Some simple store-bought hardware and some black spray paint turn shop scraps into a dramatic table lamp.
For years I’d been hearing stories about the wonders of Frank Lloyd Wright’s house built for the Kaufmann family in western Pennsylvania. Fallingwater was a name mentioned in reverence, so when my travels took me into that area I knew I had to make time to visit and see what the fuss was about. Built in the 1930s and combining International and Usonian architecture, the house was built on top of a waterfall, providing spectacular views for the residents and challenging construction issues for the builders. The house itself has the feel of a space designed for entertaining (as it was), with large common areas and a well-appointed guest house. While impressed with the setting, I walked away from my visit with a different image stuck in my mind: A simple table lamp of walnut with a black metal base that threw a soft, warm, indirect glow against the home’s walls.
After examining some pictures, I headed for the drawing board and adapted the concept to a working design that replaced the metal base with a painted maple base. The scale is a bit different from the originals, but the effect and beauty is still the same. I was shocked at how simple the construction was, and I quickly headed for the workshop. After only a few hours I was ready to add a finish and plug in the lamp.
Picking the Walnut
After finding the center of the lower base piece by drawing a line connecting the opposite corners, I set up the drill press to make a 1"-diameter hole, 3/8" deep with a Forstner bit. A fence and stop block clamped in place held the block just where I needed it.Probably the most important part of this project is selecting the best walnut for the shade. It doesn’t take a lot of wood (in fact, you might be able to build this project from your scrap pile), and I resawed the pieces to get a bookmatched shade. If you’re a beginning woodworker, this is the trickiest part of the project. First, select a nice piece of 3/4"-thick walnut with a figure that you find pleasing. For some, that might include sap streaks or small knot holes. Cut the piece oversized (4" x 21"). Next, set up your band saw with a 1/2" blade (3/8" will work in a pinch). Check the guide blocks and thrust bearings to make sure they hold the blade tight and don’t allow too much side-to-side wandering. If you don’t have a rip fence on your band saw, you can make a simple one by screwing two pieces of wood together to form an “L.” Make sure the fence is square, about 4" high and long enough to easily clamp to the band saw’s table. Clamp the fence to the table 3/8" from the band saw blade. This should cut the piece of walnut evenly down the center and leave plenty of wood to clean up the rough band-sawn edge with a planer.Start the saw and slowly feed the piece into the blade. Let the blade cut as slow as it wants to. If you force the piece, it’s more likely to cause the blade to wander off center and give you two uneven finished pieces.I then replaced the Forstner bit with a 13/32" brad point bit (to allow a little clearance for the 3/8" threaded tube) and used the same setting to drill the rest of the way through the center of the block. I then reset the fence and stop block and drilled through-holes in the upper base block as well.
Once the piece is resawn, head for your planer and run the two halves down to the 1/4″ thickness. Mark the long edges that will be joined together and head to the saw. Crosscut the two pieces to the 16″ length, but hang on to the falloff pieces. One will become the bottom of the shade. With the edges that will be joined against the rip fence, cut the two pieces to just over 3-1/2″ wide. Then swing the blade to a 45° bevel and bevel the two center edges. If you’re using a good-quality rip blade in your saw and make the cut carefully, you should be able to use the chamfered edge as a glue joint without any further edge preparation.
Cut the shade bottom from one of the 1/4″ falloff pieces, then set everything aside. Before you can glue the shade together you need to make a hole in the base piece, and it’s just as easy to drill all the base pieces at once.
The Drill Press is Your Friend
The base itself is simple. It’s two blocks of wood with a chunk of dowel rod glued to the top. The only part demanding care is drilling the hole through the center of the three pieces to hold the lamp hardware. That’s where a drill press comes in handy.
After cutting the blocks to size and trimming the 1/2″ off the end of a 1-3/4″-diameter dowel rod, you need to mark the center of each piece, then drill recesses in both the lower base and shade support and through-holes in all three pieces. Use the photos below to complete this step.
Finding the center of a disc is harder than you might think. Sure they sell center-finding tools for $5, but I wasn't in a hardware store! After a couple of minutes of thinking, I figured out how to use a try square and the head from my combination square to do the job.
Once all the pieces are drilled, sand them to 150 grit, then assemble the base. I used the lamp hardware itself (the 3″ x 1/8″ ID threaded tube, two 1″ washers and two 1/8″ ID knurled nuts) to align the base pieces and clamp the base together. In addition, to hold the two square pieces properly aligned, I drilled and countersunk two holes in the bottom base, then screwed the two base pieces together.
Use just a little glue to hold the three pieces together, as the lamp hardware will do most of the holding. Plus, you don’t want any extra glue squeeze-out to clean up. With the bases assembled, spray paint the bases with flat or semi-gloss black paint.
While the paint is drying, head back to the shade. With the shade base now drilled for the hardware, finish sand all the shade pieces before gluing. Don’t plan on sanding the shade too much after it’s assembled because even though it’s a fairly sturdy shade you don’t want to put too much pressure on it.
With the shade ready to assemble, follow the photos to make the process simple and clamp-free. After the shade is glued-up, sand all the edges to give a softer appearance. Then you’re ready to add a clear finish and let the beautiful walnut pop.
Make three pencil lines bisecting the disc to make sure you have an accurate center. Then, using the same bits and methods as on the square base blocks, drill a 3/16"-deep recess and a through hole in 1-3/4" shade supports. Because of the round shape, the block will spin as you drill, so I used a falloff piece to apply extra pressure against the block to hold it tight against the fence and stop block.During the past year or two I’ve become fond of using lacquer in a spray can for small projects. It’s not the least expensive way to put on a finish, but it dries quickly between coats, provides an even and durable finish and requires nothing more than a well-ventilated work area. Two cautions: This method is really only recommended for smaller projects as it becomes difficult to spray on an even finish over larger areas. Also, make sure you’re spraying lacquer and not a urethane-based spray finish. Read the label carefully. Even though it may not call the product lacquer, if it recommends 30 minutes or so between coats, you’ve got the right stuff (and it usually takes less than 30 minutes to sand and recoat).With your finish applied to both the shade and as a top coat on the base to protect the paint, you’re ready to wire the lamp. I’ve provided information in the cutting list on two types of hardware kits. One offers a simple on/off turn switch on the socket, while the other offers a dimmer switch on the socket. While more expensive, I’ve found that I enjoy the ability to adjust the intensity of the light emitted to fit my mood. You can find the kits at Lee Valley ToolsNeither kit includes the 40- or 60-watt display bulb and light cord, which can be purchased at most any hardware store.I’ve got two of these lamps wired together on my fireplace mantel, and another on my desk. This project lends itself to making more than one at a time, so consider where your house can benefit from extra ambience, or think about special friends or relatives who deserve a nice gift. PWClick here to download the PDF for this article.Whether you're using regular glue, cyanoacrylate or a new fast-drying polurethane, the easiest way to glue the shade's miter is using masking tape. Align the two halves face-up on a flat surface and push the mitered edges together. Carefully apply a strip of masking tape along the joint, pressing to keep it tight to the wood. When you lifth the two halves and fold them at the joint, the tape forces the miter together. Flip the shade over (miter gap up) and add glue to the joint.
David Thiel is a senior editor at Popular Woodworking magazine.