A Machine Shop in A Toolbox: Just Add Time

You don’t need any fancy tools. A CNC machine is nice. A 3D printer can help. Laser cutters are just great. However, when it comes to actually making something, none of this is exactly necessary. With a basic set of hand tools and a few simple power tools, most of which can be picked up for a pittance, many things of surprising complexity, precision, and quality can be made.

Not as pretty, but worked just the same.
Not as pretty, but worked just the same.

A while back I was working on a ring light for my 3D printer. I already had a collection of LEDs, as all hackers are weak for a five-dollar assortment box. So I got on my CAD software of choice and modeled out a ring that I was going to laser cut out of plywood. It would have holes for each of the LEDs. To get a file ready for laser cutting ook around ten minutes. I started to get ready to leave the house and do the ten minute drive to the hackerspace, the ten minutes firing up and using the laser cutter (assuming it wasn’t occupied) and the drive back. It suddenly occurred to me that I was being very silly. I pulled out a sheet of plywood. Drew three circles on it with a compass and subdivided the circle. Under ten minutes of work with basic layout tools, a power drill, and a coping saw and I had the part. This was versus the 40 minutes it would have taken me to fire up the laser cutter.

A lot of the tools we use today were made to win against economies of scale. However, we’re often not doing any of that. We’re building one or two. Often the sheer set-up cost isn’t worth it. Likewise, the skill from being able to do it without the machine will come in handy. There’s an art to using a file properly and getting the expected result. So it’s good to take the time now to practice and develop the manual skills, you never know when you’ll be out trying to do an emergency fit on a part and no one in the area has a single milling machine just sitting around.

So what tools would a hacker need to get the closest to a machine shop without having one or spending too much money? For most needs a person can build a surprising amount of things with nothing more than the following tools.

Basic Metrology: Now if you really want to do precision work you may need more expensive tools, but often we are just spoiled by precision. We can design our parts with a little more wiggle room and just spend the time adjusting them.

  • Calipers – Since they are so cheap now, there is no reason not to own a simple digital or dial caliper. For most work this will be able to measure most things well enough for all practical purposes. Honestly if you’re building something that needs a full metrology suite you’re probably making it hard on yourself. This even goes for production work.
  • Rule – Not a ruler. A steel rule. This will have a ground flat edge and precise graduations. You can use this for layout.

    Chris over at Clickspring is always using the glued paper trick to do some very accurate work.
    Chris over at Clickspring is always using the glued paper trick to do some very accurate work.
  • Square – A carpenter’s combination square can be used for a lot of layout. It’s not as fantastically precise as a real machinists square, but I’ve yet to ever actually need the precision of a real machinist’s square for every day hacking.
  • Compass & Protractor – To be able to layout circles and angles is key. Buy a robust one rather than a nice one. The kind for school children is pretty good.
  • Scribe and Punch- Pencil and Permanent Marker- In lieu of layout fluid a permanent marker is enough to bring out scribed lines on metal. A pencil is great for the rest of the materials. Lastly a punch is essential for drilling holes.
  • Glue stick – With CAD software as amazing and free as it is there’s no reason not to just print out a template and glue it to your part. Contact cement or a simple glue stick is all you need

Working: Next comes working the material itself. Hand working typically happens in two steps. Bulk removal and fine removal. To do the first you need good layout and a bit of experience. To do the second you need even better layout, a godlike amount of patience, a strong back (or a workbench at the right height) and a way to hold the part firmly.

Trust me when I say I've worn out a lot of work gloves and these hold up the longest.
Trust me when I say I’ve worn out a lot of work gloves and these hold up the longest.
  • Stubby Knife (and cut proof gloves) – A knife that lets you get your fingers close to the work, such as an exacto blade or a utility knife. That being said I’m lucky to still have digits with full working ranges. It doesn’t matter how careful you are, it is statistically impossible to not eventually cut yourself with a knife. It then comes down to how damaging that cut will be. Most will hit the flesh of the hand and be relatively harmless, just painful. However, if you hit a tendon say goodbye to full range of motion forever and hello to surgery and picking up an instrument (source: Grew up with an occupational therapist as a parent, that’ll scare the gloves on ya). To that end I highly recommend a good set of kevlar cut-proof gloves. My absolute favorite is the Ansell Blue Nitrile Coated Kevlar HyFlex glove. They’re pricey but they last forever (I would go through five sets of leather gloves in the time it took me to start to see wear on the HyFlex) and give practically normal range of motion and feel for the work.
  • Big File – A coarse bastard file is a must have. If you can only afford one get one with a flat side and a round side. It will be a little difficult not to cut into right angles, but a bit of masking tape or a section of plastic can help with this. Also, the traditional brands like Nicholson can no longer be trusted, do some research before paying more than five bucks for a regular file these days. Only a few brands deliver a long-lasting file. Lastly, watch a few videos on the proper use of a file. If you do it right they’ll cut fast and last a long time.
  • Round File – A round file is useful for a staggering amount of things, but mostly for fitting holes and shaping radii.
  • Little Files – I recommend spending a bit on a nice quality set. One small round, small triangle, and small-D shaped file is a good start. I’d also recommend a small flat file with a safe side for sharpening corners.
  • Japanese Pull Saw – Wood is a great prototyping material and there is no better saw for general woodworking than a Japanese pull saw. If you want to get deeper into the craft then there is a reason for the other saws, but general joints, shaping, etc can be done quickly and precisely with the saw.
  • Hacksaw – A hacksaw can cut through any material as long as you buy the right blade and are willing to sweat. A good hacksaw frame can put a lot of tension on a blade without a lot of added bulk. If it has both a lever action and a thumb screw it is likely to be able to do this. A good hacksaw blade is almost never sold with the frame.

    The metal fabricator's handbook will blow your mind if you've ever wondered how people made armor or hot-rods. It's hard, but technically simple.
    The metal fabricator’s handbook will blow your mind if you’ve ever wondered how people made armor or hot-rods. It’s hard, but technically simple.
  • Coping Saw – Think of a coping saw as a manual laser cutter. There are some nice ones out there, but the blade is the important thing to buy. Weirdly they are getting harder to find these days. I think less people are using them but no shop should be without a coping saw.
  • Plier Set – A set of pliers. Needle Nose, End Cutters, Side Cutters, and Lineman’s is a good place to start.
  • Tongs – I define a tong as any plier that you’re going to heat up. Keep this one separate from your regular pliers. It’s also good for holding something while you beat on it with a hammer. You’ll probably break it eventually.
  • Clamp or Vise – No shop should be without some way of holding a piece firmly. This is one of your most important tools. Really high quality ones usually show up at garage sales or Craigslist; sold by ignorant family members. Look for one that has nice thick jaws and a flat area on the back.
  • Hammer and Scrap Wood – You’d be amazed at the shapes a person can draw out of regular sheet stock with a hammer and scrap wood. This is a must have for the shop. A regular claw hammer and a ball peen are an absolute necessity.

Modern Day Luxuries: There’s no need to stay completely manual though. With Horrible Freight right around the corner or slightly better alternatives for a premium at the home improvement shop there’s no need to to have a few modern luxuries.

A pencil torch and vise come together for a brazing operation.
A pencil torch and vise come together for a brazing operation.
  • Dremel – A cheap rotary tool will make quick work of a lot of shaping tasks. Definitely saves time and there are some things that can’t be done economically without one. Also good for feeding an endless stream of cutting disks into to cut sheet stock without deforming it. Saves time on polishing too if you want to get fancy. Have to be careful not to waste too much time setting-up and forcing this tool to do the work. It’s often considerably underpowered compared to some sweat and hand files.
  • Power Drill and Bits – There is absolutely no reason not to have a decent power drill these days. Get a corded one if you can’t swing the money for a nicer model cordless. This will drill holes, sand, and occasionally act as a shitty lathe. Especially handy if you just want to bring something round into a tolerance for some sort of fit. Get a decent set of drill bits unless you hate yourself. I bought a 30 dollar set with decent coatings and have been replacing the individual bits with their higher quality counterparts as I burn through them. I’m currently on my third 1/8th inch bit.

    Let's be honest. The hobby of 3D printing doesn't really save any time.
    Let’s be honest. The hobby of 3D printing doesn’t really save any time.
  • Pencil Torch – Lastly a good quality torch or pencil torch does wonders. I burned through a few cheaper torches before I finally dropped a hundred dollars on a good quality Portasol. With a torch one can heat treat metals, solder, braze, and more. A person can cut plastics, weld plastics, and shrink heat shrink. It’s an essential tool.

For the rest I wouldn’t go nuts. I’d file them under, “buy as you need”. Of course there are things like screwdrivers etc. but this was intended for shaping operations, not general repair. I would recommend buying, not a tap and die set exactly, but picking a size of fastener (in my case, M3, M6, and M8) and buying the tap, die, and drill set for those.

In the end most prototyping, even today, ends up with a hacker having to still do some 19th century work to get it to fit. However, if you’ve ever seen a real watchmaker at work, you’ll know just how ridiculously far you can get on knowledge of metal backed up by skill with a file.

I know there are a lot of you out there with more and similar experience than I have with this sort of thing. At what point do you resort to modern tools? Any tasks that you found went faster the old-fashioned way? Any tools that I missed? Hand work isn’t a fading skill by any measure, but it’s easy to forget about it with 3D printers as cheap as they are. However, for any technical person it adds instant worth and a far deeper understanding of design and fabrication if you can do it by hand.

Electronic Message In a Bottle

We remember going to grandfather’s garage. There he would be, his tobacco pipe clenched between his teeth, wisps of smoke trailing into the air around him as he focused, bent over another of his creations. Inside of a simple glass bottle was something impossible. Carefully, ever so carefully, he would use his custom tools to twist wire. He would carefully place each lead. Eventually when the time was right he would solder. Finally he’d place it on the shelf next to the others, an LED matrix in a bottle.

led-message-in-a-bottle-assemblyWell, maybe not, but [Mariko Kosaka]’s father [Kimio Kosaka] has done it. In order to build the matrix, he needed tools that could reach inside the mouth of the bottle without taking up too much space to allow for precise movement. To do this he bent, brazed, twisted, and filed piano wire into tools that are quite beautiful by themselves. These were used to carefully bend and position the LEDs, wires, and other components inside the bottle.

Once the part was ready, he used a modified Hakko soldering iron to do the final combination. We wonder if he even had to be careful to solder quickly so as not to build up a residue on the inside of the bottle? The electronics are all contained inside the bottle. One of the bottles contained another impressive creation of his: an entire Arduino with only wire, dubbed the Arduino Skeleton. Batteries are attached to the cork so when the power runs low it can be removed and replaced without disturbing the creation.

It’s a ridiculous labor of love, and naturally, we love it. There’s a video of it in operation as well as one with him showing how it was done which is visible after the break. He showed them off at the Tokyo Maker Faire where they were surely a hit.

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Intel Makes A Cool Robot Brain In Latest Attempt to Pry Hackers From Their Wallets

Hackerboards got a chance to sit down with Intel’s latest attempt to turn hackers into a willing and steady revenue stream, the, “Euclid.” The board is cool in concept, a full mini computer with stereo cameras, battery, Ubuntu, and ROS nicely packaged together.

We would be more excited if we knew how much it costs, but in principle the device is super cool. From a robotics research perspective it’s a sort of perfect package. ROS is a wonderful distributed and asynchronous robotic operating system, test, and development platform. The Intel developers designed this unit around the needs of ROS and it comes pre-installed on the camera.

For those who haven’t used ROS before, this is a really cool feature. ROS is natively distributed. It really doesn’t care where the computer supplying its data lives. So, for example, if you already had a robot and wanted to add stereo vision to it. You could offload all the vision processing components of your existing ROS codebase to the Euclid and continue as if nothing changed.

The other option is to use the board as the entire robot brain. It’s self contained with battery and camera. It’s a USB to serial connection away from supercharging any small robotics project.

Unfortunately the board is still a demo, and based on Intel’s history, likely to be too expensive to lure ordinary hackers away from the RasPis and import cameras they already know how to hack together into more or less the same thing. Universities will likely be weak at the knees for such a development though.

Yak Shaving: Hacker Mode vs Maker Mode

When I start up a new project, one that’s going to be worth writing up later on, I find it’s useful to get myself into the right mindset. I’m not a big planner like some people are — sometimes I like to let the project find its own way. But there’s also the real risk of getting lost in the details unless I rein myself in a little bit. I’m not alone in this tendency, of course. In the geek world, this is known as “yak shaving“.

The phrase comes obliquely from a Ren and Stimpy episode, and refers to common phenomenon where to get one thing done you have to first solve another problem. The second problem, of course, involves solving a third, and so on. So through this (potentially long) chain of dependencies, what looks like shaving a yak is obliquely working on cracking some actually relevant problem.
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Hot Wire Strippers are Probably The Best Tool You Aren’t Using

I wanted to point out a tool that I often use, but rarely see on other people’s workbenches: thermal strippers. They aren’t cheap, but once you’ve used them, it is hard to go back to stripping wires with an ordinary tool.

I know, I know. When I first heard of such a thing, I thought what you are probably thinking now: maybe for some exotic coated wire, but for regular wire, I just use a pair of diagonal cutters or a mechanical stripper or a razor blade. You can do that, of course, and for large solid wires, you can even get good results. But for handling any kind of wire, regardless of size, you just can’t beat a thermal stripper.

Continue reading “Hot Wire Strippers are Probably The Best Tool You Aren’t Using”

Hacklet 115 – More Quick Tool Hacks

Some of the best hacks are the tools people make to help them complete a project. I last looked at quick tool hacks back in Hacklet 53. Hackers have been busy since then, and new projects have inspired new tools. This week on the Hacklet, I’m taking  a look at some of the best new quick tool hacks on Hackaday.io.

pickupWe start with [rawe] and aquarium pump vacuum pickup tool. Tweezers work great for resistors and caps, but once you start trying to place chips and other large parts, things quickly become frustrating. Commercial machines use high dollar vacuum pickup devices to hold parts. [rawe] built his own version using a cheap Chinese hand pickup tool and an aquarium pump. With some pumps, switching from air to vacuum is easy. Not with [rawe’s] pump. He had to break out the rotary tool and epoxy to make things work. The end result was worth it, a vacuum pickup tool for less than 10 Euro.



Next we have [David Spinden] with ViaConnect Circuit Board Test Tool, his entry in the 2016 Hackaday Prize. [David] wanted a spring loaded pin which could be used in .100 holes in printed circuit boards. He ended up using pins from one connector, shell from another, and packaging the whole thing up into a new tool. ViaConnect essentially makes any PCB as easy to use as a solderless breadboard. No headers required. This is great both for testing new designs and for the education sector.

Allen tool holderNext up is our favorite quick tool hacker, [Alex Rich] with Improved Allen Wrench / Hex Key Holder. If [Alex] looks familiar, that’s because he’s the creator of the Stickvise. This time he’s come up with a new way to store and organize your Allen wrenches. Inspired by a similar device seen on a YouTube video from [Tom Lipton], [Alex] opened up his CAD software and started designing. The original used a steel spring to keep the wrenches in place. [Alex] switched the spring to a rubber o-ring. The o-ring securely holds the wrenches, but allows them to be easily pulled out for use. Of course the design is open source, so building your own is only a couple of hours of printing away!



solderdoodFinally we have [Solarcycle] with Cordless Foam Cutting Tool – USB Rechargeable. Soldering irons make a lot of heat in a small area to melt metal. Foam cutters make heat in a larger area to cut Styrofoam. [Solarcycle] saw the relation and converted a Solderdoodle Pro cordless soldering iron into a banjo style hot wire foam cutter. A barrel connector converts the soldering iron tip output to two stiff wires. The stiff wires carry current to a 3 cm length of Kanthal iron-chromium-aluminium (FeCrAl) heating element wire. If you don’t have any Kanthal around, ask your local vape enthusiast – they have tons of it. The result is the perfect hand-held tool for carving and sculpting in foam. Just make sure to have lots of ventilation.

If you want to see more of these hacks, check out our newly updated quick tool hacks list! See a project I might have missed? Don’t be shy, just drop me a message on Hackaday.io. That’s it for this week’s Hacklet, As always, see you next week. Same hack time, same hack channel, bringing you the best of Hackaday.io!

A Very Tidy Circular Saw Bench

If your parents had a workshop as you grew up, the chances are it harbored some tools you came to know and love as you used them for your formative projects. Our reader [Joerg]’s father for instance has a circular saw bench that [Joerg] sorely misses, now living over 500km away. Our subject today is his response to this problem, now needing to cut aluminium he set about creating a  saw bench of his own, and the result is a rather nice build.

table-sawHe put together a variety of CAD models to formulate his ideas, and arrived at a structure in 18mm waterproof plywood with moving table linear bearings. The saw blade itself was mounted on a 5mm aluminum plate, though he doesn’t tell us what motor it uses. All the wooden parts came from a single sheet of plywood, and the result is a very tidy creation indeed.

Power saws are among the more hazardous tools in your workshop arsenal, whatever their type. If this was a commercial saw it would probably have a guard over the top of its blade, but even without that its sturdy construction and relatively low profile blade make this one stand above some of the more basic home-made saws we’ve seen. Building a power saw is something you have to take seriously.

We’ve featured quite a few home-made saws over the years. At least one other large table saw, a rather powerful but surprisingly tiny saw bench, this scroll saw using a sewing machine mechanism, or how about this simple jigsaw table?