Another long weekend, another weekend challenge

Another long weekend, another weekend challenge

This long weekend, the project I’ve decided to try to accomplish is to cut and assemble an Iron Man helmet using the Pepakura technique.

Many of the more “professional” quality costumes you see at conventions are made using this technique. Basically, someone has modeled a costume using some modelling software (maybe something like Sketchup), and exported it to a program called Pepakura Designer. The Pepakura Designer software turns the 3-D model into a series of printouts broken up into pieces with cutting and folding instructions you use to cut and fold and glue the paper printouts into the 3-D object that was modeled. Read more

Balsa wood airplanes

Today, if you want to fly an airplane, its as easy as going to a store with a toy section, and buying one. There are so many shapes and styles available, made out of Styrofoam, or plastic, or wood, or fiberglass, many with all electric engine and controls.

Not too long ago if you wanted to fly an airplane, you built it yourself. Most frequently, you built it out of balsa wood, and flew it with a gas engine. You also wired up your own servos and made your own control surfaces. Suffice to say, a lot of knowledge was required, and a lot could go wrong along the way.

Naturally, building the airplane yourself took an enormous amount of time and effort for something that could easily be destroyed in a flaming inferno a few seconds into its first flight, or at any point during any flight, for that matter. The construction process itself was very similar to how airplanes were built during the world wars, just on a smaller scale. You have forms that give the plane its aerodynamic shape, and spars that run the length of the piece that old the forms in place, then skinned over to make the plane smooth.

Real-life Spitfire construction

Running a gasoline engine was equally difficult as they require a lot of maintenance to keep running properly and a lot of knowledge to even get them running at all.

But people did it. It was a labor of love. They still do, just not as frequently with all the cheap premade-all-in-a-box options out there.

I built a balsa wood airplane on the July long weekend. All in the span of the July long weekend. I did this as a personal challenge, inspired by my Grandfather.

We recently moved my Grandfather into a retirement home, and sold his house. A sad story in and of itself, but it was ultimately necessary and for the best. When cleaning out the house, some of my Grandfather’s possessions were divided up among the family, and one thing that many seemed to express interest in was an old balsa wood airplane my Grandfather made on a vacation at the old family cottage. It was covered in tissue and still looked good for something close to 50 years old. Unfortunately I didn’t get a photo of it, but it looked like an old Stearman biplane. I wanted it, all of the things I wanted from my Grandparent’s old place I wanted for sentimental reasons, and as a kid I could remember him showing it off to me and being so damn proud of the thing. But it ended up going to my cousin instead.

So, I decided the next best thing would be to make one myself.

I picked a simple, learn-to-build kit from Guillow’s. The Fly Boy model. I made it a personal challenge to build it in the span of the three-day, two-night long weekend.

Building the frame was probably the most satisfying part. Out of necessity, some of it has to be done in stages, but because you use either white glue or wood glue, the drying process is only a couple hours long, so several major steps can be accomplished in a single day. It becomes a very enjoyable day when you can say “I took some wood and turned it into something that looks like and airplane”. In reality, it was about 6 hours of effort to get the frame complete. For the wing, you take the ribs (the aerodynamically-shaped pieces that give the wing its lift), pin them on the plans vertically, then glue the spars onto them to hold everything in place, pinning them down as well to hold them tight. When dry, sand, and combine. The wing was made of 3 major sections, all of which could be built at the same time, and then later assembled when dry.

Skinning the airplane is definitely a far more finicky and slow process. This model required tissue paper and diluted white glue to skin it, painted once on the frame, then again to the surface of the tissue paper that was touching the frame to ensure the glue penetrated all the way through the tissue paper and into the balsa wood frame. Again, this was a very stepwise process, but due to the diluted nature of the glue, it took a long time for the tissue paper to dry. The really neat part was that once you were done skinning, and the tissue was dry, if there were any wrinkles left in the tissue, lightly misting them with water would remove them when the water dried up. It basically tightened and stretched the imperfections out of the tissue paper.

The wing was held in place by elastics and a dowel so you could move it forward and back to balance the airplane without having to commit to gluing it in place permanently. It also makes it easier to transport the airplane when you can take the big wing off.

Threading the elastic through was definitely a test of patience. I ended up using a stretched-out coat hanger to help.

For the first flight the instructions recommended  only 25 turns of the elastic for wind up.

Here’s the pitch! I think this was the exact point I realized that if it doesn’t work I may be left with a twisted pile of balsa wood, tissue, and a spinning propeller. And a weekend’s worth of wasted effort.

Didn’t go far the first time, but it did survive the decent to the ground. I was amazed at how hard it hit and yet survived, unscathed.

Later that day, when flying the airplane again, I lost count of the number of turns I had put into the propeller winding it up, and the elastic snapped. When it snapped, the elastic recoiled and spun around manically, tearing through the tissue paper. All of which was quickly and carefully cut out and replaced, which is pretty damn cool when you consider how easy it is to repair the airplane. So long as enough of it survives, it can always be fixed and re-flown, but it also served as a reminder of just how fragile flight can be. So remember, count your turns!

Building our first soap box derby racer – Part 2

Building our first soap box derby racer – Part 2

My oldest son, occasionally daughter, and I had continued to work on the soap box racer last week.

We left off last time with just wheels on a flat body. Another week of work and we added a body of sorts, a seat, and some paint.

We used a seat from IKEA for the racer. It was the perfect size to fit inside the 18″ wide body, and it looked neat. We made the frame for the racer with 2×4’s and plywood Jonas and I cut with a handheld jig saw, and screwed it all together.

Isaac gets his first driving lesson. Here you can see the arched shape we were working towards for the old-timey racer feel.

I then bent, glued, and nailed a 1/8″ thick piece of MDF to the body. Both kids helped with a couple of nails at first, but grew weary of wearing the safety glasses, so they had to watch from a short distance away. Nailers are one of those tools I am extremely careful around. Safety glasses are a must if they’re connected to a pressurized source, I am always aware of where I am pointing the working end trying to always point it at my workpiece, and the safety is turned on as soon as I take my finger off the trigger. I was amazed at the number of nails it took to hold it all in place.

Kids are getting excited. At this point the driving lessons down our street began in earnest.

We took off all non-painted surfaces, and I then went to work spraying it a nice enamel red with a N95 mask on. I am still looking for a decent mask that has solvent filters available. Any recommendations would be appreciated. I think it turned out looking pretty sharp, simple and elegant.

Race day was this past Saturday (June 16, 2012). After we arrived, it didn’t take long before I realized that the racer couldn’t compete. Middlebury Drive in Waterloo is a pretty steep street, a lot steeper than the street we practiced on, and my son was barely strong enough to use the brake on our little street where we had practiced. It also didn’t help that every racer there, save ours, had some sort of rack and pinion steering and our rope steering could be barely operated by my son. I opted to keep him out of the race this year and just observe. Tears were shed, but it was for the best.

Almost forgot to mention, we watched two pretty big crashes during the trial runs, by kids much older than my son. One girl lost control of her steering and rolled on the asphalt; the other boy couldn’t stop in time, hit the wall of tires that was being used as a safety stop, flipped his car and flew out. Both kids didn’t end up competing after their respective crashes, and it kind of sealed the deal on my son not racing that day.

Although Jonas did get a tailgate breakfast out of it, so not all was lost.

A sad little boy in his racer. In some ways I feel I let him down, in others, well, we built a soap box racer together, he’s a lucky kid.

Next year he will compete. I am going to lower the racer to the ground and build two new braking systems, both of which were inspired by other cars in the race. We are also going to make a rack and pinion steering system so that he can steer with a wheel much easier than fighting to pull on the rope. The parents I met on race day were awesome and all had great advice for improving the racer. We has so many parents come up to us and mention that they were following the progress of our racer. We built it in our front yard, so the whole neighborhood developed an attachment to our progress. There will be racing next year.

Building our first soap box derby racer – Part 1

Our neighborhood has a Soap Box Derby on Father’s Day weekend. I’ve always wanted to make a racer, and this provided a convenient excuse to make one. I did all sorts of research on Soap Box Racers, and emailed the neighborhood association for details, and it turns out, it is an unregulated race. Most Soap Box Derby’s are strictly regulated; certain size tires, maximum weight for the vehicle, etc. For this race, there are no limits. After taking a couple trips to gather the parts necessary, my oldest and I decided to assemble it in the shade of our maple tree on a nice day.

I had some spare rope for steering, spare copper pipe nail-downs to hold the axles in place, scrap plywood and 2 x 4’s for the frame, and some spare wood screws to hold it together. Axles, pins, lag bolt, nut, and 4 washers from Home Depot to hold the wheels in place and for steering. Wheels came from KW Surplus. Finding wheels was the most difficult part. You can find all sorts of small, bulky ones for wheel barrows and mowers, but large-diameter, thin ones are hard to come by, fortunately I found some with some searching. All told, took about an hour to assemble with my son’s help.

The lag bolt is for the front axle so it has a pivot point on the frame to steer. The axle is fixed to the 2 x 4 on top of it with copper pipe nail-downs (the kind you use for plumbing copper pipe), and the wheels are held onto the axle with pins (the wheels have bearings in them, making attaching them a lot easier). On top of the steering 2 x 4 I attached two more scrap pieces of 2 x 4 to limit how far you can turn left or right.

Unfortunately, the race is open to Junior Kindergarten kids at the youngest, so my daughter can’t participate for another two years. Doesn’t mean I can’t give her a driving lesson.

We decided to race to test it out. My son wanted to ride his kick-bike, and Grace stuck with me.

I have never ridden a Soap Box Racer before, so here I am discovering how slow they are to get going. My son won the race easily, all he had to do was kick away.

One thing I did forget to install on the initial version was the brake, so I had to quickly figure out how to safely stop the racer without breaking my ankles. I was actually far more worried than I look here.

The race is in a week and a half. We still have to add a brake and make a body for the racer. That is the most fun part. I’m thinking of making the racer look something like this:

I’ll share the results soon.


Building robots with my (oldest) son

I have three kids now. Jonas (4.5), Grace (3), and Isaac (3 months). I had to add (oldest) to the title of the post now that there are two boys. Feels weird. Good weird, but weird nonetheless.

My son has expressed interest in a lot of topics lately. Robots, dinosaurs, planets, fish biology, you name it, typical boy stuff in many ways. We went to the ROM a couple months ago to see the dinosaurs. As an adult it was fun going back there and living the experience through my kids’ eyes. One of the first things Jonas noticed when we got there was the Pterodactyl fossils hanging from the ceiling, and my wife captured him, Grace and I all staring up in wonder.

Doing things with my kids not only gives them something to do, but it gives me something to do as well. There are so many activities I have done in the past 4.5 years I wouldn’t have bothered to do if I didn’t have kids. That, in many ways, is the best gift having children has given me; an excuse to be active and view the world with a 4 year-old’s sense of wonder again.

I used to build robots. Lots of robots. It was a hobby habit. I built my first at 8, soldered it myself and everything. Used two motors from some broken toys, cut the base out of plywood with a jig saw, the whole nine. I had built many others over the years, all the way through high school, then I stopped once I entered University. I stopped doing a lot of things once I entered University. I “had” to, I was an adult and paying for my education now. I only really worked on that stuff if I was paid to, which I did when I worked for ESQ, and I won a national award for it. Otherwise, I had to no time to focus on fun, for I had to study and make my investment worth it. Unfortunately this new habit of not investing myself in my other interests stuck a little too well, and it had been years since I last picked up a soldering iron. Until I had kids.

When my son came home from school with a science fair sign-up sheet, I laughed maniacally. I had visions of harvesting Thorium from old camping lanterns and making a breeder reactor, but I decided that I’ll save that idea until he is 10. Besides, Uranium isn’t too healthy for a 4 year-old. So, I asked him if he wanted to participate, and if so, what did he want to do. It was advertized as a science fair and invention convention, which was good for me, because explaining the scientific method to a four year-old seemed like an effort in futility. Don’t get me wrong, kids can be extraordinarily smart, but the whole cause-and-effect thing is something I have always known takes a while to actually sink in. Even then, there are adults out there who still haven’t learned that lesson.

He wanted to build a robot, and build a robot we did, multiple robots, in fact.

Our first robot was from Sparkfun. I picked up two of the Magician Chassis when I was buying a few other things from their site. They looked like really useful, inexpensive robot chassis that’s be perfect for quick and dirty experiments and tests of motors and sensors. I had plans to build both and figure out a way to get them to communicate with one another, much like how bees can communicate the location of flowers. But that is an experiment and blog post for another time. Back to the robots. I love them. They are easy to assemble, easy enough Jonas assembled one and Grace assembled the other. We used it as a test for the larger robot Jonas wanted to build. I hadn’t used the L293 as a motor driver yet, so I wanted something quick and easy to set up to test the motor driver. I also used a Sharp IR sensor for object avoidance.

This robot was super-quick to assemble, worked well enough, and gave me some code to use as a starting point for the main robot we were going to build.

The next robot, Jonas’ robot for the science fair, needed to be bigger. Jonas had a list of desired features, and I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get him to implement them all in time for the science fair, so I stuck with the plan of building a bigger version of the Magician Chassis. We went with a DFRobot Pirate-4WD Mobile Platform model. We spent a lot of time looking at robot frames online together. I know, we should have built the frame ourselves from scrap, but the benefit of buying something easy to assemble was that Jonas could do it himself. He wanted something that could “climb over stuff”, and this robot chassis has 4 wheel drive. The other features he wants (and we are currently working on) is for the robot to have two claws, and to repeatedly say “I am a robot”.

Having my son assemble things turned out not to be that difficult. His small, nimble fingers could easily do things my big, fat adult-hands could not. Programming the Arduino, however, I had to do myself. He’s barely started reading and writing, I am not going to try to teach him a programming language for another year or two at least. The Science Fair event itself was a bit of a let-down. After all the hard work, he was more interested in socializing with the other kids that his display remained unmanned most of the evening, but playing is what kids are supposed to do. His sister, however, was very engaged with all the other projects she got to see and play with that evening. I have to start planning for her project, I only have two years.

Making soap

Mother’s day was coming, and I decided to make my mother a gift using slave labor my kids as helpers. I thought it would be a great activity for the kids, I also like to make my gifts, and the combination of kids and home-made-edness should result in a more meaningful gift for my mom/their Nana.

We are all set! Any parent with more than one child can attest to the need for each child to have their own set of tools.

I opted for ultra-simple glycerin soap, and the kids would mix up their own colors with food coloring. Just put a few drops into the bottom of an ice-cube tray to start.

Glycerin soap is super-easy to use; just cut off the amount you’d like, and microwave it in a safe container (I used an old sour cream container) in 15-second intervals until melted, and it is ready to pour into any form you’d like. Ideally use a disposable container, not that you are going to throw it out. If there is leftover, just keep the container. If you’re lucky it will just pop it out, but if it won’t come out, you have used a container you were going to throw out or recycle anyways and there will be no regrets. Just keep it for next time.

We used toothpicks to stir.

My son was a little more creative when it came to mixing his colors. My daughter did the one-color-per-cube thing.

Just pour…

…and mix!

The other awesome part of this activity was that the kids were so excited to see the end product, they pretty much sat still and waited for the soap to cool and harden. Sitting still is a rare treat for any parent.

I lucked out when I went looking for forms for the soap. I went to the dollar store, originally thinking I would use disposable plastic cups as the molds for the soap, but then found these really cheap ice-cube trays that had silicon bottoms on the bottom of each cube. Once hardened, the deformable silicon bottom could be pushed and the soap would be forced out fairly easily. $1.25 each.

He’s pretty proud that he made orange (his favorite color).

Out they shoot.

Pop pop pop. My son had the blue, circular ice cube tray, my daughter had the red, rectangular one.

All the soaps fit just perfectly.

Adding a pretty bow with ladybugs on it for Nana.

Above is the kids’ gift to their mom for mother’s day. We made soaps using the a similar technique (in the box) but we tried to make fancier/pretty-smelling ones, with bodyscrub (in the jars) and a hair band with flowers on it.

A close-up of her soaps. Despite our best efforts, they didn’t really work out that well. Only the cinnamon-clove soap turned out, and it turned out well.

Hardest part of making anything

Hardest part of making anything is definitely not the actual making part. No, putting something together is where all the fun happens. The mistakes, learning, and growing from doing it is the most fun. Hardest part of making anything is sourcing. Finding supplies. Happens all the time. There are two routes when you are a maker: scavenging and saving stuff for potential future uses, or scavenging and buying for desired current use.

Saving things for the future is obviously the most cost-effective route, but it can take up a lot of space depending upon what exactly you are trying to do. I have a bunch of old, wooden windows I want to make into either a cold frame or a greenhouse if I can find more. I’ve had them for five years now. I even moved them with me when I moved back to Waterloo. Seems silly to keep them for so long, but I tell myself “We’ll, if you’ve kept them this long…”. Following this route, you have to be comfortable being a bit of a pack rat. Some projects are easier to be a pack rat with than others. Electronics, due to the small size of components, is an easy area to be a pack rat in. They can fit in such a small space, it really isn’t that big a deal whether you save something or not. Building your own greenhouse requires more room and a more tolerant wife.

The other route, buying things, is not cost effective, but it does have immediate benefits. Less room is used storing components, and there is a quicker turnaround time creating new things. At the same time, it seems to go against what I feel to be a key ethos of being a maker; recycling. Finding new purposes for old things is better than finding new purposes for new things. Keeping things out of landfill and breathing new life into them is something that inspires pride in your work. Just going out and buying components makes you another consumer. The other side, having a quick turnaround time, is sometimes key to getting something done. Some projects will never get done unless you strike while the iron is hot. My wife and I were looking for a desk for my son, but nothing out there met our needs or came close to my standards, so I made one for him. From the moment we decided that I would make it, I worked on it six nights in a row until it was completed. If I hadn’t we probably would have kept looking at desks in stores and in used ads online until we found something we would settle on.

I realize there are exceptions to both philosophies, but I have to admit, it is a hard balance to strike. Being a pack rat, you have to learn when to let go of something. Being a consumer, you need to be able to realize when there is a reasonable free alternative. Just don’t ask me to get rid of my windows just yet…

Making meth… or soap… or another internet… whatever

All the legislation and effort that governments around the world are putting into censoring or tracking everyone and everything “undesirable” on the internet are just so… futile. As though it is possible to suppress an idea or hide knowledge. Thing is, this sort of censorship always has been going on. As soon as one person does something bad with a service or product there are all these knee-jerk, reactionary laws put into place that make what was legal the day before illegal, as if creating a new law will magically make undesirable behavior stop. New laws don’t solve problems, they just create more criminals, and send undesirable behavior further underground.

My grandfather once told me that when he was a young man, it was possible to buy TNT in the hardware store. Today, no one could imagine being able to buy TNT so easily, but in reality, if you really wanted to, making TNT isn’t that hard, it’d just take you five minutes on the internet, a friend with a background in chemistry, or a copy of Fight Club to figure out how.

My point is although legislators who made it difficult to purchase TNT went home feeling like they accomplished something, they really didn’t. It’s still ridiculously easy to manufacture TNT on your own, yet we don’t see widespread use and criminal activity with it. Most of the time people are reasonable with their freedoms, and the occasional nutjob will slip through the cracks, but marginalizing everyone because of the actions of one will get you nowhere other than giving yourself a false sense of accomplishment and security. And a disenfranchised public. Your time/money/effort would be better spent helping the “nutjobs” to be healthy, productive members of society instead of marginalizing them.

As much as all the internet censorship makes my blood boil, I know that even if the worst scenario came to pass, people would rise to the challenge, and create a new internet. A decentralized wireless darknet with no central tracking and no way to eliminate or cut off information will rise up, and hopefully on its own and soon. I’ve heard stories that darknets have sprouted up en masse in Syria due to government crackdowns.

Personally, I’ve ran into this sort of reactionary law recently. I want to make soap. I found a really simple recipe to try it out. Basically fat and lye and water. In this case I am going to use coconut oil for the fat. In a well-ventilated area, while wearing gloves, goggles, and long sleeves, mix the lye in water, and it heats up really hot (the solution is very dangerous, and vents off lots of bad-for-you gases). Wait for the solution to cool to 110 degrees Fahrenheit. While the lye solution is cooling heat the fat to 110 degrees Fahrenheit, and once both liquids are at the same temperature, mix them together, and blend until a haze forms in the new mixture with an old, no-longer-used-for-food, blender. Then pour into a mold and leave it alone for a month for the saponification process to complete. Presto, you have soap.

So I’ve started collecting the materials to make soap. Hard part was finding lye. Turns out, there have been significant efforts made recently to eliminate all lye sales, to to replace raw lye products with some sort of chemically-similar-but-not-lye products. The reason being that lye is necessary in one of the simplest processes to make meth. Notice I said “one of the simplest processes”. There are still other methods to make meth without lye. So while legislators feel as though controlling and outright banning sales of lye is helping the problem, they, once again, are just disenfranchising the public.

My other point: I had no interest in learning how to make meth before, but thanks to the roadblocks put in place to my finding lye, in my research I stumbled across multiple recipes for it (many of which are on Youtube). By making something illegal they only served to disseminate the information quicker; where I had no interest in the knowledge previously, secondary curiosity has brought it into my focus now. While trying to collect the materials to make soap I couldn’t find lye, and out of frustration I naively asked Google ‘Why is it so hard to find lye?”.

Problem is, for a soap-maker, you need lye, no substitutes. And there are still 100’s of valid uses for pure lye out there.

The solution for my lye needs? Easiest would have been to order it through the internet. You can still get anything through the internet, and everything is tracked electronically so some government agency can track you and put you into a database and do analysis of your behavior. That wasn’t good enough for me, it would take too long and shipping can be expensive. My solution to finding lye was to drive out of town. Ten minutes, to be exact. Most of those 100’s of valid uses for lye reside on farms, so just go to a hardware store in a farming community. During the momentary banter with the clerk as my debit transaction was being processed I was complaining how hard it was to find lye, he said to me “now don’t go making meth with this stuff”.

I won’t, but thanks for the tip anyways.