Hot Stuff! Aluminum Pour Night.


To quote the Iron Worker on THE SIMPSONS,  “Hot stuff, coming through!”
I was pretty excited that I finally made it down to the Milwaukee Makerspace last night to attend an aluminum pour! I’ve seen a couple of the videos and really wanted to get in on some of that hot metal casting. I have what’s called a “speed-ring”, a metal ring that holds a soft-box for photographic lighting, and I wanted to make a copy of it.

So far, much of the casting has been using a “lost-styrofoam” method. A shape is carved from foam and set in sand, and the aluminum melts the foam as it’s poured in. But I wanted a COPY of an existing item. I asked Bret about it, and he said we could try an experiment of pretty much just pressing the ring down into some sand. An X channel was then added in the middle as a point for the aluminum to pour into and spread out into the shape.

I built a wood box for my item, and we filled it with oily sand, packed it in there, and added the X-trough. My item didn’t pull out of the sand quite as well as I had hoped, but hey, it’s an experiment…

Outside, the aluminum furnace was roaring away, heating aluminum to a delightful orange liquid. The first pour made it through Kevin’s FEAR art piece, my piece, and another members. Later, a second pour took care of Phil’s hand-casting series (which turned out great!)  and the rest went into an ingot mold.

Once my piece was cool enough, we pulled it out to take a look at the results. Not perfect, but not bad for a first time, and an experimental casting at that. There was quite a bit of extra metal, but most of that could be easily trimmed off with the bandsaw. Other members were taking photos of their work. It was obvious that everyone was pretty proud of their individual castings. Even without being the one pouring out twenty pounds of molten metal, it was still a pretty macho experience just to be part of.

If you too want to come play with crazy hot metal, come on down to the Makerspace next time we do an aluminum pour!

Cardboard Cell Phone Case


In case you haven’t noticed, I tend to work with cardboard. It’s a cheap material, there’s always some around, and quite frankly, the cardboard box is one of the marvels of the modern world. (Seriously, think about UPS, modern shipping and packaging…)

In fact, this summer, I even built an entire kid’s playhouse from cardboard. It’s also great as a 3d/practical stand-in for items that may otherwise be heavy, dangerous, or impractical. (See the video on C.A.D. at: )

So, it should come as no surprise when I tell you that I just created a cell phone case from cardboard!

One of my current “back-burner” projects to create a specialty smart-phone case. I don’t want to give away the awesome “bonus feature” it will have, but to start with, I just needed to design a basic case. I had kicked around a few ideas, such as 3D printing it. But that didn’t turn out so well. Of course there I was using somebody else’s design, which just was NOT optimized for my 3D printer. Plus, I really don’t have any 3D modeling skills (yet. I’m learning!)

I DO have access to the Laser Cutter at the Milwaukee Makerspace. Which got me thinking that maybe I could create a laminated case, based on several layers of laser-cut plastic. (The concept is similar to this mini-computer case.)

However, I’m still really just in the planning stages of this project, and the Makerspace is nearly two hours of travel round-trip for me. So, how can I keep prototyping my project with just a few spare minutes at home? The answer is cardboard.

Among carboard’s many great qualities: I already have it; I can cut it with a knife, razor, or scissors; it’s a 3D tactile material; and I can cut and use it RIGHT NOW.

I had already designed a basic case in Adobe Illustrator, by drawing over the top of an image of the iPhone I downloaded from Apple. Would you believe that the radius of the default setting of the “ROUNDED RECTANGLE” Tool is EXACTLY the same as the corners of the iPhone? Who would have thought? But it did make it easy to layout a front, back, and middle of a layered case.

I printed out the images onto regular 8.5×11 computer printer paper, cut them out, and then traced them onto some junk cardboard. I then cut the cardboard with a scissors and exacto-knife. I stacked the two “middle rings” around the phone, and sandwiched it between the front and back pieces.

Now all I needed was some way to hold it all together. If this were some sort of final project, I would likely glue the layers together, but as it was, all I really needed some something simple and temporary. Sticking with my office supplies theme, I grabbed two rubber bands, and slipped them around the cardboard near the top and bottom.

In only a few minutes, I went from an idea, to a drawing, to a real-world three-dimentional object, all WITHOUT a 3D-printer, a laser-cutter, or any other modern micro-manufacturing machinery.

While this was just a simple little mock-up, I was impressed with how well it turned out using only low-tech, on-hand materials.

Do you have a project in mind that you want to work on? Could you find a thrifty and low-tech way to do it using simple, recycled, or salvaged materials? Give it a shot, you might be surprised at how well it works out!


Easy Star Trek “Red Shirt” Costume

I always have the best of intentions. When getting invited to a costume party, I plan to put lots of time and effort into it to create an EPIC costume. Time after time, I put it off and come up with something at the last minute.

The great thing about a costume is that you DON’T have to spend lots of money on one. In fact, you can create a very good costume, just from clothing and props you already had.

Recently, a friend had been working on a Star Trek prop, which got me thinking about how simple a Star Fleet uniform would be to make. Not a perfect one full of detail, but something fun, simple, and cheap.

To start, I gathered together a red T-shirt, black pants and shoes. I didn’t have a long-sleeved shirt, so I just layered the red short-sleeved over a black long-sleeved T-shirt.

A Federation insignia or communicator badge is an important element to the costume, but is simple to make. I just went to the web and did an image search. When I found one I liked, I downloaded it, scaled to to about 2.5″ tall in my graphics software, and then printed it onto tag-board with my inkjet printer. I cut out the insignia, and put a piece of tape on back. A safety pin glued to the back would work great as well. From just a few feet away, it doesn’t look like paper at all, it just looks like the logo you expect to see on the uniform.

Of course no Star Fleet Officer on an away mission would be without a phaser. I had several to pick from: a TV remote, an infrared thermometer, or my cordless beard trimmer. Basically any dark plastic item that you can point threateningly can be a phaser. I chose a digital tire pressure gauge as my hand-weapon of choice.

Also handy would be a tri-corder. I DID spend a bit of money on this one – $.99 cents. Since I happened to have a smart phone, I downloaded a tri-corder app. It has lots of blinking lights and sound effects that add considerably to the outfit.

I also wanted to point out that I was NOT a main character. Nope, not Kirk or Picard or any of those guys – just a nameless red shirt that’s guaranteed to get killed by the alien/monster of the week. To do so, I created a “Hi, my name is:” badge from a computer-printable address label and a marker. I tried both “Red Shirt” and “Expendable” as name-tags. At the one costume party I went to, people got the joke and had a good chuckle – and then had an urge to kill me…. (Lion-O quickly took me out with the Sword of Omens.)

So, remember, a costume doesn’t have to cost a fortune in time and money – just recycle some clothes and other items into a simple and clever outfit anyone can appreciate.



Today, I stopped in at the Makerspace with the plan to work on a small project for a Halloween party this Saturday.

The plan was to take a “Roomba” robot vacuum cleaner that I got for $1.00 at a rummage sale, and covert it into the robot base for a giant spider or some other scary creature that could wander around at a Halloween party.

I started pulling screws out of the bottom to figure out how to remove the brushes and vacuum blower. It took some tinkering to figure out what I could and couldn’t remove and not cause a fault. In the end, it didn’t look like I could remove the blower motor and still have the thing run, so I simply removed the fan blades from the blower.

By that time, I was now thinking about video cameras and how easy it would be to run a 1/4-20 bolt right through the plastic. A bolt and two nuts quickly made a camera mount.

In the other room were some ping-pong balls, and I had a black sharpie. A little hot glue and Roomba-cam has some personality.

Look for Roomba-cam running around the Milwaukee Makerspace and please treat Roomba-cam nice – he is watching you and WILL upload to YouTube!

-Ben Nelson

Hack-A-Lantern: DIY Salvaged Zombie-beatin’ Flashlight!

Recently, I was hanging out at the Milwaukee Makerspace, working on a simple project, when a fellow Maker offered me a used 5AH lead acid battery.

The project I was working on involved using landscaping lighting, and right there on the “Hack Rack” were some old computer power supplies. Hmmm. We also happened to be talking about Zombie movies and TV shows, when it all clicked – I have the skills and materials to build an electric lantern from scratch using just the materials that are right here!

The project started by taking apart a computer power supply. I snipped the wires from switch and power cord connection close to the circuit board, so that I would have plenty of wire still soldered to the switch. After removing the circuit board and cooling fan, I had a nice empty box to use as the case for the lantern.

Next, I snipped out the fan grate, to allow for the 12V 11watt landscaping light bulb. These things are designed to run on 12AC from a transformer, but nothing is stopping me from running it on a 12V battery instead!

I crimped on a couple of spade connectors onto the wires from the switch to go to the battery and the bulb. I also wired the power port so that it was unswitched (always connects to the battery) that way, I could use it to recharge the battery without having to open the case. I would just clip the external battery charger that I already had to the two pins of the port.

Once the wiring was done, I checked the connections, turned it on and off a couple of time, and then glued the bulb in place with silicon.

A key feature of a lantern (as opposed to a flashlight) is that it has a distinct handle on the top, which the lantern hangs from. When I’ve made handles before, I’ve usually used a pair of bolts with spacers and some sort of cross-piece of wood or metal. However, I didn’t have anything like that handy, and it didn’t seem to fit the theme of the lantern either.

I DID have all the extra wiring from inside the power supply. The main bit of it was already bundled and had a nice connector on the end. I drilled two 1/2″ holes in the case cover and ran the cable through it, then back through the other hole, and pinned it in place with a few zip-ties.

I also glued two bits of foam on the inside of the case to cushion and help hold in place the battery. With that I put the cover back on and reinstalled the four cover screws.

There ya go! A lantern made completely from repurposed, recycled, and salvaged materials! Whether you like tinkering, being ready for the zombies, or just like being prepared, the Hack-A-Lantern is for you. Why don’t you try making one and see what you come up with!

More DIY Eco-Projects at