For me, building the electronics for the LED Bridge Lamp was one of the most fun parts of the project. It was an opportunity to build upon the skills I learned from earlier/simpler projects and create a really fun display/art project.
The first step was figuring out the details of the circuit. To do this breadboarded the circuit and worked out the details. The resistors in the circuit are to protect the first LEDs on the strip data lines and the large capacitors help smooth out the power from the power supply.
You can find the Fritzing generated circuit diagram here:
Here’s what I used to build the electronics for this project:
Parts List (Quantities reflect sets/packages from the related links):
With the design in hand, the next step was assemble the bases and solder everything. For the purposes of differentiating them in a succinct way I will refer to the base with the Adafruit Feather Huzzah Micro-controller in it as the ‘Smart’ base and I will refer to the base that only has power inject in it as the ‘Dummy’ base.
Here you can see a full assembled base complete with the 90lb strength magnets that will keep the bridge perched in place over my cubicle walls at work. (You can learn more about building this base in my earlier post here)
For the panel mount connectors I made sure they fit into the printed holes in the side of the base. I put one of the male connectors into the panel mount connector to keep everything lined up as I soldered (the plastic in there melts easily). I also put heat shrink tubing over the connectors.
The “Smart” Base
Next up was translating the bread-boarded circuit to a perma-proto board. I used female headers so I could remove/replace/upgrade the micro-controller in the future if wanted to.
The circuit itself is pretty simple/straightforward.
With the panel mount connection inserted through the top curved section of the base and secured with its included nut, I soldered its wire to the permanent-proto board. I used about a foot of wire so I had plenty of space to work with when the setup is semi-assembled as shown below.
Next up I secured the permanent-proto board to the electronics tray/base. I wrapped the excess wire that around the magnet supports to provide strain relief to the soldered joints. The additional wires below are the wires that least to JST connectors which will provide a modular linking to the LED strips in the bridge.
With everything assembled it should look nice and clean and orderly as shown below:
For the USB cable I drilled a whole in the side of the riser block with a brad point drill bit and inserted the USB cable. I wrapped that cable around the magnet supports to provide strain relief here as well.
The completed based is just about done.
I also inserted M4 Button Top machine screws to secure the top and bottom sections of the base. They self tap a bit into the plastic and hold well. They also allow me to disassemble the setup easily from the outside.
The “Dummy” Base
The “Dummy” base is largely the same procedure as the “Smart” base with the exception being that this side does not have a micro-controller — it simply injects power at the mid point of the LED light strips — without this it would look like the LED strips brown out about midway across the bridge. The large capacitors used in this project are to protect the LED strips and smooth out the power they receive.
I followed the same methods of assembly, soldering, cable wrapping etc.
Between each base and the bridge assembly and between each of the 3 bridge sections I used JST connectors for power and data (See photo below). I would build each male and female section, test the connections and then solder them into place.
I liked the idea of everything being modular but in hindsight almost feel it was more trouble than it was worth. I found myself still having to debug a bunch of these wire connections as the JSTs seem to have a little play in the connections so if the wires are bent up — say when trying to cram those connections into the bridge superstructure sometimes the connection would open up.
When soldering my larger panavise was helpful in holding things in place so I could solder the JST connected wires to the LED strips.
Shown below is a completed base with the JST connectors showing.
With everything in place it was time to test the full circuit. This is where the extra wire on the JST cabling in the base came in handy. I could lay the bridge out on my dining room table and test the circuit and work out the software. Also it was nerdy fun to be effectively sitting inside this light ring in a dark room.
Once I got everything working it was time to pack it up and bring it to the office. Given the headaches with the JST connectors I brought the bridge section in as 1 completed piece rather than breaking it down into segments and testing all the connections again. It filled the whole bed of my pickup truck but survived the ride.
The next post in this series will be related to the software.
This post captures my entry into the Adafruit Extra Credit / Circuit Playground contest of 2017. I made a fun, interactive ‘Scary Smart’ Gothic Lantern which I will describe in this post.
Intro Video (Showing Two Completed ‘Scary Smart’ Gothic Lanterns):
I bought the Adafruit CircuitPlayground Developer Edition when it first came out and gave it a try — it was a fun little board and was something I’d tinker with on a long flight and recommend to friends starting out, but I didn’t have a solid use for it, in terms of a project as by the time I got it I had progressed in my electronics/maker projects to the point where I was designing my own boards etc. Then I saw the folks at Adafruit post about building this great looking Gothic Lantern and added a small enclosure to house a circuit playground to light it up and it really resonated with me.
Once I built the lantern and enclosure I decided to build a lid for that electronics enclosure as I didn’t like seeing some light showing through from the space between the enclosure and the base of the lantern. My lid fits snugly into the electronics enclosure and blocks any light from coming out of the base.
3D Printing Details:
I printed my lantern from Polymaker PolyLite PLA (Black and White). I used M4 x 30mm flat head machine screws and nuts (Qty 4 each) to attach the electronics enclosure and lid to the base of the lantern.
I found the lid (via how the lantern model was designed) to be a bit too loose for my liking so I added a piece of black electrical tape to the male pins on the top of the lantern and it did a great job filling space and adding friction so the lid stays on the lantern if you want to hang it.
To take things a step further from just the build I decided to write a series of animation/demoes for the lantern to add some fun interactivity to the project and to use as many of the sensors as I could work into a lantern project.
The above video walks through all of the animations and using the accelerometer to navigate them. (Details below)
You can find all of my source code for this project on GitHub here:
The animations/demoes can be advanced by using the X-axis accelerometer which is in line with the USB port. By quickly shaking the lamp in that direction the system will go dark for 2s and then cycle into the next demo. If the demo supports alternative modes a quick shake in the Y-axis will cycle through the modes. (The code also supports using the on board buttons to do the same navigation, but when the lantern is assembled the accelerometer is a lot more fun to use)
Flickering Candle — custom modified algorithm to simulate what to me looks like a fairly realistic approximation of a candle. (Flickers, goes dark in places etc.
Alternative Modes (Y-Axis) — Can cycle through several alternative colors of flicker
Hardware Used — NeoPixels
Bug Zapper — simulates an old fashioned electric bug zapper, complete with strobing flashes and satisfying bug zapping sound
Alternative Modes (Y-Axis) — None
Hardware Used — NeoPizxels and Piezo Buzzer/Speaker
VU Meter — like an old stereo this system will light up green, then yellow then red to represent the amount of sound it is hearing, and slowly fade back down to green if things get quiet again. All pixels light up the same color — works great for a room with lots of music playing
Alternative Modes (y-Axis) — None
Hardware Used: NeoPixels, Microphone
Rainbow Cycle — looping animation of rainbow colors swirling around (on video it looks white, but in person is perceptible)
Alternative Modes (y-Axis) — Loop speed can be varied
Hardware Used: NeoPixels
Temperature — Cycles through an animation of Blue -> Cyan -> Green -> Yellow -> Orange -> Red (simulating the range of colors used to represent the temperature in this demo), then strobes white 3 times and then shows the ‘color’ of the current temperature reading. (Blues are cold, Green room temp (68F +/- 4 degrees), Yellow a bit warmer, Orange getting warm and Red is HOT.
Alternative Modes (y-Axis) — None
Hardware Used: NeoPixels, Thermometer
Lamp — default is an animation that quickly cycles through several pre-selected colors. If you use an alternative mode you can keep a given color on for as long as you like
Alternative Modes (y-Axis) — Solid colors then back to demo cycling of colors
Hardware Used: NeoPixels
It was a lot of fun to build this project. If you build one of your own, please leave me a comment or share a make on Thingiverse or similar.
The lamp shades were a part of this project I agonized over. In the end it was a fun engineering challenge.
Challenge #1 Color
The first challenge was to figure out what color to make the shades. I printed out a few sample shades that I tested out with a simple rig on a breadboard that would run through a series of animations on a small NeoPixel stick from Adafruit. This allowed me to see how each of those sample shades would look as the colors on the strip changed.
First I tried Village Plastics and PolyLite White PLA — it was not bad but seemed to look like a warmer color (See photo below) which while not bad was not the look I wanted.
Next I tried PolyLite PLA Translucent Blue (the same as the the bridge superstructure) but I felt that color skewed everything blue. (Left side of image below)
Next up I tried nGen clear filament — which prints a lot slower than PLA but also is more resistant to heat — and I really liked the results. The colors were clearly transmitted through that material and could be seen from the sides. For me this lamp is not really used for downlighting, it’s more of a novelty to been seen from all angles so I thought this was the best solution.
NOTE: My friend and co-worker Chris also printed out test shades in PolyLite Translucent Red, Yellow and T-Glase Red — and much like my experiments seemed to skew the colors too much to look like whatever color the filament was.
I had the demo rig below on my desk for a few weeks and solicited feedback from friends and we all seemed to land on the clear nGen
Challenge #2 Glare and Drooping
In the original LED Bridge Lamp (Universal Segment) by my friend Janis Jakaitis (Opossums) I noticed in one of the photos the LED strip was sagging a bit (See below). This is a common problem as the adhesive on the back of these LED strips is not all that good or strong and doesn’t stick well to plastic. If you go with a more aggressive glue it makes it harder to repair/move/replace anything that fails in the future.
After working with my test rig I also found that these LEDs can cause glare and be rough on the eyes if you look directly at them so I figured some sort of diffuser would be a worthwhile addition.
I spent some time trying to come up with an elegant solution — maybe printing each shade vertically and creating a channel for the LED strips — but I felt that orientation would weaken the shades and likely result in rougher prints. Other ideas were too complex — such as screwing on diffusers etc.
In the end I came up with a solution I am happy with — I modified the light channels to be deep enough to enclose the LED light strips and created a dovetailed channel that would capture a flat printed thin diffusers. (See photo below)
3D Printing Tips
I printed these light channels WITHOUT any sorts of brim as the object is flat with a lot of surface area and didn’t require any real cleanup.
I printed my lamp shades with 20% infill.
You’ll want to make sure your printer is really dialed in and well calibrated. If you find the diffuser cover is too tight, I provided a ‘loose’ cover LightChannelDiffuserCoverLoose.stl which is the same diffuser cover but 2% narrower. I believe this is what I used as the basis of the covers included in the curved shade sections — so those already include a loose diffuser cover. If after printing you find yours are still too tight you can break up any of the diffuser sets and scale the diffuser cover another percent or two narrower.
When trying to slide the diffuser covers into the diffuser I found it was sometimes easier to slide in if I spread the diffuser a bit in my hands as I slid in the cover.
Make sure the diffuser cover is oriented the right way (the same way it was printed)– with the tapered side down before trying to insert it into the diffuser channel.
For the curved sections of bridge lamp there are two sections — an ‘A’ and a ‘B’ section each with a diffuser channel and a cover. All parts print with a letter in/on them. The ‘A’ in the cover should be oriented the same as the ‘A’ in the diffuser channel. The same logic applies to the B section. Section A and B are not identical mirror images, just like the original channels.
After removing the lamp shade prints from the printer I would assemble the lamp shade section (slide in the cover) and file the ends flat with a flat mill file. They didn’t need much filing but I wanted nice smooth mating surfaces. I would have an assembled super structure assembly in hand and could use that to test and make sure the ends were co-planer with the ends of the bridge superstructure section.
I would assemble the 3 blue superstructure sections using the nice glue up jig provided by Janis’ original model. I didn’t bother to modify the jig to fit the lamp shade diffusers — as my shades have a deeper channel. Instead I would take the assembled (and dried) superstructure, line the edges with a small bead of LocTite 401 CA glue and then slide in the shade (Above the glue lip and then slide it down into place to not disturb the glue and more than needed. This allowed me to squish/twist the superstructure if needed to really square up the now fully assembled section. You’ll want to take extra care to make sure the channels of one section really line up well with the next one.
For curved sections I’d glue the A and B sections to each other (make sure to file and test fit that A and B mate cleanly). With an assembled A and B section I’d then follow the process described in the paragraph above to glue it into a completed curved superstructure assembly.
In the image above you can see how the A and B sections are mated in a curved section of the completed bridge lamp.
My bridge lamp is broken up into 3 assembled sections — 90 degrees of the arc, 2 straight sections to support the billboard and another 90s degrees of arc. I built my lamp in a modular fashion so it would be easier to change if I have a different job or workspace in the future and don’t want to rebuild this lamp from scratch.
With a completed section of bridge (superstructure + lamp shade/diffuser) in hand I would test fit it with the next piece of the bridge. This meant testing to make sure the tabs locked well into each other — usually filing meant flattening any edges/corners that were rounded and likely squaring up the clips a bit to fit tightly. Squaring up the clips meant filing out a bit of the underside the tab which was triangular in profile to better mate with the square edge of the adjoining piece of superstructure.
With all the individual bridge sections completed I would glue each of the fitted sections of bridge to the other to add additional rigidity to the lamp. (If you don’t do this each of the sections can twist a bit which makes it even harder to fish the LED strip through the diffuser channels.)
The photo below shows one of the 90 degree assembled sections. In order to fish the LED strip through the channel I soldered a long piece of wire (longer than the assembled section) to one of the pads on the LED strip and then used electrical tape to further secure the wire to the LED strip and protect the pad — as they are really easy to pull off — and likely after this you’ll want to sacrifice/cut off that first LED. I then pushed the wire through the channel. Now for the dancing….
Getting the LED strip through the channels was a time consuming and sometimes quite frustrating ordeal. I would push the strip in from one side and GENTLY pull the wire from the other side. This is where the pains taken to keep things aligned will hopefully pay off for you. Keep feeling where things get stuck (usually an LED on a junction between sections). Usually I could press the thin diffuser cover a bit and push or pull to get it past that catch point and keep feeding the LED strip into the assembled section. This dance will take a fair amount of time and patience — but the result is worth the trouble.
NOTE: Wire Cutouts
If you plan to make sure bridge lamp in modular sections as I did you’ll want to use the diffuser section ‘A’ with wire cutouts (shown below) for any place where you want to mate two sections of lamp. These sections have a place for wires to get out of the channel and allow for modular wire connectors — I used JST connectors — to be placed inside of the bridge superstructure.
In the post on electronics I’ll talk about the JST connections etc.
Lower the risk — the original base was a very large piece that would take about 25 hours to print and if something failed that would be a lot of time and material to lose so I broke my version of the model into pieces
The slots/vents were slightly asymmetrical so I made my own variant of that so I could print on the side and keep the lines clean compared to printing them vertically
I needed a way to handle height differences in the surface where I’d install the light * *
** The location in my cubicle at work where I wanted to to install this light has two different heights — the metal wall is about 1.5 inches higher than the top of bookcase so I needed a way to compensate for that. My solution will allow you to handle any reasonable height difference you want to tackle.
Here is a finished and an exploded view of the bases:
While my bases look very similar to Janis’ models they were created from scratch but designed to emulate the originals and add a few new features you’ll see as we walk through this post. I also eliminated a few design details like the screw holes (replaced by my magnet solution) and the transition to the cap piece.
What did you wind up printing? (Quantities are for what I built, you may need to change them to meet your needs)
Qty 2: Side (side.stl)
Qty 2: Side with Power Outlet (SideWithPowerOutlet.stl)
Qty 2: Electronics Tray (Electronics_Tray.stl)
Qty 1: Base Height Spacer (Base_Height_SpacerV2.stl)
Qty 1: Base Height Spacer Tall (Base_Height_Spacer_TallV2.stl)
Qty 2: Magnet Space Filler Block (Magnet_Space_Filler_Block.stl)
Qty 8: M4 Machine Screws (double up the nuts so they don’t back off — or add a lock nut)
Qty 8: Hex Button Head Machine Screws to secure base sections to each other
Loctite 401 Glue
Build Details / Notes:
When printing the pieces called out in the print details section above I printed all my pieces with a brim to help reduce or eliminate warping.
The elements of an assembled base (1 regular side, 1 side with power outlet hole, center, cap, riser and base plate) are designed to fit inside/on top of this electronics tray. The tray is designed to also secure an Adafruit 1/2 size Perma-Proto board which is what I used to house the electronics that control this project. (More details on that in an upcoming post) The tray also provides supports for the height spacer which keeps the magnets in the proper location.
NOTE: You may want to print the tray 1-2% larger in the X and Y dimensions. Otherwise you may find yourself using a fixed belt sander to thin things out a bit. Guess how I know that? 😉 And my machine is really pretty well dialed in.
The height spacers below were designed to align themselves under the electronics tray via the little standoffs you can see in the image below. The height spacer also keeps the magnets secured as the base gets moved around.
The height spacer can be extruded to make it as tall or short as you want. The spacer above is the minimum height as it is the same thickness as the 90lb strength magnets.
As you can see above, extruding this model to make it taller is straightforward. (You can do it by editing the model or in a pinch you can scale the z axis as needed and trim the alignment tabs if they get too tall as a result of the Z scaling)
For taller spacers I also designed a filler block to make up the space between the magnet and the bottom of the electronics tray. The model can also be scaled in the Z axis to adjust the height.
The electronics tray also makes a helpful aligner as you glue up the base pieces. I used some small clamps to hold the sides and center together as the glue dries — only takes about 1 minute to dry enough.
NOTE: Be careful that you don’t glue your base into the electronics tray.
In the lower half of the picture above you’ll see the baseplate sitting upside down in the height riser so that I could glue the blue clips in place. Once the clips are secure I flipped the plate over and glued it on top of the height riser block.
NOTE: The base plate on one side does NOT require the clips.
Be sure to test fit your bridge section and the two plates and file as needed to make sure you have a good snug fit. Filing usually meant squaring up the underside of the clip to make sure it squarely engages with the bridge superstructure section.
The base plate is glued to the top of the height riser. That assembly is glued to the cap piece (it has a nice indent in there to make alignment easy) and that second assembly is glued to the top of the base (center, side and side with power outlet hole)
You can insert M3 button head screws into the holes shown below to secure the top section of the base to the electronics tray. The screws tap themselves into the plastic and hold well.
Examining the underside of an assembled base section you can see how well the magnets fit.
NOTE: Use two nuts on top of the screw securing each magnet so they don’t get loose.
I installed the electronics into the taller of the bases and drilled a small hole to allow the USB cable to pass through so I could flash new firmware onto the micro controller after the lamp was installed.
If you have any questions about building the base, please let me know in the comments section below.
As an engineer I love all things that are shiny and blinky. Like many other engineers I am a cubicle dweller. I wanted to create something in my cube that would brighten up my workspace and make me smile whenever I’m working there. What follows is a series of posts that will guide you through how I designed and built my version of the LED Bridge Lamp which is based off of the LED Bridge Lamp (Universal Segment) by my friend Janis (Opossums) Jakaitis on Thingiverse here. It was a great looking project and would be the perfect addition to any cubicle in need of some blinky.
High Level Summary of Changes:
Universal Segment Bridge Lamp with 2 horizontal (straight) sections
Custom mini light up billboard at the top of the bridge
Custom light shades with enclosed channels
Custom designed bases with integrated 90lb magnets and adjustable heights for uneven surfaces
Custom wifi enabled electronics to control the display
Custom power supply with enclosure
Each LED strip (2 in the bridge and 1 in the sign) an be controlled independently
NOTE: The above does not include printing another 25 segments of straight superstructure and light shades, misprints, having 8 segments of assembled PLA superstructure melt by being too close to a radiator, test prints and re-prints. I estimate that I have something around 300 hours into this project.
Build Details (This section will be updated as I publish more related posts):
When I started working on this project it was the middle of winter and I think a combination of room temp and small surface areas caused some issues with pieces warping and even popping off the heated bed plate.
To remedy this I started printing the superstructure sections with a brim. Around this time I also started to eliminate the printing of the original shade. In Cura I broke the model (which was a group of pieces) into its pieces and would delete the shade. This also allowed me to fit a few more pieces on the build plate. I decided to make my own lamp shade/diffuser which I will cover in another post.
I would clean up the prints with an X-acto knife and square mill file. Each section didn’t need much cleanup. Most of the work was spent testing the tabs on each section and making sure it fit securely onto another section. The focus usually was making sure the corners were flat and that the tabs squarely locked over the end of the next section by filing the underside of the tab. Next I would dry fit the pieces in the assembly rings.
Once dry fit I would slide the top of the superstructure out a bit, apply a drop or two of LocTite 401 to the assembly tabs and slide the piece back into place. I would then remove the lampshade, run a bead of glue down the retaining lip on each side the superstructure and then slide the shade back in so the glue could set. After a minute or so the alignment rings could be removed and you can move on to the next section. By the time the next piece was filed and ready the last one was dry so I only needed one set of the rings.
Below you can see me testing a dry fitted piece against a completed straight section of bridge.
The above sample pieces have a translucent blue light shade from the original model, but as you’ll see in the upcoming post on the shades I went with an remix that I think you may also like.
As things got up and running I had a little production line going — churning out bridge sections and and assembling as I could find the time.
I wanted to get a feel for how big the lamp would be, beyond the calculated dimensions so I assembled 2/3 of an arc — just the assembled bridge sections without the shades.
It was fun to see the project coming together. The above assembly I put to the side in the spare bedroom where I have my 3D printer etc. It was near a window and a baseboard radiator. Given that the PLA is extruded at 210C and at most my sealed baseboard radiator is putting out 100C I wasn’t worried about melting. After a few weeks I thought one of my young kids got to it, but as it turned out the PLA was softened by the sun and/or radiator and 9 assembled sections of the bridge lamp were warped/bent beyond what I was willing to accept so that was a big set back. After another 40 hours or so of printing I eventually replaced all those pieces and was careful to keep the lamp sections away from even that modest source of heat.
I started to stockpile the assembled bridge superstructure sections as I worked on the shades which will be covered in another post.
Like any red blooded engineer I like nice designs, shiny objects and blinking lights. One of the projects that burrowed its way into my subconscious and helped push me over the edge into buying a 3D printer earlier this year was the Adafruit Feather BLE + NeoPixel lamp with 3D printed Voronoi Shade that plays some animations by the Ruiz Brothers over at Adafruit. It’s a great addition to any office desk or maker workbench. After playing with the sample code which simply played a short animation when you pressed a button in the app I decided to augment the code to continuously play animations and add a few more to the mix.
You can view detailed step/by step instructions on printing this lamp here on the Adafruit Learning System. What follows in this post is a description of what changes/modifications I made to the build and additional functionality I added into the software running on the Bluefruit Feather.
Check out this video showing what I did with the software for this project here:
Software Revision Highlights:
Currently selected animation will loop continuously without interruption (Original sample plays 1 animation and stops until another button is pressed)
Cleaned up animation library/methods, fixed some issues with Adafruit sample code and finished off some incomplete methods
Added additional animations to the up, down, left and right buttons in the Adafruit Bluetooth application
You can find the source code for the demo used in the video here on GitHub.
Notes on Building This Project:
I printed the base out of ABS filament and the Voronoi shade from light blue translucent PLA filament. I chose not to glue the shade onto the top ring of the base as I like to be able to show off the electronics. I friction fit the clear disk into the bottom of the lampshade so it stays securely as one piece. I also omitted the battery as I only plan to run the lamp in an office setting wherein I have access to plenty of USB ports.
BIG NOTE:As this caused me some headaches and wasted time. In the Adafruit Learning System write-up for this lamp, make sure to follow the Fritzing circuit diagram here and NOT from the step by step photograph here. The photograph shows one of the blue wires going into ‘BAT’ and not the expected ‘3V’. You should be powering the NeoPixels off the 3V pin.
Once I finished all the soldering I fit the board, wires and ring into the bottom half of the base and flashed the firmware onto the device and made sure it lit up and worked as expected.
Next up I screwed on the top half of the base and started working on the animations I wanted to use and assigned them to various buttons in the Adafruit ‘Bluefruit’ application.
Last up was testing the completed lamp. It lights up a dark room more that I expected which is nice and is clearly visible in a well lit room. Some of the animations in the above video are far better in person as the DSLR tends to blend a lot of the mixed colors into shades of white — you’ll have to see it in person by building your own.
With the above lamp completed you can also tie it into the IfThisThenThat (IFTTT.com) ecosystem via Adafruit IO. IFTTT allows Internet of Things (IoT) devices to react to a surprisingly large amount of interesting stimuli — if you get a certain type of email, if your phone shows up on your home wifi network, if an IoT sensor gets a certain reading your device and react to that message and carry out your desired task — its an incredible system and will be the focus of my next post, stay tuned.
P.S. If you build your own variant of this project, please leave a comment and share your thoughts and modifications.
The workshop is my happy place — I go there to create. One of my favorite things to do out in my woodworking shop is to build cabinets, organizers and jigs to make it easier to work or accomplish a given task. I’ve been applying that to my recent work with 3D printing and electronics hardware hacking.
By training I am a software engineer and a preservation carpenter — yep the is an unusual mix to some — but to me I use the same part of my brain to envision a large software application and break it down into manageable pieces of code and then write them that I use to envision a chair and break it down into all the steps and pieces that start at a tree and result in a chair.
After getting some more work time at the Maker Workbench that I recently completed I realized that my hand tool storage was lacking.
I was storing my pliers, strippers, nippers and similar tools in the holes on the sides of the metal racks that support my workbench.
It seemed like a great idea — I can see the tools, they are off the workbench and reasonably accessible, but for common operations I felt I was wasting too much time and energy getting them in and out of those holes — as sometimes they would catch a bit on the way out.
After thinking about some of the optimizations I made out in my woodworking shop and watching videos like some of Adam Savage’s shop tours, behind the scenes and shop projects builds from tested.com and this video in particular which made the case for not using drawers I wanted to come up with something efficient to organize the tools I used most often on the bench.
The idea bounced around in my subconscious for a few weeks until I finally came up with the following tool rack for my pliers and similar tools:
How I built the tool rack:
The rack is about 6″ tall, the base is about 6″ wide and the rods are about 12″ long. I bought a 36″ long piece of O1 Tool Steel Round Rod, Polished Finish, Precision Ground, Annealed, Metric 10mm from Amazon here. I cut the rod on my abrasive cutoff saw and ground off any burs and chamfered the cut ends a bit so I would be sure they’d seat nicely in the 3D printed ends.
I then made what I felt was a reasonable sized 10mm end cap in SketchUp and printed it out. It was a tiny bit tight so I measured the rod and the print and adjusted things a bit and tried printing at 102, 105 and 108%. 105% was the sweet spot and gave me a nice tight fit. I also made a variant of the end cap to include a #4-40 machine screw to see if that would keep the cap on there even tighter but felt it was negligibly better in this case and recommend you print 1 or more of these caps to dial in your printer an get a real nice fit. If you still find the cap is loose you can epoxy it into place.
With the printer dialed in and the cap in hand it was time to print the sides. Rather than waste material and to increase the aesthetics of the rack I added a series of holes to the model to give it a more pleasing and modern look.
I printed the sides one at a time with a brim to try and minimize any warping.
The cleanup was easy with an X-acto knife and the assembly was simply inserting the rods into the printed end pieces and start using the rack.
The above described rod is a bit on the expensive side, costing about $15 but the ground and polished look is what I wanted and it adds a pretty good amount of weight to the tool rack and I’ve found it stays right where I leave it on the bench. It works well with all the small and medium size pliers shown below and can also accommodate some of my larger and specialty channel-locks and similar hand tools. If you are on a budget, simple mild steel rod from a hardware store or even a wooden dowel can be used.
I’ve shared out the plans and SketchUp files for the end caps and rack sides (both solid sides and the sides with the circular holes) up on Thingiverse.com here.
If you make or remix this project, please share some pics or notes in the comments below.
It can be tough working on a maker project if you don’t have a good space to work. Many times my electronics work surface was an ESD mat on the dining room table, but as my projects grew and my family grew I was under increasing pressure to find somewhere else to work. (Really it was the 3D printer that put my wife over the edge — rightfully so). I also didn’t want to have my electronics out in the garage which is my woodworking shop and full of saw dust.
The task of finding a decent place to work on electronics was more of a challenge than I expected. Lots of folks who left the dining room table seem to work on card tables or random repurposed Ikea tables and benches or purchase very expensive commercial electronics benches that are out of the range of most folks working part time as a maker. I knew there must be something in the middle that could be a reasonable solution and a reasonable bench.
As I was reading my copy of “Practical Electronics For Inventors: 4th Edition” by Paul Scherz and Simon Monk there was a brief mention of a DIY Maker Workbench that caught my eye. If you have the book it is on pages 632-633, but be careful as you might miss it buried deep in the bowels of this tome, with just a brief description and a couple of diagrams but no photos of it in use.
I wanted to rectify that problem and document how I built mine as I had to make some modifications and additions that I thought others might be interested in.
Since the the book above was written the 18″ deep metal frame that was the basis of the bench is no longer available through Home Depot and the company that made it seems to have been swallowed up by another company, but they still make and stock a 24″ deep version. I’ve compiled a hardware list below that includes all the materials I used along with links for anything that was not a simple commodity item. With the instructions from the book and my additions below I’m sure you can build yourself a great electronics/maker workbench.
Other highlights of the bench and my modifications are:
Full Spectrum LED Work Utility Light (Uses very little power and is dimmable. Leaves more power available on this circuit for my electronics)
Custom built work top with Formica surface and hard maple edging
Electrical: Wire stripper(s), Romex Jacket Slitter or Utility Knife, Wire Cutters, Pliers, Phillips and Slotted Screwdrivers, Electrical Receptacle Tester (~$5-10 and worth it)
Woodworking Tools for Bench Top: Circular saw + guide fence OR Table Saw, Router with large flush trim bit & 1/8″ rounder bit, Biscuit Joiner + Biscuits, PVA Wood Glue (e.g. TiteBond), 1.5″ Wood Screws or Drywall Screws, Drill + basic set of bits that can also handle sheet metal, J Roller (For rolling on top of the formica as it is applied), Jig Saw or Coping Saw,
Highlight Reel from the Build:
I ripped the plywood and MDF on the table saw and cross cut it using a circular saw with a guide fence leaving it about 1″ too long on purpose. Once I screwed the layers together I was able to use the guide fence to cross cut it again to final size — by doing this I know all my layers will be perfectly lined up. Make sure to account for the edging when you figure out how big your bench will be. If you work carefully you’ll want to shoot for a bench top that is about 1/4″ narrower that the metal frame is wide. That should leave a nice 1/8″ shadow line and give you room to get it seated. Also the metal is not always welded all that great on these frames as I know mine was not 100% square and many get damaged in shipping and need to be bent back into shape.
Next up I milled some hard maple stock to be the edging for the bench slab. I carefully mitered each quarter and used a biscuit joiner and glued in biscuits to secure the edging. (By using biscuits there are no nail holes to fill in) Also note that the edging should only cover the top two layers of substrate — the MDF and first layer of plywood as the lowest layer of plywood is what keys the bench top into the center shelf of the metal frame.
I used edge clamps to secure the edging as it dried.
When screwing together the 3 layers of substrate I laid out a grid on the bottom of each layer that way my screws were spaced evenly. It also allowed me to make sure my screws would not directly overlap between layers.
When cutting the outlet holes for the back splash I laid them out evenly and then marked out where they would be. I drilled a small hole in each corner and a large one in the center with enough room to allow the blade of my jig saw to fit. I sawed out the space for each outlet looking to be about 1/16″-1/8″ larger than the outlet box. I also used a file and rasp to clean up any rough edges.
With the outlet holes in place I edged the back splash with hard maple to match the bench surface and to reinforce the MDF substrate.
I rough cut the formica a couple inches bigger in each direction for what it needs to cover using saw blade with a high number of teeth — 40-60 or a dedicated laminate blade would work. Then it was time to apply the contact cement. The MDF will generally absorb more than the formica as it is more porous. You want to apply it liberally and evenly using a brush, roller or spatula and bit of cardboard. As it dries you’ll see where you need some more as you go. When it dries to the point that it is evenly tacky — meaning your finger will stick to it a bit — it’s time to apply the Formica.
I usually put a few dowels out on the bench substrate and then get the Formica all lined up but not touching each other. Once the two tacky surfaces meet they cannot be pulled apart so you need to get this right the first time and the dowels help you to get the alignment right before committing to it. That is also why we cut the sheet larger and trim it back once secured. Start from the center and work your way out using a J-Roller applying as much force as you can muster. As you work your way out to the edge you can remove more dowels until the Formica is in place. Then keep working the J-Roller until you get rid of any/all air pockets and bubbles taking longer and longer strokes working from the center out and then end to end.
To trim the Formica I use a flush cutting router bit in a router to trim back the laminate so that it is flush with the edging. I then take a 1/8″ radius round over bit to ease all the edges with the hard maple. With the bench top complete it was time to move on to the electrical work and assembly.
For outlets make sure you get all of them with the right angle bracket as shown above and as shown here. That bracket is needed in order to secure the outlets to the back splash on the bench top and for the upper outlets to attach them to the metal frame.
I used Rustoleum Black Textured paint to paint the two outlets that will be for the light switch and its outlet since they will be visible. I also bought that can of paint to match the finish on the metal shelving/rack that is the core of this bench since mine came from HomeDepot.com and had lots of rub spots on it from shipping and that would have bothered me to see every day.
I assembled the metal shelving rack as per the instructions it came with and the height of the shelves roughly in line with what the book described. Once assembled take a chair and sit at it and make sure its at a comfortable height to do your electronics work — likely a couple inches higher than what I’d want for typing at a computer. Then lift the bench top into place — you’ll want help with this as its HEAVY and I have mine in our spare bedroom upstairs so I dread moving it sometime in the future.
I attached the backsplash to the bench top using 2″ wood screws — note I say wood screws and not drywall screws which are flimsy in comparison — drywall screws have much thinner shanks that can easily snap. I then punched out the necessary holes in the outlets and screwed them into place with 5/8″ long screws.
I used 4 shelf uprights for my bench as I felt the two called out in the book would be too flimsy especially as my shelves will be covered in books and hardware and I don’t want the shelves to droop. I measured out locations that would space the uprights equally and marked the uprights and the bench with a silver sharpie and numbered them so if I have to move this bench I can re-assemble it with the exact same pieces in the same location.
I then took a center punch (or in a pinch a nail set would do) and using a hammer I hit the location I want to drill through the metal hard in order to make a small dent. This will help the drill bit stay where I want it as I drill through the metal. I secured the shelf supports to the top, middle and bottom rails of the metal shelving. I also wanted to make sure they were evenly spaced between the outlets as the armored cable will need to work around them as we’ll see below.
I cut the cable a solid amount longer than the distance between each box so I would have plenty of 12 gauge wire to work with. I then stripped off the yellow rolex wire jacked as these wires will be fed through the BX metal cable armor and fittings.
I cut each bit of cable armor to size and test fit it with the fittings as shown above. I then fed the wire through the armor and installed each assembly into the appropriate outlet boxes and secured the nuts that hold the fittings in the outlet boxes. (see below). Note that the armored cable goes behind the shelf supports.
Use a heavy duty 12 gauge or heavier extension cord to connect your bench to the wall outlet. You’ll cut off the female end and wire it into the GFCI.
I chose to put the outlet for the LED light and switch on the back side of the bench and run the armored cable up and around the back of the bench. I secured the cabling with a bunch of black plastic zip ties. I also needed the cabling to make a 90 degree right angle to connect the backsplash wiring to the outlet switch. The above fitting made this task easy. (See parts list for proper name and model)
With the cabling in place it was time to add the shelves and start installing the receptacles.
I put each switch in front of the outlet where I wanted it to make sure things were in useful positions. On the backsplash from left to right I have: 20Amp Tamper Resistant (TR) GFCI outlet, 20Amp Decora TR Outlet, 20Amp Decora TR Outlet + 2 USB ports in the center, 20Amp Decora TR Outlet and another 20Amp Decora TR Outlet. The top left is an outlet for the overhead utility LED light fixture. Top right is a light switch which works out well as its just above where the light switch on the wall is for the room lights. I also ground the metal of the bench frame to the ground of this circuit. The LED light fixture is secured with more black plastic zip ties and the cord for it is secured in the same way.
I was careful in my wiring to make sure everything downstream of the GCFI was cabled correctly and checked the ground using a receptacle tester like this one. Once you test it with live power make sure you test the GFCI and make sure all downstream outlets are cut off by the GFCI when it is tripped.
With the circuits all working it was time to put on the faceplates for the outlets and start loading up the bench. I have my ESD mat which is grounded out to the wall outlet so we don’t have a grounding loop. I have my Lulzbot TAZ6 on the left and my ESD mat, soldering stations nd fume extractor on the right.
So far the bench has been working out well and it has been great to be able to leave a project on the bench and come back to it undisturbed.
If you build your own version of this workbench, please send me a note with some pictures or leave a comment below
P.S. Since I completed the above bench I’ve also added 2 LED monitors and I’m working on a CNC controlled gaming keyboard tray, so please stay tuned for that in an upcoming post. Please consider following this blog via one of the ‘Follow this blog’ widgets on the webpage or via my Facebook Page or Twitter Feed.
P.P.S. This blog is new so please bare with me as I add to it. If you are into woodworking I have a long running blog on my traditional woodworking and writing you can find here: RainfordRestorations.com
Electronics, Maker Projects, 3D Printing, Social Learning