Simple Hand Tools Turn Brass and Steel Into An Amazing Astrolabe

There’s something enchanting about ancient tools and instruments. The idea that our forebears were able to fashion precision mechanisms with nothing but the simplest hand tools is fascinating. And watching someone recreate the feat, such as by building an astrolabe by hand, can be very appealing too.

The astrolabe is an ancient astronomical tool of incredible versatility, allowing the user to do everything from calculating when the sun will rise to predicting the positions of dozens of stars in the night sky. That it accomplishes all this with only a few moving parts makes it all the more fascinating. [Uri Tuchman] began the astrolabe build shown in the video below with only a few hand tools. He quickly had his fill of the manual fretsaw work, though, and whipped up a simple scroll saw powered by an old sewing machine foot treadle to speed up his work. The real treat though is the hand engraving, a skill that [Uri] has clearly mastered. We couldn’t help musing that a CNC router could do the same thing so much more quickly, but watching [Uri] do it was so much more satisfying. Everything about the build really makes a statement, from the contrasting brass and steel parts to the choice of complex Arabic script for the markings. [Uri] has another video that goes over astrolabe basics and his design process that’s well worth watching too.

While it’s nowhere near as complicated an instrument, this astrolabe puts us in the mood to watch the entire Clickspring clock build again. And [Chris] is working on his own ancient instrument build at the moment, recreating the Antikythera mechanism. We can’t wait to binge-watch that one too.

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Video Shows Power Isn’t Everything In Laser Engraving

When it comes to power tools, generally speaking more watts is better. But as laser maestro [Martin Raynsford] shows, watts aren’t everything. He shares a brief video showing his older 100 W laser being handily outperformed by a newer 30 W machine. Shouldn’t the higher power laser be able to do the same job in less time? One might think so, but wattage isn’t everything. The 30 W laser engraves and cuts a wooden tile in just under half the time it takes the 100 W machine to do the same job, and with a nicer end result, to boot.

Why such a difference? Part of the answer to that question lies in that the newer machine has better motion control and can handle higher speeds, but the rest is due to the tubes themselves. The older 100 W machine uses a DC-excited (big glass water-cooled tube) CO2 laser, and the newer 30 W machine uses an RF-excited laser that looks a bit like a big metal heat sink instead of oversized lab glassware. Both tubes output what is essentially the same beam, but the RF tube is overall capable of a more refined, more stable, and more finely focused point than that of the glass tube. Since engraving uses only a small fraction of even the 30 W laser’s power, the finer control that the RF laser has over the low end of the power scale results in a much higher quality engraving.

Embedded below is a short video showing both machines engraving and cutting the same tile, side by side. You may wish to consider watching this one full screen, to better see the fine details.

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Walnut Windfall Winds up in Custom Keyboard

When a neighbor decided to cut down a walnut tree, [voluhar] decided to make something of the wood. The result was this custom keyboard that combines wood and metal in a lovely and functional package.

Walnut is a wood with a rich heritage in consumer electronics. Back in the early days of TV, huge console sets were built into solid walnut cabinets and proudly displayed along with the other fine furnishings in a home. [voluhar]’s keyboard captures a little of that spirit while retaining all the functionality you’d expect. From the custom PCB to the engraved aluminum key caps, it looks like every part was machined with a CNC router. The keyboard sports satisfyingly clicky Cherry MX switches, and a few cleverly positioned LEDs provide subtle feedback on the state of the locking keys. As for the imperfections in the walnut case, we think it just adds to the charm and warmth of the finished product, which would look great on any desktop.

Wood has appeared in a couple of custom keyboards that we’ve featured before, like this all-wood version. But if you want the retro look without the wood, you could always try a keyboard built out of a typewriter.

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Brass Clock Face Etched With PCB Techniques

Over the last few months, [Chris] has been machining a timepiece out of brass and documenting the entire process on his YouTube channel. This week, he completed the clock face. The clock he’s replicating comes from a time before CNC, and according to [Chris], the work of engraving roman numerals on a piece of brass would have been sent out to an engraver. Instead of doing things the traditional way, he’s etching brass with ferric chloride. It’s truly artisan work, and also provides a great tutorial for etching PCBs.

[Chris] is using a photoresist process for engraving his clock dial, and just like making PCBs, this task begins by thoroughly scrubbing and cleaning some brass with acetone. The photoresist is placed on the brass, a transparency sheet printed off, and the entire thing exposed to four blacklights. After that, the unexposed photoresist is dissolved with a sodium carbonate solution, and it’s time for etching.

The clock face was etched in ferric chloride far longer than any PCB would; [Chris] is filling these etchings with shellac wax for a nice contrast between the silvered brass and needs deep, well-defined voids.

You can check out the video below, but that would do [Chris]’ channel a disservice. When we first noticed his work, the comments were actually more positive than not. That’s high praise around here.

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A Folding Laser Cutter

Want a laser cutter, but don’t have the space for one? How about a portable machine to engrave and cut wood and plastics? A folding laser cutter solves these problems, and that’s exactly what Red Ant Lasers was showing off last weekend at Maker Faire.

Inside the team’s Origami laser cutter is a 40 Watt CO2 tube, shooting its beam along an entirely enclosed beam path. The beam travels through the body of the machine, out into the folding arm of the machine, and down to whatever material you’ve placed the Origami on. It’s a 40 Watt laser so it will cut plywood and plastics, and as shown in the video above, does a fine job at engraving plywood.

This is a Class 4 laser device operating without any safety glass, but from the short time I spent with the Red Ant team, this is a reasonably safe device. You will need safety glasses if you’re within five feet, but after that, everything (according to OSHA, I think) is safe and not dangerous. Either way, it’s a tool just like a table saw. You don’t see commentors on the Internet complaining about how a spinning metal blade is dangerous all the time, do you?

The Red Ant guys are currently running a Kickstarter for their project, with a complete unit going for $4200. It’s pricier than a lot of other lasers, but not being constrained by the size of a laser cutters enclosure does open up a few interesting possibilities. You could conceivably cut a 4×8 sheet of plywood with this thing, and exceptionally large engravings start looking easy when you have a portable laser cutter.

Electrochemical Etching With a Microcontroller

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While most of the time the name of the game is to remove a lot of metal, etching is an entirely other process. If you just want to put a logo on a piece of steel, or etch some labels in a piece of aluminum, You need to think small. Mills and CNC routers will do, but they’re expensive and certainly not as easy to work with as a small, homebrew electrochemical etcher.

This etchinator is the brainchild of [Gelandangan], and gives the techniques of expensive commercial etchers to anyone who can put together a simple circuit. This etcher can etch with both AC and DC thanks to a H bridge circuit, and can be fabbed up by anyone who can make their own circuit board.

To actually etch a design in a piece of metal, simply place the piece on a metal plate, put the stencil down, and hold a felt-covered electrode moistened with electrolyte down over the stencil. Press a button, and in about 30 seconds, you have a wonderfully etched piece of metal.

[Gelandagan] has some templates that will allow you to make your own electro etcher, provided you can etch your own boards and can program the PIC16F1828 microcontroller. All this info is over on the Australian blade forum post he put up, along with a demo video below.

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High contrast laser etching

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The problem with laser etching dark materials is that the areas burnt away by the intense light don’t really stand out from the rest of the surface. [The 5th Fool] is taking a roundabout way of correcting this by topping his laser engravings with contrasting paint. The technique is still pretty simple and we think it looks great!

Basically he’s etching a layer of painter’s tape which becomes a stencil. But the surface it is masking also gets etched so the paint has an area below to the surface which it can fill in. We figure this will help with durability issues.

After etching the painters tape the design gets a few coatings of a high-contrast paint color and is left to dry. To remove the stencil, duct tape is applied to the entire area. This helps quite a bit in removing the tiny bits of tape from an intricate design.