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Tin Can Christmas… | December 20, 2010

When I was a kid my parents used to make our Christmas crackers, which seemed like voodoo to me, not because of the chicken feathers and chanting that went along with the construction process but because of the contents – how on earth could a mere human put a bang into a crimped crepe paper tube, more importantly, how did you get the toy in? For a few precious years these were amazing mysteries.

Last Christmas me and my partner had our own go at making some festive items, in the shape of lanterns made out of tin cans.

Eat some beans then up-cycle the tin can into a nifty lantern...

They’re easy to make but they do take a bit of time, and if you’re not good at hitting a nail with a hammer then you will be when you finish.

First of all, get yourself a tin can, any will do, although I expect one that previously contained baked beans will be your most likely candidate. Wash the tin can out, being careful not to cut yourself open if you’ve left a sharp edge around the top, I’d hate to be responsible for the wrong kind of claret being spilled. Then peel off the label, it helps to soak the can for a while before attempting this. The label normally comes off fairly easily, but the glue can be a lot more stubborn. Soaking can be enough to break down the bond between the glue and the metal, meaning you can break it off if you get something under it. Pliers can be a good for this, as can any tool that enables open aggression. Some glues are more sticky than brittle and can take a lot of scrubbing to get off. Don’t worry about being completely thorough getting the glue off though, no one will notice the odd bit when you spray paint it later.

With your tin can cleaned and dried it’s time to draw the design you want on it. You’ll be going over this design later, hammering in enough holes to describe your design. Nearly all cans have grooves around them and any hole you try to put in the can will be much easier to do if it lies in the groove. If you want to make the job as quick and easy as possible then draw a dot for each hole you want to punch in the can, and put all the dots either in grooves or on flat sections of the can. However, if you want to be more carefree and freeform then scribble away to your heart’s content and work out the details of where the holes should be punched when you get to that stage.

When drawing on the tin can it’s best to use a permanent marker, and the finest and lightest coloured one you can find. Thick black marker lines take a lot more coats of spray paint to cover up than a thin line of yellow marker. If you’re planning on painting the can anything other than white, you are best off using a marker the same colour that you’re going to paint it. That way you’ll be able to get away with only a couple of coats of paint – a significant time saver.

Two ways of doing your design - the tin on the left is freeform and I'll have to work out where all the holes will go when I'm doing the punching. With the tin on the right I have figured all that out already and only have to put the nail through where the dots are.

You’ll also make your life a lot easier if you keep your design a little way from the top of the tin can. This is because the next thing you’re going to do is fill the can with water, all the way to the top, and then put it in the freezer. Now you have to wait about 24 hours for the water to freeze solid. Don’t be tempted to take a short cut on this time just because the water seems to be entirely frozen. I once tried that and found out that the ice wasn’t frozen in the middle and, after a few holes were punched, the ice shattered and fell out of the tin can. The ice is essential because it makes the whole tin rigid enough to not buckle when you’re hammering in the holes. Without the ice the whole thing bends and deforms and ends up a mess in no time at all. The reason for not going too close to the top of the tin is because holes punched up there splinter the ice out of the top of the can, giving you less time to punch all the holes; if possible it’s best to do all the holes in one go.

To actually drive the holes into the tin, find a good solid surface to lay the can on its side – I used a concrete wall. Then take a small nail, something about an inch long and not too thick, and holding it between your thumb and first finger, line it up on the spot you want to put the hole in. The hand that’s holding the nail is also the one that holds the tin in place on your solid surface. Now take the hammer in the other hand and tap the nail. And keep tapping it until it goes through the tin can. This doesn’t take much effort, because the metal is so thin. As you get more confident you’ll be able to drive the nail through it one go, but you have to be sure not to be too heavy, the harder you hit the nail, the deeper it goes, and the harder it is to get out. This might not seem like much of a problem but you fingers will get cold over time, and the chore of pulling the nail out soon wears thin.

If you need to take a break then put the can back in the freezer. If you really have to bulk up the ice in the can then you can, by wrapping a plastic bag around it then gaffer taping all around the bag BEFORE you add the water in. The bag has to be a very snug fit though, because the water spills out of the holes you’ve already punched and freezes on the outside of the can, hiding your design and making it tricky (not to mention even colder than normal) to progress.

To see if your design is coming through as clearly as you hoped, hold the open end of the tin up to a light, and it will shine through and out of the holes you’ve already punched. If you keep doing this then you can add extra holes where you think necessary, you might also save yourself from having to put a few of the holes in.

Once you’ve put in all the holes you want, it’s time to get the ice out of it. This is not as easy as it sounds, that’s a big block of ice you’ve got there and it will take a while for it to melt enough for you to shake the rest of the ice cylinder out. You can, of course, grab an ice pick and chip the block of ice out, but I’m not fan of such devices, having watched Basic Instinct at a very vulnerable age.

Let your tin can air dry and then it’s time to paint it. I always look for any opportunity to use spray paint, which isn’t always good, but in this case it’s definitely the best option, because its coats are so thin. Using a pot of paint and a brush will result in all your holes being clogged up. It’s not too much trouble to go over them all again with the hammer and nail but it’s a pain compared to shaking up a can of spray paint and having all the fun of using that.

A few coats/clouds of paint later you’ll have yourself a beautifully painted lantern, ready to receive a tealight and shine forth. Be warned though, all those holes that are smooth on the outside have turned the inside of your tin can into a cheese grater, so watch your hand when dropping that tealight in there.

Beware of bare flesh on serrated metal...

Now put your lantern somewhere and admire your yuletide handy work. Most importantly, place your lantern at eye level, otherwise no one else will notice all the effort you’ve put into it.

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