All posts in Misc

Garbage In, Garbage Out

For over a decade I’ve had kicking around in my garage’s attic the cases from a couple of old original-style Macintoshes, waiting for just the right project. Fishtank? Nah, been done. Embedded Raspberry Pi and display? Maybe, but not now.

One day, after staring at them stacked in my office, I realized that they had a similar form factor to the classic bullet-top garbage cans with the swinging lid. I could give one of these a new (slightly unceremonious) life as a garbage can!


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Kickstarter: Portland Bridge Clocks

They don’t light up like a lot of my other projects, but the collection of Portland, Oregon bridge clocks I just launched has been a great way to test the Kickstarter waters. They’re laser-cut from bamboo, and you can get one of every bridge in the Rose City. Check them out for yourself here:

The Portland Bridge Clock Series


Konami Code Necklace

Up up down down left right left right B A Start… Who of a certain age can forget that code? I make no guarantees that this laser-cut mirror necklace will get you extra lives, but it will get you some extra attention.

Since there isn’t a whole lot to share in the how-to of the final product, instead I thought I’d share the meandering process of getting there from the initial idea. So often, project write-ups only focus on what worked and ignore the many failures and missteps along the way, and there were many failures and missteps in this project, spanning over a year.

If you’d like a necklace, you can buy it in my Etsy shop and help support my further creative endeavors.

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Easy Star Wars Paper Snowflakes

DIY papercut Star Wars snowflakes are all the rage these days (here, here, here), but what if you’re not that crafty? Or your mom won’t let you use the sharp knife? Successfully finishing one of those designs takes some fine motor skills and attention to detail that not everyone possesses. Now you won’t be left out, with these three easy papercut Star Wars snowflakes that anyone can do.

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Abacus Wristwatch

After building the abacus bracelet last year, I wanted to explore the idea of archaic wearable computing a little more. An abacus wristwatch seemed like a good way to do so, and the project would challenge me to learn 3D modeling. Pebble or the rumored iWatch would have nothing on the computing power I had in mind!

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PONG Halloween Costume

Sticking with the video game theme for Halloween after last year’s Pumpktris, this year I decided to go as the classic game PONG. It’s a simple costume, and it can be put together with only about $15 of materials and an hour of time.

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Nixie Clock

I’ve long been attracted to nixie tubes with their warm, glowing numbers, and wanted to build a clock with them. Not experienced in the high voltage circuitry required, I ordered a kit from TubeHobby. There’s still some DIY in it, but not as much chance of burning down the house as if I tacked it by myself. It took a few years of off and on work (mostly off) to finish the clock, and I didn’t start the project thinking I’d write it up, so please forgive the lack of in-progress photos. I did take a few pictures before I put it together, though, so you could get an idea how it came together.

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Snap Circuits Multimeter

After my son saw me troubleshooting a circuit with my multimeter, he wanted to use it himself. Now while I strongly believe that kids should have access to real tools, that doesn’t mean they have to be my tools (you should see what he did to my dial indicator).

Having real tools doesn’t mean that thought can’t be given to how a five-year-old might use them differently than an adult. In a multimeter, the features I thought would be most useful included

  • Auto-ranging. The kiddo isn’t reading resistor values yet, so plug and play is the way to go.
  • Auto-shutoff. I guarantee it will be left on after use.
  • Durability. It has to withstand the bumps and drops that it’s more likely to get from small hands than large ones.
  • Affordability. In case it’s not durable enough.

The Equus 3320 multimeter fits the bill on all counts, ringing up at right around $20. Considering that it’s not a toy and can continue to be used for decades, it seemed worth it.

Most of my son’s electronic projects are with his Snap Circuits kit, and he doesn’t have the dexterity to hold the two regular probes on the circuits while at the same time manipulating switches and shining flashlights into photoresistors. Heck, I couldn’t do it either. The multimeter would need snaps for probes. Not surprisingly, these are not standard equipment for electronic testing. So, with a set of sheathed banana plugs and a pair of replacement jumper wires from Snap Circuits, I made my own.

This hardly needs instructions, but I’ll write up the steps anyway.

First, disassemble the banana plugs.

Cut off one end of each Snap Circuits jumper wire and strip half an inch of wire from the long wire remaining. Instead of cutting the wire as close as possible to the snap,  you might want to cut it with about an inch of wire remaining on the short end. This way those snaps can be spliced to something else (alligator clips?) and re-used.

Insert the stripped end of the wire into the housing for the banana plug, into the plug itself, and then tighten with the included Allen wrench to clamp it in place. Assemble and snap the back into place.

That’s it. Put the original probes aside to use later, and start testing! Some fun things to do include seeing how precise the marked values on the resistors are, testing continuity, measuring the resistance of different chains of components, and measuring the current draw of various circuits. Seeing the numbers on the meter change as he turns a potentiometer or adds a light bulb to a circuit really makes concepts come to life.

Another great thing about the snap probes is that they’re a lot harder to misuse when a budding engineer decides he wants measure the voltage of a wall outlet or the resistance of an iPhone charging port. They just won’t fit!


Drive It Like You Stole It

Officer, it’s not what it looks like! I did not steal this car; that’s my key! Why are you getting out your taser?!

For no practical purpose at all, I wanted to see if I could make a screwdriver into a car key. What fun it would be to impersonate the look of a stolen car with a screwdriver jammed into the ignition! And maybe I could empty my glove box all over the seat so it looks like I was scrounging for spare change and prescription drugs too!

Read on to make your own.

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USB Mix Tape

I was reminiscing with friends about the days of mix tapes when it struck me that the ubiquitous USB flash drive would fit almost perfectly into a cassette tape, making a perfect marriage of old and new media. You could have all of the artwork and label design potential of the tape (to say nothing of the nostalgia), but with the space for more than just a dozen songs.

A quick survey online found some instructions on making your own or even buying pre-made ones. Ignoring all, I plunged ahead. After all, this is about learning, building, and probably screwing up, not just having a finished product.

I found a cheap, unopened cassette tape at a local surplus store, but it turned out to not have the screw-joined halves I thought it would. I was going to have to raid my old stash of tapes from the corner of the basement. I haven’t listened to a tape in at least a decade, don’t even have a tape player, and certainly don’t still have the old Yamaha multitrack recorder these were recorded with, but I still had a tough time sacrificing it. Why, there could be a heartfelt masterpiece on that tape that 22-year-old me recorded. Someday the archivists (or prison psychologists) will want to study it!

Oh well.  Onward!  I at least chose one without a label, on the theory that if I hadn’t thought it worthy of labeling back then, it couldn’t be that important. Now we’ll never know.

With tape in hand, I needed a flash drive. I had a few laying around, so after disassembling the tape to see just how much room there was inside, I spent an hour or so trying out different drives for fit. I wanted the tape to retain its original profile, but I wasn’t sure whether the USB drive should slide out, swivel on this axis or another, or just present a port that would require a separate cable. The drive that seemed most promising was a 2GB SanDisk Cruzer and its sliding action; it would require the least modification to the tape and would be the strongest.

The donor drive, in and out of its original housing.

On a side note, I’m amazed by the fact that I live in a world where it’s hard to find a cassette tape, but I’ve got multiple gigabyte+ storage options buried in my junk drawer.  I remember when these cassette tapes used to be the storage for my computer. Three cheers for progress!

With a 3/16″ end mill I milled the port for the USB connector to slide in and out of. Then, after measuring and re-measuring more times than I can count and mapping out the exact numbers of turns and even which direction to turn the handles on the mini-mill (I’ve only had it for a month, and this was my first project after getting it set up), I plunged the mill into the tape and started cutting the opening for the sliding mechanism. I put the opening on side B of the tape, so that side A would look stock while it was in the case. All the planning worked out well, because when I popped the tape out of the vise, the drive fit perfectly.

Unfortunately, the two halves of the cassette didn’t quite fit together. If the SanDisk folks had made their drive just the smallest fraction of an inch thinner, it would have slid right in for a perfect fit. I was going to have to thin the cassette shell.

The finish is a little rough, but it works. You can see the opening for the slider, the thinning of the case, and the notch that keeps the drive locked into place when it’s all the way out. With side B milled out, I tried to put the two halves of the cassette shell together again. No luck, and side B couldn’t stand to lose any more plastic, so I did the same thinning on side A.

A test fit found everything sliding easily when it was supposed to and locking down when required, so I moved on to the reels next.

As you can see in the photo, the take-up reel got in the way of the memory. I attacked it with the belt sander and ground it down just barely to the inside sprockets, then glued it into place (below). It would have been nice to retain the tape functionality, but it wasn’t to be.

The spool of tape on the other reel was a little bit too large and kept the memory assembly from being able to slide all the way back. I didn’t want to unspool too much and lose the full-tape look, so I experimented with the spare tape I got from the surplus store and put some superglue across half of the reel. The thin glue quickly soaked in and glued the layers of tape solid enough that I was able to cut it right through with an X-Acto knife without it unspooling. The cut was a little rough, but that could be cleaned up. More detrimental was that it would be obvious from looking at the little crusts of dried glue through the tape’s window that it wasn’t quite right. Maybe something useful can be done with this tape-solidifying knowledge later.

So after that I decided it might not be so bad after all to lose the 1/4 inch of tape needed for clearance. Finally, a part of the project my four-year-old could help with: “Take this end and pull until I say stop!”

When our fun was over with, I threaded the tape back around the rollers and through the guides.

I know there are some problems with the tape path in this picture. I realized and corrected after the photo.

At last, I put the two halves in place and screwed them together. I didn’t have any labels for the tape, so I trimmed down an address label and used that, then plugged it in to the computer and reformatted to use the name “Mix Tape” (what else could it be?).

The drive works well on my laptop and in the USB port on my desktop machine’s keyboard, but because of the weight and leverage, I don’t know how it would hold up being unsupported in a port higher up on a desktop machine.

If I’d labeled it when I was 16 it probably would have had more stars, spirals, and other doodles on it than today’s version.

Side A looks just like a standard tape, so much so that if it’s still in the case you’ll only notice the USB on the side if you look closely. I’ve handed it to a couple of friends, saying “I’ve got some music I want to share,” only to have them laugh and complain they had nothing to play it on. They have to be told to take it out and flip it over.

And now I have to go make some for them. That’s the trouble with making cool stuff.