LED patio lights
Photo by Roger Yip

Build your own LED patio lights

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These stylish patio lights will enhance the ambiance of your landscaping while guiding family and friends safely down the garden path. The attractive cedar housings take no time at all to build and complicated wiring isn’t an issue. The project uses off-the-shelf, low-voltage LED deck lights that are safe and easy to work with, even if you aren’t an electrician.

As an added bonus, LED lights are energy-efficient and last much longer than traditional, filament bulbs. The lighting kits I used come with eight LED fixtures, wiring and a transformer equipped with a photocell to turn the lights on and off automatically as the sun sets and rises. The manufacturer even includes a 1″-diameter spade bit for drilling holes for installation. Deck lights are available at most home-improvement centres, but get them early in the season because they sell out quickly. You may have to adjust these plans to suit the LED kits that are available to you.

Tools and Materials

Materials list

Instructions

Solving the housing shortage

Before you let the sawdust fly, study the plans to get an overview of the project. You’ll see that the housings are made of three layers of 1″-thick cedar, laminated to form thick blocks. Prior to assembling these layers, you’ll cut a deep recess in the centre layer to create a channel for wiring. The centre layer is 1″ shorter than the outside pieces, leaving a notch in the bottom that accommodates a removable cleat. The cleat provides access to the wiring inside and serves as a base for the lag screw used to anchor the housing to the ground.

The first step is to cut out enough blanks for all the layers you will require to complete eight housings. In all, you’ll need 16 long blanks and eight shorter ones. Next, take the short blanks and lay out the area that needs to be cut away to make room for the wiring. All the information required is included in the plans. I removed the material at the top of the recesses by drilling a hole with a 11⁄2″-diameter spade bit, then finished the job by cutting along the sides with the bandsaw. Don’t bother sanding to make these recesses look pretty because the cavities will be concealed inside the housings, and never see the light of day.

Now, you’re ready to apply weatherproof glue to the surfaces of the layers and to assemble the blocks. To make the job easier, I tacked the top corners of the blocks with an air nailer after bringing them together. This step prevents the layers from slipping out of position when clamped. If you use this technique, position the nails so they won’t interfere with the saw cuts when it’s time to round over the corners.

After the glue is dry, lay out the arcs at the tops. When marking the arcs on workpieces, make sure you use the foot of the compass to mark the centre of the 1″-diameter holes that you will drill for the light inserts. Then, expand the pivot point with the tip of your compass so you can use a pencil to mark the drilling location on the blocks.

After the clamps are removed from the blanks, use your bandsaw to cut the arcs. A stationary sander does a good job of removing the saw marks. Now, head over to the drillpress and use the 1″-diameter spade bit that came with the light kit to drill installation holes for the fixtures at the marked locations. When this step is done, add the finishing touches by installing a bearing-guided Roman-ogee bit in a table-mounted router to apply a decorative profile to the outside edges on both sides of the housings.

Home base

Now, you need to make cleats to fit the notches in the bottoms of the housings. After cutting the parts to size, nibble material from one side of each cleat to create openings that will allow the wiring to pass through the bottoms of the units. Slots that are 3⁄16″-deep x 1″-long do the trick.

Now, take a break and examine the plan details to see how the lag screws are installed. Although threaded, each lag screw simply serves as a spike that gets pushed into the ground to support its light. Notice how the head of each lag screw is recessed so that it sits flush with the surface of its cleat. Drill a 1⁄4″-deep recess for the lag screw’s head using a 5⁄8″-diameter Forstner bit, then bore a 3⁄8″-diameter hole the rest of the way through the cleat. Now, insert a 6″-long galvanized lag screw in each hole and secure it in place with a galvanized steel washer and two #6 round-head screws sitting on top, as shown in the plans, to prevent the lag screw from coming out. Next, drill pilot holes for screws in the ends of each cleat to attach the base cleats to the centre layers with a couple of #8 flat-head stainless-steel screws in each housing. No glue is used here so the cleats can be removed for maintenance.

Final stretch

You may be tempted to try installing the light inserts at this stage to see how they’re gong to look, but don’t. The fixtures are friction fit; once they’re in place, it will be very difficult to remove them to apply the finish.

I gave the housings a final sanding and then brushed on a coat of exterior-grade translucent stain to enhance the grain and provide UV protection. Another option is to apply no finish at all and allow the cedar to weather to a stately grey colour over time.

After you’ve applied the finish of your choice (or none at all), it’s finally time to install the fixtures. Simply feed the wire leads into the access holes on the fronts of the units and push the light inserts into place. Now, screw the base cleats to the bottoms of the housings and link the fixtures together with the quick connectors. Attach the string of path lights to the transformer, and you’re ready to test the lights to see if they work. When you do this, cover the photocell with your thumb to trick the sensor into believing it’s suddenly nighttime.

If everything works, plant the fixtures in the outdoor location you’ve selected as their permanent home. For safety, you’ll need an outlet equipped with a GFCI (ground-fault circuit interrupter) located nearby and some soil or wood chips to conceal the wires.

Once you have your lights in place, all you need to do is wait for the sun to set.

 

To download a detailed illustration of the plans, click here