270 Playing Card Lampshade

In 2011, Nick Sayers made a roughly spherical design out of 270 playing cards. Well, 265 if you leave a hole to put a light-bulb in – 5 whole decks, plus one joker from each. It’s easy to find pictures of it on the internet, e.g. here and here. It has gaps to allow light through. It has a pleasing mixture of structure and irregularity. It looks fantastic. I wanted to figure out how to make it myself.

The design looks complicated, but it’s not so bad. It’s a Platonic solid in disguise – either a dodecahedron or an icosahedron, depending on what you say the centre of the face is: from the angle of the playing card cuts, it’s pretty much a wash since everything bulges outwards a bit, compared to a true Platonic solid.

You can figure out how to fit the cards together from the pictures (whether of Nick Sayer’s build or mine). But before getting started on this, I highly recommend you figure out how to make some Platonic solids first – it’ll give you an idea of how this kind of thing works. See my previous post for more on that.

Assuming you’ve gained some basic idea of how to build the simpler stuff, then here’s the key to building the 270-card behemoth: there is a 9-card motif that you need to repeat 30 times, which is shaped like a diamond. At each of the two sharp points of the diamond , 5 cards come together. At each of the other two points of the diamond, 3 cards come together. Everywhere else, 4 cards come together.

The really interesting bit is exactly where to cut the cards so they slit together in the right way. On my previous post for building Platonic solids, you can see how this kind of thing gets worked out. For the 270-card construction, by all means work out a theoretical starting position (this helped me) but eventually you will need to be prepared to experiment with a pack or so of cards to see what alternatives pan out best given the way the physical material behaves. I recommend using packs of Waddingtons No. 1 cards when experimenting – they are pretty tough and nice and cheap.

(Note that each 9-card motif uses 5 cards with one pattern of cuts, and 4 cards with the mirrored version. )

In terms of actually putting it together, build one 9-card motif off to one side, and refer to it as you make the main build. Start with a 5-vertex and build outwards from there. Once you have all the slots cut, and any other backing applied (see below), it will still take you at least 4 hours to put everything together. There are some points where you can take a rest – basically you’ll need to complete something radially symmetric so it doesn’t start bending too much.

While a finished build looks great, it does have one drawback as a lampshade: playing cards are not designed to let light through – it’s kind of a major part of their job description, come to think about it. So, while the lampshade does look lovely with a light bulb in the middle, it’s somewhat underpowered as a light source: more of a glowing coal than a blazing fire, let alone a UFO that will eat your mind as you gaze dumbly into its alien projection of Nirvana.

Sorry, where was I?

Ah, yes: improving light output. I did wonder if it might be possible to get more light out by building it with cheaper playing cards, which lack the “core” that makes normal playing cards opaque. But such cards tend to be generally weak, whether from the lack of the “core” layer or just because the cardstock is thinner. This weakness rules them out: the twisting inherent in the design means that those cheaper cards rip and can’t be used successfully.

My best idea so far: put stick-on chrome mirror vinyl on the parts of the backs of the cards that lie entirely within the construction: the idea being that the light will bounce around until it eventually makes its way out. From the outside, it still looks like normal playing cards – but now, when you chuck light out from the inside, you now get more than just a gentle glow – enough light escapes to get some general illumination of the surrounding space. An encouraging sign is that the colour of the light that escapes is a closer match to the original bulb colour – before, it took on the hue of the playing cards, since so much of it was being absorbed by their surface.

More external light would still be good. The photos below are all I currently get from a 26W corn led light bulb, which puts out 3,000 Lumens (around 200W equivalent for an incandescent) so is already quite punchy. I’ll try ramping it up and see how far I can go before setting everything on fire.

As to which playing cards to use? The main problem is potential tearing where the cards meet – once the whole construction is made you’re fine, but while putting things together you can end up with quite a lot of stress being put present at some stages. I prototyped with Waddingtons No 1 bridge cards, only £1.40 a pack, and they stood up to the twisting forces involved remarkably well. The final build uses Compag Jumbo Index Poker Cards, which are more like £10 a pack in the UK: about as resilient as you are going to get. But to be honest, they didn’t really deal with the forces much better than the Waddingtons did – although I did dial up the amount of card twisting to the maximum level I thought I could get away with.

You handsome devil
The interior, all lovely and shiny
If you want to do this yourself, I recommend you cut out the vinyl using a Silhouette/Cameo machine. One A4 sheet should give you 15 shapes – so 2 10-packs will suffice for one build.