How to Build a Lamp from an Erector Set

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How to Build a Lamp from an Erector Set
Jeff Farris

From 1913 until the mid-1970s, millions of boys woke up on Christmas morning to a red box filled with hundreds of shiny metal pieces and the promise of hours of enjoyment building everything from radar stations to Ferris wheels. Between the enduring popularity of the Erector set and the fact that many only held the attention of their owner until February, the secondary toy market is full of reasonably complete sets. You can build a clever, functional piece of artwork with a used Erector set and a few easily obtained lamp parts.

Things You'll Need
Jeff Farris

Things You'll Need

First, you need an Erector set. Check craigslist and eBay for listings that say things like "box mangled" or "incomplete." Serious collectors fly right by those, and prices stay reasonable. You also need a lamp holder, lamp wire, a 1 1/2-inch lamp nipple, two 3/8-inch washers, a retaining nut and a male electrical plug.

Parts Inventory
Jeff Farris/

Parts Inventory

Spread out the parts and familiarize yourself with them. That's the advice A.C. Gilbert opened his Erector set owner's manual with, and it's still a good idea. The lamp design shown in the following slides focuses on using the parts found in nearly every set. You can use it as a foundation for your own creation, taking advantage of the special parts you found in your purchase. The part names used in the steps are taken directly from the Erector set manuals.

Foundation
Jeff Farris

Foundation

Some sets will include a rectangular base (about 3 1/2 inches by 5 inches) with folded edges. It's the ideal foundation for your lamp. Sets after about 1963 had few if any plates this size, but did have a wider variety of flat plate sizes. To use a flat plate, bolt car trucks to the corners, extending the car trucks one hole beyond the ends of the plate as shown in the slide.

Tower
Jeff Farris

Tower

Attach an angle girder to each corner and join them together at the top with car trucks, forming two "A" frames. Add short girders across the two frames just below the car trucks, tying the two sides together. Add short girders or perforated strips to the car trucks at the apex. The slide shows towers built with sets from 1951 and 1963. Girder designs changed over the years, but fundamentals didn't.

Pivot Beam
Jeff Farris

Pivot Beam

For Type II (triangle openings in girders -- 1930s through 1950s), join two sets of one long and one medium girder together. For Type III (evenly spaced round holes -- 1960s and 1970s), use four long girders. Join them together with a double-angle spacer the same width as your tower at the middle and on one end. Place a car truck or angle brace on the end to hold the ballast added later.

Square Beam for Lamp
Jeff Farris

Square Beam for Lamp

As in the last step, for Type II start with two medium and two long girders; for Type III start with four long girders. Place long bolts at the junctions and the middle of each girder. Start nuts on each bolt. Slide girders into the grooves of the bolted girders, forming a square. Tighten the bolts, clamping the floating girders in the grooves. Use a combination of short, medium and long girders so that the last 2 inches at one end of the beam has no top or bottom. Leave a gap on the bottom a few inches from the open end.

Ballast
Jeff Farris

Ballast

Both the pivot beam and the square lamp beam need weight on the back end to compensate for the weight of the light fixture. 1/8-inch fender washers fit the Erector set axles perfectly, and add significant weight. Use pulleys or gears to secure the washers to the axles. The ballast bars can go through the end of the beams, or use car trucks or angle braces to add a little flair and some color.

Wire Lamp Fixture
Jeff Farris

Wire Lamp Fixture

Thread a 1 1/2-inch hollow lamp nipple into the back of the light fixture. Thread the wire through the nipple and wire the lamp. If you're not comfortable with electrical connections, seek the help of a licensed electrician for this step. Don't put the plug on the other end of the wire yet.

Add Light Fixture
Jeff Farris

Add Light Fixture

Place a car truck on both sides of the open end of the square beam. Put bolts through and start nuts. Place a 3/8-inch washer over the lamp nipple, fit the nipple between the sides of the square beam and between the bolts through the car trucks. Place another 3/8-inch washer on the nipple and secure with a retaining nut. Snug the bolts through the car trucks alternately with the retaining nut. Thread the wire into the square beam and out the opening you left a few inches down the beam.

Pivot Beam Installation
Jeff Farris

Pivot Beam Installation

Place a long bolt through the apex of the tower. Place six washers on the bolt inside the tower piece. Place one side of the pivot beam on the bolt. Secure with two standard Erector nuts locked against each other or with a number 8-32 nylock nut as shown. Repeat for the other side, gently arcing the girders into place and creating a taper toward the open end.

Light Beam Installation
Jeff Farris

Light Beam Installation

Join the light beam to the pivot beam with a long bolt. Place washers between the girders and use a nylock nut (or two locked nuts) so that the parts pivot relatively easily. Both joints should have a friction fit. Between the joint friction and the counterweights the beams should stay where you arrange them. If not, add or subtract weight and balance the tension on the locking nuts.

Secure Wire
Jeff Farris

Secure Wire

Thread the wire down through the frame, leaving enough wire at the top of the tower to allow for full range of motion. Tuck the wire into the corner of an angle girder and secure it with small cable ties.

Shade Design #1
Jeff Farris

Shade Design #1

Time for a little creativity. Look at the remaining parts in your set and find something to fashion a lamp shade. Sets from later years may have the cone shown here. The next slide shows a shade made from lattice work girders found in sets from 1946 through the late '50s. Use flexible angle braces to connect medium-length girders to the car trucks on the light beam and your shade creation.

Make it Mobile
Jeff Farris

Make it Mobile

Add axles and wheels. Wire the plug and your lamp is finished.

About Fixtures
Jeff Farris

About Fixtures

Before you start gathering everything for your own Erector lamp, take a look at the two samples side-by-side. The lamp fixture on the left is nickel-plated with a built-in dimmer. To add to the nostalgic look, the cord is reproduction twisted wire and the bulb is a squirrel-cage filament Edison bulb. The overall effect is very cool, but at a price. The three-way bakelite fixture on the right came from a home center. The wire is standard 16 gauge appliance cord and the bulb is a standard three-way incandescent. Almost the same look for less than a third the cost.

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