Making a Barn Lantern {Part 1}

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Sara, here

Barn lanterns. You know why they’re called barn lanterns, right? Because they were used there. In a barn. (Specifically so the barns themselves wouldn’t catch fire when a cow kicked said lantern over into a pile of hay.)

(Unless of course the cow had great aim and the lantern door was rusted and it opened and suddenly the candle spilled out onto the hay…I feel like that’s a movie…)

(PS – if you are watching a movie, and they have a lantern with glass panels, that was not normal because of the fire hazard. So, set decorators, this one’s for you…)

Barn lanterns, or punched lanterns, were typically made from tin with holes punched in using either a random design or, more likely, a pre-planned design that became the tinsmith’s “pattern”. The holes were punched using an awl or a nail and the sharp side of the tin (the side pushed out by the punch) faced outward to both keep bugs and flies out and to keep spilled flame from falling out of the lantern as well.

The lanterns gave off just the right amount of light so you could see in the early morning or later evening when heading to your barn to milk a cow. They also usually contain a lot of heat, which causes the candles inside to melt much faster than in other lanterns of the time which otherwise had glass or bone or mica or horn window panels.

So here are the first steps in creating a punched barn lantern – I’m making one in tin and one in copper and trying to forget Bob, the master smith, told me someone wants me to make another four (eek!). I should also point out that the pattern I’m using is from Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts, who gave reprinting permission to Bob.


First and foremost, you have to cut out the paper pattern, glue it to a tin backing, and cut it out of the tin. From there you can then use an awl to trace the pattern onto fresh pieces of tin and cut out the pieces you’ll be putting together. For this, you’ll be using tinner’s snips.

Printing out the punch pattern again, we nail the tin and the pattern together onto a board and hammer out the holes and slats. You need to go a bit deep to make sure you punch all the way through to allow light to come out. Also, make sure the wood under is really soft, or you’re going to make the job super hard on yourself.

Line up that punch, hit the hammer, and keep going. This will take a bit. And the tin can warp as you do it, so beware. You’ll find a corner of the tin might raise up as you hammer on the other side. Copper moves a lot especially, and the pieces get more and more stiff as you work harden them. It’s ok, though. Just keep going.

Once I have all the pieces made, I’ll show you how to form the body of the lantern, which is going to be a challenge given I don’t own a hollow mandrel (yet). So, as is always the case in coppersmithing…one must come up with a great way to invent something that works in order to complete a pattern.


Off to the shop!

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