Steampunk Floating Arm Desk Lamp





Introduction: Steampunk Floating Arm Desk Lamp

Like many of my projects this began with the chance finding of a lovely old brass bowl in a thrift shop. I paid a dollar for it and walked out thinking "I love the patina - it would make a great lamp..." and when I got home tossed it into the box of brass bits and pieces collected over the years from my frequent visits to the recycling plants, the junkyard and the thrift shops I frequent. I forgot about the bowl for nearly a year and then had a hankering to make a floating arm desk lamp in the Steampunk genre and re-discovered the bowl. This provided the impetus and I went looking through my boxes for other bits and pieces which could be re-purposed to provide key elements of the construction. Many of my projects start this way and in a sense, this is what makes them difficult to present as a how-to-do-it instructable. So much of this depends on what bits and pieces you may have to hand or can find, that even planning is no more than a vaguely realized "Concept Drawing". The actual details will vary depending on what components one can find, or, in hitting a problem, how one chooses to solve the problem.
I am a self-confessed amateur, learning as I go and am indebted to the online maker community for all the open-handed and generous sharing of tips and techniques from which I have learned so much.
The tools used here include a drill press, angle grinder, hand file, taps and dies and a large and a small soldering torch. I like the Steampunk genre because it allows me to use the materials I most like working with: well-seasoned hardwoods, brass, copper and steel, as well as using simple mechanisms such as springs, electro-mechanical or clockwork, rather than "black box" electonics. (Not to decry electronica - just not in Steampunk!) Aesthetically, It also allows a certain "industrial functionality" of finish, which makes the crudity of finish and the overall roughness of my pieces almost acceptable.
In all my projects I have two criteria: the piece must work as planned and it must meet my own aesthetic standards, what I call pretty functionality. Half the fun is in solving the problems as they arise and as there's never only one solution, the project could go off in any number of ways at any stage, which is what makes it interesting. I'd love to hear about anyone else's version of this sort of construction.
Note: To make the mechanism clearer, check out the video on shown above..

Step 1: Lamp Base

To carry the weight, especially when deployed in the extended position, a "floating arm" device needs a stable base, which should be quite heavy in order to prevent tipping over. I used a nice chunk of decades old Australian Jarrah, a reddish hardwood used in railway sleepers in the late 19th and early 20th century here in New Zealand. This piece I got for free from a local scrapyard and I estimate that is must be at least 80-plus years old. It has not been stained, simply sanded and then given three coats of Polyurethane, sanding with increasingly fine grades of paper between coats. The base has been hollowed out using a spade bit on a drill press. The finished space, which has to take the mains step-down transformer ( the light is a 12v DC Halogen) and the wiring for the on-off switch is rough, but serviceable. Would have been better with a router or a mill, but I don't have either of those.
The brass legs are made from blank brass rod - a scrapyard find, thickened at each end by soldering a matching piece and then grinding to a teardrop shape with an angle grinder. The construct was then drilled to take the threaded end of an industrial electrical contact ( For some reason, I quite often find these at the local metal recycler and always snap them up when I find them as they seem to be infinitely adaptable). The threaded pin was then shaped by filing in a drill press ( in this case acting as a turning device, like a poor man's mini lathe).

Step 2: Rotary Mechanism and Lock

Any balanced arm lamp needs to be able to extend and retract, but also rotate. In this case, this was achieved by using a brass quick-release hose clamp as the central rotatory component. Given a proper array of tools, I might have used a machined bearing with a broader surface to prevent the irritating laxity and hence, wobble, that comes with using such a narrow pivot, but one has to work with what one has available.
The lamp base is curved and the arm is a long lever, therefore it will fall away from a selected position. Accordingly a locking mechanism using a toothed wheel and a toothed pawl were devised. These are shown in the images attached. The arc of rotation of the lamp was limited by arresting pillars as shown and symmetry was maintained by using identical gas-line connectors to provide the base for the locking mechanism and the electrical wiring egress point from the base to the arm of the lamp.

Step 3: The "Skeleton" of the Arm

Modeled to some extent on the human arm, the skeleton of the arm required an upper arm, a forearm, connected through an elbow joint, and a hand, the actual lamp itself, connected through a wrist joint. Springs, the rigging discussed in the next section, then provided the muscles, which would move these joints.
The skeleton was put together using components found in my boxes of scrapyard finds.

Step 4: The Rigging or Muscles.

The springs, and balancing of the forces which their addition generates are what enables the arm to 'float". The Anglepoise lamp, invented nearly a century ago is a beautiful example of the elegant simplicity which a functional design of this form can take. The current design uses a multitude of springs, with cables and outriggers to direct the forces. Despite fairly wide searching I couldn't find any sources which could give me a principled approached to this aspect of the design. Consequently, I took a leaf from the Creator's handbook and used my own arm as a model, trying to match the muscle attachment points around the joints. In the end though, the actual points of attachment were determined empirically, or by trial and error.
The outriggers were added to help disperse the springs, for aesthetics and because they were fun to do.
About the only principles I can enunciate after all this messing about are these:

1.In order for a joint to "float" in a selected position, the forces trying to extend the joint, must match the forces trying to flex the joint.

2. Start by trying to animate or float one joint. The more joints you add, the more complex will the rigging become and true balance harder to achieve.

3. The arm should be heaviest and bulkiest at the base or shoulder and get lighter towards the hand. failure to do this will make the entire construct top-heavy and liable to topple over.

Step 5: Problem Solving

While it was relatively easy to join the skeletal elements, once the riggi ng was added, the constant force of the springs across the joints proved too much for some of the junctions and these gave way. The challenge was then to reinforce and support the joins while maintaining some semblance of aesthetics and functionality. This section shows the solutions to two of the junction failure problems:



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    22 Discussions

    Hi, I was wondering if you could give me some rough measurements for the arms of the lamp? I don't have the awesome collection of scrap brass to work with, so I'm planning to make most of it from scratch and some measurements would be great.

    Wow, really dig this contraption... I call all steampunk stuff contraptions, as I do my own art... this thing is beautiful. Plan to create quite soon... Thanks fer the post...

    This lamp is beautiful. I really liked reading about your process. It is inspiring me to do sometype of steampunk related project in the future..must collect more first or look at what I have...:)

    That's a very nice desk lamp.

    Here in Sydney there is a man who makes free standing floor lamps from old materials and he sells them for AUD$10,000 EACH. He ocassionally has an exhibition, he has three employees to help him and he seems to be making really good money out of it.

    There's another man who makes kaleidoscopes (in Melbourne, Australia) who sells them for around $4200 each with an Edwardian look to them. They kind of look like something from H.G. Wells 'The Time Machine' but the movie. He doesn't sell many as they are so exotic and few people want to spend that much on a kaleidoscope. They are about 50 cm high (20") and weigh around 5 kg.

    There can be a bit of money in steampunk, but style is important.

    4 replies

    Do you know how I could get to see some examples of his work? Does he have a website or exhibit in a gallery?

    I did some digging (a couple of phone calls here in Sydney) and found his website.

    He sells them through three dealers. You can see that he simply marries up some old/used functional items with new lampshades.

    Here is the warehouse where he (Michael Yabsley) gets his used items;

    There's piles of such items out there, all over the world.

    Also, for your interest, here's some pics of the kaleidoscopes but the maker dresses them in Edwardian style. Here's three pics, plus one of a bare telescope.

    But, it did ocurr to me that if you took an ordinary, quality telescope you could apply all kinds of things to give it an Edwardian, Georgian, steampunky look, whatever you liked and the functional telescope and the stand are all there, already. This makes for easier building.

    Let me know what you think.


    Kaleidescope Manufacture And Sales Pulls In Very Nice Money3.jpgKaleidescope Manufacture And Sales Pulls In Very Nice Money4.jpgKaleidescope Manufacture And Sales Pulls In Very Nice Money.jpgKaleidescope Manufacture And Sales Pulls In Very Nice Money1.jpg

    These are great. The look almost like something from Aughra's lab in the Dark Crystal. Wish I had the $$$$ to spend on something like that.

    Hi Robert,
    thanks for that information and for taking the trouble to find and post it. I may well have a go at building a kaleidoscope one of these days.
    I agree that you could adapt an existing object like a telescope, but then you wouldn't have all the fun of the build....:)

    Just had to comment on the first thing that ran through my mind when I saw this awesome lamp. I immediately thought of a great, great, great grandfather version of the Pixar lamp wearing a bowler hat and a moustache (don't ask where that came from). I was trying to picture it in my mind's eye balancing on a leather ball and deflating it......:D

    On a more serious note, thanks for sharing your work! It is very inspirational and is a great 'Ible!!


    Awesome lamp! Worthy of five stars AND a patch! Also really well documented and photographed. It's difficult taking such detailed photos and getting them in focus, and you did a great job!

    Oddly, I think my favorite part is the brass drawer handle you added for support;-) But I notice one detail I think you short changed in this Instructable: the really cool cloth covered cable you made. Maybe you can add a step about the cord? (We get a glimpse of it 8 photos in, in step 2, but I'd like to see a whole step about the cable;-)

    2 replies

    Hi and thanks for the kind comments, AND the patch! Awesome.
    I can't claim originality for the cloth-covered cord as I stole the idea from Jake van Slatt over at Steampunk Workshop.
    Basically, what I've done is get a pair of football boot laces (or hiking boot or similar - but you want them fat and long) in a colour I liked. next, I cut off the plastic end bit and threaded my power cable through the lace. Now this can be a bit tricky: Remember that the lace, because of it's weave, acts like a 'Chinese Finger Trap" (, so you have to push the cable through the lace and not pull it. I found that I could do this most easily by taping the cable end, as a butt-joint, to the end of a smooth brass or steel rod, using a smooth piece of masking or packaging tape. The rod is then easily pushed through the lace and draws the cable after it. Note that you must use a cable which is of smaller gauge than the internal diameter of the lace, or you'll have a very frustrating struggle. Have fun.
    Of course, you can always buy cloth-covered electrical cable online,(eg. but it's made in the US and I live in New Zealand, so shipping is a major cost, plus, they only sell it in large quantities, which doesn't suit a dabbler like myself. Hope this helps.

    Cutshopguy - Thanks very much for the detailed reply! I have some experience using the technique you've described, as I've done this for my Steampunk USB cable,  Steampunk USB mini-lantern,  and Dieselpunk USB lamp.

    And I too drew inspiration from Jake Von Slatt, as well as Miss Betsy's fine instructable, Steampunk Mouse.

    What you've written above in the comments section is a really good description of this process. (I like the analogy of the Chinese Finger Trap;-) I think you should consider editing this instructable, and adding the above text as an additional step, for creating the cloth covered cord.

    One reason I created my Steampunk USB cable instructable was because I found  a lack of information on this technique, and your description hits the nail on the head;-)

    As fate would have it, I acquired one of these vintage swing arm lamps yesterday, and I certainly will draw inspiration from this instructable when I get a chance to 'punk it out;-)
    Winged Fist

    This is a beautiful piece of work. I've always loved this style of design. A functional piece of art meant to be appreciated but also used. Hats off to you/

    what you have built here say the least(in my opinion) a fantastic work of art! It's Gorgeous in every sense of the word!!


    It saddens me that I do not have what it takes to build such artwork.

    I would love to have one, but I have neither the space to work in, the parts to build it, the money to buy said parts, or the patience to undertake such a project.

    Sir, you have hit a Grand Slam with this project.
    TY for sharing Sir!! :)

    Bravo!!! clapclapclapclapclapclapclapclap Whooo! Love IT!!!!!!! clapclapclapclapclapclapclapclap clapclapclapclapclapclapclapclap!!! amazing!

    Stunning work. Bravo, sir.

    A special thanks for including the sketch of the spring balance design. It made the functions of the system very clear.

    I look forward to seeing more of your work here.