Introduction: Making Halloween Luminary Boxes
In this Instructable, I'll show you how I made a Halloween-themed luminary box on the laser cutter at my local maker space. While I love using the laser every chance I get, this same principal could be done with any pre-made wooden box or a hand-cut or scroll-saw cut design, so don't let your lack of access to a laser stop you from making one of these!
If you'd rather watch a build video before jumping into the Instructable, be sure to watch the full video above. If you like it, please consider subscribing to my YouTube channel so I know this is the type of project people enjoy learning how to make themselves so that I can make more videos like it in the future! I've included links below to the tools and materials I used, but feel free to adapt what you learn here to build your own luminary!
Step 1: Gather Materials and Supplies
In the previous step, I described the supplies you'll need to build and set up your luminaries, so now let’s talk about what options you have for constructing your box and cutting out the jack-o’lantern design if you don't have access to a laser cutter. As I indicated above, I used the laser cutter at my local maker space to cut the plywood, using a box-generator tool online to generate the cut file of the box itself. If you don’t have access to a laser cutter, here are some ideas:
- Premade Box: Use a pre-made wooden box of any given size. You’ll need to paint the inside carefully since it’s already constructed, but this is a very easy way to go!
- Traditional Woodworking Tools: Use the laser-cutter SVG file (described later on) as a template to create finger joints using traditional woodworking techniques or a table saw jig.
- Use Butt Joints. Similar to the previous option, this involves constructing your own box, but rather than worrying about finger joints, just glue, nail, or screw the pieces of the box together. This box will not hold any weight, so the normal necessity for finger joints is not there.
Decide which option is right for you, but in either case, cutting the face onto your box will most successfully be done with either a scroll saw or a coping saw. If you’re very patient, a jigsaw can also be used, but it’s harder to make tight turns with a jigsaw.
Step 2: Create Your Box Template
The inspiration for this project came from a decoration I recall seeing in the Halloween aisle when I was a kid. They were effectively paper lunch bags, but orange, with pumpkin faces cut into the bag or printed on the bag. They came with tea light candles and you were supposed to put them on your walkway with sand or rocks inside them to help weigh them down. I always liked the idea of the sidewalk up to the house lined with these, but the practical execution always had me wary of a fire, since a simple gust of wind could make them collapse in on themselves.
To start our more-sturdy version, we'll use the dimensions of a real-world paper lunch sack, as the idea is for these to be a nod to the original paper bags. Those measurements are approximately 5.75" wide x 9.5" tall by 3.5" deep. With those measurements at the ready, we can take to this super handy laser-cut box generator tool I stumbled upon. It’s awesome – all you do is enter your box dimensions, tell it how thick the material is that you’ll be cutting it out of, tweak a few other settings, and boom, it generates a perfect vector cut file with all the finger joints dialed in exactly.
You can also enter a value for kerf compensation, which you may need to play with if you determine your joints are too tight or too loose. This is entirely dependent on the laser you’re using and it’s beam size, but in general, a value of 0.002 or so has worked for me. Just experiment a bit; it’s the best way to learn!
Step 3: Modify SVG With Decorative Features
Exporting our generated box gives us an SVG file, which is a super common software-agnostic vector format that can be opened by most vector tools such as Inkscape or the like. Other laser software may want the DXF file, which is also an option in the box generator, but Adobe Illustrator is my weapon of choice. You can use whichever software yo want to further develop my luminary box, as long as it can open SVG or DXF files.
Once open, you’ll see how the box generator laid out our box. Since this will be an open box, we don’t need the “Top”, so we can delete that. One design feature I really wanted these boxes to have – to really nail home the “paper lunch sack look” – was a zig-zag pattern along the top open edge of the box, so I added this detail to the wide and skinny faces of my box. I intentionally made them a little chaotic and un-even to go with the jack-o’lantern face I chose. The great thing about the box generator is that the front/back will always have the same finger layout, as will the left/right, so I only had to do each face once and then could clone it. You can personalize the profile of your box top however you like!
Step 4: Add a Spooky Face
Of course, the luminary wouldn’t be complete without a festively spooky face of your choosing! You can draw your own, trace one from a photo, or just search “vector jack o'lantern face” and all sorts of results will come up that can then be opened in Adobe Illustrator, Inkscape, or whatever tool you’re using.
Step 5: Laser Cutting
With our completed cut file saved and ready, it's time for everyone’s favorite part, the laser cutting itself! I got started by finding a piece of scrap 1/4 inch plywood that looked like it would fit my cut file nicely. There wasn’t any fancy setup to do, just focusing the laser on the surface of my board and get to cutting.
After the box parts themselves were cut, I cut my jack-o’lantern face into the front face piece of the box. This is where you would use a scroll saw or coping saw if you were doing this without a laser cutter.
Step 6: Painting Time
Once back from using the laser cutter at the maker space, I applied my first coat of spray paint. Since these will be lit from the inside, and we want the glow to be extra prominent, we'll use yellow paint for the inside faces. I applied multiple coats of Paint+Primer spray paint over the course of a few hours until the surface of the wood was uniformly glossy.
After the yellow side dries, it's time for the orange. Same process here – build up the layers of paint until uniform in sheen.
Step 7: Final Assembly
When the orange side has also dried, we can begin final assembly. To do this, we'll add a small bit of wood glue between each finger and quickly assemble with each piece in its proper place.
You can use a damp paper towel to clean up any glue squeeze-out, then, if you have some, clamps to hold it together as it dries. If you don't have any clamps, you can use painters tape to "pull" the faces together.
Once out of the clamps (or tape), I realized its face could use a last coat or two of the orange paint, as to give the end-grain of the sides of the box a little more paint, since they weren’t given much previously, as I had only been focusing on the faces. Since the face of the box had its design already cut and I didn’t want to get any orange paint onto the inside yellow portions of the box, I taped a paper towel inside the box to catch any overspray before doing those final coats. This is what you would do, by the way, if you’re starting from a pre-built wooden box.
Step 8: Inaugural Lighting
A few hours of drying later (plus a few days so the spray paint could off-gas), we can call this project complete and do the inaugural lighting! Now obviously a safer bet would be to use LED tealights, but I wanted to see how cool this looked with a real candle, as the LED tealights available today still haven’t nailed that real-flame look that I love so much. So let’s light it up and dim the lights! And there she is!
Step 9: Closing Thoughts
Now this project was a bit of an experiment, in that I only wanted to make one before making a whole walk-way worth of them. And I’m glad I did, because you may have realized one shortcoming of this design that I guess I didn’t really think about while planning it – and that is that one of the most charming aspects of traditional luminary bags is the serene glow that they create as the paper’s translucency filters the flame’s light – the solid-walled plywood construction of my design just doesn’t do that. So at some point in the future, I’m going to revisit this idea using acrylic – likely frosted acrylic – to achieve that same charming glow.
But this project looks just as charming in a partially lit setting or atop a mantle, where I think it looks particularly nice in our house.
I hope you still enjoyed reading about this laser cutting project and learned something here! Be sure to watch the video above for more details, and if you like it please consider subscribing to my YouTube channel for more projects like this.
Otherwise, have a safe and happy Halloween! Stay spooky!
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