From DIY home decor to handmade gifts, here are the best arts and crafts to spark your creativity

50th Birthday "Inception" Display

This is the year when all of my long-time friends are turning an age that ends in a "0" and as such rates a special treatment. This particular idea came to me in stages; it started with "He likes beer, he's turning 550, there's a beer called 50, a perfect idea." Then it escalated to "Even better, how about a gift of 50 beers, to make it a double-shot". And finally ended up at "That's boring, why don't I make a display that arranges the 50 beers into a display that shows the number 50 as well!"

Of course this technique extends pretty easily to any material that can be pixelated (i.e. used as a building block to make a larger picture). LEGOs (TM) operate on this principle, pop cans would work, milk cartons, bottle caps, Rubik's Cubes, ... the sky's the limit.

Tools and Materials

As my work area is currently under construction (a fascinating chicken-and-egg project itself; building a work area itself needs a work area) I kept the materials and tools I used simple.

Some experimentation led me to the use of zip ties and a slightly-thicker-than-paneling backing piece for the mounting along with a couple of framing pieces serving the dual purpose of stabilizing the piece and providing a surface for my clever catch phrase.

The framing was just scrap 1" x 2" wood painted in a contrasting color. The picture in the front needed to be a bit stable so I opted for the foam board you can get from any art/craft supply store.

Overall Layout

Planning is my mantra so I made sure that everything I was going to do was going to work out properly. I was under a bit of a tight schedule for this project so I planned right in place rather than working it out on paper or on the computer first.

This first part was pretty easy. The main reason I did it was to get dimensions for the backing piece, the only thing I didn't have lying around in my spare parts. I decided that some contrast was needed so that the "50" would stand out. After drawing a simple pair of 5x5 grids (don't you love it when the numbers work out for you?) I determined that I would need 17 of one color and 33 of another. The "50" label was a necessity, and the other was chosen according to my friend's tastes.

With this tight arrangement set up I was able to measure the minimum dimensions needed for the backing piece, allowing for a slight bit of horizontal spacing between them in order to accommodate the zip ties that would be fastening the cans to the back.

Finding the Spacing

The most stable way to hold the cans in place while still allowing easy access was to have two holes behind each for a zip tie to wrap around. I experimented with various spacings from 1/2" to 2 1/2" before determining that 1" was the optimal size to give a tight fit while allowing contact between the can and the backing. I also confirmed that when lifted to vertical the can wouldn't just fall right out. There was some unavoidable play but since the can tops and bottoms interlock a simple base for the bottom can would be enough to hold the whole stack stable.

To figure out the zip tie length I used a fabric tape measure to get the size of the can and the added a few inches for slack. The 11" ties were just barely long enough. I could have opted for the 14" ties just to be sure but there weren't enough in the rack at the time.

Choosing the Backing

With my rough measurements in hand I wandered around the nearest lumber store looking for an inexpensive prefinished board at least that large. The 50 cans would weigh in at a little over 40 pounds so it needed to be fairly stiff. Plywood would have done the trick but also added a lot to the weight.

This little piece was hiding in the cabinetry section. It was too long for what I needed, 48" when I only needed 32". The width was perfect and the inlay was an unexpected bonus, especially since the size almost perfectly matched where my two numbers would go. A little trimming on the table saw and I had my backing.

Fashioning the Backing

Reversing these first two steps would have produced a better result, I just needed the paint dry first since the timing worked out better. I used some leftover spray paint to color the backing roughly the color of the featured cans and did the frame in white to make the lettering more clear. Then once the paint was dry I laid out all of the 100 holes (2 each for the 50 cans) I needed to hold the cans in place.

For the holes I was very carefuly about vertical and horizontal alignment since I didn't want the cans crooked, and less so about that actual distance since really the zip ties could go anywhere on the can and do the job just as well.

After the holes were drilled it seemed like a nice touch to color the backing with the number 50 as well so that as cans were removed the number was still visible. Again I opted for the direct approach, putting the cans in place and using painter's tape to mask off the unpainted areas.

As you can see even though the paint job itself was sloppy (again that time constraint thing) the edges turned out nice and even after the tape was removed. The few drips you see were mostly due to the paint running down into the inlay.

Creating the Frame

My friend and I are both avid Monty Python fans, calling each other "Bruce" and "Centurion" (non-fans won't get it) and I couldn't resist the play-on-words the age 50 provided with "Half-Centurion" (like half-century, get it?) so that was my theme for the frame.

The picture was printed on a standard computer printer then cut out to minimize the edges.

Originally my plan was to paint the letters on to the frame until I found these wonderful paper letters, kind of like post-it notes, at the craft store. They were thin enough that I could attach them to the frame boards with craft glue. The layout was first made in place so that I could confirm the spacing.

Now that I knew everything was going to work the way I expected I glued the letters to the frame and the picture to the foam board using craft glue. A coating was applied over the top as well to minimize lifting.

It was somewhere around this point that I realized that a can was much taller than my frame board and the picture could not be affixed to the frame with the cans in place. I decided to leave the gap in the middle for the time being and figure it out later.

Attaching the Frame

The bottom piece of the frame was the important one as it was where the cans would rest. I put it in place and confirmed that everything lined up as I had planned and confirmed the location of the frame (whew, it all worked; this was one time I didn't have the luxury of a do-over).

When attaching the frame to the back I used a countersink on the screws so that they wouldn't be sticking up from the board. Of course the zip ties would be but I like the permanent parts at least to be neat.

Creating the Infrastructure

This step was really simple as all of the preparation had put everything into place. I took a page from Henry Ford's book and ran the process like an assembly line. First I pushed all of the zip ties through one of the holes in each pair.

Second I pushed the other end through the other hole so that there were loops in the front.

Finally I lightly attached each tie so that they wouldn't slip back through as I moved things around. Emphasis was on lightly here since there wasn't a huge amount of slack for the cans to fit in. All of the loops were then ready for final assembly.

Final Assembly

With the loops in place I started adding the cans. With the usual testing mentality I tried a few to make sure everything was working before I geared up to do all of them. As it turned out the cans all sat in the loops with the loose assembly so I was able to put them all into place first before turning the board around for the final tightening.

The ties had to hold the cans firmly so this was a two-handed job. After several rounds of tiring my fingers out I settle on the technique of holding down the tie with one hand and pulling the end with the other.

As you can see this firmly tightened the ties flush to the board with minimal strain to my fingers.

Lastly I used the side-cutters to clip off all of the loose ends. When the time came to remove one of the cans a knife, pair of scissors, or side cutters could be used to release the tie in the back and free the refreshing beverage!

Final Decor

Now it was time to atone for my earlier mistake. With the gap a few inches below where the picture needed to go it was a simple matter to measure the distance to see how much had to be made up.

The easiest solution to moving the picture up higher was a simple post made from a scrap 3" piece. It was attached to the back with a couple of screws.

Lastly the foamboard was trimmed to the shape of the picture and attached to the post. I left a little space beside it so that I could sign my birthday wishes right on the piece as well.

And there you have it. Not including the paint drying time and a run to the stores it was probably no more than 4 hours of effort. It's winter up here in Canada right now so this particular piece can sit outside and stay frosty until needed. The cans can even be replaced once empty (if you don't cut the zip ties) to keep a permanent monument to this historic milestone.


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