Ornamental Separator

Punch the Lights Out

Create homemade lanterns using a centuries-old tinsmithing technique

The tin lanterns that illuminated front porches and parlors throughout Europe can be traced to at least the early 16th century.

By the Colonial era, tin punching added a bit of variety to the traditional choices of tin lanterns fitted with panes of glass or cow horn. Lanterns with those original types of panes could still be punched, but tinsmiths might bypass panes altogether if they made enough holes to let sufficient light shine through.

Such a lantern, pictured at left, is included in The Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg collection. The lantern, made of tinned sheet iron between the late 18th and early 19th centuries, features punched dots and dashes on all surfaces, including the conical top, that form neat rows and radiating fans.

“When you look at the designs, they’re always pretty simple,” said Steve Delisle, a journeyman tinsmith with Colonial Williamsburg. “You’ll see lots of straight lines and dots that together create an effect.”

Punching tin was not limited to lanterns. Its use has been both decorative and functional. Graters, cheese molds and 19th-century pie safes featured the technique in their designs.

Today, anyone can replicate tin punching by using materials that can easily be found in hardware stores or even home cupboards — a metal can, a hammer and nails.

We decided to paint our project, but you may opt for the simple sheen of metal. Either way, these punched lanterns offer a different kind of decoration for your winter mantel display.

What You Need

  • Quart can
  • Hammer
  • Scissors
  • 2 nails of varying sizes
  • Tea light candle (LED or wax)
  • Tape
  • Spray paint
  • Towel
  • Printable pattern, which can be found HERE

The Process

Step 1
(Optional) Paint the can and allow it to dry.

Step 2
Fill the can with water, place it in the freezer and remove it once the water is frozen. The ice helps keep the metal in place as it is punched. (Tip: Fill and freeze incrementally to avoid bulging from the water expansion.)

Step 3
Print out the design from colonialwilliamsburg.org/downloads, cut it out, wrap it around the can and tape it.

Step 4
Rest the frozen can on its side on a towel. Gently tap the nail with the hammer to punch holes that follow the design.

Step 5
Melt the ice block by rinsing the can with warm water. Allow the can to dry. (Note: Do not dry the inside with a cloth as the punched holes may be sharp.)

Step 6
Drop in the tea light candle. Avoid lowering your hand into the punched can. If you use a wax candle, use a lighter with a long handle to light it. If you use an LED candle, turn it on prior to placing it in the can.

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