Making a desk lamp from a vintage gas can is simple. For added flair, try creating a lampshade from license plates. It’s Americana, it’s vintage, it’s DIY lighting. This is the perfect desk lamp for man caves, garages, auto shops, any place the theme fits. It’s a unique gift for the guy who loves his toys.
For the desk lamp, you’ll need:
- A vintage gas can. These are inexpensive at antique stores. You should be able to find one for around $20-$30. The one real criteria is to find one with a removable cap centered on the top.
- A lamp kit. This lamp kit includes the hardware and wiring you need for the desk lamp. You’ll need this threaded pipe and a nut to mount the light socket to the fixture. And you’ll want a grommet to protect the cord coming out of the can.
- An alternative to these, if you’re ambitious, is to go to a local thrift shop and purchase the ugliest lamp there. Buy it, disassemble it, and you’ll have the parts you need. Just make sure it has a harp to hold the shade. By buying the ugliest one, you’re making the world an ever-so-slightly better place 😉
- Paint, optionally. I used two colors of paint on mine, explained below.
- A drill, and a screwdriver
For the lampshade, you’ll need:
- At least 4 license plates. You can create your own pattern using more. I found 4 is the fewest it takes to make a shade 12 inches in diameter. If you don’t have old license plates you can buy license plates with your favorite motif, or personalize them.
- A rivet gun and an assortment of rivets. This rivet gun from Amazon is sturdy and supports different sizes of rivets, so it’s good to have on hand for other projects. I used it on the lantern light project as well.
- The same drill you used for the lamp, with a smaller bit for the rivet holes.
Preparing the Vintage Gas Can to Become a Desk Lamp
Make sure the inside of the gas can is cleaned out. Then we need to drill 2 holes
- Drill a hole in the side wall of the can, close to the bottom, and where you want the back of the desk lamp. This is where the cord will pass through. The size of the hole should be determined by the electrical cord grommet.
- Drill a second hole in the center of the cap from the top of the can. This is where the lamp pipe will pass through and the light socket will mount. The size of this hole should be just big enough for the lamp pipe to pass through.
Then, replace any caps you removed and paint if you like. Mine had chippy black paint and no cool vintage logos or anything, so I painted it.
I wanted a red can, with another color showing through at the wear points on the can. I started with a tan/brown color as an undercoat. After that dried, I took a wax candle and rubbed it along the ridges on the can sides, top, and bottom. Then I painted the whole thing bright red. After the red paint dried, I used very fine sandpaper to remove the top coat and wax along the ridges, allowing the bottom color to show through. I had tried this technique with petroleum jelly before and was disappointed. Doing it with the candle worked much better. The top coat was easy to remove, and the bottom coat stayed intact mostly. You can see some of the original black in places.
I also used the brown paint to paint the brass parts of the socket, the harp, and the finial. I didn’t like the brass for this particular project. You can do the same if you prefer. Remove the brass sleeve from the socket to paint it so you don’t cover any electrical connections with paint.
Finally, I decided to hand paint a “66” logo on the can.
Hardware for the Desk Lamp
Once the can is ready, pass the lamp pipe through the hole in the top of the cap. On the outside of the cap, screw the harp mount and light bulb socket. Inside the cap, tighten a nut onto the lamp pipe. The lamp shade will be heavy if you’re making it from license plates, so it might bend the top of the cap. I decided to add a washer inside the cap before I screwed the nut on to reinforce the thin metal cap.
Add the grommet to the hole at the bottom back of the gas can. Don’t skip this. It’s tempting to leave it out, it’s such a small part. If you don’t use a grommet here, the sharp edge of the hole will eventually cut through the insulation on the electrical wire and become a fire and/or electrocution hazard. For a tiny inexpensive part, it has a really important role.
Wiring the Desk Lamp
From the outside of the gas can, run the bare leads (non-plug) end of the wire through the grommet. Determine how much more cord you’ll need to reach the socket. Pull enough wire through the top of the gas can so that you can tie a knot in the cord which will be just inside the grommet down below. This is important to prevent the cord from being pulled out of the socket if the desk lamp is picked up by the cord, or falls off the desk and the cord gets pulled.
Once the knot is in place, run the cord through the lamp pipe and into the base of the socket. Screw the cap on the can tightly. Then wire the socket, using this article as a how-to if you need it.
There you have it, that’s all there is to making the desk lamp.
Building a Lampshade From License Plates
If you look around Etsy, you can see lots of different patterns people have used to make license plate lampshades. I had only 4 on hand, so I used 3 of them to create a circle, and the 4th for creating the mounting to the harp.
For the 3 curved ones, I actually used Embroidery Hoops at the top and bottom of each plate to create a uniform curve. I then drilled holes in each of the 4 corners of the first plate. I placed all three in the circle I wanted them in, determined how much they should overlap, and used a pencil to mark where the holes in the second plate should be. I drilled 2 holes in the second plate, and riveted it to the first. You can then determine the best hole locations for the third plate, finish drilling the holes, and rivet them all together.
I used the 4th plate as a brace across the top, and drilled a hole in it to fit on the desk lamp harp. I used tin snips to cut the license plate to the shape I wanted. A hacksaw would work as well, but is really better just for cutting straight lines.
Because of the weight of the shade, I remove it whenever I move the lamp so the gas can top doesn’t get bent.
That’s all there is to it. A desk lamp from a vintage gas can with a license plate shade. It’s inexpensive, simple, and unique.