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Do it Yourself Stage Lighting

Jackie R. Higgins/Demand Media

Stage lighting can be very expensive. Fortunately, there are inexpensive options at your local hardware or department store that can be easily retrofitted for stage use.

Bulb Types

Jackie R. Higgins/Demand Media

Although there are many types of bulbs, the two most often used for do-it-yourself stage lighting rigs are incandescent par 38s and standard halogen bulbs. Compared with other consumer bulbs, these offer the necessary brightness and flexibility required for small stage work. They are also easy to find in most hardware or department stores, are durable and simple to replace, and use readily available fixtures.

Par 38s are very common for stage use and are available in a variety of wattage ratings. For stage applications, use bulbs rated at 150 watts or higher due to the increase in brightness. The par (parabolic aluminized deflector) design allows the bulb to project light in a focused beam angle, eliminating the need for specialized fixtures designed to direct light. Pars are best used for area spot or flood work and are especially effective in creating lighting scenes by using multiple units. The 38 is a size designation and at 4.75 inches in diameter is the largest par available to the consumer .

Halogen lamps have higher light output and are more expensive, but they typically last longer than incandescents. Wattage choices are limited, usually 500 to 1000, and they do not offer specific beam angles. Since they burn hotter than pars and are more delicate, extra care must be taken in the placement of the fixture, the handling of the bulb, and in the use of any retrofitted accessory. Halogen lamps are best used for floodlighting large areas due to their higher output and fixed wide beam angle.

Both bulb types have their pros and cons, but the type you choose is largely dependent on your application and desired effect.

In general, you will need several 150 watt par 38s to equal the light output of one 500 watt halogen. While the halogen will deliver more light to a larger area, several carefully placed par 38s will give more flexibility in where the light is directed. When using one or two halogens as an overall wash, stage obstacles may block the light and put some areas in shadow.


Jackie R. Higgins/Demand Media

One of the most useful fixtures for par 38 bulbs is the standard aluminum work light. These units are lightweight and inexpensive, come with an integrated, adjustable spring clip for mounting, and are available in several sizes. There are other fixtures available, but the work light variety is the cheapest and most flexible. Simply clamp your fixtures to an available pole or overhead pipe, adjust position, and plug it in.

Halogen construction lights are usually sold as a package, which includes the bulb and fixture mounted to an adjustable telescoping pole. This setup is portable and easy to use, especially when your clamp-mounting options are limited.

Lighting Necessities and Hardware Options

Jackie R. Higgins/Demand Media

Extension cords will be needed for each fixture, and a roll of heat-resistant duct tape and a spare bulb or two will come in handy.

For mounting fixtures with spring clamps, use lengths of aluminum poles or pipe, approximately 1.5 inches in diameter and 3 to 4 feet in length. Drill holes in the ends of the pole and insert threaded eye bolts, secured with washers and a nut. A length of utility chain run through the eye bolts and closed with an open S hook will allow you to hang poles from existing pipes and ceiling beams. The S hook facilitates adjustments to the chain to achieve the desired suspension height of your mounting pole. Use self-threading eye screws or bicycle hangers to hang your poles from wooden beams when it is not possible to put a chain over the top of them.

When choosing non-pole-mounted halogen construction lights, you may purchase spring clamps at any hardware store. After partial disassembly of the fixture and removal of the bulb, you can easily drill a hole in the clamp and fixture housing, securing with a sheet-metal screw or nut and bolt.

Sound system speaker stands also make perfect mounts for your lights.

Adding Color

Jackie R. Higgins/Demand Media

The final touch to your lighting setup is flexible colored filter material, called lighting gel. Available at most music stores, gels are inexpensive and come in a variety of colors. Cut the gel to the desired size, and use heat-resistant duct tape to mount it to the fixture. Depending on the fixture design and bulb clearance, you may have to be creative with the mounting to avoid contact with the gel and hot bulb.

Colored par 38 bulbs can be purchased, but they are limited in color and will often lose their coating before the bulb has burned out.

Since halogen lamps burn much hotter than pars, use extra care when mounting gels. Melted material can cause a halogen bulb to burn out or may cause the gel to catch fire. You can keep the gel away from the lamp by fashioning a sheet-metal collar, available at hardware stores, to fit over the lighting fixture. Collars also offer the advantage of helping to focus or shape the beam angle of a halogen bulb.

Lighting Control

Jackie R. Higgins/Demand Media

It is useful and convenient to have a central switching location for your lights. Standard extension cords and a multi-outlet strip with a switch will do nicely. If you require individual control of lights, there are commercial switching systems available, but those can be quite expensive.

When your lighting needs move beyond the most basic, the recent availability of modestly priced imported lighting gear is worth investigating. For others, the pride and satisfaction of piecing together a rig is all part of the fun.

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