The big box do-it-yourself stores offer low voltage landscape lighting in kits with plastic and metal lighting fixtures. When Malibu first introduced such lighting twenty-five years ago, the fixtures were affordable. Now they are way over-priced and ho-hum in looks, but you can make your own in the style of Japanese shōji lanterns to wow your friends and neighbors.
This Instructable will teach you to build the lantern, and you can occasionally find some affordable old Malibu plastic lights on E-Bay that you can repurpose to hold the bulb—or you can find bulb holders on the Internet. You can buy the low voltage transformer and wiring at the big box.
In Japan, carpenters use a mortise-and-tenon technique to build their shōji screens and lanterns, and they use rice paper for the panes. The instructions below are conceived for everyday carpenters, so you will be using screws and glue for the frame instead of mortise-and-tenon. And you will use acrylic for the panes. (My first lantern had rice paper panes, but a wren discovered she could poke through the paper and build a comfy nest complete with light bulb heating; when her chicks fledged, I converted the panes to acrylic.)
I have been crafting these lanterns for twenty years, and at the end of these instructions I include a link to a website where you can see my various lanterns. You can copy one of my designs or invent your own to fit your requirements or needs. This Instructable gives you the basic principles and tips, drawing on several lanterns to illustrate steps.
Skim this section initially, then re-read it after you have read the steps. You will have a better idea of the materials then.
- A board wide enough to cut two identical squares that will form the top and bottom of your main structure. You will want a board that is at least 6” wide.
- Optional: You may also want two more squares of pressure-treated wood that will cap your top and bottom squares, for extra protection from the elements and an added horizontal layer. If so, choose a board that is 2” wider than your main structure boards, to give you a nice 1” setback.
- A board long enough and thick enough to rip into four posts for the main structure. You can work with standard “one-by” boards (which give you 3/4” effective thickness) for many lanterns. But also look around your shop for any leftover boards you can rip for the purpose.
- A board long enough and thick enough to rip for your panel frames. You want the panel frames to be a bit thinner than the posts, and as you choose your lumber, calculate final lengths for bottoms, sides, and any horizontals or verticals you add for effect.
- Sheet(s) of acrylic/plexiglass, available at the big boxes
- Exterior Polyurethane
- Optional: Stain (if, for example, you are working with pine and want to stain it for effect. I have used Gunstock on several occasions to contrast nicely with pressure treated wood.)
- Wood Glue
- Exterior Wood Screws (If you don’t have any on hand, note which lengths you need as you plan your size and read through the steps.)
- 5” lag screw and washer to anchor the shōji lantern into its post—a 4”x4”, 6”x6”, or a tree stump
- Stone Hat (Wait until your lantern is complete to choose it!)
- Chop Saw
- Table Saw
- Drill Press—ideally, but you can make do with a drill, a good eye, and a steady hand
- Nail Punch
- Ratchet Wrench
- Torpedo Level
This Instructable falls into four Sections: Making the Main Structure (Steps 1-9); Making the Panel Frames (Steps 10-17); Assembling the Shōji Lantern (Steps 18-21), and Mounting the Shōji Lantern (Steps 22-26). At the step that begins a new Section, a short intro is included.
Step 1: Sketch Your General Design
Before you begin, sketch out the design you want for the lantern. Here are two samples: a drawing of one panel with sizes and wood types noted, and a rough sketch for another. You can always adjust as you go, but a sketch gets you started.
Intro this Section: It is critical to be precise in building your main structure, so that your panel frames will fit neatly inside of it. Take your time at each step.
Step 2: Cut Your Top and Bottom Plates to Identical Size
Confirm that your square pieces are an identical size. If not, trim them on the table saw or with a circular saw to be identical. Otherwise, your columns will be off the vertical. (Now is also the time to cut your pressure treated plates, if you have chosen to include them.)
Step 3: Drill Holes for the Columns
Using a drill press if you have it, drill holes at equidistance from the corners in all four corners of the squares. If you have a little spacer tool, use it. Otherwise cut a short piece of wood as a spacer to assure uniformity. You want these columns to set back equal distances from the corners. If you do not have a drill press, a drill will have to suffice—just try to keep it as perfectly vertical as possible.
Step 4: Rip the Columns
Using a table saw, rip the board you have chosen to give you 4 columns.
Step 5: Cut the Columns to Identical Lengths
Measure the first column according to your design and cut it on the chop saw. Then use it to mark the other columns or lay it on each one successively before cutting to position the saw blade on each column. Compare all four columns when you are finished to make sure the lengths are identical.
Step 6: Prepare the Plates to Receive the Columns
Twist your screws a bit through each hole. Lay the first plate on your work bench with the protruding sides up. In the image above you can see a close-up of a screw protruding through a plate, surrounded by glue and awaiting a column.
Step 7: Drill Starter Holes in the Columns
Mark the center of each column end by drawing an X between the corners, punch it, then use a small drill bit to drill into each X by 1/2”. This step will help assure that your screws go in dead center.
Step 8: Screw the Columns Firmly to the Top Square
One by one, apply glue to the end of each column and screw it down snugly to the board. Wipe off excess glue that comes out and flip the board over. Using your screw driver or drill, screw in the screws as firmly as you can.
Step 9: Screw the Columns to the Bottom Square
Now lay the square down with the columns pointing up. Put glue on each column, position the other square on the columns by aligning the protruding screws with the holes in the columns, and screw these screws down tightly. Wipe of excess glue, and adjust any columns that seem to have gone out of the orthogonal to make them perfect. Let the glue holding this main structure together dry--overnight, for best results.
Step 10: Number the Panels on the Bottom Plate
Intro to this Section: Your panel frames will fit snugly into the bays of the main structure. Choose a wood that will contrast with the wood of the structure for effect, and make sure you have enough on hand. Over the years, I have used pine, fir, cypress, walnut, cedar, ipe, mahogany, redwood, maple, and ironwood with good results. (Ideally, your panel frames will be a bit thinner than the main structure columns. When you have determined the panel frame thickness, calculate how many rips you will need to make enough panel frame pieces.)
To help you keep track of your panels, number each bay, 1-4 on the bottom plate. You will number each panel frame as you build it, too, so that slight variations in bay width are accommodated.
Step 11: Rip Square Profiles From the Panel Lumber
Use your table saw to rip enough square profiles in lengths that will give you ample room to chop saw them to size. Don’t forget to account for any extra horizontal or vertical bars in your design. In the image above, you see a main structure of cypress drying overnight, with several profiles of white pine standing next to it, awaiting sizing.
Step 12: Cut the Frame Pieces
Lay a column at the base of a bay, mark it, and cut it with a chop saw. Confirm it fits or trim to size, then cut another identical profile to that length. With each of these in place, measure out two side pieces to fit into the panel. Cut these pieces a bit longer than necessary, then trim them by 1/128th” or 1/64th” in repeated cuts for a tight fit. This part takes a bit of time, but soon you will develop a good eye for the fit. (And be mindful as you cut: Your fingers are your friends!) If you are adding bars, you can cut them now or wait until the glue on these frames has dried.
Step 13: Glue the Frames
Place your panel on some wax paper, glue the pieces, clamp them, and let them dry. Repeat the process for every panel and let them dry overnight.
Step 14: Sand and Add Stain And/or Polyurethane
Sand your panels frames one by one, then stain them and/or polyurethane them as you desire. (I stretch this step over several days while I am doing other stuffs. The more coats of poly, the thicker the layer on the sides of the frames, the tighter the fit into the main structure.)
Step 15: Cut the Acrylic Panels
While your panels are drying, you can measure and cut the acrylic panels that will fit into them. I recently added a fine tooth saw blade to my table saw, so I was able to cut the sheets of acrylic to size using it. (Be sure to wear protective glasses if you do this, because tiny bits of acrylic will come flying at you!) Alternatively, you can score the sheets repeatedly with a Stanley knife, then snap it. Cut the panels 1/8” smaller than the frame all the way around so that they don’t bump up against the pressure treated posts when you screw them into place.
Step 16: Sand the Acrylic Panels
To achieve the shōji rice paper effect, use a coarse grit sandpaper. Do this on one side only—the side that will go in the interior of the lantern--so that the exterior remains slick to repel the elements.
Step 17: Attach the Panels to the Frames
Panel by panel, put your acrylic panel in place and drill pilot holes through the acrylic and into the wood. This step helps assure that neither panel nor wood splits as you screw the panel into place. I usually use 5/8” screws.
Step 18: Find the “Loosest” Panel
Intro to this Section: You will fit each panel into its bay, determine which panel will be the one that can be opened to access the bulb, and then put three panels into permanent position.
Working panel by panel, fit each one into its bay to find which one fits the loosest. This panel will be the one you designate to be openable for access to the light bulb when it needs changing (which is almost never). I usually just drill a screw into the frame that will open to make it easier to pull out, but sometimes I put hinges and make a door.
Step 19: Insert the Panels Into Each Bay
If your measuring, cutting, and screwing has been good, you can knock the panels into each bay and let friction hold them in. Use a mallet and a block of wood to get the frame flush with the main structure. (If you find that a panel does not quite fit because of swelling from stain or poly, you can either trim it ever so slightly on the chop saw or table saw or mount a sander on your workbench and bring the edge up against it.) If a panel is too loose, you can screw it into its bay in the main frame—a screw on top and bottom or each side should suffice.
Step 20: Choose a Light Bulb and Mount It
You can buy “wedge” style low voltage light bulb holders on the Internet and fabricate a holder that will place your light source in the middle of your lantern. Or you can scour EBay for someone selling old Malibu lights, buy one that will fit your lantern, and adjust it to your dimensions with a saw. I have also bought the “headlight” style low voltage light bulbs and drilled a large hole in the top or bottom of my lantern using a Dial Saw, then mounted the headlight in that hole. In close quarters, I have improvised using a U clamp to attach the lead for the wedge bulb holder.
Step 21: Drill the Hole for the Lag Screw
Drill a hole big enough for the lag screw that will anchor your lantern into the tree or post that will support your work of art.
Step 22: Put Your Lantern Into Position
Intro to this Section: If you have a stump that needs a lantern—or a tree that needs topping to provide more light for your yard or garden—find its middle and drill a small starter hole for the lag screw that will anchor your beautiful creation.
Pre-drill the support tree or post, put your lantern into place with a torpedo level on top of it, and tighten the lag screw down with a ratchet wrench. Have some shims on hand in the event that the level tells you it needs adjusting.
Step 23: Connect the Low Voltage
Run a line from your low voltage feed and connect it to your lantern.
Step 24: Find a Stone Hat
The shōji lanterns in Japan often sport stone “hats,” so I often try to add one. Finding the one you think fits just right can be a challenge, but also fun, liking trying on hats in a store to find the one that looks good on you. I use square ones for a formal look or irregular ones for that “going out in the snow” look :). Keep your eyes peeled when hiking dry creek or river beds or when in the landscaping supply store.
Step 25: Receive Compliments
Invite friends to see your creation and bask in their ooh’s and ah’s.
Step 26: Make Some More!
Notice which friends ooh and ah the most. Now that you have your technique down, the shōji lanterns make great gifts. You can see more samples of my lanterns at: https://www.hostaseizure.com/shoji/
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Enchanted Excalibur made it!