How to make luminaries from tin cans

How to make luminaries from tin cans

Luminaries can be found at most stores that sell party supplies for just about any occasion. They are used to line walkways or outdoor stairways and decorate front yards. They are usually heat-resistant paper bags with festive cut-outs in which a candle can be placed. Unfortunately, heat-resistant does not mean heat-proof; paper luminaries can catch fire if a candle inside is knocked over. They also cannot be used over and over, as any dampness can make the paper become soft, increasing the fire hazard.

Instead of buying paper luminaries that pose a fire threat year after year, you can make your own sturdy, heat-proof luminaries that can be reused many years over. All you need are some tin cans, a hammer, and a nail.

When you are planning to make your luminaries, begin collecting tin cans. Soup and vegetable cans are a perfect size and shape for a luminary. If you want uniformity, buy the same brand of a canned product and, as you use them, save your cans for a few weeks until you have as many as you think you will need.

Prepare your cans a day or two before you want to start your project. Make sure they are clean and remove any paper labels from the can. If any glue remains stuck, remove it by shaving it off with a razor blade. Fill your cans with water and put them in the freezer for 12 or more hours. The ice will prevent the cans from bending and denting as you punch out your design.

Choose a design for your luminaries by either finding a template, a stencil or drawing one free-hand. If you’€™reusing a stencil, draw it on paper so that you can transfer it to the can, then photocopy it. Even if you are working free-hand, it is best to photocopy your design to avoid the condensation on the can smearing marker or printer ink as you work on it. Make sure your design will fit on the can; if you find a template or stencil you like that is too big, try photocopying it at a reduced size. A simple, straightforward design will make for a nice luminary and is easier to do. More intricate, detailed designs are tedious and can be difficult to make out on the finished product if not done with care, but if you are feeling confident, give it a try’€“ it’€™s only a can, and you can easily replace it.

Keep the cans in the freezer, taking only one out at a time as you are ready to make your luminaries. Take your design and tape it on the can. Lay the ice-filled can on a towel that is crumpled up so it stays in place with the design facing upward. This helps to keep the can from slipping all over the table and will absorb any water from the melting ice. Then take a hammer and a nail. Place the nail on the outline of the design and give it a couple of taps with the hammer until you have pierced the can. Continue making puncture marks all along the outline, making the holes about 1/4 of an inch or less apart. The more intricate the design, the closer together the holes should be. If you find that your ice is getting too melted, add a little more water and re-freeze it before proceeding. In the meantime, you can work on another can.

When the design is completely punched out, remove the paper template, and allow the ice to melt and drain. Dry the cans to prevent rusting.

To further decorate, you can paint your luminaries, or wrap them in vellum paper. If painting, you might need to poke your nail through holes that the paint dries over and obstructs (you don’€™t need your hammer for this; it will be easy to prick the paint). If wrapping them in vellum, you won’€™t have to make holes because vellum is transparent and the light will shine through the paper. Cut the paper carefully to size and tape it to secure on the back. Make sure no paper is overhanging the top opening of the can.

To use your luminaries, simply place them where you want them, put a votive or tea candle inside, and light them up. If it is a particularly windy night, place some sand or gravel inside the bottom to weigh them down and put the candle into it.

Be careful when picking luminaries up, as they can get hot. Give them a few minutes after blowing them out, or use a potholder. If you must pick one up without a potholder, try to grab it from the bottom at a part that is lower than the flame. You can store these for use year after year, repainting them or replacing vellum if needed.

To remove hardened wax from the bottom of the can, place the can in a very shallow dish of hot water. Then, using a knife, pry the wax from the can and it should pop out. If not, just use the knife as a chisel to break the wax-up and dump it out. A little clinging wax won’€™t hurt the can, but you don’€™t want it to build up. If it does, eventually it will reach up to the holes and fresh wax might spill out.

You can create some great luminaries for virtually any occasion. Here are some ideas to get you going:


Make a simple pumpkin face (triangles for eyes and nose, and a wedge for a mouth) and use orange paint or vellum paper.

Make a ghost figure or skull and paint black.


Make autumn leaf designs on luminaries and use vellum to wrap them in fall colors. These can make nice table decorations as well, just make sure to fill them with sand to absorb the candle’s heat should the flame go low, so that it won’t damage your table surface.


Make a snowflake shape, tree, angel, holly leaf, or ornament shape and paint red, green, silver or gold, or wrap in vellum.


Make star shapes on your luminaries and paint some red, some white and some blue. Line them up so that the colors make the red-white-blue pattern.

Make firework burst shapes and paint them red, white or blue. Paint each one with a red stripe around the top, white in the middle, and blue stripe around the bottom of the can for tri-colored luminaries.


Make the number that represents the person’s age or years they have been married, and paint or wrap in vellum paper in the party’s theme colors.


Make a graduate’s hat, or write class of XX€ on the can, and paint it black or the school colors.


Line the walk with pink or blue luminaries, one letter punched out on each, spelling out, “It’s A Boy (Girl)!”

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