up an old solar light from the basement to trying “official” black and red wire in case mine was incompatible.
Nothing helped. The LED just would not light up.
Finally, in desperation, I went to the effort of last resort. Of course the LED couldn’t be bad, right? I opened the package of green LEDs that I had planned on returning anyway and tried one of those. It glowed right away.
After cursing the bad LED maker for a moment, I moved on with my project to the next step.
Step 4: Adding an LED: Part Two
Once the wires were wrapped around the leads, I cut off the excess and wrapped them in electrical tape. (By the way, never buy this brand. It’s terrible and doesn’t stick well.)
Next, I soldered the other ends of the wires to the correct leads.
Important: Keep testing to make sure it lights up! If you accidentally solder the wrong wire to the wrong lead, you will regret it. How badly depends on what step you're on when you finally discover your mistake.
Then I taped the bundles up with electrical tape. Next, I twisted the new LED's positive and negative wires together, the same way the other LEDs' wires were twisted.
The LEDs were then arranged into two sets of four with the green one (the shamash, or the candle that is used to light the other candles) in the center. It made a pretty picture, but it was unnecessary at this stage, as it turned out.
It is, however, important to test that it's still working. Did I mention that before?
Step 5: Shapelock Plastic
The next step was to create the structure for the menorah. I was excited to use Shapelock plastic for this for the first time.
A few words about this stuff: I first saw it in the Maker Shed catalog, and I was excited about it for a different project (which I still haven’t made). This is a pretty complex first use for the stuff, and I did wish I had tried it before this time with a simpler project, preferably one without electronics involved.
The unique thing about this plastic is that you put it into hot water, and when it’s transparent, it becomes soft and malleable. As it cools, it hardens, and when it’s opaque, it’s hard. It can be sanded, machined and painted in that stage, too. Neat stuff; I’m sure you can see the potential.
To work with the plastic, I first heated water on the stove almost to boiling. Then I turned the heat off and dumped a bunch of pellets in the water, watching in fascination as they became transparent. I then took it out of the water with tongs and started working with it.
The first thing I discovered is that I put way too many pellets in at once. It’s better to work with small amounts at a time, at least for this project.
What’s nice is that whatever doesn’t come out well can be dunked and reshaped again.
I used about half of a 250-gram package for this project.
Step 6: Making the Candelabra, and What Not to Do
First, I shaped candle-like tubes around each of the wires. At first, they were all different lengths, but then I went back and evened them out so they were all approximately the same length.
Then I shaped flat strips to wrap around the lower parts of the “candles.” Finally, I joined the whole things together and made a nice base -
BUT - and here is another not-quite-idiot-proof moment:
I forgot to test while building!
So I went ahead and finished the whole thing, including the base. It was about 12:30 AM, and I had to be up at about 7:30 in the morning. I happily inserted the batteries and - of course, as you expected, no light.
It was time to give up. I had to be awake soon, I was exhausted, this seemed pointless, and I knew what was wrong. The wire leading to the positive side of the battery holder had come loose, possibly when I was soldering or shaping the plastic. I had thought I could get away with holding it in with the plastic, given that it did light up when I shoved the wire back up inside the tape.
Well, that's what I got for not being thorough. What I had to face was dipping this construction in hot water, wires and all, pulling it apart, re-soldering it, and rebuilding the base. Not a pleasant prospect at 12:30 AM.
Step 7: The Step You Shouldn't Have to Do
(or, a lesson in how creating isn't always a smooth process)
After my disappointment and deciding not to bother with it anymore, I brushed my teeth and stewed for a few minutes. Being the stubborn fool i am, I decided to try to fix it anyway.
I took out the batteries (of course!), heated up the water, dipped and pulled. Finally, the bundles were free enough for me to untape the affected bundle and re-solder the wire.
Then I TESTED it, and it worked! So I retaped the bundle.
Since the tape was damp, I didn’t want to seal it up as it was, so I let it dry overnight and decided to rebuild the base in the morning. I went to bed at around 1:30 AM.
Step 8: Making the Base
The good news about remaking the base in the morning was that it went much faster this time. Including heating the water, I was done inside of 15 minutes.
The hardest part of this part is that you really need to babysit it if you want it the menorah to stand on its own. It’s easy enough to make the stand flat - just press it against a flat surface - but you need to use plastic wrap or keep moving it around while it cools so it doesn’t stick to the other surface. I had to do other things while the base was cooling, so I kept coming back to it and having to fix it.
I ended up laying it on its side with the base cooling without touching anything, but even that wasn't ideal, because it would droop a little. So now the base is a little wonky. No worries: I know I just need to heat some water, dunk it in a little, and reshape it when I have time to babysit it.
Step 9: Conclusions
The LED hanukkiya looks... interesting and works great. I want to color the green LED blue with a Sharpie, though. I’m not sure how well that will work, but the green light bothers me.
My mother said it looks like the whole thing is made out of candle wax.
My nephew says it looks like skeleton fingers. I like his version better.
I might ask the children to help me decorate it tomorrow; if so, I’ll post photos!
To do in version B:
- add a switch
- get better at shaping the thing. Like maybe plan a design beforehand.
- make the lights turn on one by one. For now, black electrical tape will do to block the light from the lights that shouldn’t be lit yet. Like what you can do on your car’s Check Engine light if you get sick of looking at it. (Just kidding - you should get that checked out!)