A Mess, and Hopefully A Computerized Lathe

October 5, 2011 Leave a comment

These days the making takes place at night, as I sell my time during the day to the biotech industry in support of its lofty goals of biological making. Yes, a JOB. It’s new to me, and I believe I am slowly getting used to it. In any case, I had some time around the edges to put into an auto-lathe, now about 80% complete.

I’ll start from the beginning. A lathe is a machinist’s tool that spins a piece of metal, and brings a very solidly mounted cutting bit into contact with it. This enables very precise shaping, and the ability to bend metal to your will. How can this possibly be cooler? Here’s how: the machine does this on its own, according to digitally designed shape designs. Cooler!

This involves using the lathe itself to machine some motor mounts, then mounting the motors, building some driving circuitry to turn them, and connecting the whole shebang to the computer. I’m juuust about done with the mounting the motors and machining hardware bits.

The dream: have the machine make a tiny chess set, which I will sell on Etsy. Some day. Some glorious day.

My favorite part so far was making a little tiny adapter–outer diameter is 1/4″, inner diameter is 3/16″, the walls are 1/32″ thick.

Categories: I Made a Thing!

A Workbench, a Shelf, and a Workshop

September 3, 2011 Leave a comment

I needed a place to make stuff in my new apartment in Somerville. What better excuse to make something?? A massive amount of poplar, 2×4’s and some hardboard later…

Categories: I Made a Thing!


July 30, 2011 3 comments

Late in my Brown undergrad stint, a professor in the art department, Paul Myoda, made the mistake of placing me  in charge of staring at the brand-new, super expensive laser cutter for three hours a week and making sure it didn’t fall apart or get stolen or something.  As a result, I had access to it 24 hours a day.  I don’t know who could possibly resist the temptation to do stuff with it–Ponoko is a fantastic way to get things cut, but a pile of acrylic, wood and vinyl and your very own 80-watt CO2 laser cutter is just sublime.  I was exceptionally fortunate to have this kind of toy to play with.

The main design in this project, the treeline itself, is created from a composite of a bunch of tree photos taken from my own collection and from around the internet.  These are a couple prominent ones, located on the headstock and the top tube, respectively:


I first stitched the images together in photoshop, then traced the trees in illustrator to create an outline of the shapes that a lasercutter could follow (click for detailed image).
With all the tiny turns and lines, it took a good twenty or thirty minutes to cut out.  And that doesn’t include the time it took to painstakingly peel it off the backing and stick it to the frame without destroying it or snarling it into a ball of adhesive disappointment.


Recognize the tree on the headstock?  The other one appears about halfway down the big treeline on the top tube, cut in miniature by the deft moves of the machine.
A funny thing happened.  I originally had planned on just making that first treeline, but I found very quickly that I simply could not resist designing and cutting.  The machine could create with blinding speed any concept I designed, and it was a slide down a slippery slope from there.  Long story short, here’s what I ended up with (click ’em for some seriously high resolution versions):

I’m kind of disappointed that it’s done now; it was a whole lot of fun to put together.  Oh well!  Finishing is a necessary evil, I suppose.

On to the next project!

Categories: I Made a Thing!

Metal Clarinet

July 30, 2011 1 comment

What I really wanted to do was machine metal.  I’d been anxious to try it out on a real honest-to-goodness mill for years, and after reading all kinds of guides and manuals I was ready to hit the ground running.  During my last semester at Brown the art department acquired a mill and a lathe, and as soon as they were unveiled for student use I pretty much moved into the workshop.

This project was my attempt to create a sectional clarinet out of aluminum tubing and brass.  The sound is produced with a wood reed just like a traditional clarinet, but there are no keys or valves–in that respect it is similar to an old instrument called a chalumeau, sort of like a recorder with a clarinet’s mouthpiece and reed.  The pieces connect together with a 1.5˚ taper–what this means is the sections fit together with gentle pressure, and then stay connected until they’re twisted apart.

You’d think that a metal instrument might sound a bit tinny or, well, metallic.  But much to my surprise, it sounds pleasantly warm and woody!  It’s a bit hard to play, but then it’s the first woodwind I’ve ever played, so probably that’s my own inexperience.

Categories: I Made a Thing!

Mariano (Marimba-Piano)

July 30, 2011 Leave a comment

Music!  Music is wonderful!  Pretty sounds are pretty!  There are some sounds I could spend hours listening to.  And if there’s a way I can make them?  Unending fun.  Plus, briefly at the end of my undegrad stint, I had access to some very cool fabrication toys.  Time to make instruments.

This project was, like so many of mine, overwrought and ambitious.  However, unlike several, it actually turned out pretty ok!  It was a series of tubes–galvanized electrical conduit from home depot–tuned to the western scale we’re so familiar with (12 even-tempered tones per octave and all that) mounted horizontally over a series of key-levers that would strike them.  The keyboard was laid out like a piano, so a few people who tried it out knew right off what to do.

But how does it sound??  This thing was made for the 7th chord.

Categories: I Made a Thing!

The CNC Odyssey

July 30, 2011 Leave a comment

This one took a while.  Whereas most of these projects go through conception, design, build and whatever comes after build within a few days, weeks or even months, this one took around two years start to finish.  The reason for that is an initial total lack of background on my part–I didn’t know electronics, embedded programming, hardware design, or computer-aided manufacturing.  But first thing’s first–what is it?  (sigh, I miss the days when it was pretty clear what the hell I had made–a bike!  A glass thing!  Art!)

Basically, it’s a machine that moves around under computer control.  A robot of sorts.  One designed to move part of itself around in three dimensions quite precisely.  If that part of itself has a cutting tool on it, it’ll end up cutting intricate shapes into material placed on the bed.  If that part is a pen, it’ll end up drawing for you.  If that part is an incredibly powerful laser, then it’s a laser cutter, and I want one.

I was seized by the coolness of these things one summer while I was wandering around the interwebs.  Behold:

So, they can do things that seem magical.  How do I get one?  One way: shell out thousands and thousands of dollars for a basic desktop model.  Another way: build my own for as little as possible.  Ok, how do we do that?  This is where I ran into the roadblock of my own lack of knowledge.  Fortunately, the internet has all the answers.  Even a community of knowledgeable and supportive folks over at cnczone.com.  Top-notch help!

This was the first big milestone.  I came up with a circuit for driving the motors that could be built for around three bucks per motor.  It’s not going to move mountains, but for a desktop application, it does surprisingly well.  Here it is moving without computer control, just to test the control of one of these rather unusual motors.

Alright, now the machine itself.  Here’s the bare bones of what I came up with:

I hit upon the idea of using these aluminum bars (8020 extrusion, 1.5″ profile) as both structure and the guides for the motion to run along.  Kill two birds, you know?  Problem was it wasn’t terribly precise, so there were tiny discrepancies in the machine’s accuracy down the line.  The hardware had all kinds of other little problems too–I learned quite a bit about machine design just from counting all the reasons this didn’t do quite what I wanted it to.  This is how we learn!

And now, like Julia Child whipping the completed casserole out of the oven moments after putting in the raw ingredients, here is the finished plotter, plotting.  Bonus points for identifying the picture.  This was a very cathartic moment for me, and the start of a few CNC projects that will hopefully make their way onto this blog someday.  Yes, that’s a tissue box.  Yes, the sharpie is taped to the machine.  I was excited to get it going, ok?

Categories: I Made a Thing!

Scratch Lathe

July 30, 2011 Leave a comment

In the words of Adam Savage, “Failure is always an option.”  I don’t typically photograph my failures, but in this case my failure was such a resounding success that it had to be recorded.

I tried to make a lathe.  I tried to make one from nothing but heat and scrap metal.  That’s right, I melted down aluminum and cast it in sand in my garage.  It was ambitious, it was complicated, it was doomed to complete failure, and it was glorious.  It came as a big surprise to me that aluminum can be melted with little more than a shopvac, some charcoal and a coffee can.

One of the parts.  It is made of insulation foam and hot glue, the idea being that I would bury it in sand and the molten aluminum would vaporize and replace the form of the foam with its incredible heat.  The screws are my laziness showing–if I cast the part with screws in it, I reasoned that I wouldn’t have to drill and tap holes.  I was a little wrong there.

One of the end results.  A foam copy and the metal version.  As you can see, the shape of the foam didn’t quite allow the liquid metal to trickle all the way in, leaving a nub where the little projection should be.  One of many problems beleaguering this project.  I ended up scrapping the whole thing, and chalking it up to experience.  It was fantastic fun, and something I may return to someday, if I think of a really cool project idea. Until then, I’ll buy my stock in bars and sheets and cut it and attach it together mechanically like any reasonable-minded fellow.

Categories: I Made a Thing!
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