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Make your own Wooden Luminaries Print E-mail


Here is a project that you can complete over a weekend or two during the summer. While I created these for my Christmas display, these would look great for any holiday.  By using different patterns, these would look great for Halloween, Independence Day, etc...

In this article:

A few notes about the project

While I have a workshop full of power tools, you can do this project with simple hand tools.  The only special tool I recommend is a 'spiral saw' or a 'scroll saw'.  While a Jig saw or a hand-held coping saw will do the trick, think about spending the $30-$40 on an inexpensive spiral saw.  If you'll be doing more than a few of these, or other wooden cutouts, it will pay for itself.

You should be able to adapt this project to whatever materials and tools you have, and I'll try to provide alternatives where I can.  Remember:  have fun with this!  This is a hobby, not your job.  In the end, caulk should fix any 'oopsies' you have.  Don't freak out if things don't align properly, or you have big gaps - they can be fixed.

Before we get into the meat of this article, I want to take a moment to talk about safety.  Don't forget to wear eye protection, and have a mask handy to filter the ton of sawdust you'll be generating.  Safety is no accident!

You may notice that while reading these directions, some of the pictures don't exactly match up with the description, or with previous steps.  That is because most of the pictures were taken while I was creating the prototype, while the directions were created later with full knowledge of all the pitfalls/etc.

Tools you'll need:

  • Spiral saw, or another 'detail' type saw IE: Jig saw, Scroll Saw, or Coping saw.
  • Cross Cut Saw & miter box. I used a power compound miter box saw, but a hand saw & miter box will work as well.
  • Table Saw, Circular Saw, or Hand Saw.  one of the few tools I don't have is a table saw, but a circular saw will work just as well.  If you use a hand saw, your arm is going to get a workout!
  • Clamps.  Woodworking is 1000% easier when you have clamps!  Go buy some if you don't have any!
  • Drill & 3/4" Spade drill bit.  You'll possibly need another smaller bit if you are going to use a Jig/scroll/coping saw, and a very small one to pre-drill holes if using screws for assembly.
  • Fasteners - screws, staple gun or air brad nailer
  • Wood Rasp
  • Caulk Gun (or squeeze type caulk)
  • Carbon Paper


I created these out of scrap lumber I had sitting around.  I usually have a bin full of scraps from other projects just for these kinds of things.   If you are building your luminaries to my specifications, here is what you'll need:

  • 1"x2"x8' lumber - Each 8 foot 1x2 should be enough for 2 luminaries. 
  • 1 sheet of 4'x8'x1/8" luan plywood - I used 1/8" Luan since that is what I had laying around.  Any plywood you have should do the job.  Remember the thicker it is, the heavier the finished project will be.  A full 4x8 sheet should be enough for 10 complete luminaries.
  • Medium grit sand paper - just to take some rough edges off the cuts.
  • Exterior grade paintible caulk - make sure it's exterior grade and paintible.
  • Paint - any exterior grade should be OK. I used white, (and you should as well for the insides) but you are free to paint these whatever color you like.

Step 1: Select your patterns

If you have a copy of Microsoft Word for Windows, my personal suggestion is to use the Microsoft Office website: http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/clipart/default.aspx.  The site has some great images, and you should be able to find something that matches your tastes.  If you don't find anything, take a look on the rest of the web until you find something you DO like (try Christmas 'coloring book' sites).  The only thing you need to remember is that you want to select images that have a nice silhouette.  I ended up selecting these 6:

Image   Image  Image
Image  Image  Image

If you want to use the same ones as I did, you can download all 6 in this zip file.

You'll need to resize whatever picture(s) you select on your computer before printing them.  Since the plywood scraps I had were 10 1/2" high, and paper is 11 1/2", I decided on a making the faces of my luminaries 8 1/2" wide.  Voilà!  Nearly the size of a standard sheet of paper.  I made sure I allowed for a couple of inches up from the bottom (for the base), and resized the clip-art to around 6"-8" wide.

Step 2: Cut the plywood.

Before we get into the cutting, I again want to stress SAFETY.  Be sure you know how to operate all your tools safely.  Make sure you wear eye protection when cutting/drilling/nailing/whatever.  It only takes a split second to loose your eye sight.  Also, wear a dust mask when cutting wood.  This is especially true when cutting the designs from the plywood. 

I started with plywood that was already ripped to 10 1/2" high.  These were scraps left over from finishing the inside of my workshop, and I had a ton of them.  If you are buying a fresh sheet of plywood to make these, and you don't have a table saw, I suggest that you have the lumber yard/home center rip the plywood for you.  Typically the first cut is free, and after that they are $1 or $2 each.  The 4 cuts they make will save you hours later.  You'll end up with 4 strips 10 1/2" high by 8' long, and 1 scrap piece that is around 3" high.

Once you have your plywood ripped to height, you need to cut it to width.  If you are following my plans exactly, you'll have to cut 2 pieces of plywood to 8 1/2", and 2 to 8 1/4".  That's because the plywood is 1/8" thick and we will be building plywood boxes with butt-joints.  If you are using thicker plywood, you'll need to adjust the size of the pieces accordingly.  For instance if you are using 3/8" plywood, your smaller pieces will be 7 3/4".  Alternatively, if you are using thicker plywood, you may want to miter the ends of your plywood (like we will with the bases later).  If that is the case, you probably already have wood-working skills beyond the scope of my little DIY article!

Since I only have a circular saw, I spent around 10 minutes to set up a simple stop block and straight edge jig on my workbench.  If you have a table saw, simply adjust your fence and cut away!  If you are using a hand saw, you'll want to do this the old fashioned way -- measure 8 1/2" and start sawing.  For those of us who don't have a table saw,  the stop block and jig works just as well when using a circular saw.   

To speed the cutting, and since I was using very thin plywood, I stacked 2 pieces of plywood together and cut them that way. It's best to cut all the longer pieces first, then re-set the jig and cut the smaller pieces 2nd.  In total I cut 12 pieces at 8 1/2" and 12 at 8 1/4". 

Step 3: Cut the base pieces

Since the plywood I was using is thin, I decided to make a base using 1x2's.  The base adds some weight to the luminary, and some structure for the thin plywood.  If you have thicker plywood, say 1/2" or 3/4", you may be able to skip building the base.  If it were me, I wouldn't skip it - I think the luminaries look much better with them.

You can create these bases using simple butt-joints, but you will get much stronger luminaries if you miter the corners at 45 degrees.  If you use butt-joints, remember that you'll need to create 2 different size base pieces - the shorter ones will be 8 1/4", the longer ones will be around 10". 

To cut the pieces, I used my power compound miter saw, set at a 45 degree angle.  Again, I spent a few minutes to set up a stop block on my workbench.  The inside dimension of these pieces must be 8 1/2", so cut a scrap piece of 1x2  and double check it against one of the larger size pieces of plywood.  Once you have the measurements right, it's a simple matter of putting the stock against the stop, cutting the piece, flipping the board over, and cutting the next piece.  When I say flip, I mean turn the board so the cut end goes from facing up to facing down.  For us computer types, it's like changing from a back slash to a forward slash (from \ to / ).  Whatever you do, don't forget the flip!

Cut 4 base pieces and dry-fit everything together.  Use tape to hold the 4 base pieces together, then make sure your plywood fits.  You should have a nice looking open ended box where everything is close to lining up.  Don't fret too much if you have gaps in things - we'll be caulking those gaps later.  At this point you want to make sure you are not completely off, like by a 1/2 inch or more on your measurements.  Now is the time to modify if needed.

Once you are convinced everything looks OK, cut the remaining pieces for the bases.  Each 8' 1x2 should yield enough base pieces for 2 luminaries.  Save your scraps!

Step 4: Cut the support blocks

If you are using thicker plywood & mitering it, you may be able to skip these.  I personally wouldn't since they do add strength.

Since you have the miter saw out, go ahead and cut these blocks from scrap 1x2. You'll need either 4 or 8 of these for each luminary.  Make them about 1" long - the exact size is not important.  Again, a stop block setup makes this MUCH faster!

Step 5: Cut the silhouettes

Many woodworking projects fail because of impatience.  There is a lot of cutting, and not a whole lot to show for it.  This project is no exception.  The difference here is that we are finally going to get to the fun stuff - cutting out the silhouettes. 

Even here you have a choice:  I cut my designs on all 4 sides of my luminaries.  You may want to only cut 1,2 or 3 sides depending on how you will display them.  Having an opposite side that is solid versus having another design cut into it provides for a lot more reflection of the light inside the box.  That means the projection of the silhouette is going to be much stronger on any side opposite of a solid side.  Short answer: Only cut the number of sides your luminary will be seen from.

Cutting the silhouette is easier if again you stack up both the like-sized pieces and cut them both at once.  Of course, if you are cutting less than 4 sides, you may not have anything to stack.  Carefully line them up and clamp them together.  Take your pattern and using a piece of carbon paper trace the outline.  IMPORTANT:  Remember that these are silhouettes, so beware of cutting parts out that are supposed to support other parts while tracing.  Also keep in mind that there will be 2 inch base at the bottom of these so if you center your pattern, it may end up being too low on the plywood.  If you are worried, measure 2 inches up from the bottom and draw a line.  Then center your pattern in the area above the line.

You may be tempted to hold the pattern on the wood with a clamp and not bother tracing.  If you have a scroll saw and the correct adhesives it can be done that way.  But again, if you have that experience, then you probably are not reading this article!  Otherwise, use that carbon paper and trace the outline onto the wood.

Once the patterns are traced, start cutting.  If you are using a spiral saw, you can just plunge the cutter in a scrap area and start cutting.  If you are using any other saw, drill a hole in a scrap area and then start cutting.

Be sure you use a particulate (filter) mask while doing all this cutting.  You are going to generate a lot of sawdust - something that doesn't belong in your lungs!

Step 6:  Touch it all up with sandpaper

You may have some rough edges, splinters, etc from all the cuts on that plywood.  Now is the time to take the sandpaper and hit all those edges.  You're not making furniture here, so it doesn't have to be perfect.  Just make it nice enough that you aren't pulling splinters out of your fingers every time you grab a piece.

Step 7: Assemble the base

I used an air powered brad nailer to put my project together.  If you don't have one, use small screws.  I don't recommend hand-nailing these together.  If you use screws, you MUST drill pilot holes -- otherwise you WILL split the 1x2s.

A warning about air-nailers:  Never, I repeat NEVER, use your fingers to hold things together when using an air-nailer.  Frequently, a brad will strike a knot in the wood and deflect.  The result is a nail that comes out the side, or even back 180 degrees and right into your hand.  Use clamps or other means of holding things together while shooting brads. 

Take 4 of the base pieces you made in step 3 and attach them together to make a square base.  Repeat this until all your bases are completed. (All your base are belong to us.)

Step 8:  First coat of paint

At this point, I painted my bases, and all the plywood.  You'll only be doing 1 coat here since you'll need to touch everything up after caulking.  Be sure to get those edges, since if there is going to be a problem with water, it will be there.

Step 9:  Add the plywood

Starting with the 1 of the 2 larger pieces of plywood, attach it to the inside of the base.  Do this by inserting the plywood into the base so that the bottom edge of the plywood is even with the bottom edge of the base and nailing it into position.  Again, you can use screws here (just be sure they are small enough that they don't go all the way through the base piece), or even a staple gun.  Now do the same on the OPPOSITE side.  It's important that the 2 bigger pieces are not next to each other, but opposite of each other.  That's because the smaller pieces will fit in between these 2 larger ones.  Now attach the smaller pieces the same way on the remaining 2 open sides.

Don't worry if you have gaps, we will be taking care of that later.  Right now you just want everything in nice and straight at the top and bottom.

Step 10:  Add the support blocks

Take 4 support blocks, and attach them in the corners at the top of the luminary.  Use either small screws, or a brad nailer.  The support block should be even with the top of the luminary.

When I first created these, I used 8 support blocks.  4 at the top to keep everything together, and 4 at the bottom as supports for a 'floor' which held the C9 bulb.  To tell the truth I don't think the floor adds much, and the luminaries look just as nice when just set over the top of a bulb.  If you want to add the floor, go ahead and add support blocks at the bottom the same way that you added them to the top, being sure they are flush with the bottom edge of the plywood.

Step 11:  Caulk those gaps

Caulk fixes everything!  The reason these luminaries are so easy to make is because you don't have to be super precise when cutting everything.  As long as the joints are close, caulk is going to fix the problems.

Take your paintible caulk, and fill in all the gaps.  Be sure to pay attention to:

  • The corners of the plywood -- since we don't want light leaking out
  • The gap between the plywood and the base -- since that is where water is going to collect and rot your wood.
  • Nail holes -- just to make things look better
  • Any other places where a little filler will make things look nicer.

Step 12:  Optional -- inside floor

From the start of this project, through the prototype, and to all 6 of my completed luminaries, I planed on adding a 'floor'.  The idea was that the floor would support the light bulb.  Once I completed these, I realized it's just as easy to lay a string of C9s on the ground and set the luminaries over the top of the bulbs.  If you still want an inside floor, read on...

If you have not yet done so, install 4 more support blocks to the inside bottom of the luminary. Be sure the bottom is flush with the bottom of the plywood.

Cut a square of plywood that will fit inside the luminary.  The ones I cut left a 1/4 to 1/2 in gap all the way around to allow rain & water to run out.

Using the 3/4" spade bit, drill a hole in the middle of the plywood.  This is where the light bulb will go.  Enlarge the hole with a wood rasp enough that you can thread the bulb through the plywood and into the electrical socket below.  If you are using plywood that is thicker than 1/8", you'll need to instead cut a slot that will hold the socket itself.

Paint both sides of the floor, and then install it using brad nails/screws/etc into the support blocks.

Step 13:  Final paint

Let the caulk dry and then give your luminaries a final coat of paint.  The inside of the luminaries should be painted white so they reflect as much light as possible. 

The outsides however give you several options:  Painting them white will give you an 'elegant' look, festive holiday colors like red and green are a good choice too.  Painting the outsides black will give the illusion of the silhouette floating in mid air when lit.

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