Stuff I made in 2017

This year has been a year of making – mostly jobs around the house and garden.  It’s been great fun and I thought I’d document some of the projects here for posterity.

Mini-Billy

First make of the year was a mini Ikea Billy bookcase. It only took a couple of hours, but it was very satisfying indeed (and saw me joining the millions of Ikea hackers on the internet).

We’d put three large bookcases across a wall in our living room, but this left a bit of a gap at one side, not quite wide enough for one of the smaller bookcases.  Since I didn’t have anything but the bandsaw at the time, I made a crude fence to ensure a straight and consistent cut and proceeded to chop all the shelves down to size.  Since you can’t see the sides of the bookcase itself, you can’t see the wood screws I used to secure the shelves!

The Lawn

Undoubtedly the hardest thing I’ve ever made (physically at least), this project saw me carting several tons of soil and hardcore backwards and forwards, and laying turf in rainy and miserable weather.  The results are pretty awesome though.  Our garden now has plenty of space for the kids to practice cartwheels and generally go bananas.

Laying the brick edging round the lawn was incredibly difficult because I foolishly decided to mix all the cement by hand. For future projects I’ll buy or hire a cement mixer!

The Barbecue

Having been given a welder (thanks Dad!) and an oil drum (thanks Mother in Law!) for Christmas, and with the lawn out of action, the next project on the list was a new barbecue.  I used some heavy gauge, 100-year old steel fence posts rescued from a friend’s garden to make a solid base, then chopped up the oil drum before adding hinges, a chimney and a grill.

The chimney is made of old welding gas bottles, chopped and welded into a tube and the side tables and bottom shelf are made of pallet wood from the turf delivery for the lawn so the total materials cost was no more than some hinges and a couple of oven shelves from eBay!

The Playhouse

With a newly cleared gap in the bottom corner of the garden, it seemed only fitting to build a playhouse for the girls!  This was pretty expensive, with most of the timber, cladding and OSB coming from the timber merchants.  Not to mention over 800 wood screws!

I built the house in pre-fab sections, since there was very little room on the “site”, I had to complete each section then lift it into place and secure it with screws on the inside.  I deliberately left everything as “wonky” as possible, aiming for a gingerbread house sort of look.

The windows are made of 10mm perspex (found in a skip!) which worked really well as it’s the same thickness as the OSB skin on the walls.  This meant I could attach the windows and OSB together in square sections then screw the window frames and cladding over the top in whatever shape I wanted.

The roof is OSB too, with 250+ wooden tiles made from pallet wood nailed on.  I should have left bigger gaps between the tiles though, a few months on they have expanded in the rain and lifted in places.

The Mood Bot

I haven’t done many software projects this year, but the Mood Bot is one I’m quite happy with.  It’s a Slack integration which tests a team’s mood and draws some pretty graphs.  You can read more about it here.

The Coffee Table

Well, actually it’s more of a TV stand for the loft conversion in our house, which we converted into a study/second living room this year.  The table top is a slab of oak and the legs are 25x50mm steel box section.  I’m pretty happy with the results, but I need to find a tougher, child-resistant finish!

The Map

While looking for an unusual picture for the top room, we thought about buying some kind of world map.  This led me to start looking at Mapserver again, and ultimately the creation of this map of Thatcham.  We got it printed on a canvas by one of those online photo companies and I matched the colours to our garish new sofa!

The Skull Mask

For one of this year’s work events we were supposed to dress for a “masked ball”.  I couldn’t find any masks I liked on the internet and I left it too late to go to a fancy dress shop, so the weekend before the party I headed out to the garage and started snipping and hammering some scrap steel from an old office letter tray.  I was very pleased with the results, but sadly proceeded to get so drunk I left the mask itself behind!  I might have to make another…

So all in all it’s been a make-tastic year.  I’ll have to start thinking about what projects to do in 2018 – though I suspect a new desk for the top room, a snazzy interior for the playhouse and maybe an electric rotisserie for the barbecue are on the cards at some stage…

Smoker

A few weeks ago I made a smoker out of an exhaust pipe and two old party-balloon helium cylinders. Since then I have smoked many a brisket! Check out the pics.

The Chuffer

I just completed my second ever air engine: The Chuffer. With this project I decided that I’d go for complexity, rather than the simplistic approach I took when I built The Wobbler earlier this year.

The Chuffer is a twin-cylinder double acting engine – which means each of its two cylinders both push and pull the piston. This means it operates much more smoothly and can self-start as there’s always a piston on a power stroke, regardless of where the flywheel is.

Unlike its predecessor, the Chuffer has fixed cylinders and airflow is controlled by two spool valves, operated by eccentrics next to the flywheel via some pushrods and a hopelessly over-engineered lever mechanism.

And of course everything was made by yours truly, in the garage, from chunks of brass, steel and aluminium bar and flat stock I bought on eBay. Needless to say, I have learned a lot since I started the project this February!

What’s next? Well, maybe a Watt Governor or a little generator

The Wobbler

I made a Wobbler! A single acting, oscillating air engine, to be precise. I was inspired by the amazing Tubalcain, who’s YouTube channel has been the source of many top tips and the cause of many late nights. Though the design of the wobbler wasn’t new to me, the old Mamod steam engine I had when I was a kid used the same principle.

The wobbler is probably the simplest engine design there is. I tried to to a nice job of this one, though didn’t go overboard with the look of the thing – I don’t see the point of pretending it’s not made from some bits and bobs I has knocking about in the garage! Here are some photos:

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Fixing the gear stick

For the last couple of weeks, gear changes in The Duke have been very hard work. The tiny pin which stops the stick spinning sheared off, adding a new element of drama to my commute.

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The original pin had sheared and was stuck in the channel in the ball at the base of the stick.

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So I had to strip the whole thing down.

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The pin and the thread on the hole were totally ruined, so I had to think if something new.

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I drilled out the hole

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Then tapped it with an M8 thread. Much bigger and stronger than the old one.

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Then turned down a set screw on the lathe

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And heat treated it with case hardening compound, which will hopefully stop it getting squashed and bent.

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I doubt there are many Land Rovers on the road with the original rubber blob on the base of the great stick. It’s meant to prevent vibrations but was totally worn away.

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So I turned a replacement out of nylon and hammered it on.

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At 19.3mm diameter is a snug fit on my spare gearbox and should help prevent rattles and make gears a bit easier to find.

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All in all I’m very happy with my evening’s work. Just need the sun to come up so I can put it all back together again!

Build Status Traffic Lights

Recently I got the time to knock up a set of build status traffic lights for the office. It’s likely that I am the world’s greatest fan of Continuous Integration. I’m not going to bang on about why it’s a good idea here, suffice it to say that anyone who isn’t rabidly devoted to the greenness of the build will surely pay the price in time.

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The lights themselves are from eBay. They were 24v and fitted with huge great bulbs which left no room inside for anything else. I swapped these out for some 12v LED brake light bulbs, which are fitted into some DIY holders made of nylon bar and odds and sods. Looking back, I’d have just soldered a load of LEDs to a circle of stripboard, but I went with what I had at the time.

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The lights are switched by two of these great little relay boards. Each one comes assembled and ready to go – they just need connections for 5v, ground and signal. If I’d have gone with the DIY LEDs-on-stripboard design I guess I could have used a transistor circuit but I do love the loud mechanical clunk that the relays make when the lights change. It adds to the antique feel of the project. I did use stripboard to make a “shield” to connect the relay cables to an old Arduino I had knocking about.

It’s worth noting that you can get an Arduino relay shield (and I do in fact have one in the garage) but it seemed like overkill to use such an expensive board, with twice as many relays as I needed.

Power for the lamps is supplied by a 12v wall adaptor I got from Maplins. Again, a custom LED solution would have allowed me to use the 5v USB supply… but hindsight is richer than I am. I installed a line socket for the power, so when the PAT testing man comes round the office he won’t test the lights, just the wall supply.

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The arduino inside the lights implements a very simple serial protocol. It listens for commands “red”, “green” and “off”, terminated with a newline. There’s a USB connection to the old laptop which drives our Information Radiator TV; the idea with the traffic lights was to keep all the intelligence on the PC end to make upgrades and changes easier. Here’s the arduino code. Told you it was simple!

const int redPin = 2;
const int greenPin = 3;
int redState = LOW;
int greenState = LOW;
long interval = 1000;
String inputString = "";
boolean stringComplete = false;

void setup() {
  inputString.reserve(200);  
  
  pinMode(redPin, OUTPUT);      
  pinMode(greenPin, OUTPUT);    

  Serial.begin(9600);
}

void loop()
{
  if(stringComplete) {
    stringComplete = false;

    if (inputString.equalsIgnoreCase("off")) {
      redState = LOW;
      greenState = LOW;
    }
    else if (inputString.equalsIgnoreCase("red")) {
      redState = HIGH;
      greenState = LOW;
    }
    else if(inputString.equalsIgnoreCase("green")) {
      redState = LOW;
      greenState = HIGH;
    }

    inputString = "";
  }

  digitalWrite(redPin, redState);
  digitalWrite(greenPin, greenState);
}

void serialEvent() {
  while (Serial.available()) {
    char inChar = (char)Serial.read();

    if (inChar == '\n') {
      stringComplete = true;
    }
    else if(inChar != '\r') {
      inputString += inChar;
    }
  }
}

The code on the PC end is a little more complex, but all the heavy lifting is done by Team City Sharp which connects to our Team City server and get the status of our multitude of builds. The only other complicated thing it does is open a serial port and dump the commands “red” and “green” to show the build status. It also sends “off” at 7 o’clock in the evening… just in case a red light shining from an office window at midnight were to attract the attention of the local constabulary.

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Over Engineering the Barbecue

Our trusty old barbecue is getting old.  I think it’s about five or six years old now and it’s lived all that time outside in the garden, summer and winter, sun and (usually) rain.  It might make financial sense to blow £50 on a new one, but I really like ours.  Much better to refurbish it using scrap bits and bobs and the tools in the garage.

The lid and bowl are fine, but most of the ironwork is made of poor quality pressed steel, less than a millimetre thick.  I have already replaced the hinges with some rock-solid 3mm steel ones, born of a sheet of scrap and my own blood sweat and tears.  This weekend I decided to replace the vent jobbie in the lid.

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I used some aluminium salvaged from an old computer case and the rotary table on the mill. The vast majority of the time was spent setting things up. After that I got the job done in an hour or so. The hardest job was to centre the rotary table on the mill. In the end I made a tool to do it. I turned a steel rod down to 16mm on one end to fit into the hole in the middle of the rotary table and 19mm at the other end to fit the largest collet I have.

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I slackened the bolts holding the rotary to the mill table, bunged my new tool in the mill and into the rotary table, got it all centred and tightened the bolts. After that the rest was easy!

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For next time, the formula for making these things is as follows, using a 3mm end mill:

From centre, with rotary set at 0 degrees
Wind X out to 15mm
Tool down
X out to 40mm
Rotate 20 degrees clockwise
X in to 15mm
Rotate 20 degrees anticlockwise
Tool up (and clean off all the crap!)
Rotate 60 degrees clockwise
Start again!