Over the next month-plus, David Lang, something of a reluctant maker, is immersing himself in maker culture and learning as many DIY skills as he can, through a generous arrangement with our pals at TechShop. He’ll be regularly chronicling his efforts in this column — what he’s learning, who he’s meeting, and what hurdles he’s clearing (um… or not). –Gareth
“And that’s just the beginning, there are all types of materials that work with the laser cutter. In addition to cardboard and paper, you can etch glass, cut acrylic, and engrave leather. You can even laser etch onto a chocolate bar.” Said Zack, my TechShop Dream Coach who has been guiding me on my Zero to Maker journey. He was also today’s Laser Cutting SBU substitute teacher.
“Wait a second… Chocolate, seriously?” I asked in disbelief. “Doesn’t the laser melt it?”
“Nope, it works great. I used the laser cutter to engrave a picture and a poem on a chocolate bar last year for Valentine’s Day. My girlfriend assumed I had organized a custom mold at the Ghirardelli factory, but it was only five minutes of laser cutting time after work one day.” Zack continued, “I actually have a bar of chocolate in the freezer, we can try it out right now.”
Next thing you know, everyone in the course was eating a piece of chocolate they had just had their name laser cut into it.
One of my main assumptions starting out on this journey was that I wouldn’t be able to make anything cool right away. I thought I’d be exposed to different tools and processes, but it would take years of practice and mistakes before I could do anything useful. Well, I’m happy to report that the Laser Cutter course at TechShop totally blew that assumption out of the water.
It started off just how you would expect: basic safety information and an overview of the machine (on/off, cleaning the lens, orientation, etc.) but Zack quickly let us loose to try both raster cutting (used for engraving/etching) and vector cutting (used for clean cuts through material) for ourselves. It was such an easy process to learn, I was a little embarrassed that I hadn’t attempted it sooner. I think I harbored a bizarre fear that I needed CAD experience or some other technical background, which is not the case at all. The machine runs off Adobe Illustrator or Corel Draw. It’s as easy as typing, drawing or uploading an image you want to use, and sending a print job (with a few settings tweaks) to the laser cutter.
Aside from the general ease of use, I was surprised at how many ideas for using the laser cutter were pouring into my head. I could use it to personalize my wallet, create a mold for a ceramics project I was envisioning, or repeat Zack’s chocolate idea with my girlfriend. The laser cutter experience was also valuable for the OpenROV project. Eric Stackpole, the OpenROV creator, had recently redesigned the frame of the ROV to be cut from a single sheet (24 inch x 18 inch) of 1/4 inch-thick acrylic. After a quick heat bend of the main section, the rest of the pieces snap into place without the need for any adhesives. Using the single sheet (opposed to multiple parts, connected with adhesives) cuts the cost of the ROV dramatically – a main goal of the project – and makes it fast and easy to reproduce.
If you want to learn the skills yourself, the 2-hour Laser Cutter SBU course at TechShop costs $60 and will have you well on your way to bringing your own laser cutting creations to life. Even if you’re not quite sure how you’ll use the tool, it’s a great experience and I’m sure you’ll be full of ideas once you realize what the machine is capable of.
Also of note, the team at Nortd Labs is working to develop an open-source laser cutter called Lasersaur. Who knows, the laser cutter may turn out to be a household item someday soon. Might as well figure out how to use it now!
Follow David’s Zero to Maker journey
Welding! Welding is a glorious, mystery-infused, thoroughly bad-ass way to stick things together. Welders move in their own cloud of mythos and danger – they are dirtier, tougher, and sexier than other kinds of makers, and the things they build are big and strong and hold our world together. This positive stereotype permeates at all levels of pop culture: if a character is introduced while welding, you immediately know that they will be some kind of blue-collar superhero, or some kind of cliched contradiction – the welder quoting Hegel after winning the bar fight, or the classic trope of seeing a welder at work, and then, they flip off their helmet, and OMG IT’S A GIRL! A GIRL WELDING!
Over on Make: Projects, I’ve written a welding tutorial to get you started with barely any gear at all – simply three car batteries and some jumper cables give you the ability to perform basic stick (arc) welding.
Meg Allan Cole welds at my shop in this CRAFT Video about a typecase table with an homage to Flashdance.
Who doesn’t want to get in on this skill set? Soldering makes electronic magic happen, knitting keeps you warm, but knowing how to weld will make attractive people of whatever orientation you are into swoon. Everyone wants to know how to weld. The biggest problem, for most people, is that you need access to a welding machine.
There are a few options here: you can borrow someone’s welding rig. I suppose welders are common on farms, but only 2% of Americans live on farms, and if you are one of them, you were probably out welding the cows and milking the corn within minutes of birth (I have only a vague idea of what goes on at farms, as you can see. Something with dirt, right?) If you live in the grittier, more industrial parts of cities, there are welding shops all over the place, but they are dark, scary places (part of their appeal) and if you were to walk into one, expecting to find dedicated tradesman open to the DIY spirit and eager to teach a snot-nosed kid, you will quickly discover that welders are dark, scary, busy people, bribe-able with beer, maybe, but not usually interested, at all, in teaching.
You can buy a welder. You can pick up a cheap 110v stick welder for about a hundred bucks (check big hardware stores, Amazon, or Craigslist) or a bare-bones, break-in-a-couple-of-hours MIG (wire feed) machine for under $150 (just saw some for that much, and lower, on Amazon. Do not buy them. They are garbage), but I know that many, many people cannot even afford that.
Also, if you are not sure about the whole welding thing and want to try it out, or just need to do a day of welding to finish that one big project, or need to repair things every now and then, buying a new piece of equipment is probably not the best course of action, especially since when it comes to welders (as it is with pretty much everything else), you get what you pay for.
The final option, and best for the poor or non-committed-to-welding maker, is to build a welder. There are many ways to do this, ranging from impressive feats of DIY electrical engineering all the way down to the easiest, simplest one: wiring together some car batteries. It is quick and uses stuff you either have lying around or can pretty easily obtain. Follow the instructions, and you can go from zero to welding in under an hour.
Caveats, cautions, and all that
Welding is dangerous! Even if you take every possible safety precaution, you will occasionally burn and cut yourself, and electric shocks and retinal burns are very common, even if you know what you’re doing — and you probably do not. Skimp on safety and you can blind yourself, suffer injuries that will make hardened ER doctors puke, and die in any number of closed-casket ways. When you’re starting out, wear a good, rated helmet, thick gloves, non-flammable natural fiber clothing (as much leather as possible), and boots. Later, when you have a couple of hundred hours of welding experience and the scar tissue has rendered you insensitive to pain (and pleasure — a downside of welding), you can do the weld in a T-shirt or gloveless bit, but at that point, you will know what you’re getting into (and trust me — UV-burned armpits suck).
One important bit of information that other welding tutorials leave out: At first, you will be horrible at this. There is a good chance you will not even be able to strike an arc, or if you do, you will not be able to maintain one. Or, if you can maintain one, you will burn through the things you are trying to weld or not really weld them at all. People tend to not document their failures online, and it is easy for the person who’s new at welding (or skateboarding, or juggling, or pretty much anything) to forget that the thing they are trying to learn is hard, and that the flaw is not in the instructor, but in the student. The flaw is in the student, but not in the way that you might think — remember that worthwhile things are hard and people do not document their learning curve or all of their countless failures. You will fail, but just keep trying and you will eventually get it right. It will just likely take longer than you think.
Lastly, welding is really not the be-all/end-all panacea for fabrication. It is difficult to do on anything except for steel, welded things are hard to take apart, and the heat tends to distort small or thin parts.
With all that said: on to welding!
Hackett is the founder and director of the Madagascar Institute
, the Brooklyn “art combine” specializing in large-scale sculptures, guerrilla art events, and carnival rides from hell
. He is also an Adjunct Professor at New York University
, and a “TV personality.” The fall season of his show, Stuck With Hackett
, premiered on August 18th on the Science Channel.
See all of our Metalworking Skill Builder series
Stanford School of Engineering is offering three classes this fall with open enrollment and free admission. The first is Introduction to Artificial Intelligence. It is taught by Peter Norvig, author of Artificial Intelligence, A Modern Approach, and Sebastian Thrun, Research Professor of Computer Science at Stanford.
From the course description:
Artificial Intelligence is the science of making computer software that reasons about the world around it. Humanoid robots, Google Goggles, self-driving cars, even software that suggests music you might like to hear are all examples of AI. In this class, you will learn how to create this software from two of the leaders in the field. Class begins October 10.
In addition to Artificial Intelligence, Introduction to Databases, and Introduction to Machine Learning will be taught. When registering, students can opt for the advanced track with assignments and quizzes, or the beginner track with just quizzes. After completion, a certificate is awarded.
I signed up for the AI class, looking forward to it immensely. I was going to pick up the book (1152 pages!) but I was quickly reminded by Amazon of the cost of school books. Over 43,000 people have signed up for the Machine Learning class already. Which one are you taking?