A most Prestigious Award

When Vincent Zeng first got in contact with me about making an acrylic trophy in the shape of a Semicolon my first thought was “OH NO!” I didn’t quite know how to dance around the sensitive topic of suicide while also somehow being a light hearted ‘gag’. Fortunately I would quickly figure out that this was a joke about computer science. Which was a relief.

For anyone reading this who feels like they might need help or is thinking about suicide please call or click to chat: https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/

Project Semicolon is an organization that seeks to raise awareness and funding resources: https://projectsemicolon.com/


Now this was a great project for me because I had this huge piece of acrylic laying around that I had been carrying from house to house over the years as i moved. I originally acquired this from Gordon Kirkwood of Whimsey Engineering fame. He used to hold an annual “Mad Science Garage Sale” in PGH that was a ‘don’t miss’ event. I picked these up from him (They must have been offcuts from something epic) and had been hoarding them in hopes of finding a perfect project. This was a couple years back so I was in a hurry to divest myself of these, and I had just gotten access to a huge CNC router table at Iontank.
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Neither myself nor vincent had a solid direction for how this should look so we bounced around some ideas, we did want it to be kinda chintzy like a participation trophy but we had a lot of room to experiment, I threw out some ideas:

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Alex contributed the idea for a hanging Semicolon and I really liked that concepts I may revisit this sometime in the future.


We eventually settled on a general shape, mostly because of the need to incorporate text to have the joke land. Some of the above designs I think are fairly clever but less practical…and maybe look a little bit too much like a tombstone.



Once we had settled on a design I nested it inside of my circular workpiece, I wanted to get the most out of it that I could.


I made a 3D model of all the parts and then did a quick rendering of the finished part and the frame I would need to cut out of some scrap wood, the frame would be used to register the circular part on the table and to assist in work holding while the cutting was happening.


Autodesk generously includes a fairly robust CAM suite with their free Fusion360 software and this was the basis for all my toolpathing for the CNC router.

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The part was cut in 3 steps, first bolt a sheet of scrap wood to the sacrificial router table and cut a circle in it slightly smaller than the circle of acrylic and then hammer in the acrylic and bolt it down to the table, achieved in this instance with two screws. Step two was a wide facing pass that left a little material, and then the bit swept back in and cut out that last hundreth of an inch to ensure a consistent surface finish.  Final step was a contouring pass around the outside to free the new trophy from the remaining scrap.

Voila! The surface finish on this was good but not perfect and there had been some chipping, so it was brought home for sanding and polishing


This was sanded and polished using a router with a buffing bit for the tighter areas but mostly by hand, exhausting work, but with fantastic results.


This was a laser test to nail the engraving settings, I also sent this file and image to V in order to confirm all my spelling and the layout of the text.


Into the laser! If this messes up for any reason the whole thing would have been for not and I would have to go back to the beginning.

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Final photos taken by Vincent Zeng. Thanks V, these look awesome!




Not-Pro but it still goes, Somehow

This story is not a good story, it is not a story that should have ever happened, it’s not one that should ever be told. This is a story about shaving a yak.(*)

It’s January 12th and I have a commission to make another Bulbasaur planter. I think that this is a good opportunity to document in detail the process that goes into 3D printing and cleaning up a sculptural object, for me process does not drastically change no matter what the project is.

For documenting the print I had it made. Dillon set up an aftermarket system attached to the 3D printer which allows us to, upload files, queue prints and control the printer from any locally networked machine in the house, thanks Dillon and thanks OctoPrint!  In addition there is a feature on this web interface that allows us to time lapse 3D prints, so that was easy, taken care of. In fact I’ve already got the video. 

But to capture the whole process, so i needed to record, well a lot more stuff, and to do that we have a go-pro! Ideally I will mount it to something and position near the work table…But the only mounts it came with were adhesive backed, for action sports helmets and similar use-cases. I’d like a more versatile solution then that.

Well attaching things to a tripod just requires some threads in the bottom right? What kind of threads…(we google it) a ¼-20!? That’s great I used tons of those I must have purchased hundreds of 1/4-20 nuts and bolts over the last year for projects at work. Let’s take a look around the house; oh, I don’t have any? I bought so many and miraculously didn’t pocket a single one and bring them home. Well shoot….

I guess we won’t resolve this tonight I mean all we need is a nut…

But we have taps. Taps thread stuff! What do we have to thread…well we don’t keep any billet aluminum around that’s for sure, Neither Dillon nor I have invested in the tools we need to do quality home machining. But I do have these huge offcut chunks of solid ¾” ABS.

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And I know this is stupid, it should have never been done but I tell you what I did, punched a center hole traced a circle with a compass on the plastic. Then drilled the center with a #7, tapped it with a ¼”-20, then I cut it out on the band saw an cleaned it up on the bench sander and I’ll tell you what I wound up with it was a really ugly looking big plastic bushing with a  threaded hole in the middle, and ya know what, it did exactly what it was intended to do, which was to bolt down to the tripod.


But that thing looked so stupid, and it was such a roundabout way to make a nut, the kind of thing that gets created in the fervor of the moment, where we get so consumed with ‘can we do things’ we forget to ask ‘should we do this’?

I did a quick design in Fusion 360 that incorporated a 1/4-20 nut, an object that costs <10 cents and was available at our local hardware store less than a mile away. 


I quickly followed up with preparing the file for print on our Prusa I3 Mk3 using Slic3r. swore that first thing in the morning I would print something worlds better and go buy the bolt I was too stubborn to consider picking up the previous day. 

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The pentagon shape was great, based on the kind of hand-turn knob this shape ensured you had a great grip on the part (rather than the gopro) while screwing it into the tripod.

Unfortunately a print error and a design oversight left me with a cracked support and an unsightly glue blob on the bottom desperately trying to retain a bolt that could easily just fall out.

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I had to design a better bolt retention system so I cooked up a model that captures the bolt inside of it and is retained by a snap-in clip that helps there be contact on all 6 sides of the bolt.

Below is a cross section without the top of the fixture in place.


Here is the prototype of the fixture:

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It works great!!

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Look at that retention clip fitment, I even shined a light up through the bottom to make sure that the retention tabs had slid into place. That thing is never coming out.

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So with my first round of prototyping out of the way and a lot of damaged and sub-par solutions on the bench it was time for the next iteration.

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New design Version 4, gives up on retaining the M5 bolt, there was simply not enough space available to make a strong enough print (with PLA filament), it integrates the clip retention for the 1/4-20 bolt. (Mixing SAE and Metric is a cardinal sin I know, but I prefer to work all metric and they standardized camera equipment)


Here’s how she looked after the support material was cleaned up it was all assembled:

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The nut was firmly pressed into place captured inside the bottom of the part. I really like this clip-retention system, it was easy to design within the constraints of the part and it feels very secure, time will tell if we have issues with this design caming out and stripping all the surrounding plastic but for not it’s secure.


I admit that it really looks like the valve on a hose spigot. I really like that this mount allows you to maintain a solid grip on it while screwing in the captured bolt from the tripod. Traditionally I remember needing to hold tight to the technology, gripping a camera for dear life as you carefully thread the mounting plate onto the bottom.

Here we are finally performing the task it was designed to do!



Stay tuned for footage of future projects from slightly above and to the right of the work area. This is a great addition that I hope I’ll have ample opportunity to use.

Small Scale Home-Making

Alright I’m back on the miniatures train choo choo! This was spurred by a recent trip to Philly to attend the board gaming convention Pax Unplugged where I had a chance to play some really cool miniature games including “Hail of Fire” by Retro Boom. In addition my housemate Zach Urtes and his beau got bit hard by the miniature painting bug and my house is now littered with tiny figures that shockingly don’t belong to me!

I thought I would ease back in with a terrain project. I love making miniature terrain because it’s much more forgiving than painting a hero mini that someone is going to inspect ever micrometer of. The example I used was that if you misplace a brush stroke while working on a face someone will notice, but if you’re painting literal dirt on the literal ground nobody’s going to scrutinize that.

So the terrain I build is generally for tabletop war games or board games. On the whole most of the miniatures I own fall into the category of “28mm” scale. What does that mean? Nothing. Generally it’s accepted that 28mm will be the height of a character, but it varies wildly. For my purposes I treat this as 1:60th scale or more simply 1.5cm in the game equals 1 meter in the real world.

But what was I going to make? I had a lot of ideas for new projects but something had been lingering. A family friend of mine Bougie Hopkins who worked for years with my mother had heard of my interest in miniatures (probably through my father who has set aside a whole room in my childhood home just for trains)

She bought me a little sheet metal building that has a hinged roof panel so presumably you can store things inside of it, I think candles was the intended use, which would honestly be cool, maybe I’ll get those LED tea lights.

THANK YOU BOUGIE! You made this project possible!!

I don’t have any picture of the original structure but it was basically an aluminum box with the windows cut out and the roof in place. I decided to spruce up the metal box with one of my favorite building facade designs which I thought would fix nicely in a fantasy setting while also still being at home in a contemporary city/town. This design is sometimes called “Timber Framing” or “Tudor Style”.

For the framing I am using some 3mm or 1/8″ ‘Sintra’ aka foamed PVC sheet. It cuts very easily with a knife and I had some off-cuts lying around from a project at work last year.

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Here you can see the process which was to draw out the design in sharpie right on the sides of the house, then scuff up the areas where the sintra was getting glued down otherwise it wouldn’t adhere (Believe me I tried). I am gluing these parts on with CA (cyanoacrylate glue) aka “Super Glue” or “Crazy Glue”.

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All the framing took a couple of hours mostly to trim the pieces to fit nicely in the corners. It was then taken to the spraybooth and given a coat of matte primer, something that I know works well on metal and plastic is Rustoleum Camoflage. The Rustoleum is also very very matte which I prefer for all my miniatures projects. The lack of a gloss finish makes them seem less like toys.

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I took some suggestions for what else the house should have and built it a little storm cellar door. I think this was a really nice suggestion that made the house seem more grounded and less just plopped down on some terrain.

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Speaking of plopped down, here is the base for the house! The house isn’t glued down yet but we’re starting to get a feel for how this will look when it’s finished. The sand is just cheap hardware store sand held down to the base with white glue. If you attempt this don’t make the mistake I did masonite or hardboard will warp very badly when using white glue directly on it. This can be prevented in by applying a layer of primer or gesso the top AND BOTTOM of your board before applying glue. It also couldn’t hurt to put down a ground color before gluing the sand.

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Once again separated from the base the house got a coat of white primer over the green just to bring up some of the tones. Below we can see the house after it has been airbrushed with a brown I love working with the airbrush it really brings up the level of quality I am able to achieve quickly.

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At this stage I realized I made a major mistake, instead of painting the timber brown and then masking the timber, I should have painted the house white and then masked off the house! Ugh, it took me the better part of two whole days to mask off every little beam I had installed. Ya live and ya learn

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After the masking was all done the house got a fresh coat of white primer with a satin white over top of it. Pull the tape off and BAM looks like an awesome crisp new house on the prairie. But we don’t want a new house, we want some old, maybe abandoned, weathered old husk, so I applied some brown washes to it, some grey washes, did some highlighting on the timber…. and here’s the results:

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Foam flocking was added as well as some larger foam foliage in order to give the house a feeling of being abandoned or overgrown. I also boarded up a few of the windows to drive this point home.

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It is an amazing coincidence how well this worked in scale with the miniatures I use, there is no way that was part of the initial design and fabrication of the building.

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I love how this thing turned out and now all it needs is some extras, maybe some dilapidated trees, maybe a shallow fountain overgrown with algae, time will tell how it gets used.






Dreidel Dreidel Dreidel I made you out of…

The ideal was originally spurred by my coworker Dave who made a simple wooden dreidel for his wife who is a teacher. She wanted to demonstrate the game to her students.

With the holiday season fast approaching I  was thinking about family and identity and of course gifts. I knew that I was going to go home and record my folks stories about their childhood, and I also knew that it would probably be enough that I was secretly coordinating with my sister to bring her home from Shanghai for the holidays but I had an extended family to think about and Alex! Well we had just gone to Israel with Taglit Birthright in August, so what about some jewish cultural artifacts?

I had appropriated a chunk of walnut from the garbage cans at my previous job. We had used hundreds of feet of beautiful american walnut and the offcuts were getting tossed. Out of one I made a little pedestal, mostly to test out my new hand router.


These offcuts combined with a small sheet of maple that I picked up from Rockler made some lovely accented blanks. These were glued up, sanded flat on one side and run through the table and miter saw to square them up.

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Before I dig in I had to plan out the profile. Now the dreidels of my childhood were round on the bottom:dreidel-sides-letters--e1449268869620.jpg

So I attempted to make a test dreidel with a rounded bottom, but it wasn’t working very well. While testing my housemate Dillon challenged me to make one with a pointed base.

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Now I was resistant to this idea at first, that wasn’t how I remember dreidels looking but there is apparently a metric ton of literature regarding spinning tops and advanced physics. After making a quick mockup out of some 2×2 we had lying around the house the results spoke for themselves, and honestly it’s much easier to make consistent points then it is consistent curve, unless I had a lathe….hummm

 I digress, the next step for this was to plan out the final design and in a move that was very in character for me I went and made a 3D model. These didn’t need a 3D model but I feel like creating CAD designs allows me to start to solve problems in 3D space I otherwise might not have ever thought of…

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Armed with the design I glued up those three off-cut pieces that can be seen above into my “Test Dreidel” If you look closely in the image below you can see that it’s made from three smaller pieces laminated together.

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This fella worked great and all the other pieces admired it and wanted to be like him:

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But dreidels aren’t just a profile cut they also have emblems embossed on the sides so with Alex’s help I sat down and used some simply typographic techniques to design a hebrew ‘font’ all my own. I got some push-back on some of the letter, especially the original Shin seen in the image below but eventually I had a batch I was happy with and set up a file to be laser cut.

Making the test piece convinced me that if I wanted to be consistent I would need to do the inlay before cutting the points, the work just became too difficult to handle and register once it was in its final shape.  So all of these parts got drilled with a forstner bit and inlaid with a laser cut piece of maple!

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All of the maple inlays were sanded flush on the disc sander.

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When it was finally time to cut the points I made a jig that allowed me to more accurately replicate the same cut on every piece. The bottom of the inlay was lined up with the marking on the jig and then rotated till each face was cut.

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I managed to miss a step in here but before the points were added the tops of all of the blanks were drilled with a 3/8″ bit to allow the stems to be glued in later.

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You may be wondering about the little stems, they were actually made out of a narrower piece of the same walnut that got roughed to something resembling an octagon on the bandsaw and then chucked into a drill and turned against sandpaper till they were round. This is not a good way to make a dowel because it 99.999% of the time results in a taper. But I actually wanted a taper for these, it felt good in the hand and meant I needed to be less accurate with my hole drilling/ fitting.

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After a final glue up and sanding all of the parts were finished with 3 coats of a wipe on polyurethane over the course of 3 days, sanding in-between of course.

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If you looked at these and went “Hey the hebrew isn’t in the right order” congratulations, you’re better at this then I am. Even though I consider my girlfriend a jewish scholar and my sister is running a jewish community in Shanghai I was not knowledgeable enough at the dreidel game to know that the characters went in some kind of order. But now I know the phrase:
“Nes Gadol Hayah Sham”
נ  (Nun), ג (Gimmel), ה (Hey), and ש (Shin)

Literally: “A great miracle happened there.”

You can be sure that knowledge will be incorporated into all future projects!

Final Photos:





Happy recipients:

“Geary” the making of a cardboard robot

I recently took a job at the Y Creator Space, which is part of the Homewood Brushton YMCA. I will be here for 10 months as part of a full-time AmeriCorps term of service. During that time I will do my level best to teach lessons about engineering and STEM to youth age 9 – 13 every day after they are done with school.  But first…we needed some kids to teach. The Y Creator Space was short on attendees as we went into this new school year, which was crazy since this is a free afterschool program that also feeds the kids dinner!

Part of our recruiting strategy was setting up a table at local events and luring parents and kids in with cool projects from the Makerspace. I thought a great showpiece might really bring them in, and since we’re all about inventing with cardboard and making robots, I needed to combine the two ideas.

While I had this project in mind for a while it wasn’t till the director of youth programming at the Y suggested we make a robot secretary, and the shape of the bot materialized. With Tank in mind I set off, made a quick plan and started cutting cardboard.

Before long I had a prototype:
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Right now you’re looking at two servo motors glued inside of a box each with an empty tape roll attached directly do it. It had been a while since I had worked with puppetry, and I had never worked with animatronics, but I’ve been a sculptor for long enough that I knew I could get something working…

Now I need some kind of linkage to attach the mouth to a servo motor, and of course it would have to turn to look at people…

Here it is all finished up a few days later!
The whole thing is 4 servo motors rigged up to 3 potentiometers, controlling both eyes, rotation and the opening and closing of the mouth. The controller is a Hummingbird Duo, the same controller that we teach the kids on and they all have access too.

Normally a Hummingbird must be hooked up to a computer to a function but for the sake of portability I wanted to take advantage of the Hummingbird Duo’s ability to hold a simple arduino program. I was running into some issues with ArduBlock so I dug deep into my programming history and hacked together some example code to make each potentiometer which gave an output from 0-100 control each servo which takes an input from 0 – 180, thanks to Tom Lauwers and the team at Bird Brain Technologies for making this easy enough for even me to do!

Geary has been a big hit around the Y Creator Space and at the events we attend. I’m very proud of this creation, it’s been a great teaching tool!



Echo Echo Victor Echo Echo

Eevee is a Pokémon that has so much potential. It can fill whatever niche your missing in your team, it can be cuddly, slimy, spiky, frozen, or a plant. As long as there have been pokémon people have been speculating on what the next new eevee ‘brother’ will be (I assume brother because a newborn eevee has an 87.5% chance of being male). We were theorizing a green eevee evolution as early as 1997 10 years before the 2007 release of Diamond/Pearl and Game Freak canonized existence of Leafeon.

Needless to say I love Eevees. The illustration above is from a Platinum play-through showing my method for “EV training” my Flareon (I don’t care if it has no moves it’s so fluffy!)

A good friend of mine Caroline C knew of my love of eevee and during her short stint at the 3D printing company Piecemaker she printed off a shiny eevee for me!


Look at that support material!

Regular eevee’s are brown: Shiny eevee’s are grey: 

If you don’t know a “Shiny” pokemon is a palette swapped version of the original that has a 1/8192 (Generation 4) of occurring randomly in the wild. Many people will play through the entire pokémon franchise without ever encountering a shiny pokemon. I lucked into a shiny eevee while breeding a team of all 7 of the brothers available in Platinum version. With a mother eevee from Alex F and a father Linoone from Lynne G that she wonder traded in from Japan; I successfully utilized the “Masuda Method” which reduces the chances of breeding a shiny from 1/8192 to only 1/1638. I got mine in less then 80 eggs. As a wise man once said never tell me the odds.

The whole point of this blog post was to talk about the model eevee I was making….after I was given the 3D print I celebrated, this thing is so cool. Then proceed to hack it up. Cut the support material, hit it with a little sand paper, use a file to get into the tight areas and knock the ridges down and then throw down a layer of primer…

There are many methods for cleaning up 3D prints but this is the one I decided to try: the process is something like prime and sand, prime and sand, prime and file and sand, and prime and paint.

The primer sits heavy in the ridges and builds up to a smooth layer. keep this up until it’s a smoth outer layer.

Then it was painted:

Before it was finished I made a base on the laser cutter with some translucent plastic in red and white and some thinner plastic in black.


 Put the finishing touches on it, (eyes are hard man)

I made some extra bases because they were rad.

Now I have an awesome one-of-a-kind homage to my favorite pokemon that more then a few of my friends have contributed too!!

It goes great with the “Once in a Blue Moon Umbreon” that Alex crafted for me out of sculpty! ❤