Wednesday, 14 September 2011

How to make Fish Lanterns

How to make Fish Lanterns
How to make Fish Lanterns
Fish lanterns
(Scroll down for materials list and instructions)

In 2005 I was asked to go to the Seychelles to help with the opening ceremony of the Kreol Festival.
Our giant sun hanging from the largest crane on the island.
Between me and another artist, the late Paul Flack, we were asked to produce a giant 30ft sun that rose on a crane to mark the start and finish of the show (see pic), and 200 lanterns that would be held by children dancing in the show.  

 Lanterns are a fast and fun project, once you have the basic materials, but in a foreign country that can prove a bit of a challenge.

In the UK I’d usually use willow to make this kind of thing, but out in the Seychelles we had to experiment with different materials.  It’s a small island nation and there are no big DIY or art shops to get materials.   

The laborious process of splitting the bamboo - willow is much easier to use if available!
We ended up harvesting green bamboo from the jungle and one of the locals split it down with a machete for us into useable strips.  The bamboo dries out quite quickly in the tropical heat, so we had to cover it and keep it in the shade before working with it.  

You will be able to follow this design exactly in willow withies however, which are more available in western countries, I would use buff willow if available (soak for 2-4 hours for maximum flexibility) or green willow (soak for 3-5 days, yes, that is days – fine if you have a pond or an old bath you can dump it in, but otherwise a bit troublesome).  

Buff willow is available from here:, but there's plenty of other suppliers online.

We worked with some of the kids who were in the show to make the lanterns, so the designs were simplified and the techniques made a bit more friendly for little hands.  It was an underwater theme so the first lantern we made was a fish, which I’ll describe here.  We also made jellyfish, starfish and a shark.  I'll breakdown the jellyfish lanten in a future tutorial as well.

We were able, in the absence of over zealous health and safety officials, to use actual tealight candles in these lanterns.  But if you’re faced with such challenges you can always use a torch, or other battery operated lightsource, or glowsticks.  Battery operated flickering candles are available but I think they’re expensive and don’t really give out a lot of light.

You will need:
  • A small amount of chicken wire or small shallow tin can.
  • Pliers and wire cutters
  • A small tinfoil pie case or tinfoil.
  • Willow withies or split green bamboo.
  • Thin wire
  • Masking tape
  • Secateurs or something else to cut the withies.
  • Scissors
  • Cling film
  • PVA glue (non-washable) watered down so it can penetrate the tissue paper
  • Wet strength tissue paper, about 3-4 sheets per fish, but it depends on how big the fish is!
  • Tealight candle or other light source (and a lighter!).
Make your candle holder first. ( An old (washed) sardine tin works well, but trying to get 200 at short notice in a foreign country wasn’t very easy so we made ours from chicken wire.)  This bit isn’t recommended for kids as the wire can be sharp.
Candle holder for the lantern
Candle holder:  make a small cylinder shape from chicken wire and attach the ends together so the shape doesn’t spring apart  - Use wire or just bend over parts of the chicken wire.   

Snip the chicken wire apart, from the bottom of the cylinder upwards about a third, and bend some of these bits inwards to create a bottom. 

Put a tinfoil pie case in the bottom or just create a lining at the bottom with tinfoil – this is to stop any wax from dripping into the bottom of the lantern.

How to make a paper Fish Lantern
Make a ring which defines the shape of the body.
 Making the lantern frame:  Make a ring with withies/bamboo that is going to be the fattest part of the fish’s body.  Ours were about 20cm in diameter.  Overlap the ends of the withies/bamboo and tape with masking tape to hold.

How to make a paper Fish Lantern - frame
Cut 6 lengths and attach them near the end.
  Cut 6 lengths of withy/bamboo that will be the length of the fish including the tail.  Remember that the finished shape will be curved so take this into account when cutting the length i.e. make them a bit longer. Ours were about 80-90cm long.

Attach these long lengths together 15-20cm from one end.  This end bit will eventually make the tail.

How to make a paper Fish Lantern - frame 2
Fit the rig inside the long lengths, towards the tail.
 Open the lengths and insert the ring inside.  Use masking tape to attach the lengths evenly around the ring.  (It works well to have 2 rings to form the body, but as we had 200 to make, we had to lose the other ring for speed.) Position the ring in the back third, as later, we will add the candle holder in the front third.
How to make a paper Fish Lantern - frame 3
Join the long lengths together to make a fish shape.
 Join all the lengths at the other end with masking tape (and wire for extra strength if needed), as in the picture, and now you have a fish with a body!
How to make a paper Fish Lantern - frame 4
How to make a paper Fish Lantern - frame 5
Strengthen the tail shape.
 Making the tail:  The tail helps stability when the lantern is placed on the floor, so a useful part of the design:  Fan out the tail withies/bamboo so they radiate evenly.  Cut every other one a bit shorter so they should be long, short, long, short etc.  Use 3 short withies/pieces of bamboo to join up the longer ones, catching the short ones at the base of the curves. Refer to the picture if unsure as this is a bit hard to describe. Use masking tape to secure.

How to make a paper Fish Lantern - candle holder

Attach the candle-holder with wire.

 Attaching the candle holder:  Let your fish sit on the floor and turn it round to see where the ‘top’ is.  Ideally it should sit on the floor without rolling around, but the withies/bamboo orientated so that there are 2 struts over the top-most part (rather than 1).  Just keep turning it until you find this place.   

You ideally need 2 struts over the top to wire the candle holder to – see photo.  If you have the candle burning directly under a strut there is a danger it might start to char and burn, so best avoided if you can.  Wire your holder into the frame, like the photo.
How to make a paper Fish Lantern - base layer
Cover the whole lantern in cling film - not totally necessary but makes it easier to attach the tissue paper.
 Covering the frame:  When working with small or inexperienced hands, I find it useful to cover the frame with cling film first, before covering with tissue paper.  This just gives a base to attach the tissue paper to, but is not strictly necessary.  Adults may want to help with this bit, or avoid it all together!

Then the messy part begins!  Tear the wet strength tissue paper into pieces small enough for your lantern and set aside. Water down pva glue and use old paint brushes to apply it to the tissue paper. 
Apply glue to the tissue paper then glue onto the lantern.
Stick it onto the lantern overlapping the edges of each piece until the whole lantern is covered.  You might have to balance the fish on the end of its tail so you can apply tissue all the way round.  

You only really need one layer if using cling film underneath, but if avoiding cling film, put 2-3 layers on for strength.  I'm sorry I don't have better pics of this bit, but it's quite messy and hard to get the camera out!

Our workshoppers added some fun colours to finish the fish off, but they look very effective just plain.  They will need to be left a few hours to dry.

How to make a paper Fish Lantern - Finished items

The last thing to do is to cut out a whole above the candle holder, for access, and to provide a vent hole for the heat to escape.  Scissors or a sharp knife works fine.  Once lit, you can hold the fish by the tail, but we found the best handle is to attach a long piece of wire from the nose to the tail and carry it with that.

As with all candles, it’s best not to leave them unattended, especially if the lanterns are being carried by children.

Poster for the 20th Kreol Festival 2005
I was a little nervous with how the Kreol Festival show was going to turn out, as it was a large amount of lanterns that we hadn’t fully rehearsed, carried by children wearing very flammable costumes.  It was also being broadcast live on national TV and being watched in a packed stadium by the president and all the ex-presidents. 

I didn’t need any jellyfish costume-wearing kids catching on fire and running across the pitch thank you very much.  So, much relief was felt when the show was accident free and a spectacular success.  Well done to all those fantastic participants!

 Finally, if you are planning to make bamboo lanterns in a tropical climate, I can recommend storing them well away from termites or other wood loving insects as I’m afraid to say that when I checked in on them a year later (which was a whole other adventure) they had been reduced to a pile of dust.
The fish lantern, apologies for the poor photo!
The lanterns being lit backstage before the show.
 I hope this is helpful for someone, if you'd like to read how to make Jelly Fish lanterns, look here:  Jelly Fish Lanterns - How to make

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