Make: Projects

Little Big Lamp

Build a bright, energy-efficient lamp with LEDs and PVC.

Little Big Lamp

The most popular item I ever built for MAKE just happened to be the simplest: an LED desk lamp. This was in Volume 08, in 2006, when white LEDs were a hot new product. The most powerful ones I could find were 1cm in diameter, rated to deliver 100,000mcd (millicandle). The light wasn’t exactly white — it had a freaky purplish hue. But I liked the weird color, because it showed we were early adopters of cutting-edge illumination!

Recently I started wondering if I could downsize and upgrade the original lamp. So I took a fresh look at those traditional, through-hole, single-component LED “indicators” (as they are properly known).

The 5mm ones are now a lot more powerful than the 1cm type I used in the past. Some of them, known as “5-chip,” have 5 light-emitting elements squeezed into one 5mm package, sucking down 100mA of forward current at around 3.3V DC.

They’re still rated at 100,000mcd, but 6 years ago, the ones I used were rated for only 20° of beam spread. Today’s 5-chip LEDs claim a spread of 60°. Does that mean they’re 3 times as bright? No, they should be 9 times as bright, because the light is delivered over a two-dimensional area!

Since I used 72 of the big old ones, and the new ones should be 9 times as bright, I would only need 8 to get the same illumination. But why not go for greater output?

Here we’ll use the traditional-style 5mm LEDs. RadioShack, for instance, offers them as part #276-017. Since they use exactly the same 3.3V DC as the 5-chip variety, you can substitute either in this project without changing the circuit.

Fabrication Choices

I opted for a 12V DC power supply, to make the lamp function in motor homes, where LEDs are ideal to conserve power. For use with 115V AC, you need an adapter that delivers 12V DC at 1 amp. Here we’ll use RadioShack part #273-358.

Instead of adding a series resistor with each LED, the most efficient way to power them from 12V DC is by series-wiring them in threes. This means you need 10V DC for each set. How to get 10V from 12V power? Pulse-width modulation is the way to go. You send a stream of pulses, too rapid for the eye to see, and vary the gaps between them to limit the average current. If you add a potentiometer, this can act as a dimmer. Only a few electronic parts are needed, and they’re listed in the materials and specified in Step 5.

Note that if you use old-style low-power LEDs, your AC adapter can be down-rated to 300mA, which should cost less.

How to build the actual lamp? I decided to use PVC plumbing supplies. For the additional pieces that would hold everything together, I chose 1/8″ white ABS plastic, but you can use plywood if you prefer.


Step #1: Make the lamp head.

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  • The template (download here) shows the layout of LEDs to fit in the large end of the PVC reducer, which forms the head of the lamp.
  • You need an adjustable hole cutter to cut a circle of ABS (or plywood) the same size as the template. They're $10 on eBay, but to use it safely, you need a drill press, as shown here. Otherwise, use a handsaw and sand the corners to make a circle.
  • Tape your template to the circle, and use an awl to poke through the center of each hole. Remove the paper and pilot-drill through each indentation with a 1/16" bit, then drill with a #9 bit. This is the perfect size, and the LEDs will push-fit into the holes, with no glue needed.

Step #2: Installing the LEDs.

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  • Trim the leads of the LEDs. Make the long leads 1/2" and the shorter ones 1/4", so you can still tell them apart. Push the LEDs into the holes, being very careful to get the polarity right. See the drawing here and note the longer and shorter leads.
  • Solder the LED leads together and add wires, as shown. I used a separate wire for each group of 3 LEDs in case I might want to light some of them selectively in the future. The red wire powers the positive sides of all the LEDs, while the other wires are negative. Their insulation colors are arbitrary. The front side of the assembly is also shown here.
  • Test the assembly. Attach the positive side of a 12V DC power supply to the red wire, and the negative side of the supply to your 680Ω resistor. Touch the free end of the resistor very briefly to each wire leading to the LEDs. They should light up in threes. If you made a polarity error, the resistor should protect you from burning anything out.
  • Epoxy the LED plate into the wide end of the PVC reducer to form the head of the lamp. Set it aside to harden.

Step #3: Build the lamp.

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  • Water pipe has ugly text printed on it, so you'll need to sand it off. Alternatively you can use a solvent, but the solvent may dissolve the PVC.
  • So-called 1/2" water pipe varies a lot in internal diameter. First measure your pipe, then order a 3' spring that will fit inside it (as shown in the second image here). The spring will stop the pipe from kinking when you bend it.
  • Insert the spring through the pipe and wave a heat gun to and fro along the section that you want to bend, while rotating it. Keep the heat gun moving, and be patient. Eventually the pipe will soften, and can be curved as in the third image here. When you've finished, remove the spring and saw the pipe to the size lamp neck you want.

Step #4: Make the circular base plates.

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  • Make another 2 circular plates to fit the narrow end of your lamp head, and use a Forstner bit to cut holes in their centers to fit the exterior diameter of your 1/2" pipe.
  • Epoxy the plates to the lamp neck, as shown here. Thread the wires through the neck, then glue the neck assembly into the head of the lamp.
  • Next, make 2 more circular ABS plates to fit in the PVC coupling for the base of the lamp, and cut holes in their centers, to fit the ½” pipe.
  • Epoxy the plates into the base with one halfway down and the other at the very top. Then epoxy the neck into the plates, leaving plenty of room at the bottom for your circuit board and potentiometer.

Step #5: Breadboard and build the circuit.

Little Big Lamp
  • The schematic (downloadable here) is configured to match your breadboard. For testing purposes, insert a 10uF capacitor for C3.
  • R1: 4.7kΩ resistor, 1/4W R2: 10kΩ resistor, 1/4W R3: 680Ω resistor, 1/4W P1: 100kΩ linear potentiometer C1: 10uF electrolytic capacitor C2: 0.1uF ceramic capacitor C3: 0.1uF ceramic capacitor (test with 10uF electrolytic) D1: 1N914 signal diode IC1: 555 timer IC2: NTE2013 Darlington array
  • Using a 12V DC power supply, start with only the components around the 555 timer that are shown in the left half of the schematic, and attach a single test LED between R3 and negative ground. The potentiometer should now adjust the flashing speed of the LED. If not, you made a wiring error.
  • Remove your test LED and now use R3 to connect the 555 timer to IC2, the Darlington array, as shown in the schematic.
  • Darlingtons don't source current, they sink current, so connect the red wire from your LED array permanently to your 12V DC source. Then run the negative return wires into the right-hand pins of the Darlington chip. Its left-hand pins are all driven by the 555 timer. The pins labelled "NC" have no connections.

Step #6:

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  • The breadboarded circuit is shown here. If the potentiometer still makes the lights flash faster and slower, all is good.
  • Remove the 10uF capacitor that you used for C3 and substitute a 0.1uF capacitor so that the lights will flash fast enough to exceed your persistence of vision. Resistor R2 makes sure there is always some "off" time in the pulse train, even when the potentiometer is at the end of its range. This way, the LEDs won't get overloaded.
  • Transpose your circuit to a piece of perfboard and do point-to-point wiring. The largest round PCB from the 5-pack specified in the materials list fits perfectly in the base.

Step #7: Add power cord and potentiometer.

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  • Next you'll be drilling 3 exit holes: one for the power supply wire, one for the potentiometer shaft, and one for the potentiometer tab. The 2 potentiometer holes are shown here.
  • For the power cord, drill a 3/16" hole in the back of the base. Cut the plug off the cord, feed it through the hole, and tie a strain-relief knot inside. You can then solder it directly to the perf board.
  • Depending on where you prefer the knob to be, you can drill holes for the potentiometer either in the front or back of the base. Use a 21/64" bit to drill the hole for the shaft, then insert the shaft, mark where the tab goes, and use a 1/8" bit to drill a small hole for the tab.
  • Mount the circuit in the base of the lamp using either a few dabs of epoxy or hot glue.

Step #8: Add a base.

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  • You'll need a heavier base, or an extra piece of plastic, to keep your lamp from falling over. I opted for a piece of plastic, but a hollow base might be more convenient, and can be weighted with scrap metal.
  • If you use plastic, mark where you want the lamp to sit, then use the circle-cutting tool to cut the base out. Use epoxy to affix the lamp to the base.

Step #9: Enhancements

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  • If you sanded the neck of the lamp, it will be slightly rough and will attract dirt. You could paint it with polyurethane to give it a glossy finish.
  • Your lamp is complete — for the time being, anyway. Another six years from now, you may be able to build an even smaller version, replacing the 18 LEDs with just one.
  • Either way, the freaky purplish hue that those big old 1cm LEDs emitted back in 2006 will be nothing more than a memory.
Charles Platt

Charles Platt

Charles Platt is the author of Make: Electronics, an introductory guide for all ages. He is completing a sequel, Make: More Electronics, and is the author of Volume One of the Encyclopedia of Electronic Components. Volumes Two and Three are in preparation.


  • Goli Mohammadi

    Hi sandrorahn,

    The equivalent is the ULN2003 Darlington array. Can you find that one in Brazil?

    • Lecar

      hello, I construct the circuit in the breadboard using the ULN2003 darlignton array as a substitute to NTE2013 but it didn’t work. is there any changes to the circuit? please help. thaks

  • kb5zxm

    I would use an old computer battery, or camcorder battery, and charge it with a wall wart trickle charger. Or from a cig,ligher plug but watch the current. The weight of the battery would stabilize the lamp base

  • Ian Caister

    In short: the darlingtons allow the control circuit to switch much higher currents than it would be able to without them.

    The darlington array effectively operates as a digital switch.

    This design uses a technique called ‘PWM’ or pulse width modulation. Effectively the 555 produces an output that is switching on and off faster than you can see. By varying the potentiometer you change the relative amount of time the output is ‘on’ for and hence adjust the apparent brightness of the LEDs.

    The issue is the 555 can only sink a few miliamps of current, much less than what is needed to drive all those LEDs, so instead the 555 drives the darlingtons which take very little current to operate but can sink many times more than the 555. The darlington is basically like a relay.

  • billy builder

    Why are all the links for radioshack? The prices there are like literally 10 times ordering from any other online electronics distributor. Why not jameco or mauser? $2.50 for 2 LEDs? Good grief.

  • ton

    instead of a potentiometer, can the circuit accept PWM from arduino to dim the lamp. if so how can i configure the circuit? thanks

  • Camilo

    maybe i’m blind but i can’t find the template to make the holes

  • pravin vairar

    Is any substitution possible for NTE2013 Darlington array?

  • Stand

    You can you a Brace or a large hand crank drill to use the hole saw safely with much less expense than a drill press. Properly set up hand powered tools can be very efficient and cost effective to their tialed brethern. Hand tools are very modern they are all cordless. ;) Like all trades it helps to have a good mentor. Sawmill CreeK and Wood Central are good peopl to help you on the hand tool path.

  • vito13

    czy można polaczyc 2 NTE2013 by zasilić 36/3 diod

  • Witold

    You can connect 2 NTE 2013 to power 36/3 LEDs

  • Mark Twain

    wow what a waste of time. just make an incandescent or florescent lamp dude in a fifth the time.

  • Drew

    Is there anything to watch out for with European power supplies?

  • T Bobb

    Well I finally got it to work with three bulbs just like you did , but the volts keep fluctuating and the bulbs won’t stay lit, did I miss something ??? Oh by the way great project ,,,

  • T Bobb

    Hey guys you never answered my question ,,,

  • Mitch

    Hello, thanks for this guide – this is my first project involving electronics.

    I’ve got it all set up in the breadboard, everything worked fine until I got to the last bit. everything is hooked up but when i turn the potentiometer it dims and brightens the light, but 1) it gets brighter as i turn it to the left, which is counter-intuitive and 2) when i turn it all the way to the dimmest, i was expecting it to be the “off” position, but instead it is just dim – is that how it was supposed to be or did I do something wrong.

    the only thing i did different was that I wired it all to one light instead of leaving six seperate neutral wires for the leds, as I don’t have any intention of controlling the sets of three seperatly.


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  • Abu Rehla

    Its cool, but if I want to light up a bunch leds say 18×5 and use only one potentiometer to control all 90 leds, so what I have to do? May I use same circuit?

    • Aristarco Palacios

      Just add more drivers (NTE2013) for the LEDs. You’ll need 5 of them connected to the 555. Remember every output of the 2013 handles 3 LEDs in series.

  • dao

    Im wondering, why is better to use pwm instead of
    controlling brightness by current?


  • Hasnat Jamil

    that means u are telling, if we use 3.3V supply we don’t have to use current limiting resistor.

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  • Robert Vernon

    Another option for the lamp angle is to use fittings. A 90 and then a 45 or 22.5 will work well. This is good for people that don’t have easy access to a heat gun, or maybe some will just like the alternate style.

  • Thurga

    How to calculate R1,R2,R3?

  • anonymous

    How would this differ if I were to use 18 LEDs that have a forward voltage of 1.2V instead of 3.3V?