The moveable light fixture
  1. Problem Statement
  2. Analysis
  3. Solution
  4. Assembly
  5. Wrap-up
  6. Finished Product!

Problem Statement:

My apartment's living room has no light, so it can get quite dark and a tad bit depressing. As is common in most apartments, there's no overhead light fixture, but there's a switched outlet. The outside wall, facing the front, has a window which faces an enclosed breezeway, so it gets no direct sunlight. All the light comes from the kitchen and dining room. This will not do.

I've hung some strands of white xmas lights around the perimeter, powered by the dimmer-switched outlet, in the dim hope of alleviating the lighting issue. It produces a warm, diffuse glow which suits me fine. I also have a few desk lamps scattered about for bits of spot light and for area washes. For the first few weeks of my tenancy, this was fine. However, the first time I had a need for actual direct light while entertaining guests or trying to sign paperwork, I was completely in the dark.


So I started brainstorming. Sitting in my closet was a ten-year-old compact fluorescent globe bulb and a bulb socket with a long power cable attached, which I assembled and loaned to my roomate for use back in 1997. But where would I hang it? Would I hang it over my desk? It'd help when reading and doing projects. But what if I get a couch and put it in the nearby corner? What if I wanted to read there? Well, I could hang it over there, I suppose. Or maybe hang two bulbs. My mind wandered.

I considered maybe a series of hooks on the ceiling where I could place the bulb and socket on an as-needs basis. Well, this is just too plain an idea. What about a swing-arm? Or maybe a cable or rope I could move the fixture along?

A plan started forming. My end goal was to have a fixture that I could move around. On top of that goal, I set up a budget of very cheap and a schedule of one saturday afternoon. To the drawing board!


What I envisioned was using a loop of rope, strung between pulleys anchored on opposing walls, to carry the fixture from one end to the other. The whole assembly would move like a clothesline – the kind you'd see strung between two Harlem tenements in 1928. Wherever I needed light, I'd move it there. The extent of positioning is only limited by the length of the power cable.

So my parts list is as follows:

  • 2 × pulleys: any pulleys would do, but the preferable ones are large (these are 4") and the groove is deep enough to accomodate any thick rope I may use. They must have a bracket, loop, or other method to solidly attach them to the anchors.
  • 2 × anchor hooks: these are thick, about 4" long, and have big enough teeth to grab any wall studs you twist them into. Make sure the hook is large enough to hold onto the pulley bracket.
  • 1 × bolt of clothesline twine: the white, cotton/nylon blend works well. Make sure it's designed for minimum stretch and sag. Remember, you'll need more than twice the length of the run from one wall to another. I considered using chain, which would look cool, but at the distance I was planning, I would've blown any small budget on getting chain thick enough to support itself, the fixture, and not be so heavy that it would destroy the anchor bolts.
  • 1 × tension "come-along" style bolt: twisting the center body of this bolt will allow you to increase the tension in the rope once you've tied it to the fixture. My tension bolt has a ring on both ends.
  • 1 × S-hook: this will go between your tension bolt and its pulley. This part is optional if you get a tension bolt with a hook large enough for the pulley bracket.
  • 1 × D-ring: this can be a carabiner or some other kind of sturdy ring. The light fixture will be attached to this and hanging underneath, and the line will be tied to this on each end, so the ring has to be strong. Don't skimp on this. Had I to do it over, I'd have gotten a round ring (instead of an oval) leaving plenty of space to knot the line and enough space underneath for the fixture to hang, keeping the ring naturally vertical.
  • The fixture: You can build your own or purchase one, as long as you can find a way to attach this to your D-ring (mine attaches with lots of custom-crafted coat-hanger wire!). Whatever you decide to use, make sure it's light enough for the system. Chandeliers and lights with heavy shades are completely out of the question.
  • Power cable: Your fixture needs electricity. You can fashion an acceptable power cable from a very long extension cord, or you can build your own cord from raw materials. A primer on electrical wiring is outside the scope of this article, so consult with someone with electrical knowledge if this step is beyond your ability. My socket had a long cord already, which I didn't want to extend or replace, so I anchored it on a third wall near the middle of the excursion.
Click thumbnails to view larger pictures
photo of pulley assembly #1 photo of fixture assembly photo of pulley assembly #2


Assembly is fairly straightforward, but it does require some care and attention. You'll effectively be building a suspension bridge for a light fixture. The fixture, suspension rope, and power cable could easily weigh over three pounds, meaning the tension to keep all that up (considering the static weight of the entire system and the oscillating dynamic load of a swinging lamp) could easily add up to impulse loads of over 30 pounds (I think) which could destroy the weakest link. The whole assembly will come crashing down, potentially injuring whoever is underneath, damaging furniture, destroying the lamp, leaking mercury (a functional component of fluorescent bulbs) or broken glass into the carpet, etcetera. This is my warning.

That aside, let's begin!

  1. Test fit: Make sure all of the parts you've gathered will fit together before you commit to drilling holes, cutting rope, or shattering fixtures on the floor. This includes hooks fitting into loops, loops being big enough for the hooks, hooks being big enough to hold the pulley brackets, the pulley being deep enough to handle the rope without slipping off or getting hung, the rope being strong enough to resist stretching, and so on. The order of parts is as follows: anchor bolt, tensioner bolt, S-hook, pulley, rope assembly (including D-ring and fixture), pulley, anchor bolt.
  2. Fabricate fixture hanger: Now would be a perfect time to fabricate whatever method you use to attach the lamp fixture to the D-ring. My fixture, a lamp socket, features a screw hole through which I fed a bent section of coat hanger. I bent the hanger at the tip to prevent it from slipping out of the hole, and took liberty at the other end with a deep hook system with which to attach and unattach the fixture.
  3. Install anchor bolts: The crucial first step. Make sure you find the center of the wall stud (tap on the wall to zero-in on the stud, or use a studfinder). Never attempt to anchor this to drywall or plaster; it will rip out the moment you tighten the rope (even with "sheetrock anchors"!). Drill a pilot hole; this'll help you guide the bolt as you screw it into the wall. Make sure you sink it as far as you can, leaving the hook pointing up. Put some weight on it to test for wiggle. Make deadly sure this won't come out. When you're satisfied, check it again.
  4. Attach tensioner: Hang the tensioner bolt on one of the anchor hooks. Keep in mind that this will increase the distance between the pulley and the wall. I chose to do this on the hook that straddles my curtains; now my pulley is further out and the fixture has no chance to contact the curtain material (a fire hazard). When hanging this bolt, make sure both of the ends are screwed out to their furthest excursion. Give yourself plenty of room; you want the bolt to be the longest it can be when you tie the rope hand-tight.
  5. Hang Pulley #1: This pulley will be attached to the tensioner bolt with the S-hook. The S-hook is optional if either the tensioner bolt or the pulley have a hook.
  6. Hang Pulley #2: This pulley is attached to the other anchor bolt, naturally.
  7. Thread the rope: Begin by rolling the rope through one of the pulleys from the bottom to the top. Pull the line from the top. Don't let go of this line, or it may slip and you'll have to start over. With the other hand, try to keep the rope untangled and untwisted. Any kinks, twists, and knots will stand in the way of progress and could weaken the rope. After climbing down from your chair, stool, or ladder (you held onto the rope, didn't you?), go to the other pulley and thread the rope from the top down to the bottom. What you should have is two ends of rope in your hands, and they're both coming from the bottom end of the pulleys. Do you have that? Congrats! Next step.
  8. Attach D-ring: Tie one end of the rope to the D-ring. What kind of knot you use is beyond the scope of this article. I'm not knowledgeable enough about knots to make any sort of recommendation. With that in mind, I used a variant of the square knot which, after researching for this article, may not have been the best choice. But luckily the knots still hold, nothing is slipping, and everything still seems hunkey-dorey. So that's that. Tie the knot.
  9. Tie other end to D-ring: This is another critical step. You'll have to use your stepladder to gain enough height for this. Pull all the slack out of the rope and lift the D-ring up to its final height. Keep pulling tight on the rope as you tie the second knot. It might take a few tries, but the goal is to get it all as hand-tight as possible, both rope and knot alike. Any remaining slack will be taken out later. Make sure the knots are holding without slipping, capsizing, or failing.
  10. Hang the fixture: Attach the fixture to the D-ring with your hanger assembly. Don't let it fall should the knots fail. If you're sure that everything is going to stay up, you can then step down.
  11. Increase tension: One final, critical step. Twist the tensioner bolt so that it gets shorter, thereby drawing more tension on the pulleys and rope. The rope can sag a little; don't expect it to be as straight as a laserbeam. Keep an eye on the anchor bolts and the D-ring knots for signs of ripping and slipping. If you run out of tensioner length and the rope's not as tight as needed, you'll have to lengthen the bolt and redo the one of the knots; pull the rope tighter next time.
  12. Inspection: Make sure everything is solid and secure. Give a few slight tugs on the line, make sure nothing wiggles loose, nothing starts coming apart. Once you're sure it's all good, try pulling the fixture from one end to the other; ensure it moves smoothly and that the motion and swinging doesn't start pulling anything loose.
  13. Run the power cable: You can now string the power cable to wherever you plan to run it. Make sure there's enough slack between the cable's anchor point and the fixture so that you can move the lamp the furthest distance in each direction. I have my cable anchored to the wall at the halfway point with a standard decorative hook. You should also attach the power cable to the D-ring to take the tension off of the connection at the fixture.
  14. First Light: Plug in your light, move it where you want, and turn it on. Do you get a suitable amount of light right where you want it? Yes? Then consider your project a success! If the rigging stays up for a week, you deserve to reward yourself. Pat yourself on the back! Your project is now complete.


So far, my light has served me well. Not a bad project. All for the low budget of $25. When I need a something more than my xmas lights, I turn it on and all is good. I can't wait to get more furniture in my living room so I can take full advantage of its adjustability.

I've come up with a few improvements on the original design; some of them have been implemented. I noticed that the bottom half of the rope carried most of the weight, so I decided to spread some of that weight to the upper rope: a C-hook made of coat hanger, the longest side being as long as the diameter of the pulley (in this case, 4") is attached on one end to the D-clamp and the other end is hung over the top rope. Equal distribution! I also needed a way to move the fixture to where I needed; one idea was to use a loop of rope around one of the pulleys to spin it, but instead I opted to make a hanging handle that's attached to the fixture assembly. I bent mine around into a teardrop shape and put a design on the end in square angles. I also needed to remove some more tension on the power cable, so I strung it over the top rope.

Further improvements could include using more pulleys or loops of stiff wire along the top rope to carry the power cable along its full length so the fixture, given enough power cable to stretch the distance, could be moved the entire excursion of the assembly from pulley to pulley. I thought about that in hindsight; it would've made a neater presentation, but would have completely blown my budget. There are also pulleys that could serve the function of the hanger wire on the top rope; they have a hook at the base and a pulley at the top. Or, failing everything, I could even further simplify the entire design and instead rig a single steel cable from wall to wall and hang the fixture on a moveable pulley that rides the cable. It all can get as industrial or as organic as you want to go.

So there it is. Thanks for following along. Pass along any tips or comments my way!

Finished product!

View the finished product in all its glory! Move your mouse around on the image to see it in action!