You know how we keep saying anything can become a beautiful, new lamp? In today’s “Meet the Maker” interview we talk with a lamp maker who works his magic (to be read: electrical wiring skills and creative mind) to do just that. Rick McMullen transforms old items like musical instruments, fans, cameras and toys into unique and whimsical lamps.
We met Rick McMullen aka The Urban Alchemist through our common love of all things lamps and… Instagram. Every day he would post some new lamp that would make us go “WOW, that lamp is beautiful”. We decided to ask Rick more about his lamps, how he gets the inspiration and how he works his magic and we got so much more. We discovered an artist.
So, if you’ve had eyes for your little brother’s saxophone, your dad’s vintage camera or your grandma’s old fan, this interview is for you. Before you start taking those apart, read Rick’s tips on how to prepare and wire old items to become new lamps.
Q: Hello Rick. Please tell us a bit about yourself and how you got started with making your own lamps. Do you remember your first one?
My name is Rick McMullen. I’m a retired Electrical Engineer from Yorkshire, England, who immigrated to the US in 2003. I am married to my American wife, Katherine, and we are blessed to live on 13 peaceful acres in rural Virginia. We have three dogs and two cats, all rescues, that enrich our lives every day.
I was attracted to lamp-making by the deep symbolism of lamps being able to cast light into the darkest corners. I like to think of an illuminated light-bulb as being a tiny sun trapped in a small bottle.
I do remember my first lamp, yes, made from iron plumbing pipe. At the time, I thought it was the best lamp ever but, with hindsight, I know that it was, at best, very mundane. Then I stumbled on an article about a lamp-maker who uses old musical instruments as the foundation of each of his pieces. That was much more like what I envisaged myself making, and so I sourced some non-playable and non-repairable instruments from a friendly local band-director and began my lamp-making in earnest.
Rick McMullen in his workshop. Photo credits The Urban Alchemist.
Q: Can you tell us a bit about your process? Some of the items you use to transform into lamps look fragile or complicated to wire. How do you work with these old items?
There really isn’t a “process.” Every disparate item I use presents its own challenges. Fans have to be opened (every brand opens differently) for me to remove the rotor, it all has to be thoroughly cleaned, and a switch and multi-bulb holder have to be fitted. It must then be wired and connected, but always with one eye to the aesthetic. If it doesn’t wow me, how can I expect it to wow anyone else?
Table lamps made from upcycled fans. Photo credits The Urban Alchemist.
Brass musical instruments pose their own peculiarity, in that they must be stripped of any deteriorated lacquer. When I repurposed my first saxophone, I foolishly, and without taking photos, stripped all the keys from it so that I could simmer the body of the instrument in a fish-boiler to remove the nasty lacquer. Stripping the keys took me two hours, and boiling it took another two; however, reassembling the multitude of keys, springs and screws scattered in piles all over my work-bench took me fully 15 hours. I never made that mistake again.
Lamp from repurposed non-playable saxophone. Photo credit The Urban Alchemist.
Now, before I even pick up a tool to begin repurposing any item, be it a toy, a model vehicle, even a parking meter, I spend an hour or so mulling it over, working out the best way to open it and deciding on the best route for the wiring that will run through it. Then I must determine how best to locate and secure the bulb holder and, finally, how to make it stable enough that it will effectively resist being knocked over accidentally. That preparatory time is never wasted, and I learn a lot from every different item I use.
Lamp from repurposed faux Keystone movie projector. Photo credit The Urban Alchemist.
Q: What would you say is the trickiest part of upcycling thrift store and old items into lamps?
The trickiest part is forming a mental image of what the finished piece should look like. That is where I rely on my Chief Financial Officer, Head Designer and Laboratory Guru, a.k.a. my wife. Her ideas usually meet with some initial resistance from me, but I always end up incorporating them - she is NEVER wrong on matters of design.
Gothic medieval wall-hanging sconce lamp from vintage heraldic coat of arms shield and articulated wooden hand. Photo credit The Urban Alchemist.
Q: You’ve upcycled musical instruments, vintage cameras, toys and even fans into
lamps. Do you have a favorite go-to object?
Clarinets, trombones, and trumpets are my favorite items to repurpose, largely because there is an innate beauty in a musical instrument. They are the perfect marriage of form and function, where every curve and connection exists for a specific reason and was designed for a distinct purpose. After all, if I begin with a beautiful instrument, how can I not make a beautiful lamp?
Q: Where do you find items for your custom lamps?
Everywhere! Flea markets, yard sales, thrift stores, rust and dust stores, antique malls, even friends’ and neighbors’ houses. If you are ill-advised enough to let me into your home, please know that I am ogling everything you own with a view to be it becoming mine, and becoming a lamp. I am not kidding.
Vintage tangerine desk phone repurposed lamps. Photo credit The Urban Alchemist.
Lamp made from a 1920s Westinghouse Cozy Glow heater with copper reflector on cast bronze base. Photo credit The Urban Alchemist.
Pair of lamps made from Natale Circle D fire truck lights from Engine 11 at King George Fire Department, Virginia. Photo credit The Urban Alchemist.
Q: What is the quirkiest lamp you’ve ever made?
Gosh, that’s a hard one to answer. I made one from a Harley-Davidson motorcycle muffler, which is kind of odd, and I even made a matching pair of LED remote-controlled lamps using exhaust headers from a Chevrolet S10 pick-up truck that could well be considered unusual.
On balance, though, the quirkiest would probably be a doll’s head with a neon-green LED bulb glowing inside it, nestled within a wire cage, mounted on an upcycled wooden comport as a stand. The day I began making it, I was in my workshop using my drill-press to drill out the doll’s eyes when my wife came in.
She squinted at the small girl’s head clamped firmly in my vise, all the while wincing at the whirring, screeching drill-bit powdering the porcelain of the doll’s left pupil. She took in the entire scene before asking me what on earth I was doing.
“I’m drilling the eyes out of this doll’s head,” I said, as the drill-bit finally broke through into the head’s cavity.
“Er...why?” she asked
It seemed obvious to me. “So the light will shine out of them.”
“Hello? The light I’m going to put inside her head.” People can be so obtuse sometimes.
At that point, she left me to it. The completed lamp sold almost immediately to a Goth, and rather quirky, friend of ours, who fell in love with it at first sight…
Q: As an Electrical Engineer, what advice do you have for someone preparing to wire their first lamp?
Frankly, if that someone is not an electrician, my advice is, “Don’t.” It’s not difficult, but the liability ramifications can inflict severe damage on one’s finances if the lamp is sold and proves defective. If anyone would like a custom lamp, I urge them to buy from a professional maker. The lamp may not be cheap, but it is MUCH more affordable than rebuilding one’s home following an electrically-ignited inferno, or being on the wrong end of the significant legal fees and resultant settlement of a negligent electrocution
Rick McMullen at work. Photo credit The Urban Alchemist.
Q: Do you have a favorite fellow lamp maker or artist that inspires you?
Honestly, no, I don’t. Indeed, I try NOT to look at other makers’ lamps. I want my ideas to be my own, and not be the result, even subconsciously, of seeing something someone else has made. My ideas are my own, I invest myself in my lamps and EVERY lamp I make carries a tiny part of me with it wherever it ends up.
Q: So why the name, “The Urban Alchemist”?
My wife and I brain-stormed and chose it because we feel it accurately describes the transmutation of base objects into something valuable in terms of their usefulness, if not their price.
Lamp from scratch-made steampunk hat with vintage goggles. Photo credit The Urban Alchemist.
Q: Do you find lamp-making rewarding?
I enjoy the creativity inherent in repurposing, and the seat-of-the-pants decision-making it brings with it. My wife says it has another bonus in that it keeps me out of mischief or jail – well, it has so far.
It will certainly not make me rich, but that is by choice. I price my pieces deliberately low enough to recoup just my costs (often excluding labor,) thus making a unique piece available to someone who would be unable to afford it otherwise. That is rewarding enough.
Q: Final question – is it art?
It depends on how one defines, “art”. Some call it art, some call it a hobby; me, I think of it as passing on my creations to their custodians. We own things only whilst we’re alive - when we leave this world, we leave with nothing. It’s humbling to think that, one day, one of my basement creations may become part of someone’s cherished inheritance.
It is also exciting to think that, someday, someone may look at one of my lamps and ask, “I wonder who made this?” If that happens, even once, it will all have been worthwhile.
Lamp made from antique industrial cast-iron. Photo credit The Urban Alchemist.
You might have noticed we have a thing for upcycling old objects into cool new lamps. From rotary phones to typewriters, farmhouse equipment, musical instruments and even bicycle gear, with a bit of creativity, good wiring skills and patience (sometimes a lot of that), all these items and more can be transformed into functional, modern lighting fixtures. However, before you start taking apart your brother’s saxophone or your dad’s vintage camera, remember each old item requires special attention and a good knowledge of electrical wiring.
If you’re just starting with wiring your own lamps, we recommend you read our founder’s eBook, “Old Lamps, New Life”. With this comprehensive DIY guide, you will learn the techniques experts use to rewire and repurpose vintage lamps, as well as everything you need to know to take apart and rewire a broken lamp. There are 6 chapters which teach you safety tips, universal lamp components, dis-assembly, re-wiring, and refinishing ideas. Even better, all the techniques are illustrated with detailed diagrams and process photos.
Or, you can try our pre-assembled bottle lamp kit that doesn’t require any wire work. See how this kit works, right here.
If you’re familiar with wiring your own lamps, in our store, you'll find Lamp Wiring Kits with everything you need to make a lamp you love. We carry 8" cord sets which are great for table lamps ($13.99) and 12" cord sets ($14.99) that are perfect for floor lamps. They're available in 5 different finishes so you can match the hardware perfectly to your next lamp project.
In our Meet the Maker interview series we talk with crafters, artists and designers about their unique lighting fixtures to find out where they get their inspiration and how they work their magic. In case you missed our previous "Meet the Maker" interview: we talked with Studio Willemiek about upcycling thrift store wireframes in beautiful modern bell lampshades. Read it here.
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