For more information on the build check out our extensive documentation here.
This year Giant Robot had their 4th annual Totoro Show and I was lucky enough to be invited. I wanted to make an interactive kinetic piece for a while and this was a good opportunity. If you want to see an in depth video about the process check out my talk with Donald Bell from Maker Project Lab on youTube. He was very kind to have me on the show and we had a wonderful conversation that went over many details of this piece and the small automata I made last year for makevember.
The piece is 8.5 in wide, 6.75 in tall and 2.25 in deep. Mostly constructed with laser cut 1/8″ birch plywood with some small parts cut out from 1/16″ birch plywood. It uses a single 30 rpm gear motor powered by an 18650 lithium ion battery housed in a case that includes a USB plug and charging circuit. Most of the axles where parts pivot are made with sewing pins and the wire for the mechanism is very similar to piano wire except I extracted from the bead of bicycle tires. It’s stiff wire with a thickness of about 0.9mm. The switch is wired to provide power to the motor whenever it’s actuated. The characters are hand-painted with acrylic paint.
I really liked the scene where the Totoros and the girls are making the acorns grow at night. I didn’t include the humans in the final moving piece for sake of simplicity.
I usually start this kind of project with some sketches and paper prototypes. First hand-cut, and then laser cut when I have some ideas on how to make it work. These pieces are pinned to foam core to work out the movement.
Here is the initial assembly after cutting most of the parts, the orange stuff is masking tape .
I didn’t have a solid mechanical plan from the beginning. I started with the box and an idea and went from there. A lot of parts like the wire wide were added as the need arose, in this case the wire was drifting back and forth on the crank so I had to add a guide to keep it vertical. The sliders are lubricated with graphite powder which explains the grey stain.
I wrapped the switch cord in black para-cord to give it a less plasticky feel.
It was important to me that the switch would be pleasant to the touch so I put some effort into making the acorn case and figuring out a good “clicky” feel.
One of the most popular pieces from the small machines series was the walking man from November 6. I received videos and pictures of other people making their own versions and recently a school in Barcelona used the idea for their classes, this really made me happy because it’s really rewarding to inspire others to make something. My intention with first designs was to use common materials and methods to keep them accessible, but I can’t deny my love and appreciation for digital fabrication so I decided to design a version for the laser cutter.
I’m still using wood and paper but decided to skip the use of wire. In this case the simple crank works well made out of wood. I’m using 3 mm birch plywood and some 90 lb paper but the paper thickness doesn’t affect the design very much so use whatever you have at hand. The paper is glued with regular white glue and you might have to glue the wood depending on the kerf of your laser cutter. Download the files from this github repository.
And check out this embedded video for the assembly. I would love to see your builds so please tag me on social media or send me an email.
A previous post described my process for making a plywood mobile. I’ve since added a new tool and some materials to my process so I thought it would be relevant to document this latest build.
This mobile was commissioned by a close friend (disclaimer, I struggle a lot with commissions so I don’t take them easily). I started by drawing several sketches by hand and then putting them into a digital document as a mockup. I made several but I’ll show you only the one my friend chose:
The fish are a salmon and a flounder since I wanted to have some species from California. I’m particularly proud of the salmon drawing. At this point I converted the images to vector drawings and started cutting them on the laser cutter. I used 1/8″ birch plywood. Every piece was cut in two parts that were mirror opposites. The plywood had masking tape which allowed me to precisely cut the mask for the shapes I had drawn.
In order to glue the pieces, I made registration holes that fit a paper clip. Conveniently I could later use the registration holes for hanging the pieces. The holes were 0.03″ in diameter and 0.03″ apart.
I pre-treated one side of the plywood with spray-on shellac and a light sanding before applying the masking tape. I found that a light coat of shellac allows me to remove the masking tape without raising the grain and it’s a good surface for painting.
The fun thing about scoring the masking tape is that I don’t have to re-trace the drawings and I get to paint one of the colors with a blunt tool. For the black, I did two coats of Montana water-based acrylic paint, and for white two or three coats of Golden high flow acrylic. I like high flow acrylic because it can be applied with a brush or a quill for finer detail.
The bleed wasn’t too much of a problem on this project because I had a two-color palette but, incidentally I just saw this video where they suggest applying a clear coat before painting to clog the edges of the mask. I have to try that next time. On the last picture, I’m applying paint with a small brush and a quill for small areas.
I didn’t do all the pieces at once because I wasn’t sure the proportions were right on the mockup. I worked from the bottom up and at some point, I even re-cut the pieces that go on the flounder. The process could be more efficient but at the end, I was happy with the results.
For the lines, I like using bead stringing wire. It’s flexible, strong, and it looks really clean. The one downside is that you need to purchase crimp tubes and a crimping tool. I think you could skip the crimping tool and use regular pliers if you are in a pinch. The crimping tool just gives you a slightly cleaner and more consistent look.
In order to make the pieces face down for the baby to see, I used this triangular arrangement:
Perhaps the most challenging part of this project was taking pictures of the finished product. It’s really hard to convey the experience in still images. Here are my attempts, thanks for reading!
When I saw Shaun Tan’s “The Singing bones” I fell in love with his simple and evocative sculptures. I was delighted to find out he used inexpensive materials and techniques so I set out to experiment on my own. In the afterword of The Singing Bones Shawn explains:
“The main materials I’ve used are papier-mache and air-drying clay, carved back and painted with acrylics, oxidized metal powder, wax and shoe polish. The resistance of clay in particular at a small scale encourages simplicity, especially where the key tools are blunt fingers and thumbs: Faces and gestures are abbreviated, just like characters in the tales themselves. “
He also wrote a blog post about his process. I remember playing a lot with modeling clay when I was a child. I created a lot of creatures and strange faces and I think I wanted to experience that aimless sense of creation again. I bought some relatively inexpensive Crayola brand air-dry clay at a store near me and set out to feel the material.
It’s nice to work with when wet and it accepts the common clay techniques and tools. But my favorite part is carving it when it has dried a little bit (usually a few hours depending on your climate). A made a short video to demonstrate:
The tools I’ve been using besides my fingers are a couple of carving gouges, an X-Acto knife with a #22 blade (the curved edge is nice for scraping), a paper clip and a bamboo skewer:
Size wise I’ve stayed below 1.5″ x 1.5″ roughly. I think this type of clay can support bigger sizes especially if you make a wire structure but it’s nice to have limitations. Here are some of the characters I’ve made so far, ruler and coins for scale:
I think I would enjoy making more elaborate sets for these characters but so far I’ve kept it simple. Sometimes I take pictures on top of my sketchbooks or inside a lightbox I made out of foam core and tracing paper. Total cost (without the lamps) was less than $2, there are a lot of tutorials out there for building your own, this Instructable would be a good start.
Right now I’m more interested in the shapes than in the stories of each character. Although I hope some of the pictures will suggest a story by themselves. Here is a collection of the ones I’ve posted so far on my Instagram account. I think it’s a fun and approachable material, I suggest you give it a try.
This month I was a guest on episode #8 of the opposable thumbs podcast. The podcast is hosted by Rob Ray and Taylor Hokanson and on each episode, the hosts and a guest tackle a creative challenge and then discuss the results, discoveries, problems, and solutions. I was very excited about it when I listened to the first episode so a made a gift and sent it their way last April.
This was my first podcast and it was a really nice experience. Rob and Taylor were super welcoming and very organized. They had an agenda and documents about what to expect as a guest, which was very helpful. And while recording the podcast we were able to exchange notes and pictures using slack.
Part of my inspiration was XKCD comic number 936 on Password Security. My intention was to make a sort of analog password generator that looked good and was nice to handle. So I made a “flexi-cube” (I’m not sure if this is the technical name). This video tutorial by pocket83 was very helpful, I mostly used it for inspiration but it really covers the basics if you want to make your own.
Part of the fun was making a jig for cutting the poplar squares using the table saw sled:
This is a closeup of the Jig, I had to add a thumb-rest after cutting a few cubes because my thumb was getting sore:
After cutting the cubes I engraved the words using the laser on my converted 3D printer (an old solidoodle-2 with a 30 dollar 1/2 a watt purple laser that I modified following this instructable).
After engraving the cubes I assembled them using elastic hair bands. I made 3 different versions: the first one has only English words, the second one is bilingual (English and Spanish) and the third one has Japanese words written in Hiragana with their corresponding translation. I finished the poplar with olive oil to bring out the color.
This is, of course, a proof of concept, but the basic idea is that you would be able to generate simple 3 or 4-word memorable passwords by playing with it. There are a lot of possible combinations. Each version has 27 cubes with 2 words per face. That is a total of 324 words in the English language one and 162 words on the bilingual ones. It’s also just a fun toy. On the subject of passwords, don’t take my word for it, there is more to it and there are more sophisticated ways to generate them, do you research.
I made a little gift for my friends at the Opposable Thumbs Podcast. They take on a creative challenge every two weeks and then talk about it with some tool recommendations thrown in. I’m enjoying it a lot. I’m particularly fond of their code of conduct because it aims to create an inclusive space, which can be hard to do among geeky people who enjoy talking about obscure subjects. I’m copying it here for future reference:
Our podcast is dedicated to providing a harassment-free experience for everyone, regardless of race, gender, age, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, knowledge of presented subject matter, or religion (or lack thereof). We do not tolerate harassment in any form. Our overall belief is that mutual respect and voices from all walks of life must be heard to create a balanced society. We want our community to be more diverse…whatever your background, we welcome you. We actively support an inclusive environment, and we want you to be a part of it.
Although I wasn’t trying to join their first challenge (paper clips and and 2×4 lumber) this thing sort of came out while tinkering aimlessly at my desk. I had improvised the shape out of a scrap on my bandsaw while trying out the technique that Jimmy Diresta uses in this video (similar to the well know bandsaw reindeer that Matthias Wandel takes to the next level here) and it seemed like a nice way to hold a hand-cranked contraption while being vaguely thumb shaped. I’ve been trying to make paper clip gears with various degrees of success since I saw this video of Arthur Ganson making wire gears and I made one for this project but it didn’t quite fit the way I wanted, and it wasn’t perfectly centered, so settled with the offset orbiting hands design.
A little story about how not to steal like an artist first. Sometimes I seek inspiration in social media. One day I found this awesome illustration by Instagram user @you_just_illusion and decided to use it as the base for this drawing. I sincerely though I had made it different enough and imbued it with my own style but that’s not how he felt and he let me know in a polite direct message. I apologized and we agreed that a shout out to his work would be enough atonement.
I think sometimes there is a fine line between inspiration and copying and it seems like I crossed the line in this case. I wasn’t trying to be malicious but sometimes this happens. Originality is not very important to me. I subscribe to the “Everything is a remix” idea. And almost everything I do came out from somewhere else. Sometimes the influences get lost, mixed with the others. And sometimes you make the wrong judgement about how far you actually mixed something. In this case no one got seriously hurt and we had a good interaction. And I’m also satisfied with how this piece turned out.
The first version I drew was for a zine project I was working on, which you can see in the background here:
I’m on a quest to unite my visual output with my maker spirit. Making drawings that move seems like a great way to do that. I started by cutting the outlines out of 1/4 in plywood and attaching the flames to a couple of dowels.
My initial idea was a simple crank and some wavy motion but I wasn’t entirely sure about how the mechanism was going to work, so I made a prototype out of scrap wood and wire:
And here is what the final version looks like with the two cranks:
After I had the mechanism figured out I moved onto painting. I started with a few coats of white acrylic ink. I sanded that with 600 grit sandpaper to get a nice even surface and applied a coat of workable fixative. The fixative helps with bleeding. I applied the black ink with a brush and and quill for the fine details.
I like how you can still see the grain of the wood on the white areas.
Before the final assembly I coated the main surface of the box with superglue. It acts as a hard clean finish. The other parts were coated with a matte finish. The moving sections were lubricated with bee’s wax. I made the handle out of some ebony scavenged from the keys of and old piano a friend found in the street.
One final detail is the wall mount. This system with two matching pieces of wood cut at a 45 degree angle is called a “french cleat”. The screw on the side is for added stability when using the crank.