Mosaic LEGO Lamps

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Introduction: Mosaic LEGO Lamps

This is the official Instructables profile of Baron Julius Alexander von Brunk, an eccentric mult...
Blending my fascination with shiny, glowing objects with my lifelong passion of making LEGO models, over the years I've tinkered with numerous illuminated LEGO projects that contained a variety of designs and electrical components. Starting with the light-up stained glass stern of my Super Mario 3 airship "The Fireflower" -- which used a crude DC circuit with a 9V battery, to the multiple Super Mario mood lamps I've built -- which used AC power and more sophisticated circuitry. The latter of which -- the LEGO mood lamps -- is what this current tutorial shall describe. This particular mood lamp uses "Lite Brite" individual dot designs to convey the illumination, as opposed to my previous light-up LEGO designs such as the first Super Mario ? Block Lamp and the Fireflower's stern, which had their designs using transparent bricks for a stained glass effect. With stained glass LEGO models, often times the colors can unfortunately all blend together when lit up, unlike this particular new design scheme I've designed, which has better detail and accuracy for the artwork -- as well as maintaining the intended design when the light inside is turned off. With stained glass LEGO models, when the internal light is off, the transparent bricks can look dull, but with this new "Lite Brite" system, the bricks that house the individual colored dots retain their colors, thus keeping the lamp looking just as elegant even when not turned on.

Since the particular LEGO mood lamps I've built are one-of-a-kind designs that I, the artist have made for himself, I shan't give instructions on the specific artwork I've made -- rather, I'll discuss the fundamentals for making illuminated LEGO lamps with the Lite Brite fashion, so that you, the reader can make your own design based on a color scheme and pattern of your choice. Like in my tutorial for vertical LEGO mosaics, I didn't provide any specific video game sprites nor patterns for my example project; instead, I explained how to make your own artwork (video game or not) using my techniques. The design you choose is entirely up to you -- as you're not required to copy my exact artwork, my exact sizes, my exact light bulb types, nor even using video game sprites at all. The artwork you decide to make is entirely up to you, and the actual size and specific electrical requirements are also for your choice.

With that said, in this tutorial I shall describe the following:
  • LEGO Technic bricks and transparent LEGO plates
  • Constructing a base
  • Choosing electrical components

Step 1: LEGO Technic Bricks and Transparent Plates

For those of you aspiring LEGO builders, Technic is a sub-brand of LEGO which uses more advanced and sophisticated parts for elaborate projects: these sort of models include functional machines with working gears, pistons, springs, pumps, and special LEGO bricks that contain drilled holes for holding axles, rods, pins, and whatnot -- these hole-drilled bricks are what we'll be using to build the design portion of the lamp. In particular, we'll be using two specific types of hole bricks: a 1x2 brick with two holes in it, and a 1x1 brick with one hole in it. You can technically use any Technic hole brick of your choosing -- which vary in sizes and holes, but I personally recommend using these two types, as you'll have more room for making details and providing individual light components.

Also in the LEGO product line are traditional 1x1 plates  -- square or round -- that are made with transparent colors. The studs of these plates will of course pop into place of the aforementioned Technic bricks, thus when arranged in a colorful mosaic pattern, you'll simply place a light bulb behind the wall of bricks/plates to create the illusion of individual illuminated colored dots -- just like an LED board, but rather like a Lite Brite set with colored pegs!

I tend to match transparent dots with coordinated Technic bricks, such as placing transparent red dots on red bricks, obviously, but again, feel free to deviate as you please. Be advised, though, that Technic hole bricks -- the specific sizes I recommend using -- are only available in limited colors, which means you have to be aware when designing your pattern, as perhaps your particular desired colors are unavailable. Some colors are available in 1x1 and 1x2 Technic hole bricks, but certain colors are rare and expensive. The same goes with transparent plates: only a handful of colors (mostly primary) are available. In the example Super Mario mood lamp I've provided here, I used the following colors for Technic bricks: tan, lime green, red, blue, white, black, light grey, dark grey, and yellow. For the transparent plates, I've chosen red, dark blue, light blue, clear (no color), neon green, dark green, and orange. I did a few techniques for substitution where necessary: for example, green Technic 1x1 hole bricks are rare and expensive, and 1x2 hole bricks are non-existent -- thus, I've chosen blue bricks, and when the transparent dark green plates were popped into place, the blue area of the brick was somewhat covered up, thus making a substitute "green" brick. You can do similar things like putting transparent orange plates in yellow Technic bricks, as there are no orange 1x1 or 1x2 Technic hole bricks available in the LEGO parts library.

If you're new to making mosaic LEGO artwork and need help making a design, please read my tutorial on vertical LEGO mosaics. This will explain the fundamentals and tips for creating a design based on a picture from the computer -- as well as understanding LEGO colors and how to better obtain parts en masse.

Step 2: Constructing a Frame

LEGO Digital Designer - free download from LEGO.com
The LEGO Frame LEGO Digital Designer File hosted on my site (mirror link on Google Drive)
LEGO Frame illustrations/steps and parts list in HTML

The frame's design is totally up to your choosing, however, I've provided a simple tutorial on how to build a basic frame in the same fashion that I've used. This 3D model is color-coded to correspond to the main areas: base (red), walls (yellow), columns (blue), and lid (green). Also I've placed the Technic pins in place to give you an indication of how to attach the light bulb socket, as well as I've left a section of the bottom base open so that you can easily fit the wires for your lamp.

The base (red) and columns (blue) in my previous mosaic lamps have always been solid black, whilst the lids (green) and walls (yellow) have been a variety of colors to reflect the artistic design I've used. Also, the base's legs in many of my projects have been made with transparent LEGO bricks, to create the illusion of the lamp hovering in mid-air. Again, the frame's design is totally up to you. Feel free to make the project as big or as small as you'd like, go ahead and design any pattern on the walls and lid, and of course, feel free to make the entire project any color you'd like. This illustration merely serves as a reference to give you an idea of how many parts you'd need and how to assemble it. One thing to consider, though: always make sure to add the legs of the base last, that way you can construct your mosaic dot pattern and everything on a completely flat surface for stability.

When assembling your frame and choosing your mosaic artwork, you might run into some engineering obstacles, mostly masonry techniques. For instance, when LEGO bricks containing more than one stud in width are interlocked with each other, a tighter seal is formed as opposed to a pattern of 1x1 bricks. Be advised during your initial conception of design that using a detailed a pattern with multiple instances of 1x1 bricks could yield a flimsy mosaic wall. Refer to my Starman pattern in particular: you'll see some light peeking through the cracks in the walls, as its design is almost made entirely of 1x1 bricks -- whereas the Fire Flower pattern mainly uses a wall of 1x2 Technic bricks held together firmly, thus the structure for that side has a lot of strength (sans the middle).

Placing the transparent LEGO dots into place is no problem, but removing them can be difficult. The bond that holds the dots into place is rather strong, and with nothing to grab onto, it's a real pain trying to remove them. I personally use an official LEGO brick separator which has a Technic pin attached to it, which I use to pop out little transparent dots that are stuck in the Technic bricks. This is a vital technique to consider if you're dissatisfied with your dot pattern, or if you've accidentally placed a certain color in the wrong spot. A quick solution would also be to use a Technic pin or a LEGO bar/rod to ram through the hole to remove the transparent dot.

Step 3: Electrical Components

I'll show you the particular light bulb housing I've chosen for my specific Super Mario mood lamp, in addition to several resources to obtain specialty bulbs.

What sort of light bulb did I use with my Super Mario mood lamp in this example? A CFL (compact fluorescent lamp), 120VAC, 9 Watts, 5,000k CRI (cool white), 580 lumen, with an E12 candelabra base. What does that translate into layman's terms? Squiggly energy saving bulb, plugged into a wall socket, low output power, bright stark white color, almost enough light to fill a small room, with a base that's small and fits into Christmas light strings. This particular bulb was tracked down on eBay (and is also available on Amazon.com for $4+s/h) for roughly $7.

E12 Candelabra is the broad term for light bulb sockets traditionally used in small light fixtures such as Christmas lights, ceiling fixtures, and faux window candles. An E12 socket can be purchased online for only a few dollars U.S., and often times you can buy a flicker cord already attached to one -- just like a Christmas light or a faux window candle.

Light bulb type breakdown:

Incandescent Bulbs - standard lights used in most homes and appliances

  • Cheap -- and that's an understatement. Most standard incandescent bulbs don't exceed a few dollars U.S., and a pack of small low-wattage bulbs (for appliances and Christmas lights) could only cost like $2 at Rite Aid or CVS.
  • Abundant: since these light bulbs are the dominant product for most applications -- from home lamps to flashlights, in addition to being really, really cheap, these bulbs are available virtually anywhere, and finding obscure sizes/shapes is no hassle.
  • Breaking one is no big deal. Not just because they're cheap and easily replaceable, but because these lights are just glass and wires -- no harmful Mercury or Sodium chemicals. If you step on one or blow it out by accident, simply chuck it in the trashcan with no hassle.
  • Incandescent bulbs are available in both AC and DC applications, but it's imperative to use the proper one. If your lamp is being plugged into a wall, then you must use a 120VAC bulb, unless you plan on altering your setup to have an AC adapter or transformer. Low-voltage DC incandescent bulbs are typically used in flashlight bulbs and car headlights. A simple 9V battery can power a little flashlight bulb purchased at Radio Shack.
  • The color renderings are typically low -- as in, most light produced by an incandescent bulb will be a warm yellowish tint, which will of course mess up your color output for your lamp's Lite Brite dots. With a dull incandescent bulb, your blues will turn sort of green, and your whites will look yellowed. If this is the route you plan on going down, please be advised of the color distortion. Incandescent bulbs with a higher color rendering index tend to use up a lot more power, and will get extremely hot -- so hot, that it wouldn't be safe to keep within the vicinity of a small LEGO lamp made from plastic bricks. Higher-wattage incandescent bulbs with bright CRIs are typically used in theatrical production and photography, where studios tend to be big -- and not for use in a small plastic box capable of melting!
  • Incandescent bulbs in general, regardless of their wattage tend to hog up a lot of power. The standard size for most homes is a 60 Watt bulb, whilst many American microwaves, refrigerators, and lava lamps use a 40 Watt appliance bulb -- both of which can jack up your electricity and produce a lot of heat. It's for these two specific reasons (excess heat and energy) that CFLs are becoming the new norm. . .

CFL Bulbs - squiggly energy-saving bulbs recommended for homes

  • Provide bright light output for a fraction of the cost to operate a traditional bulb (for example, a 9 Watt CFL is the equivalent of a 40 Watt traditional bulb).
  • With their lower output wattage, these bulbs generate a lot less heat and will thus have less a chance melting your LEGO bricks if plugged in for a while.
  • Higher color rendering index: many incandescent bulbs give off a warm, yellowish color (2,700k and below), whilst CFLs can be made to be stark white (5,000k and above) for optimal colors. Using any bulb with a low CRI (2,700k) will make your LEGO mood lamp appear yellowish, unlike a 5,000k bulb, with its bright white color that will make your blues look blue and your reds look red.
  • CFLs have long lives and can last a few years in some cases. Replacement isn't a big chore.
  • CFLs contain Mercury vapor, which is poisonous; if you break one of these bulbs, you can't simply throw it in the trash -- rather, there's a safety procedure required to avoid contamination in your house, depending on the severity of the Mercury leak.
  • CFLs are slightly more expensive than incandescent bulbs, but still cheaper than LEDs.
  • You also can't use these bulbs with a dimmer, for the most part. For some people, this is no big deal, whilst some folks completely shun CFLs because of this.

LED Bulbs

  • Use a tiny amount of electricity, and thus can sometimes be used in AC or DC fashions.
  • With their low amount of output wattage, they produce almost no heat at all, which makes them best for placing inside your LEGO models, as there's almost no chance they'll heat up and melt your bricks.
  • LED bulbs are very expensive -- I'm talking one light bulb with the same brightness output of a faux window candle light will cost about $10 for one, depending on where you purchase them. Some of the LED bulbs I've used in previous LEGO models ranged from $3-8 each, and provided only a tiny amount of light -- a little less than a standard nightlight for a kid's bedroom, and obviously not nearly as much light required to illuminate an entire LEGO mood lamp efficiently. An LED bulb bright and powerful enough to fill a small room would probably cost about $30 (for just one bulb), to give you an idea. If you check throughout Amazon.com and other online sources, you'll see how bright LED spotlight and appliance bulbs can be rather pricy. A good quality set of LED Christmas lights would range from $25-60, depending on the size, versus a cheap string of incandescent Christmas lights which often cost less than $15 for a string of 300. A lot of people justify the high price of LED bulbs due to their long life of thousands of hours in conjunction with their massive energy savings. It's up to you to decide whether it's a good idea or not to purchase expensive LED bulbs as a long-term investment.

Step 4: Electrical Safety Precautions

Remember, if you're using AC voltage in your project, be 100% certain that you know what you're doing. Never change a light bulb when the lamp is turned on, always be sure to have the cord unplugged when being worked on, and be certain your soldered connections are secure and insulated.

AC electricity draws its power from a live power grid, which in the United States is around 120 volts. DC power is relatively miniscule, as it draws its electricity from a small source like a battery, a potato, or a solar power panel -- which means screwing up a DC circuit will just ruin a battery, break a bulb or something, unlike AC power, in which case failures in design and safety can be critical. That being said, any failures or errors made with your AC-powered lamp will be disastrous and dangerous; be absoltively posilutely certain you know what you're doing when attaching wires to an AC-powered lamp base, otherwise you could do far worse than simply breaking your wires/bulbs/batteries -- you could shock yourself, blow a fuse, lose a testicle, melt the polar ice caps, or even worse, burn your house down. Again, these scary scenarios only apply to you if you're both using AC electricity and constructing a rig from scratch; if safety is a concern (and you don't have access to sophisticated parts and soldering equipment), I would highly recommend purchasing a lamp socket with the cord and switch already built into it, such as a single light cord similar to Christmas lights or a faux window candle. Otherwise, you'll have to be certain that your wires are properly tinned and connected to the bulb base if you plan on doing the wiring from scratch. Baron von Brunk and the kind folks at Instructables cannot be held responsible if you ignore these safety warnings and end up burning your fingers on live wire somehow.

Also, the safety precautions transcend from AC or DC power: safety is also vital to properly handling light bulbs -- notably the CFL bulbs which of course contain Mercury vapor and cannot simply be thrown in the trash if you break one. Another safety feature to consider to avoid leaving your lamp turned on for a long period of time (if you're using incandescent bulbs), as naturally the lamp will heat up, and as a common sense rule of them -- regardless of the light bulb you're using (CFL, LED, incandescent) -- make sure to unplug the lamp when not in use, which of course is a basic rule of thumb for all electrical devices regardless of their power and/or functionality.

Oh, and one more thing: another important rule of safety to consider is if you plan on building a replica of a Super Mario ? Block like I've done, it's necessary that you not leave the lamp within the vicinity of Italian-American plumbers, as they might jump up and punch the lamp to make coins pop out. It's happened to me before.Twice.

Step 5: Plug in the Bad Boy and Give It a Glow!

Congratulations: if you've successfully paid the money to get sufficient parts and ultimately assemble the whole shebang, you're now the proud owner of a bedazzled LEGO lamp! Are your electrical components working properly? Does your lid fit on securely? What design did you choose -- something video game themed? Super Mario Bros. like mine, or perhaps Mega Man or Legend of Zelda!? Did you use a lot of colors!? Is your light bulb bright enough? Will you believe it's not butter!?

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    34 Discussions

    This is RAD!!! GREAT tutorial. I know nothing of this type of tinkering, yet I feel strangely empowered to try, due to your instructions. Bravo.

    thx, nice guide, but the lego tech 1x1 or 1x2 are very expensive. have you a cheap shop, or a tip?

    funny how they don't consider making this kind of stuff offical.

    You would simply unscrew the bulb and replace it with a new one. The roof of the lamp isn't fixed into the cube: it slides right off.

    It's hard to gauge, but expect anywhere between $20-50 USD, depending on the amount of rare colors. If you go with common Technic colors and simple sprite patterns, the cost would be somewhat low, like around $20.

    Unfortunately, since this basic frame design is more of a general
    suggestion (rather than intended to be copied verbatim), the only parts
    list I have available is at the end of the HTML build guide (in step 2's bullet list). Since this is an artistic creation that can be made for your own design, there's no real specific requirement for the LEGO construction. I would suggest, however, downloading the LDD file and using that as a determination of how big your actual model will be, so that you can purchase parts according to it. Just for the record, none of my pieces were bought at the LEGO Store -- rather, all of the Technic bricks and transparent plates were purchased individually online after I designed my sprite artwork for the Mario mosaic. I'd recommend designing your actual artwork first, then eventually purchasing parts according to that.

    Nono i mean, you state that led bulbs are expensive. Instead of an led bulb, use a directional led array! :-) that will also concentrate the light in the right directions.

    Wow. Why hasn't Lego made a kit for this yet? If they stumble across this idea of yours they will make a fortune. This is what Lite Brite should have been.

    1 reply

    I'm considering submitting this as a kit for CUUSOO, albeit smaller, simpler, and with a harmless LED bulb. I'm trying to figure out how to simplify it enough that a kid between the ages of 8-12 could put it together without making it an overkill of engineering.

    Know you've heard it before, but those are really nice!

    At some point when I get time, I'm gonna make one of those w/ an MtG theme, but I really love how the flower looks so might have to do a Mario themed one too (all this coming from the person who believes it could be a nice summer project).