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Can-do Candles

Wintertime crafts to get the blood flowing



One thing I've always liked about the holidays is candles. With all the dangling, sparkling, neon, laser-light-show Christmas and Hanukkah ornaments glittering up homes and department stores these days, there's nothing like the flickering glow of a few candles (positioned far from Christmas trees, drapes or toddlers) to bring on the warm glow of the holidays.

But how to get that warm, fuzzy glow without the nagging feeling that lighting up the house with candles is simply a prerequisite to a four-alarm fire? A good place to start is a good, safe candle holder; one that won't fall over, ignite the cat's tail on fire, or invite the playful curiosity of tikes.

Go out and buy a candle holder and you'll soon discover that candles are no longer the province of the primitive or the stingy. Nice-looking, sturdy and contained candle holders can cost a pretty penny; a wall sconce can run you even higher.

Well, it turns out that my mom (a real-life Martha Stewart but without the staff or big money) perfected a simple design for candle holders and ornaments made of nothing else but discarded tin cans.

For years, people have made candle holders from cans, punching holes to make patterns that are lit from within to create a glittery little light show. Building on that tradition, my mom took things a step further, using tin snips to turn cans of Contadina Tomato Sauce into flower-like candle holders that could be used as a dinner-table centerpiece, or attached to a homemade wall sconce (complete with tin can reflectors bouncing the candlelight back into the room).

With a few tasteful snips, she could also sculpt angels, snow flakes, flowers or stars out of the shiny lids of Campbell's chicken soup, or Maxwell House coffee cans.

I'm sure she was not the first to do this. Folk art has always had a fondness for cans, and we've all seen the carnival Coke cans, reshaped with careful cutting. But I submit that my mom introduced a degree of design, taste and simplicity to an art form that could easily slip toward gimmickry. I certainly have never seen candle holders like hers anywhere else, from garage to folk-art sales.

A few years ago, I took up the tradition. I made a menorah for a recycling-oriented friend that included nine tin cans fixed to a cross bar. Each can was cut and sculpted in some strange, and hopefully, pretty way. For another friend who lives in a small New York apartment, I made a faux fireplace with flames cut from found copper, and a place for candles within a circle of metal flames.

In the lexicon of folkie art, these are whirligigs for the contemplative set. For those who would rather stare at a flame, or read a book with a little help from small-scale, natural combustion, these things can be a fun addition to the home. With practice and done well, these can actually be quite beautiful -- even dignified enough for any living room, though that depends on individual tastes.

So if your idea of holiday happiness is candlelight (along with a few blisters, nicks and cuts) then here are a few simple design steps to help you hew your own aluminum candelabras. Because candles and Christmas trees really shouldn't go together, I'll start with a very simple scheme for ornaments that relies just on can lids.

Here are the tools and supplies you'll need: tin snips, gloves, hammer, pliers, tin cans, lids, wire, two-inch nail, and newspapers or something else to use as a drop cloth. As you round up supplies, don't neglect the gloves. This is not so much because you'll stab yourself on the sharp can edges (though that can happen), but because the tin snips can quickly wear the skin off your thumb knuckle and fingers.

But before we go further, here is a note about safety: The edges of a cut tin can are extremely sharp! Even when completed, these items are not to be handled by children too small to understand the meaning of the word "stitches." In most cases, a child old enough to be careful and gentle will have no problems, and with supervision, this can be a pretty fun activity for older children. But like candles themselves, they should be kept out of reach of toddlers. One final note about safety: Spread out newspapers or cloth to catch any shards of metal that may fall while you work. Metal splinters are a drag.

If you're not scared off yet, it's time to get started. Start with something simple, like an ornament that will hang from a Christmas tree. (These can also be used as reflectors for wall sconces if a tree is not in your plans.) Once you get the hang of it, a large can lid can be easily twisted to make an angel, star or snowflake for the very top of the tree.

A simple ornament

Punch a hole in one end of the lid with a nail (or drill it if you wanna get fancy).

Make cuts in the can lid that point in toward its center, but which stop when you get about an inch from the lid's center (the flattened center of the can often serves as a good guide).

Using a pair of pliers, slightly twist each section. This creates a simple, flower-like design.

Now, repeat the process on another lid, but this time make more cuts into the can. Try doing different things with each cut section. Bend the petals in opposite directions over the surface of the lid. Curl them around a pencil.

String the wire through the hole that you punched with the nail, then hang on the tree. (Or, put a nail through the center to affix to the back of a wall sconce as a sparkly reflector.)

Candle holder

OK, now that you've got the basic idea of how this works, try a candle holder. These are a little harder because you've got to cut through the tough lip of the can. Put the lip of the can far into the cutter's blade for maximum leverage and remember to wear those gloves to protect your hands from wear and tear.

Find a can with a nice shiny interior, not a dim, cloudy finish.

Cut sections about two thirds of the way down the can toward its bottom.

Bend the sections back, curling them away from the can's base.

Insert the candle.

Light the candle.

Enjoy the look of candlelight reflected in shiny aluminum.

Repeat the process, experimenting with different cutting and bending designs. I've made some in which I've bent some sections down to create legs. I've made some that look like strange bugs, others like strange birds. Whatever your fancy, it's in your (gloved) hands.

Have fun. Listen to music. Invent your own designs and, in this time of seasonal darkness, enjoy the closest thing to sunlight you're gonna get after 4 p.m. from now until March.

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