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When Life Gives You a Rusty Wok, Make a Lamp

January 29, 2016

After I tried really hard to tidy the joyless objects out of my kitchen (which are all still in boxes lined up inside my home, waiting to get taken to the thrift store), I ended up confused about certain objects: What to do with this oversized mixing bowl, so low on joy sparks but so incredibly useful? And what about this old wok that I never, ever used, that's covered in rust and yet so perfectly commemorative of an exact time and place in my life that I never want to forget?

I wrote about this indecision—what's a girl to do with an old homeless wok?—and a reader, one Jasmine Snyder, came to my rescue.

Once a wok, now a pendant lamp. Photo by James Ransom

Her comment:

Have you considered repurposing the wok as a light fixture? Get an electrician to run a new line for a central light in your kitchen, drill a hole in the wok large enough for the wiring to fit through, attach a socket for a lightbulb and with a few odds and ends from the hardware store you have a unique fixture. Since you have so many tools kicking around I assume you are not adverse to a little DIY project.

Not averse to a little DIY project?! This felt like a challenge, and so I accepted [a modified version of] it. Instead of getting an electrician to run a new line—since I live in a rental apartment, have a 16 foot ceiling, and am too cheap/stubborn to ask someone to do that anyway—I would make a wok lamp than hung on a very long cord. We'd mount a screw in the ceiling, loop the cord over that, and plug it in back at ground level (all the while hoping that the exposed hook and cord looked cool/industrial rather than just jimmy-rigged).

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Easy, right? Actually, yes!

The Four Steps of Wok Lamp-Making

Be forewarned: You will drill through steel! There will be nipples and screwing and [wire] strippers! Also, electricity! Now that I've had that fun, let there be wok light.

All you need is not love, but lamp parts.

1. Befriend a lighting expert.

The poor folks at Lighting Plus in lower Manhattan didn't know what had hit them when I casually dropped by looking for advice, a wiring and physics tutorial, and a lasting friendship—but they delivered. Yes, there are videos about lamp-making (and this post!) but if it's your first lamp DIY I can't recommend speaking with a professional enough—wiring isn't playing with fire, but it could be. For example, since my wok is heavy, they were able to recommend pieces that would reduce stress on the cord, which I would have never thought to do. Once you find a local lighting expert, talk to them about which exact supplies you'll need. Here's a starter shopping list of wiring supplies:

Socket and friends.

Above, from left to right: A ceramic socket and cap, which screws onto a nipple. The nipple is the part that will stick through the hole in the wok, so the size you get (mine was 3/8") will determine the size of your drill bit (went 3/8" on that too, but a hair larger would have been a good idea). Onto the nipple goes a metal nut and a plastic split ring lockwasher before you thread it through your wok.

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Top Comment:
“If you want to hang the lamp as the author did, you will need a very specific sort of cord that will handle the weight- you should really go to an electricians' supply, not a hardware store. You will also need a SWITCHED ceiling outlet, unless you're willing to use a pull string switch- a bit tacky for a kitchen light. You would probably be better off with a book (in my day, the Time Life and Ortho series were pretty dependable) than with videos and computer files- the wiring is very simple, but you should still have good pictures and refer to them often. For a simpler-and safer- project, it can also be fun to convert old junk into clocks.”
— Smaug

On the outside of the wok, you'll thread on another metal nut, followed by a metal spacer that screws on next, followed by a grip bushing, for strain relief.

Here's how they fit together: Since certain sockets are right for certain lamps, and heavier pendant lights need more hardware, and all of these parts come in a variety of sizes, I suggest buying them in person and all at once—hence, your new best friends at the lighting store. Note: When you're actually wiring your wok, it gets threaded on between lock washer and nut #2.

From left: Nipple screwed into the socket; parts ready to be threaded through wok; and what the pieces look like all screwed together (the wok will be threaded on between the 2nd and 3rd images).

You'll also need a cord! I got the heaviest duty one they had, in black. You buy cord by the foot, so I sprung for about 25 feet of it (as per previously stated plans to hang the lamp from a hook from a very high ceiling). The cord will actually run through this whole hardware getup once you have it affixed to the wok.

2. Drill a hole through the wok.

It should go without saying, but once you do this step, you can never go back to stir-frying in your wok. So pick a wok that's really pretty and not very good in the kitchen—or pass through a few thrift stores to find one that would work.

Before nagging the lighting store samaritans, I watched many-a Youtube video on drilling through steel, because I was extremely excited about this step.

Some tips about drilling through steel if you didn't make it past "Anyone can drill wood—wood's for sissies!":

  • You'll need a steel bit, which is different than a wood bit.
  • Oiling the drill bit will keep it cool, which prevents dulling.
  • Drill slowly and with pressure, not quickly. (Fast = heat = dull bit.)

What you'll need: A measuring tape, a hammer and nail, a power drill, a steel bit (I got a cheap one, so that if it dulled at all I could just throw it away), and viscous oil (the hardware store man told me olive oil would do this job in a pinch). Charge your drill if your drill requires charging, then find a way to secure your wok. Because I am fancy, I decided to wedge the handles onto my fire escape.

Now, to ensure that you drill exactly where you want to, measure and mark the center of the bottom of the wok and make a divot in it using the hammer and nail, like so:

Find the bullseye and make a little dent in it.

I was really hyped up to drill through this steel wok, but it turned out to be rather anti-climactic. Some steel shavings pile up, but there's no screeching or sirens to speak of, and after about 30 seconds you pop right through to the other side.

I would have videoed this except I only have two hands and they were both DRILLING THROUGH STEEL.

Clean away those shavings, marvel at your brute intelligence, and now hook up that socket rig we talked about earlier.

Oh holey wok.

3. Assemble your lamp.

Screw the nipple into the socket, thread on a nut and the lockwasher, then push it through the hole so the socket is on the inside of the wok where your light bulb will go.

Socket on the inside, nipple on the outside.

On the outside, thread on the other nut, the spacer, and the grip bushing as discussed before.

The hardest part of wok lamp making is taking pictures of your own hands.

Using a tiny screwdriver that you own to fix broken glasses, unscrew the socket from its cap and then thread the end of the wire through this whole rig. What you now have on your hands is a wok lamp!! Time to make it work.

Unscrew the socket from the cap before threading your cord through the hardware.

4. Wire your wok lamp.

The fun part! A good pair of wire strippers and that aforementioned tiny screwdriver will make quick work of this, but if you don't have wire strippers you can actually make it happen using scissors from the back of the drawer (I know because I did this).

Take a look at the end of your cord. There should be a rubber exterior and two separate copper wire clusters, each with their own rubber casing, inside that.

Prepare to strip this cord.

Using the wire strippers (or by very gently twisting the scissors around the rubber until they cut through), pull away a few inches of rubber casing, exposing the white and black cords within.

Now, do the same thing to the cords you've revealed, exposing about an inch—as opposed to the quarter inch you see below—of the copper wire on each one.

Stripped rubber insulation, stripped wires.

In the base of the socket—which should presently be detached from your wok lamp—there are some screws: one silver, one brass. Silver is the neutral channel and brass is the hot channel—just as in the plug—and in the cord, white is the neutral channel and black is the hot one. You're going to attach the neutral wire (white) to the neutral screw (silver) and the hot wire (black) to the hot screw (brass); white to silver, black to brass. (If your wires aren't black and white, you can ID the neutral wire by a tiny ridge on the insulation.) Attaching these correctly is really really important. Why?

Electricity runs in a continuous loop, which you definitely remember from third grade. It starts in the wall, runs through the hot prong of the plug, up the hot half of the cord, through this connection we're about to make in the socket, down the neutral half of the cord, and back to the source via the neutral prong of the plug. Wiring the socket is closing the loop!

Please focus on the wires and not my pink claw hand: Black to brass, white to silver.

To wire the socket, begin with either the hot or neutral parts. I attached the hot first, as you can see above, so let's follow that lead. Unscrew the brass terminal so that there's some space between it and the socket, then twist the copper wires in the black cord so they are pointy rather than frayed out. Wrap those wires around the part of the brass screw you just exposed. Slowly, while prodding the copper wires to keep them in place, tighten the screw making sure no wires are poking out at the sides.

If you're having trouble keeping the wires in place, you can divide the copper wires in two, twisting those halves straight, then wrap one half clockwise around the screw and the other counter-clockwise, which keeps them in place.

Do the same with the neutral parts (in this case, white cord and silver terminal), being very careful that the hot and neutral wires are securely separated—they should never touch!

White to silver, black to brass—screws tightened and no copper wires exposed!

Now you can screw the socket back onto its cap. All of a sudden... you have a wok lamp!! Do a little dance and then focus one more time. The last step is to wire the plug the same way you did the socket, by stripping the wires and attaching black to brass, white to silver.

The innards of a plug—notice that the screws are on either side.

Screw in a lightbulb (my lighting store buddies told me 60 watts was the max that would work for my rig, but 40 would be fine, too). Hang your wok lamp from the ceiling by mounting a hook up there and wrapping the cord around it a few times at your preferred wok lamp height—which will ensure that the remainder of the cord that runs to the plug doesn't have any pressure on it. Plug it in, and let there be wok light!

Photo by James Ransom

Have you ever wired a lamp? Or made your own? Inspire us all in the comments.

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PHIL January 27, 2017
I think everyone in America owns a rusty wok!
Nina A. March 17, 2016
LOVE this!
Smaug March 6, 2016
Some comments; standard HSS twist drills (the plain old bits that came with your drill) will do this job. The larger ones tend to walk before they get started, though- for a hole this size, best to drill a pilot hole with a 1/8" bit. You can also buy "bullet point" type bits that have a built in pilot bit (not to be confused with "brad point" bits, which are not for metal. You will be amazed by how expensive the cheesiest lamp parts are- this sort of project can be amazingly expensive. You will be highly limited in your choice of cords because very few will fit through the 3/8"ip tubing and fittings used for lamps; for instance, you can't just cut the female end off an extension cord. If you want to hang the lamp as the author did, you will need a very specific sort of cord that will handle the weight- you should really go to an electricians' supply, not a hardware store. You will also need a SWITCHED ceiling outlet, unless you're willing to use a pull string switch- a bit tacky for a kitchen light. You would probably be better off with a book (in my day, the Time Life and Ortho series were pretty dependable) than with videos and computer files- the wiring is very simple, but you should still have good pictures and refer to them often. For a simpler-and safer- project, it can also be fun to convert old junk into clocks.
Kaitlin B. January 30, 2016
This is amazing! So impressed.
Olivia B. January 29, 2016
You're my hero.
Alexandra S. January 29, 2016
This is so brilliant! I have an old wok in my basement that I am going to have to repurpose. I once made a lamp from an old anchovy tin — you know those beautiful Recca tins? I'm kind of embarrassed to share the post because the lamp is not even a fraction as elegant as this wok lamp, but here it is: http://www.alexandracooks.com/2013/05/29/anchovy-tin-lamp-%E2%80%A2-anchovy-vinaigrette/