Category Archives: Gadgets and Gizmos

We’re Back

This blog has been very quiet for quite awhile.  We have continued to spend time in the shop, attend WIA 2012, and much more…but things have managed to prevent me from posting here.  I am going to try to begin posting again.  Posts will be shorter and less polished, so maybe I will do them more often.

For instance, below is a photo of a simple-stupid jig that I made to help us to reload skeet shells.  When putting lead or powder into a MEC 9000 bottle, you need three hands to hold the bottle upright while the funnel is on the top and you pour it in.  Below is a simple jig to hold the bottle upright.


“Primo” Grill/Smoker Cart Complete!

Here it is!  The “Primo” ceramic smoker cart is complete!   The project only took about two afternoons to complete including designing and buying the materials.  I am pleased with the result.

The cart is made from standard pressure-treated lumber from Home Depot for the legs and the horizontal structural components (just 4×4 and 2×4 material) and Trex-brand composite decking for the shelf and top surfaces.  Since Trex cannot support much weight, the pressure-treated lumber was necessary for the structural components.

I basically copied the overall cart design from the photographs of the cart that Primo sells on their website.  I used the dimensions that they listed on their price-sheet as my guide to overall size.   I even copied the “curve” to the front edge of the top surface.

They made their version from Cypress wood, and I considered doing the same….but the cost did not seem to be worth it, and I went with Home-Depot-available materials.

I placed four 12x12x1 concrete pads onto the bottom shelf underneath the grill to protect the Trex shelf from heat.  These were just paving stones from Home Depot at about a dollar each.  I placed them as close to the front edge of the bottom shelf as possible, so that when cleaning ash out of the grill it will fall onto the concrete and not onto the Trex.

The wheels are replacement solid-rubber handcart wheels also purchased from Home Depot.  Since this grill and cart are HEAVY (I’m guessing north of 500 lbs between them), I did not want to use inflatable wheels that could go flat easily.  The front wheels are industrial-rated swiveling casters from Woodcraft.

I cut the opening for the grill and the curve on the cart top with a jig saw after making and tracing a paper template onto the cart top.  After cutting with the jigsaw, I sanded the edges smooth with a palm and a belt-sander and then routed a small radius on the top edge to finish it.  The routed edge really makes a difference in the final look of the cart.

I liked working with the Trex material, it was easy to cut, route and sand.  It is heavy (much heavier than wood) and expensive though. ..about $18 for 1x6x8.   But, since it will last forever with no maintenance, it guess it makes up for the cost in the long-run.

Finally, note my “grill bucket” that is sitting on top of the cart in the first picture.  This is just a 5-gallon bucket with a Bucket Boss placed on it (also from Home Depot).  I have found that this arrangement works great for carrying my grilling tools, etc in and out of the house between grilling sessions.

Happy Woodworking 2007!

Happy New Year All,

The holiday break this year provided me with more shop time than most years (one of the benefits of my 2006 career change).  Also, I received several nice woodworking and garden train related Christmas gifts.  Plus, my 7-year old son received some of the coolest toys so far…many gadget related…I think that I like them as much as he does….Lego Mindstorms NXT and a toy microscope that allows you to upload images to the PC among them.   The microscope does not work and needs to be exchanged, but I look forward to trying it with him.

Over the next few days I will be posting some of my observations on the new tools (and toys), as well as some comments about the significant progress made on the desk project.  I will likely be moving to the dry-fit stage on the desk carcasses by the end of the month.

Additionally, my Shop-Vac (6 months old) stopped working again and the workshop is now a complete dust-bowl.  Not healthy for anyone.   Its my second Shop-Vac in 2 years.  I need to solve the saw dust control problem once and for all and I do not think that Shop-Vac brand will be in the solution.  More posts about that soon too.

Nixie Clock is complete!

Photos below.  I made the base plate out of a scrap of cherry and purchased a clear cover that was intended for some sort of collectible.  Works well and looks good.  Two black buttons on top-view photo are used to set the clock’s time.

Nixie Clock Nearly Complete

Over the past few days I have nearly completed the Nixie clock…but not without some help from the kits creator Peter Jensen.  I had some difficulty with the micro-controller (due to my own mistake, not due to Peter’s kit design) and Peter provided me with excellent service, including some "free" replacement parts. 

The clock is now functioning and keeping time perfectly, and it looks as cool in person as it does on Peter’s website.  Next step for me is to build the case, and then the clock is complete!  I will post some photos when the case is finished.

This project did exactly what I wanted it to do, it taught me to work with SMDs, and next time my workmanship on these tiny solders will be much prettier!  I highly recommend this kit.

Surface Mount Device (SMD) Soldering

The Nixie clock project is requiring me to learn a new skill – Surface Mount Device (SMD) soldering.

An SMD is a small electronic component with many small pins down to 0.5mm that need to be individually attached to contact pads on the surface of a printed circuit board.   The pads are very close together, and you must be very careful to not cause solder "bridges" between the pads.

For a machine, this installation is an easy job.  For a human it is more difficult…and for me it is VERY difficult.  But that’s why this blog is called "A Learning Adventure."  Soldering SMDs is my "adventure" for the Nixie project.

The following two web sites have SMD hand-soldering tutorials.  Several different methods exist for soldering SMDs, and I will try a couple of them on this project.

This website has three different methods:

This website shows the "flood and suck" method that Peter recommends for the Nixie kit:

The Nixie kit has two driver chips that require SMD soldering, and I successfully used the "flood and suck" method to install the first one, but I permanently damaged the second driver chip using this method. I learned that you NEVER use a sharp, pointed instrument to scrape out a solder bridge…you will destroy the chip (or at least "I" will).  Always use the copper braid removal method instead.

So, I’ve ordered a replacement driver chip from Peter Jensen, and when it arrives I will try again.

Nixie Tube Clock Project

The latest issue of Make Magazine featured another Nixie Tube clock maker maker and his kits.  His name is Peter Jensen and he operates

A good definition of a Nixie tube is found on Wikipedia (click here).   According to Wikipedia:

“The Nixie display was developed by a small vacuum tube manufacturer called Haydu Brothers Laboratories, and introduced in 1954 by Burroughs Corporation, who purchased Haydu and owned the name Nixie as a trademark. Similar devices that functioned in the same way were patented in the 1920s, and the first mass-produced display tubes were introduced in the late 1930s by National Union Co. and Telefunken. However, their construction was cruder, and they failed to find many applications until digital electronics reached a suitable level of development in the 1950s.

“Nixie tubes were superseded in the 1970s by light-emitting diodes (LEDs), often in the form of seven-segment displays. LEDs are better suited to the low voltages that integrated circuits used, and are much smaller and sturdier without needing a sealed glass tube. Nixie tubes now only exist as a novelty for electronics hobbyists.”

Regardless of their history or practicality, they look really cool, and I couldn’t resist building one of Peter’s clock kits for my office.

I ordered one from Peter, and the kit is of excellent quality with well labeled parts and great instructions.   I began the kit a couple of night ago and will report again as I make progress.  Peter’s kits use new (but old-stock from the space race era) Russian made Nixie tubes, and they definitely have that cold-war aura about them.


Once again, its been a while since I have posted.

A lot has changed recently, not the least of which is that I have changed jobs.  I am now the Executive Director of a new research center called CenSCIR at Carnegie Mellon University.  This has been a great change for me, and I am really enjoying the University atmosphere and the increased exposure to fellow tinkerers.  Although, I have to admit that they are all at a significantly higher level of "tinkering" than I am!   Enough about that, this blog is not about work!

The new job has kept me out of the workshop a bit more than usual (plus it has been to sunny in Pittsburgh to spend time inside), but I’m getting the itch to get back to my projects.

I did spend some time trying to cut the decorative ebony plugs for the Greene & Greene desks.  I am trying to use a method that was explained in a recent issue of Fine Woodworking Magazine.  This method allows you drill traditional round holes into the mahogany and then insert square ebony pegs with short round dowels attached to the backs into the round holes.  Thereby reducing some of the gaps that may show in a traditional "mortised"peg hole (at least when done by an amateur like me).

On paper, this method looks good, but I am breaking about 50% of the ebony pegs during the final steps of making them, and this is just too much breakage (I need to make about 28 of these plugs).  I need to work on this method a bit more.

Old scanner becomes light table

Our old flatbed scanner for the computer recently died and we replaced it with a new multi-function printer.  Of course, I saved the old scanner in the basement for some reason.

Well, my wife recently asked me to build her a small light table for her to use to copy the paper patterns that she uses for quilting.   I started to design one in my head, and then decided that if I just pull all of the guts out of the old scanner and replace them with a fluorescent light bulb (so as to not generate too much heat), I’d have light table.   I also put a translucent piece of plastic under the glass top of the scanner bed to diffuse the light from the light bulb a bit.

It works.  Half an hour and some spare parts from the shop and we have a portable light table.  Good use for an old scanner if you have one.

Visible Computer Complete and New Garden Train Point-to-Point Device

Once again, its been a bit of time since I have last posted.  Work and other things have intervened in workshop time again…and even more into my time to post here.

Since I last posted, my son and I completed the “visible computer” project.  It turned out very well and has met all of our expectations, and it was fun too.  It has become my primary PC at home.  I’ll probably build all of our computers from now on, rather than buy them.  I like the control over the design that it gives, even without any price advantages…and it is not hard to do.

After the completion of the PC, I went back to trying to complete the new point-to-point garden railway line in our backyard.   As I noted in a previous post, I had installed all of the track and then tried to use an old analog LGB point-to-point electronic circuit to control the train.  The device just would not operate properly, and I eventually decided that it was defective (it had not been out of the box in probably 7 years or more and so was way out of warranty).

A little Internet research turned up a fellow tinkerer and a fascinating guy named Dave Bodnar, just on the other side of Pittsburgh, who is doing some amazing things with micro-controllers for garden trains.   He recently published articles in Garden Railways Magazine and in on using these small, inexpensive programmable devices in railroading.  He is a fan of the UK-based PICAXE-type controllers in particular.    In his recent article for LSOL, Dave presented his new BARC (Basic Auto-Reverse Controller) point-to-point controller for G-scale trains.  He explains how to build them if you like electronics, but he also will build them for you and sells them through his website I have found Dave to be a wealth of knowledge that he freely provides, and he gives excellent support for his products too.   While I wanted to build one, to save time I bought one of Dave’s for now.   It works great!  Far more features than the LGB model, easy installation and overall better design.  I am very impressed.

Dave has inspired me to try and build up my very limited knowledge of electronics, and I have read a few basic primers in recent weeks to scrape the rust off of the knowledge that I do have.  I’ve added “learn to build with micro-controllers” to my ever growing list of future projects.

I “helped” Dave to refine the design of his BARC a bit, by screwing up the first one that he sent me for him (I’m good at that).  Apparently “electronically noisy” train engines (i.e., not well made) can cause electronic feedback to travel back along the rails and into the outputs from the BARC.   This apparently can scramble the BARCs brains and ruin the unit.  After some emailing with Dave, we determined that my Lionel brand G-scale Thomas the Tank Engine was causing such noise and had destroyed the first BARC.  Dave immediately shipped me a new unit, and he has now added a small capacitor on the back of the BARC that will prevent this occurrence on his future models.  The BARC now runs perfectly.   You just can’t get that kind of support from a big manufacturer.   That’s why I love working with fellow tinkerers whenever I can.

I also added three of the perforated aluminum “tunnels” to the track where our plants threaten to overtake the rail line.  I came up with this technique at our old railroad at the other house, and it worked great.

Just buy the approximately 3’x3′ decorative aluminum sheets that are sold by Home Depot as covers for old-fashioned hot-water heat radiators, and bend them into a tunnel shape and place them over the rail.  The perforations in the aluminum (they come in many patterns and several colors) make the tunnels look very much like some kind of arboretum or station enclosure, and they will never rust.  I will post photos here shortly.

Visible Computer Build Begins

My son and I made significant progress on the “visible computer” project this past weekend.  We installed the power-supply, motherboard, processor, memory and most of the drives.   The rest of the parts should come this week and then we will finish the physical build of the machine and then move on to the BIOS, OS, etc.

This really has turned out to be a great teaching tool as I had hoped it would.  We discussed what every part does and then my son installed it with my help.   He will definitely remember it by “doing” it.  He had a ball wearing the anti-static wrist band attached to our basement pipes…he looks very official.

So far, I am basically pleased with my part selections.  The MSI motherboard seems excellent.  The case is well made in general.  The clear acrylic is thick and well put together, but the power plugs for the included case-fans are cheaply made and bent, and the front on/off switch and reset buttons seem
VERY cheap and poorly made.  The reset button sticks because the hole in the case is too tight. I will remove the button and widen the hole.  For the price and the fact that it is the only completely clear case that I could find, I am pleased overall in spite of the case’s shortcomings.

Make Magazine

I’ve found a new magazine that I really like.  Its called "Make."  Make
is hard to describe, but basically its "Popular Mechanics" for techno-geeks or gizmo DIYers.  It comes out four times a year in almost
book-like form (similar to a National Geographic magazine in size and
print quality), and is filled with mostly for-fun articles about
gadgets and gizmos that can be built in your workshop if you have the
time, patience and talent to do it.

Now, these are NOT "how to install a new sink in your bathroom" DIY
articles, these are "how to build an RC lawnmower with a hybrid
gas-electric motor" type articles…yikes!  I love it.  These people make my CNC-driven Etch-a-Sketch machine look normal.