Burnout Lamp




About: Furniture hacker. Author of Guerilla Furniture Design, out now. Find me on Twitter and Instagram @objectguerilla.

Fluorescent lamps are synonymous with the most depressing aspects of modern life: their soulless flickering presides over vast aisles of big box stores, server farms, fields of cubicles, and parking garages.  Yet, as individual objects, they are sleek, glossy white tubes, efficient in both form and purpose.  I thought it nice to marry these contradictions into a lamp that used burned-out tubes to diffuse the light from a single, working fluorescent.  The result is a study in opposites: lightness and weight, fragility and solidity, delicacy and mass.  A concrete base supports a column of white glass, classical in form and color, but modern in material and concept.  

After finishing, I discovered another artist's elegant take on the burnout concept here:  http://www.castordesign.ca/

I also realized a number of shortcomings upon completion; namely, the tubes being buried permanently in concrete makes it difficult to replace a broken bulb or to move the lamp without threatening the tubes.  The next iteration, perhaps, will have sockets which facilitate swapping out the tubes for transport or repair.  In the process of making the lamp, one tube broke; I've included replacement instructions here.

Fluorescent tubes are filled with hazardous toxins, namely mercury.  Work in a well-ventilated area, and wear a mask if you break a tube.  Clean up the shards of glass with gloves.

Salvage the bulbs from your office, home, or school.  Counties and towns with bulb-recycling programs might be inclined to spare a few if you ask nicely.

You will need these materials:

eight 1-1/2" dia.burned out fluorescent tubes
8" dia. sonotube or similar
approx. 2' square of 3/4" plywood
approx. 12" of 2" dia. PVC pipe
fluorescent fixture
50 lbs. quick-set concrete mix
three-wire grounded power cord
speaker wire
toggle switch
approx 3" x 6" x 1/4" piece of plexiglass
drywall screws

You will need these tools:

Jig saw
Box cutter
1-1/2" drill bit
2-1/4" hole saw
Needle-nose pliers
Dremel tool or similar

Step 1: Formwork (1)

The formwork for the base is the most complex part of the lamp.  Start by tracing the 8" sonotube (cardboard tube concrete formwork for setting piers and posts) onto the plywood.  

On two of the circles, lay out eight center points in a radial pattern.  Start by pulling one line across the circle, dividing it in two; then measure the center of that line.  Take a square and pull a line perpendicular to the first, dividing the circle into four equal pieces.  Subdivide again, just like cutting a pie, to create eight even pieces.  Measure up each line 2-1/2" from the center and make a mark.  Drill each mark with a 1-1/2" bit.  Make two identical pieces like this.  On one of them, drill out the center with the 2-1/4" hole saw bit.

Cut the two drilled-out circles out of the piece of plywood they are in.  Cut them large, so they will rest on top of the sonotube without falling in.  Cut the third small, so it will fit inside the sonotube.  

Cut the PVC pipe and the sonotube to 12" long.  Sand and smooth the pipe's cut edge.

Set all these pieces aside for a minute.

Step 2: Wiring

Wiring fluorescent lamps is a little more complicated than regular 'ol bulb 'n switch affairs, but it's not rocket science.  For a good explanation of how fluorescents work, mosey on over to Wikipedia here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fluorescent_lamp

Start by removing the fixture from its metal housing, so it is just a ballast with two sockets wired to it.

Take the plug created by hole-sawing the formwork and sand it down until it can fit inside the PVC pipe.  Cut the wires leading from the ballast to one socket end of the fixture and screw that fixture to the plug of wood.  Drill two holes in the wood to feed the wires through.  Re-attach the socket to the ballast leads with about three or four inches of wire between them.  Tape up the wires.

Next, take the power cord (it must be a three-prong grounded cord) and wire the two power leads, white and black, to the power leads coming from the ballast.  Fluorescent fixtures must be grounded to work; typically, in hard-wired installation, the ground cord is just attached the metal bulb housing.  In this case, since we've discarded the housing, the ground can just be wired directly to the ballast itself.  Run the green ground from the power cord up and attach it to one of the mounting holes on the ballast.  

Cut the other socket off and re-wire the two leads with about four feet of black speaker wire or similar.  Feed those wires through the wire holes in the wood plug.  Tape off and paint the plug white if so desired.

Wrap everything up tight and test the bulb to make sure the wiring is right.  Tape the wires to the ballast to make a compact package.  Stuff the ballast and wires into the pipe, then push the plug in after.  It should fit really tightly; if it won't go in, put the handles of some pliers on the wood and hit the head of the pliers with a hammer.  Secure it with a screw or two.

Cut a little slot in the base of the pipe with a Dremel for the power cord to exit.  Tape around the gap so concrete won't leak up into the pipe.

Step 3: Formwork (2)

With wiring complete, it is time to assemble the formwork.

Glue the pipe to the center of the plywood baseplate with caulk.  Seal around the edge.  

Place the sonotube around the baseplate-pipe assembly, feeding the cord through a little slot.  Screw the sonotube into the baseplate.  Seal with caulk.  This can be tricky, given the tight clearances inside the formwork, but try to be fairly neat about it.

Align the two other plywood pieces with an eighteen inch or so piece of 2" x 4" in between.  Screw them together, creating a sort of barbell-looking structure.

Place the formwork between some cinderblocks or similar.  Level everything out.  Place the cinderblocks so they come above the formwork, so the plywood barbell can rest on them.

Step 4: Pourin'

Mix up some concrete in a bucket, fairly stiff.  I used a quick-set mix -- Quickrete brand, comes in a red bag -- about forty pounds worth.  The quickset stuff allows the concrete to cure up in about thirty minutes, giving your tubes and formwork less time to shift or get wonky on you.

Fill the sonotube to within about an inch of the top, taking care not to slop concrete on the the socket or exposed wires.  Place the barbell on the cinderblocks, hovering over the formwork.  Align the center of the barbell and the center of the formwork visually.  Push the fluorescent tubes through the holes in the barbell, down into the concrete, one by one.  Let cure.

After a few hours, strip the formwork with a putty knife and screw gun.  This is where I broke a tube; be extremely careful in handling the structure at this point.  To get the bottom off, you need to tip the lamp on its side.  In doing so, it rolled, and one of the tubes that was slightly out of vertical got pinned against the floor and broke.

Because all the tubes were not perfectly in line -- the plywood pieces with the holes were slightly twisted relative to one another -- the plywood was very difficult to get off.  Amazingly enough, I was able to saw it out without breaking any tubes.

Step 5: Switchin'

The switch plate performs two functions: it holds the other socket for the bulb, and provides a place for the switch to live.

I used a 1/4" piece of plexiglass, scrap that the hardware store let me have for free.  Cut a rectangle approx. 2-1/4" x 6"; hold it above the tops of the tubes and scribe two opposing tubes onto it.  Drill those out (carefully!) with the 1-1/2" bit.  Drill another small hole for mounting the socket with a machine bolt, and a fourth for the switch.  Make sure the switch is far enough from the socket that it won't interfere with the bulb.  

Sand down the plexiglass with ascending grits of sandpaper to frost it.  This way, it nearly matches the tubes and visually disappears.

Mount the socket with some plastic cement and a #8 machine bolt.  Trim any excess length off the bolt.  Mount the switch.  Wire the speaker wires to both.  Put in a 3' working bulb (it's tricky to get the bulb in, but you can do it . . .), then plug it in and enjoy!

Note on broken tubes:  if you should have a broken tube, crack out the glass, then clean out the resultant socket in the concrete with a Dremel (wearing a mask and eye protection), then glue a new tube in.  The new tube will be too long, since it will be impossible to get the buried base of the bulb out of the socket.  Use a Dremel to carefully cut off a little of the replacement tube to get the heights to line up.

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    51 Discussions


    5 years ago

    Would it be better to get some PVC so that the old lamps fit in so you can cut forum off without injuring the old lamps or replace after a wild party

    1 reply

    If you are thinking about using a PVC end cap, to set into the concrete base, then yes, it WOULD be a good idea.

    If you mean to surround the old bulb in PVC tubing to protect it from impact... then go for it, as long as it is a clear PVC tube. They even sell specially made clear plastic tubes JUST FOR protecting florescent bulbs. most hardware stores, or big box stores that sell florescent fixtures will also carry the plastic sleeves.(using opaque PVC plumbing pipe would sort of defeat the purpose of having the burned out florescents, since you wouldn't see them)

    Your BEST bet though, is to PUT IT SOMEWHERE SAFE, when having a party.

    It may be a pain, but not as big a hassle as having to clean up shards of broken glass, and dealing with mercury fumes, all while trying to host a party.


    8 years ago on Introduction

    Cool 'ible!

    If you spill mercury, please don't vacuum it up. Doing so can disperse it into an airborne vapor. (More than it tends to vaporize by itself.) Mercury has low vapor pressure and will vaporize at room temps. If it breaks up into thousands of little globules, the surface area increases tremendously, thus increasing the vaporization. If this happens get as much air moving as quickly as possible.

    Otherwise get the environment as cold as you can as fast as you can and try to make sure the mercury does not get down into any cracks in flooring, etc. If it does, cover the areas with flowers of sulfur. You can then try to suck it up with an eyedropper, solder sucker or baster, but when you're done, do make sure to work flowers of sulfur into the crevices. And don't vacuum there.


    You can get a special foam device meant to clean mercury up by trapping the globules in its open cells. I have never experimented with other types of foam, but I would want to have one of these things around in case I were to spill any. I have always believed that these should be readily available in hardware stores, and kept in every home or office that uses neon or fluorescent tubing.

    8 replies

    Reply 8 years ago on Introduction

    I've broken countless fluorescent tubes but I have never seen enough mercury in any of them to actually see. There is less than a droplet in a bulb. So how you're going to see the stuff to even pick it up is beyond me.


    Reply 8 years ago on Introduction

    Still you want to be careful.

    To say that a tube contains "less than a droplet" of mercury is meaningless. A very small quantity of mercury can be dangerous. I was a glassblower and made neon for years, and I can tell you that there is enough mercury in neon and cold cathode tubes to be of concern.

    Some people will minimize the dangers of exposure to mercury, as they will to any dangerous material, but it's up to you to protect yourself and others who may be unaware of contamination of an area with toxic materials.

    Mercury exposure is not something to mess with, especially if you ever come into contact with children, or with people who may ever have children. Mercury should not be ingested in any form, in any amount. Even "less than a droplet."


    Reply 8 years ago on Introduction

    Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once. So the moral is don't lick floors whether you break bulbs on them or not, they're icky!


    Reply 8 years ago on Introduction

    Oh Lord love a duck. Mercury is not generally absorbed via licking floors. It vaporizes into the air and there is nothing you can do to avoid breathing it in at that point. If you handle it, it can get on your skin and clothing and migrate to others, or even into your washing machine or the machines at the laundromat.

    If you want to risk a myriad of horrible ills, many to yourself but also including birth defects in your unborn offspring and those of others (and by now I am devoutly hoping you decide not to reproduce) then by all means ignore the dangers of this toxic yet ubiquitous substance.

    Handling chemicals improperly is not valiant. It is stupid, and comes with criminal penalties if you endanger others through your idiocy and someone finds out.


    Reply 8 years ago on Introduction

    I hope you realize that less mercury is in a bulb as conventional bulbs release by generating the difference in power it takes to operate. Now who's the idiot?


    Reply 8 years ago on Introduction

    That last comment didn't make sense. Conventional bulbs (I assume you mean incandescent bulbs) don't release mercury. It is true that cold cathode lamps tend to use less power, but there are other considerations aside from mercury that make them less attractive. LEDs are really the way we will have to go in future.

    By the way I wasn't calling you an idiot, but rather people who deliberately or carelessly mishandle chemicals.

    Anyway I've said all I can really say on the subject. I'm out . . . argue amongst yourself . . .



    Reply 8 years ago on Introduction

    I think you fail to see the big picture and have no idea where the electricity you consume comes from or what the consequences of using power are. One of which just happens to be mercury emissions. The difference in energy usage between incandescent and fluorescent lighting is large enough to more than offset the amount of mercury in the fluorescent bulbs. By several times I have heard.

    BTW gallium arsenide is one of the main ingredients of LEDs sounds yummy doesn't it? The semiconductor industry has been an environmental nightmare at all phases but that is a topic for another time.


    Reply 6 years ago on Introduction

    i know i'm a little late to the game, but i thought i would jump in with a few points:

    --"BTW gallium arsenide is one of the main ingredients of LEDs sounds yummy doesn't it?" gallium arsenide is indeed a carcinogen, but is used in infrared LEDs, not lamps for general illumination. White LEDs use gallium nitride. Also, any toxic or irritating materials used in LEDs are encased in epoxy, so they do not present a health hazard unless you're doing things you probably shouldn't be doing, like grinding electronics into a fine dust.

    --regarding the health and safety risks of mercury in fluorescent and HID lamps, i think they are relatively minimal, but the serious problem arises with haphazard disposal of these lamps in landfills and incinerators. for example, i work in a facility that uses thousands of mercury lamps of various types. there may only be a few milligrams of mercury in each lamp, but let's say we do a group relamping project and change 500 32W T8 tubes at one time. we're (hypothetically) irresponsible with our disposal methods and just throw all the lamps into our trash compactor. we have just released approx. 7 grams of mercury into the environment, way over the OSHA exposure limit.


    6 years ago on Introduction

    Wouldn't the ballast get too hot without a little more air space, and fail prematurely?


    6 years ago on Step 5

    This is great - thanks for your work. There are issues of delicate handling but they might be alleviated by using the fluorescent bulb covers. I don't believe they would impact the visual aspect of the lamp and they can be cut to an appropriate length easily. At any rate they are relatively inexpensive and are worth a try.
    They are for sale at many hardware stores and at most big box contractor supply.
    It's a thought.


    7 years ago on Introduction

    Thanks so much for the instructions on how to build this sweet fluorescent lamp. I've been wanting something fresh and modern to go in my sitting room of my apartment. I moved into a modern looking place that has concrete formwork and it looks really slick. This lamp will compliment it nicely.


    8 years ago on Introduction

    The mercury risks are way too overstated. I know here in the US everybody is paranoid about health risks etc, but mercury isn't the same as being plunged into a room full of hydrogen cyanide gas! Heavy metals are most dangerous to the young as they can affect brain development through denaturing of proteins, but it's not a case of "being in the same room as a broken CF bulb = instant death or terrible neurological conditions". Just keeping things in perspective. So don't worry so much.

    4 replies
    Bad Maxxwholman

    Reply 8 years ago on Introduction

    Bless you both for taming the overzealous mercury fear mongering. Although it certainly can cause issues people in general have an exaggerated fear of mercury.