Talkin’ Tinkering with the Masters of Automata

Keith Newstead's pieces "In the Garden with Charlie" and "Sing Cats Heads"

Keith Newstead’s pieces “In the Garden with Charlie” and “Sing Cats Heads”

The Exploratorium Tinkering Studio invites all of you to join a Hangout this Friday, November 21st from 9am to 10:30am (Pacific time) to talk about one of their true specialties—Automata!—with some of their favorite masters of this art/technology.

Joining the Tinkering Studio team will be a star-studded group:

  • artist Keith Newstead (whose pieces are at the top of this post)
  • Gautham and Vanya from Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology
  • Monika and Allan from Lawrence Hall of Science
  • Brooke from Oakland’s International High School

While this will be tailored mostly for those who are teaching others to make automata, anyone and everyone is welcome. Karen from the Tinkering Studio writes:

We’re huge fans of automata here in the Tinkering Studio and think we could dedicate several hangouts to this topic alone, since it’s such rich territory for exploration. It’s one of those activities we think holds tremendous potential for making and tinkering, but isn’t the easiest one to facilitate in an open and “tinkerable” way — that’s why we think it’s worth thinking more about.

You’ll hear from an interesting mix of people, who will share their experiences working with automata in different contexts and thinking about the educational implications. We have a rough outline of what we’ll cover below, but it’s likely to change based on where collective interest takes us.

This hangout will be useful to both education and exhibit folks and those with an interest in arts education in general (think STEAM).

On the agenda:

  • Material possibilities / wire, cardboard, trash, flotsam, food
  • The importance of examples – figuring out what the right selection is
  • Automata Workbench: An interactive exhibit prototype
  • Trying to move it away from being step-by-step
  • Mini-revelations related to construction
  • Transition from intensive workshop to doing it on the floor
  • Automata artists
  • Training someone else to facilitate the activity
  • The tradeoffs in terms of creativity
  • Automata as part of arts education
  • Incorporating circuitry and linkages


This promises to be a visual delight. Join live or if you have to miss it, watch the recorded archive.

To be able to ask questions live, use the Google+ event page. You’ll need a Google+ account to participate.

Or view the hangout via YouTube, but viewers won’t be able to ask questions of the presenters.

DIY Backyard Ice Rink

If you’ve got the open space in a large backyard, freezing cold temperatures, and a love for ice skating, you could make you own ice rink. Imgur user legojerry created his own with lumber and polyethylene plastic.

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Using 2×4s for the perimeter, he first laid them all out to create his outline. He used 50 1″×2″×18″ stakes for stability, and 1×4s on all of the seams for added strength, inserting the screws from the inside and screwing them in flush so that they wouldn’t interfere with the liner. To correct the 5½ inch incline of his yard, he added 7/16″ oriented strand board to add height, since water self levels and since it was such a large level difference. After it is all inserted and screwed in, you can add the plastic liner. He used 6 mil 20’×45′ polyethylene plastic, but adds that a bigger liner would ensure at least a foot of excess on each side of the boards.

The Fortress of Sugar Crystals


An ordinary jar of sugar crystals were being grown by Maika of Geyser of Awesome until she transformed it into a sweet, little Fortress of Solitude with the simple addition of a small Superman figurine.


Remember those sugar crystals I started growing over the summer? They grew so numerous and large that I couldn’t bring myself to destroy my little science experiment and eat them. Instead I just bought a wee Superman figurine and positioned him inside what is clearly a tiny Fortress of Solitude.


If you’d like to try and grow a miniature Fortress of Solitude of your own, rock candy is a great project to make with kids from just a few common household items. Unfortunately for Superman, all it takes is a little blue food coloring, and those rock candy crystals could look a lot like kryptonite!

Can Teachers Build a Physics-Go-Round?

The Joy Wheel, at the now mostly defunct / relocated Playland at the Beach. Read on for a vivid, gorey memory of physics experiments by a San Francisco teen employee there decades ago. Photo courtesy of Mike Winslow's  Playland at the Beach

The Joy Wheel, at the now mostly defunct / relocated Playland at the Beach. Read on for a vivid, gorey memory from decades ago by a San Francisco then-teenaged employee. Flashback photo courtesy of Mike Winslow’s Playland at the Beach site.

How would you build a giant turntable or merry-go-round for the physics classroom? I was recently sent a discussion among teachers from the Exploratorium’s Teacher Institute on this very subject. It reminded me of the summer before my senior year of high school, when I took a physics class at Caltech with a juggling grad student who looked a lot like Jesus. Our best lesson of the summer? He took volunteers to a nearby park to see him and his pal juggle on a roundabout, and a few of us got to join him on the rotating platform. He gave us a playful metaphor to understand the alphabet soup of the calculus-rich vector exercises we did in the classroom.

Back to this teacher’s query. Ben posed the original challenge:

Our physics teacher and I have been fantasizing about having a large turntable on which students could explore a variety of concepts. Ideally we would like a surface around 3 or 4 meters in diameter that will stay flat, turn smoothly, support three or four high school students, and be sturdy enough to survive the wear and tear of years. Have any of you built a large turntable for class demonstrations? I would appreciate any plans, suggestions, or cautionary tales. It’s a long-term goal. We’ve been going round and round (so to speak) about size, materials, safety, bearing setups, used vs. new, placement etc.

Mandy suggested our oversized spin-art machine, but Ben needed something a bit slower. He defined it more clearly:

Courtesy of

We want the students to study motion on a rotating surface, from various perspectives. I’d like to use it to demonstrate the Coriolis effect, for example.

We would like students to be able to sit on it, throw and roll balls between them, and film the ball’s motion from on, above, and beside the surface, both moving with the surface and not moving with it.

It needs to be strong enough to support them, and large enough to be able to observe the motion of objects moving above the surface for some distance.

Ellen Koivisto of Asawa School of the Arts in San Francisco chimed in with a clever, STEAMy suggestion:

Talk to your theatre teacher/s and tech people. Turntables have become common set items again in recent decades (after Les Miserables). They were often built for Victorian melodramas, then fell out of favor with the rise of movies and kitchen sink naturalism.

I’m doing a show right now that uses a relatively small turntable — 11′-6″ in diameter. There are three concentric rings of casters that take the weight. I believe it’s two layers of 1/2″ ply, laid perpendicular to each other and glued together. One person can push it with their foot, or there are pole holes so a person can stick a metal pole into the hole and pull the turntable around. It moves smoothly and easily.

I did a show once with an 18′-diameter turntable. That required more people to move and bigger casters, but it was lovely to work on. I haven’t done a motorized turntable yet, but there’s tons of info on making and using them in technical theatre magazines and websites and books.

Caren Kershner similarly suggested checking in with the old Creede Repertoire Theatre in Creede, Colorado about how their three stages mounted on a turntable function.

While looking for images for this post, I found this detailed how-to on how Texas A&M’s Scene Shop built this rotating stage turntable for its production of Th3 B3ggar’s Op3ra.

Texas A&M's Scene Shop built this rotating stage turntable for its production of Th3 B3ggar’s Op3ra." Read more about how they built it here.

Texas A&M’s Scene Shop and its rotating stage turntable in progress.

Raleigh McLemore had lots of ideas:


Photo: wikipedia

My first thought was that you could build off of a platform like a playground merry-go-round. Some simple welding or carpentry might be all that it takes to either remove the uprights or add structure to them to build a platform that a student could safely stand on. You are working with bigger kids and some of the cheap (about $750) small structures may not have enough carrying capacity. Larger built spinning structures are heavy and expensive (around $2K). Outside chance your local parks department might have a broken one, or one that is in storage after a playground change up.

Another idea might be to start with a junkyard car wheel and wheel bearing. A front wheel kingpin might be pretty cheap and could be located vertically in a strong base with the wheel and bearing slipping over the kingpin to become a center to the car wheel spinning on it horizontally. Not sure how it would happen, but I’m sure the car wheel would be a very strong point to begin to weld or assemble a wooden structure upon. I haven’t thought it through very far but I would start with buying a wheel with a wheel bearing(s) and a kingpin if they were reasonably priced.

If a kingpin doesn’t seem right then I would look for an appropriately sized shaft to support the wheel and bearings. Perhaps even a hardwood axle could be fashioned although first thoughts seem to me that it wouldn’t be strong enough. Any upright axle that could be located into a solid plywood base would get you started. The junker car wheel bearing would fit upon the upright axle, the wheel would then be the spinning base of the structure. Done correctly you should have a stable spinning base. The platform couldn’t be too heavy or unbalanced, or it would wiggle and wobble. Putting additional support wheels around the outside of the large spinning platform might make the platform more level and add to stability.

Seems a bit elaborate, but I suppose you could use a dryer motor and belt to spin the wheel by mounting it on the plywood base at a distance to put tension on the horizontal spinning wheel using the dryer belt. You need guards and a speed control for this. What with the variable loads this could be a mess and deserves a lot of thought unless you can get the junk for free. Done poorly you could have a fire or a short.

Last, I wonder if you could hang something from a rafter/joist support (use rope? wire rope?) and put some good wheels around the outside of the platform so that the center is supported from a high point and the outside edges are held up by the wheels? This might be reasonably cheap if the overhead support is equal to the load. This might not be very smooth or stable for the experiments you have planned. Not sure how you would have a smooth controlled motion without a rail to guide the wheels. You wouldn’t have a clear center with this, the support rope popping out of the center of the platform.

Detail of a mural hanging at Playland Not at the Beach. Photo by Jef Poskanzer.

Detail of a mural hanging at Playland Not at the Beach. Photo by Jef Poskanzer.

Raleigh wrote again a little later to reminisce about his time working the Funhouse “Joy Wheel” at San Francisco’s old Playland at the Beach.

This thing was a very large flat, slick, spinning disk with about 20–25 folks climbing on, sitting as close to the center as they could squoosh. My job was to control the speed and spin the disk as fast as it needed to go to spin the folks off and have them slide hopefully to the padded wall and away from the spinning wooden platform. It was lots of fun until folks frantically grasped others and took off a large clump of people who slid off together. The resulting crush of humanity wouldn’t fly off of the disk completely and over and over again somebody would get jammed into the edge of the wheel, unable to move away due to the others being pushed against the wall. I had a “panic stop” button but it really didn’t stop the device very quickly when I hit it. Very gruesome injuries would sometimes occur, never life-threatening, but bloody. My job was to clean that up too.

When the midway had no customers, and I was free to move about the site freely, I used to roll stuff across the slick Joy Wheel surface, pour water at different places and occasionally even be able to anticipate where my experiments might exit the wheel. I remember thinking that somehow if I threw a dart in the air over the spinning disk the dart would begin to rotate with the spinning wheel before it hit…it is still surprising how much I want the disk to alter the trajectory of the dart, although I know it can’t.

From Raleigh’s description and the photo at the top of this post, I’m finding myself wishing there were a giant rotating disk in every city. It sounds like such fun! Except the bloody part. If you can’t quite make out the sign in the top of that picture, it reads “The best cure for blues is joy. Get cured here” (Also, who else thinks that might be Raleigh in the picture?)

We now turn to the Maker-verse. Have you built a large rotating disk? Can you share plans and tips for building it?

DIY World Of Warcraft Meat Pies


If the imminent release of World of Warcraft’s fifth expansion, Warlords of Draenor, has whetted your appetite for gaming, then why not satisfy your hunger with these beautiful World of Warcraft meat pies?

Jenn Fujikawa generously shared the recipe for these delicacies over on Nerdist, featuring a savory meat filling stuffed into a pastry adorned with a Warcraft Horde symbol. You can buy the cookie cutter that she used from Etsy seller StarCookie, or just go ahead and cut out whatever symbol you choose for yourself or the inevitably soon-to-be hungry gamer in your life!

[via that’s nerdalicious!]

Dollar Store Hack for Christmas: DIY Superhero Wall Clock

Dollar Store clocks transformed into handmade masterpieces!

Dollar Store clocks transformed into handmade masterpieces!

With Christmas just around the corner, our collective minds are already contemplating what gifts we will battle the masses for after the Thanksgiving holiday.

While we know there are certain gifts we want to get for loved ones and friends that will require tolerating excessive mall crowds, cutthroat parking and a dedication to Zen patience even Buddha himself would struggle to master, there are ways to produce some amazing and desirable gifts without the need to relive Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Jingle All The Way.

Homemade gifts created with passion, detail and thought can translate into a deeper level of appreciation from the recipient than any mass-produced trinket could muster.

Many of you already know this fact and have given thoughtful handmade gifts during past holidays. But have you ever considered a dollar store item as the go-to medium to produce that handmade magic?

I’m not referring to those horrific dollar store toys made with flimsy plastic and designed to break after one use. I’m referring to items at your local dollar store that have a sustained useful purpose! Clocks, door hangers, cozies, plates and the like! Items people actually use for practical reasons.

Now what if we took those same items and tailored them to the people on your gift list?

As an example, let’s look at the common household wall clock.

Every household and apartment has at least one and it’s a practical item a person can use throughout the year. Beyond just telling the time, a plain wall clock on its own doesn’t say much. Now what if you have a comic book fan on your gift giving list who can use a new clock? What if you can make a wall clock featuring the exact superheroes your comic book loving friend adores?

It is at that last question where our creative journey begins! Taking a simple and practical item like a wall clock and making it into an amazing nerdtastic gift!

For less than $10 and ten minutes of your time, you can convert a plain dollar store wall clock into a superhero mosaic of awesome! Marvel superheroes, DC superheroes, The Walking Dead, Sailor Moon, Attack on Titan – whatever images you can create can be used to make a killer looking clock!

With some basic Photoshop skills, a printer, glossy paper and the clock, once completed, your friend or family member will think you paid mucho money for a gift that was tailored to his/her specific tastes! They will thank you and so will your wallet.

And there is no need to stop at superheroes! This ‘Dollar Store Hack’ technique can be used to make a clock based on anything. Any character, any design…anything you know the recipient likes!

There is no stopping a creative imagination and with the help of your local dollar store, your gift list will reflect a level of inexpensive personalized zeal that will make both Santa and Scrooge Disco together during Christmas morning!

Star Wars Pod Racing, Using Drones

If you thought just flying a drone was challenging, try racing them through a wooded area

If you thought just flying a drone was challenging, try racing them through a wooded area

Flying drones such as hexacopters or even quadcopters can be a challenge but imagine the skill needed to fly those drones through obstacles and it becomes a completely new ballgame. Crashing those drones can be devastating considering most of them run a few hundred bucks or more and are designed as put-together kits almost like professional RC vehicles.

Knowing the risks associated with flying through obstacles, some professional drone enthusiasts from the Airgonay club in the French Alps designed a three-lap track to race drones through. It’s almost reminiscent of the pod racing scene in Star Wars Episode I or better yet the scene in Episode VI with the speeders racing on the moon of Endor.

In a recently released video, the enthusiasts must complete three laps on their challenging course while dodging trees and other drones without crashing. Most of the racers use VR/AR headsets in conjunction with a camera mounted to their drones to get a first person view while flying. The course is clearly marked in terms of direction so everyone knows which direction to fly through so the chance to flying against traffic is minimal.

Most accidents were minor during the race with damage limited to a few broken rotor blades but nothing catastrophic. The club hopes to outfit their drones with sensors in order to simulate laser blasts against other competitors sometime in the near future, giving the races a more sci-fi aspect. See more on Airgonay’s Facebook page.


How-To Video: Ghosts from Packing Tape

hand wrap

This project was inspired by my recent post about packing tape sculptures other people have made. I really wanted to try it out myself and show you guys just how easy it is to do!

To make this project you’ll need the following:

  • A large roll of clear packing tape,
  • A small roll of clear tape,
  • A weighted tape dispenser, and
  • A pair of scissors

Check out this video for the full how-to.


Don’t forget to add some LED lights to your sculpture to take it up an extra creepy notch. I just used some small flashlights I had handy (no pun intended).

These would make a wicked front lawn installation with rows of hands coming up from the ground. Now that I’ve got that image in your head, I hope you’ll grab a roll and start wrapping!


Kid Dresses Up as a Vending Machine and Other Inanimate Objects Every Year for Halloween


Redditor MoobyTheGoldenCalf appears to have turned the dynamics of the typical trick-or-treater to candy-giver relationship upside down with this ingenious vending machine costume that he made for his son this year. Although it doesn’t actually dispense snacks, there is something wonderfully poetic about the notion of depositing candy into a walking vending machine!

The front has a plastic/plexiglass sheet so that kids don’t run up to him and steal the chips. The slot on the right is the candy deposit slot, so the candy goes down a chute into the “push” bin section at the bottom. The inside of it has a piece of mirror film on the back of the chip area, so that he can see out, but people can’t see him. And the thing lights up too, which is probably a good idea as it’s just a black box from the back.


The vending machine costume is not the first time that MoobyTheGoldenCalf made his son a clever costume based on an inanimate object. Last year his son dress up as a fantastically functional mailbox, which also accepted candy deposits!


Other costumes from previous years include a traffic light (with a pedestrian crossing candy bucket!), a recycling bin, and a traffic cone. Not only am I seeing a distinct theme of objects controlled by municipal authorities here, I’m also seeing the development of an amazing collaborative relationship in which MoobyTheGoldenCalf gets to exercise a tremendous amount of creative ingenuity in response to his son’s unorthodox requests. I’d say Kudos, but in this case it looks like Cheetos might be more appropriate.



[via Technabob]

Allan’s Motorized Rat Rod Drift Trike

I was perusing twitter one day and saw this great picture, uploaded by Allan Carver. I quickly asked for more information and Allan was happy to oblige! Lets kick it off with a quick video to get you excited.


It all started when one of Allan’s neighbor’s noticed he had a propensity for ridiculous motorized contraptions, likely due to being spotted on this

A neighbor saw me driving around on an earlier build – a homemade motorized bike – and he dropped off a 49cc motor. Earlier the same morning I saw a drift trike, and the idea came quickly to build a front-wheel drive trike.

I had watched a few videos of rear-wheel drive drift trikes. But since the power wheels are also supposed to be the drift wheels, it seemed a front-wheel drive would work better.


Here are the details of the build:

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I cut the front end off a junked mountain bike, and modified the handlebars to remove the horn thingy and make it look sleeker. I got some pipe from the local scrap metal yard and fabricated the frame, which I welded to the bike front end. I used a 5/8” rod for the axle and bought two new go kart rims. The guy threw in two used tires for free. Yay. At a thrift shop, I found an old office chair for $5 and that became the seat. From the same scrap metal yard, I bought some angle iron and steel plate that I used to fabricate the motor mount. I made the mount hinged at the back and used adjustable connectors on the front so the friction drive can be adjusted easily. The friction drive itself was made from a piece of tubing with washers and collars welded to it so it. The donated motor had a 9/16” drive shaft. This was a problem. I couldn’t find a centrifugal clutch to fit. The solution was to use my mini lathe to make an adapter to slide over the shaft. This allowed me to use a clutch with a 1” bore. From there, it was a weld up a sprocket and bolt everything together. Things left to complete are to re-route the exhaust away from my face. Cough… cough… and I’m still honing in the best gear ratio, but it worked pretty good on its maiden run. Only crashed once… so far. I’m debating on whether to paint it or just clear it and add a horse skull to pay homage to Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell album (for no reason in particular).

We can’t wait to see the next thing to roll out of his shop, he hinted at a hubless version! Keep up the good work Allan!