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The White Trash Lava Lamp

Nathan Walton's Homebrew Hints



First, we want to say thanks very much to Nathan Walton, who has probably created the best ever home-made lava lamp captured on film. You rock, Nathan! Below you'll find how he approached the problem and some very valuable insights from someone who's done it!

self made lava lamp

Here's my home made lava lamp. The container is simply a gallon jug wine bottle. Because of this, a friend once referred to it as the "White Trash Lava Lamp". The wine was Ernest and Julio Gallo, if I remember correctly. I do remember that it stank to high heavens when I poured it down the sink. Avoid, avoid, avoid. The base is a cheap spun aluminum sauce pan, obtained from the local 99 Cent store. The handle was removed, and a hole was cut in the bottom with a nibbling tool. You'll see no pictures of that. It's remarkably difficult to cut a circle with a nibbler. From there, it was simply a matter of rivetting a socket for a 30 watt appliance bulb onto the inside of the pan and wiring it for 110 VAC. The lamp is plugged into a 3 step touch-base type dimmer, mostly just because it was cooler than a simple switch. Just tap the base, and the lamp turns on. Plastic cable clamps were rivetted to the lip of the pan to hold the base away from the tabletop, as well as to allow some ventilation to the lamp.

home-made lava lamp Here's a close-up of the lamp in action. The "lava" in the lamp is mineral oil, the kind sold as a laxative at your corner drugstore. The liquid above it is an indeterminate concentration of isopryl alcohol, AKA rubbing alcohol. I'd like to be able to tell you an exact mixture, but it was kind of a trial-and-error operation. I started with 91% isopryl, and added 70%, and later straight distilled water, until the meniscus of the oil/alcohol interface started to lift. (For those of you who care, mineral oil is a non-wetting liquid, which means the meniscus will be convex, with the center of the fluid surface a bit higher than the edge. Let's hear it for high school chemistry!) Kind of a touchy-feely operation, but it seemed to work well enough. It did take a few tries, though, both because I added too much, and the oil floated completely, and because I added too fast, and the alcohol became clouded with oil droplets.

If you do decide to make a mineral oil lava lamp of your own, based on the instructions detailed here, I would make a few suggestions:

Go slowly. The densities (or more precisely, the specific gravities) of rubbing alcohol and mineral oil are very close. And your goal will be to bring them even closer. If you pour too quickly, or shake the container, the alcohol will become clouded as mineral oil becomes entrained in it. And it can take days for the tiny oil droplets to settle out again. Heating the lamp does seem to help speed settling, but you'll need to let it cool before tweaking the mixture again.

Use a smaller, narrower bottle. This container seems to have too little surface area for it's volume, and does not dissipate the heat generated by the lamp quickly enough. The gallon jug tends to overheat after three or four hours. When this happens, the lava flow slows, then completely stops.

Find a dimmer mechanism. A simple wall plug dimmer, such as you'd use for a table lamp, works fine. These are available from your local hardware or specialty lamp stores. The touch dimmer I used is classy, but the only problem is it tends to turn the lamp on at a random brightness level if power is cut and then restored. That means if the power to your home goes out momentarily, you could come home to find your lava lamp has mysteriously turned itself on. (This is noteworthy for anyone using this kind of dimmer for any purpose.) Since the recipe I used involves placing a gallon of flammable, expansive liquid in a glass container above a heat source, this kind of concerned me. I keep mine unplugged unless I plan on showing it off. I expect a slide-type dimmer and a conventional switch would work just fine. And a dimmer will allow you to easily adjust the activity of lamp, without having to tweak the mixture further.

If you try the rubbing alcohol/mineral oil mixture, try living with the clear oil and alcohol before you rush out and dye it. In spite of what the webpage above says, anything you add to one seems to eventually bleed into the other, leading to the whole thing being dyed a uniform color. Maybe I just had bad luck in my tests and materials. But at least try a test case before you dump a bunch of dyes and paints into your carefully balanced lava lamp. And the clear oil looks like liquid glass as it catches the light, which is just cool.

Use some common sense. You're using electricity, flammable chemicals, and hot light bulbs. If you use some of the other recipes mentioned on the Selfmade Lava Lamps page, add poisonous and expensive chemicals to that list. Be careful. Don't set the lamp on anything very flammable (like paper or fabric). Build a good, well ventilated base that doesn't rest the light bulb on the tabletop (my design isn't particularly wonderful in that respect). And under no circumstances operate your new lamp unattended. If your lamp explodes in a ball of fire and the shrapnel kills your dog, don't blame me. You have been warned.

 

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