RPG: Earth Elementals

Some time back I was watching Jeremy on Black Magic Craft [Youtube] and in one episode he built his own epic scale Earth Elemental or Rock Golem.  If that doesn’t mean much, think Rock Monster or go watch the video.

His was a very large scale build and I don’t have that much room to either store something that size or probably much opportunity to use something that big, so I decided to build something more roughly sized to the games we play where it was, maybe, twice as big as a typical player.  Maybe 8′-10′ scale feet tall.

For my version, I thought I might benefit from adding a bit more skeletal support, so I wanted to build an armature out of some aluminum wire I had, so I twisted something up, applied copious amounts of hot glue and got the basic armature and did a big of basic positioning of the torso, arms and legs.  Once I was generally happy with the results, I glued these go some chip board to secure it and allow me to build on it.


After I had that, I decided to take a very loose and non-judgemental approach to how I built up the creatures, starting with the feet, building out the front of the legs then the back, moving up to the torso and then down the arms and eventually up to the neck and head.  You’ll note that I built a couple at the same time.  This was in hopes I’d end up with at least one I was happy with and if I ended up with two, bonus!

As it turned out, I really liked the one on the right in the pictures because I thought it looked a bit like the Bigfoot pose in the Patterson-Gimlin film.



The other guy, well, I wasn’t quite as happy.  Despite my best intentions, he ended looking, for lack of a better word, “muppet-y”.  Like a stone, cold Grover.  Sigh.  I even cut off the first version of his head and tried again and he still looked Grover-y in version 2, so I decided that that was how he was supposed to look.  Sigh.

Next, I added some sand and small rocks to the base because, well, Earth Elementals and I hoped it’d add some visual interest and make them a bit less smooth.  After that dried, I did a base coat of black ModPodge to stiffen and seal, followed by a medium gray and then some dry brushing with lighter tones.  I used a wash to tone that down and then hit some of the sand and highlights again with a very light and bright dry brush to make it pop a bit more.  Then I added some green moss because that felt about right.  Finally, I hit it with some satin polyurethane to seal and I was done!

Last, but not least, some class pics with some foolish adventurers for scale.

I was pretty happy with the results for what was a pretty quick build.  Stone Grover aside.






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RPG: One-Shot Crazy

Years ago now, when I first started trying to explain my Role Playing Group to my wife, it was clear that she didn’t see what I saw.  Didn’t see the epic battles, the intense negotiations, the realization that discretion really is the better part of valor and retreat is always an option.

Rather, she imagined foam swords and bad accents.

Since then I’ve imagined convincing her to take part in at least an RPG one-off night where I could show her what it was really like.

She wasn’t interested in playing with a group more experienced than her, so decided I’d have a newbie one-shot night an invite some other friends who I thought I could arm-twist in to playing with me, even for an evening.

I decided it would be D&D 5e because even though I hadn’t GM’d 5e before, I felt I was familiar enough to guide a bunch of starter players through a night.  I also wanted them to have enough cool things to do that it would feel epic, so I also decided their characters would be fourth level as, from my reading, it seemed as though the first couple levels might not be all that much fun for a starter players.

At first, I thought I’d simply download a free one-shot and play that and that’s pretty much what I did.  I found The Secrets of Skyhorn Lighthouse on the very cool site The DMs Guild.  It felt about right, it was very well written and made it easy for me to run as a first-time D&D 5e module. Also, I knew I could get pre-generated characters for the players so I wouldn’t have to make them go through all the cruft of generating characters from scratch.  A few emails asking what they want to be and I’d be ready to go!

So, ready to roll, right?  Just invite folks over and make it happen.

Would that my brain would let it be that easy…

The rational part of my brain thought I was in pretty good shape.  The obsessive part of my brain said, “Oh!  This’ll be fun.  How about if we…”  and then started bombing my brain with ideas to try and make this a special night.

I did email the players and discuss what kind of characters they would be and thus was born the Party:

  • Sister Camille, the human Paladin, devoted to Bahamut, god of law and order
  • Rinin, the shifty half-elf Rogue, what is he hiding and whose pocket has he picked?
  • Kwai Chang Caine, halfling Monk, in search of peace and tranquility, but seemingly doomed to find neither.
  • Zoas Ulaxim, epic Elven Sorcerer, searcher of knowledge and power (and he has a crow familiar because the player thought would be cool!)

Me: “Now we’re ready to go, right?”

Brain:Nah, wouldn’t it be cool if, in addition to their pre-gen character, they got a custom mini and dice?

Me: “Sigh…”

The dice were easy, I found that was selling dice reasonably.  The minis, well there went a week of free time, but I liked the results:

One-Shot Party!

And it went on like that.Me: “Ready?”

Brain: “Nearly, but you know that cool scene near the beginning where they’re negotiating passage and they have their first fight encounter?  I know you were going to just draw that out, but wouldn’t it be even cooler if there were an actual boat for them to fight on and around?

Me: “Seriously?  Geez…”

And there went another week of free time, but again, the results were kind of cool.

Note: The ship is constructed from XPS Foam insulation, cut, glued and carved, 3d printed elements added and then paint.

Pink foam floats
Da Boat.

Me: “We good?”

Brain: “That was fun.  So … the boat is at a dock.  You going to just draw that?  They’ll be at different heights.  Doesn’t seem quite as cool.  Needs a dock.  Don’t you think it needs a dock?”

Me: “Crud.”

So, I had to build some docks.

The docks use jute twine for the ropes around the pilings and use XPS foam for the pilings, tongue depressors for the boards, paint and hot glue.

Me: “Now, we’re done.  Shut up brain.”

Brain: “Yeah, no, you’re doing great.  Looks good.  You know how that GM screen you were going to use is alright, but not awesome?  Isn’t it about time you built your own GM screen that is 3.6x times more awesome?”

Me: “No, I don’t think it is.”

Brain: “You are wrong.  Try to sleep now.  Can’t do it, can you?  My job is done.”

Me the next morning: “Brainzzz…  Shut up Brain.”

So, I had to do that because clearly I’m just along for the ride at this point.

The screen is made from a sheet of 1/8″ hardwood plywood, some cool brass bits for the corners and hinges and some cool Chicago screws to hold it all together.

I painted the decorations on the front after tracing them on to the wood.  Then sanding gently to go for a weathered look (not entirely successful).  The brass parts were “aged” using a mild acid to remove the shiny.  All of this is a combination of what my dumb brain came up with and some ideas I stole from various other projects.  Oh, and I used a dremel to inset small magnets on the inside of the screen so I can attach my own content on the inside or outside as needed.  Finally, before application of the hardware, there were  three coats of polyurethane with sanding between layers.  Four pieces, two sides, three times.  24 times applying polyurethane.

This went on for a while with me waaaaay overdoing it and putting far more time in to prep than I would use in that one five hour one-shot.  Like 10x.  Yeah, I’ve got issues.

And, in the end, not only did we not get through the one-shot which I really knew wouldn’t be a one-shot, we really only got through about a quarter of it.  But we did use the boat and dock.  And I got to use my GM screen.

I think the Party had a good time and my wife and friends got an introduction to playing role-playing games.

Me: “So, brain, we’re done now, right?”

Brain: “When’s the next session?!  I’ve got ideas.”

Me: Stabs brain with sharp pencil.


RPG: Dungeon Stuff

This is a short post about a few different small projects I did just to build something

Two things converge in this:

  1. I like making stuff.  My entire career is creating things that are based in software.  You can’t hold it, you can’t feel it, you can’t point at it (typically) and say “I made that.”
  2. It’s fun for me to build dungeon stuff, even if it’s not entirely clear when I’ll use them.  Yet.

All three of these projects, the rocks, the columns and the barricades are based on projects I saw either on Black Magic Craft or Game Terrain Engineering.  The former is a creative channel, mostly focused on creative table elements for RPG games, the latter is some of that, but he also throws in some cool uses of 3d printing.  Both are enthusiastic and are clearly having fun and I get good ideas of things to try, techniques to work on or just cool projects to watch being built – which serves as fodder for my own imagination.

The first are some large rocks used as terrain scatter for outdoor or subterranean encounters.  They are intentionally flat on top.  These turned out okay, but aren’t natural enough looking.  Might do again.

The second are a set of columns in a couple different styles.

The last are a set of barricades to throw down to impede direct progress or just for visual interest or cover.





RPG: Hero Forge Miniatures

We were starting a new campaign and gaming system in our RPG group and I couldn’t find a mini I liked.  I enjoy the process of creating the backstory for my character and that means a certain look and feel to the mini would be ideal, something that matches the version in my head.  I couldn’t find anything for this guy, either between the box of Bones minis I have from their Kickstarter or online.

I decided it might be time to try Hero Forge an online service that allows you to create a completely unique mini and then have it 3d printed and sent to you.

The user interface is all web-based and you get to build your mini on some templates for race, gender and then you can customize to your hearts  content.

This guy, my new character, saw himself as a self-made man, a bit cocky, certainly self-assured.  A bit of a swashbuckler and trying to live above his class.  His main weapons would be a pistol and an assassin’s blade.  With that vision in mind, I went to town on the user interface to try and create my character.

This is what I ended up with:

It took a couple weeks to receive the printed miniature as it gets outsourced to another service for printing but eventually I received a small and very light package containing my one-off miniature.

I painted him up and the paint job is just okay.  I botched the face, going a little nuts on dirtying him up and then not knowing how to clean him back up after it dried.  But, on the whole, it was a close fit to my vision.  I did add my own 3d-printed base custom fit to have the other base atop it.  Additionally, I have space underneath to insert/glue a washer which gives him a good heft and reduces the odds that he topples accidentally.


On the whole, I was very satisfied with the experience.  I got a mini that looked just like what I wanted and looked just like the 3d render that I used to create him.  It’s worth noting that I would not do this regularly.  The cost for the service is just too high for me to justify unless I either felt in dire need of a mini that I figured I’d use for a long period of time, maybe for a year or longer or, as was the case here, I was willing to front the additional cost for the experiment and I plan on using it for a year.

Make: Crate and Barrel!

I’ve had a 3d printer for a while now and, for the most part, I’ve been printing other people’s designs and models.  I’ve learned a bit about how to print a model (it’s still a bit of a roll of the dice, frankly) and I’ve printed some things to use at our Game Night, but one of the main reasons I wanted a 3d printer (in addition to simply learning about a new thing and thinking they’re cool) is that I wanted to create my own models.  I’ve toyed with it a bit, but I still have a lot to learn.

Part of it is the software.  I’m using a free piece of software called Blender and, it does rock, especially for the price, but the learning curve is … impressive.  I have spent a great deal of time trolling through YouTube to find tutorials by people demonstrating how to use the software.  I’ve been more than a little chagrined how often when that video starts, it’s being taught by what sounds like a 14 year old boy whose voice has yet to change.  Sigh.  They are the teacher, I am the student.  Acceptance…

In any case, between persistence, stubbornness and some better resources, I’m finally making some progress.  My goal on this front, I kid you not, was simply to make a barrel.  Just something that looked like a barrel.  This sounds trivial, but it’s not.  I could list the lessons I learned about modeling and using deformation cages/lattices, the rigor that has to be applied to a model so that it is printable (learned a new use of the word manifold).  I had to rebuild this barrel no fewer than three times, from scratch, before I was ready to let it go and saved a dozen versions.  Even with that, I am also discovering the limitations of (my) consumer grade 3d printer which is demonstrated by the loss of detail at this small scale.  That barrel on the left is about 2cm tall, roughly 2/3rds the height of a mini and appropriately sized for a game.  But it also means the wood grain I lovingly sculpted in to the staves is largely lost and you can see the individual strands that make up the plastic which is melted to form the top.  Granted, by the time I paint it, it’ll less obvious, but it was a lesson.

Oh!  The Crate, you ask?

Well, two things:

  1. If you are in a game where barrels exist, odds are you’re going to need some crates to hide behind or block hallways or stack or generally fill space.  And,
  2. I thought titling this Crate and Barrel was funny.  You know, like the store.  Ha!  See, it’s even funnier when I point it out.

Make: Ancient Obelisks!

Original Inspiration

I was perusing images on Google looking for something that I might make which wasn’t too large.  The idea is it should be something I might use when next I GM our role playing group.  I wanted something that you might put on a table, might advance/enhance a story, might have more than one use.  And, I saw this image and thought it was kind of cool.  Looked like it was something ancient, something that had seen the passage of time.  Best of all, I thought it was simple enough that I might do my own version.

The material of choice for something like this (according to what I’ve learned) is XPS foam or eXpanded PolyStyrene.  It’s found in big box hardware stores and is usually either Pink or Blue and comes in various thicknesses and usually in very large sheets.  I’ve been learning how to make with this stuff and I’m getting better.  It does have its limits.  For example, in the original image you’ll note the very detailed runes on the two surfaces.  I think this is just a rendering because I’ve not clue how to get that much detail, but the detail isn’t the most important part.

Basic construction (of mine) involved a couple of thin squares scribed with fake bricks topped with a thinner, smaller piece to form the base.  Then I cut a roughly 1″ square piece that was longer and cut eight pieces a few inches long.  I cut the tops by hand and the angles on the top of mine are a bit closer to 45 degrees than the original pic.

I glued the bases together and inserted a toothpick vertically to provide some additional support and then inserted the vertical pieces on the toothpick and added some glue.  That’s the basic construction.  From there, it’s making them look old.  I did multiple things: I sanded down some edges to simulate smoothing over time, I nipped out pieces with a small needle-nose pliers, I cut cracks.  Basically I attempted to abuse them till they didn’t look new any more.  Oh, and I made some big, old runes in them because it looked good.

Then comes the painting.  After an initial coat of a primer/strengthener (called Mod Podge), I gave my obelisks a medium coat of a brownish color.  Then I added some lighter accents via dry brushing.  Finally, I put on a dark wash to provide some additional aging and put some darker tones in cracks and crevices.  Finally, I tried some flocking for the first time to simulate the moss.  They still need a final coat of a satin polyurethane to seal and strengthen them, but I’ll have to wait for warmer weather to do that.  I will probably also put them on a 3d printed base with a washer underneath for additional ballast as they are very light on their own.

I like how they turned out.  This wasn’t a big project, but as I only have spare time to work on them, it still took a while to complete.  And, the next time I’m in need of an obelisk or eight, I’m ready!


New Coat of Paint!

So, that was a year, wasn’t it?

I’m not going to make any excuses, but 2017 was quite a year on many fronts.  Folks far more able to describe it clearly talked about how everything going on with our country and our politics and in the world made it nigh impossible for them to focus on, well, much of anything.  And so it was for me.  Updating here or writing or much of anything else besides just getting by got pushed to the background.  I’m sure I’m not alone in this.

But, it’s a new year and time to start looking forward and pulling myself out of the hole I’ve been living in for much of the last year (and occasionally wanting a blanket and a great deal of comfort), brushing myself off and getting moving forward again.

I suspect the new year will be better, at least in some ways.

Personally, there are changes for me as I’ve started a new job which is much closer to where I live.  Alone, this frees up more than an hour a day of additional time.  I don’t loathe climbing in to a car to drive 2-2.5 hours per day.  You can only listen to so many podcasts and I have listened to many.

I have found time to do some Making of stuff, and I’ll post at least the results of some of those.

I updated the front page of the site from something arguably artisanal (in the non-mechanized sense) and bespoke (in the made to order sense) while at the same time being of questionable quality and definitely showing it’s age to something that at least looks like it was made in the last few years.  That gave me a chance to look in to some more modern libraries like Bootstrap, so that’s good.


Make: Lamps!


Some time ago, roughly four months ago, I was watching a show called The Librarians.  I enjoy it because it’s silly and escapist and it’s filmed in Portland.  In the past they have used many familiar landmarks including the sub at OMSI (and OMSI) and their secret lair is under the base of the St. Johns Bridge.  So, it’s always fun to watch and spot landmarks.  Give it a shot if you’re in the mood.

As I was watching one episode, I spotted a lamp which I thought was kind of cool.  I have noticed the show likes to fill the background with lots of stuff which is kind of Steampunk-ish or maybe Retro or Urban or something which I’m sure has a name that I don’t know.  In any case, the lamp caught my eye.  Enough so that I took a few screenshots of the television.

Here’s the best:

I liked the wood, I liked that I could identify that most of it was built from industrial pipe, I liked the bulbs, which I would later identify as Edison Bulbs.

Later, in another scene, I spotted a single bulb version which was similar, but had a glass shade.  

After that I went to Google and started searching for similar lamps and finally ran across this one off a link on Pinterest.  I won’t link to it since the Pinterest link dead ends and the domain is for sale, but here is the lamp which the ad copy says was “heavily featured on The Librarians”:

So, again, nice wood, rustic pipe, cool bulb.  I wasn’t as jazzed about the glass shade, but I liked the concept.

That sent me down a rabbit hole of Googling, but mostly around how to build DIY lamps using pipe, looking at fixtures, bulbs, lamp shades or cages.

I thought I could figure out how to do everything except I had no clue how to build the base.  I haven’t done any woodworking since woodshop in junior high (shout out to Mr. Janke who had lost a few fingers to things with blades, was a bad-ass with the industrial vacuum and taught us to taunt folks from Sweden with “Ten Thousand Swedes, running through the weeds, chased by one Norwegian!”).  

Fortunately, I know my own bad-ass woodworker and he has all his fingers and is a friend, so I was able to ask him some questions and he was very, very helpful in pointing me in the right direction and steering me away from a couple nasty potholes.  Thank you Larry!

The first problem I had was how was the base constructed?  To those with more knowledge than me, it is probably obvious, but I didn’t know.  Larry told me that this is done by gluing the right sequence of strips of wood together after you cut them on a table saw.  Easy Peasy!  Yeah, right.  

Well, I followed up with, what kind of crazy rare wood is that likely to be?  He again put me on the right path: “Those look like fairly common species that aren’t terribly rare and expensive.  I’d say mostly walnut, maple, and a couple of others.

In the end, after a trip to the wood store, examining the options and spending an hour talking with the very helpful wood salesmen, I settled on the pretty common White Oak for the light, Black Walnut for the dark and Cherry for the warm brown color.

I will not take you down the odyssey that that process became but I learned how to use my table saw (correctly), I learned how to plane (and how not to plane) wood.  I learned that it’s far better to do it correctly the first time than try and sand out the mistakes later.  I followed the woodworkers path of turning larger pieces of wood into smaller pieces of wood with the application of power tools and elbow grease and the production of copious amount of sawdust.  Like “fill up my wet/dry vac” volumes of sawdust.

Then came the lengthy process of gluing, which was terrifying only because it seemed like it would be hard to undo if I did it wrong.  Then there was routing to round over the edges for the smooth look in the image above.  Then came the sanding.  And more sanding.  And then there was some sanding in there somewhere.  

Eventually I had a base and it was time to drill the holes for the legs and the hole the electrical cord would go through.  I managed to scratch my wood (stupid mistake) which necessitated more sanding to fix my error.

We had some really awesome winter weather this year in Portland, so that killed nearly a month of time I might have worked in my shed, but I didn’t want to because it was really, really cold and breathing in a shed where you are producing sawdust without sufficient ventilation is really unpleasant.

Finally, about a month ago, the weather turned sufficiently and I put in the time to get the bases close to done.  Then it was time to turn them from a dry looking piece of wood into something nice and once again Larry steered me in the right direction: “For projects like that I prefer a rub on finish.  I finished one of my first woodworking projects with Watco Tung Oil.  Like boiled linseed oil but penetrates better and leaves a warmer tone.  Boiled linseed oil is ok, but not what I think of as a satisfying finish.”  It was his next piece of advice when we talked about how many layers to apply that cemented the realization that woodworkers are nuts: “Just wipe on, let sit for a half hour, wipe off – then wait a day.  They say a coat an hour for a day, a coat a day for a week, a coat a week for a month, and a coat a month for a year, and yearly thereafter.”  Yeah, nuts.  I gave up after a dozen coats.  They looked nice.  I was happy with them.

In parallel with this i acquired the pipe fittings.  I figured (correctly) that they were ½” pipe and fittings.  I did some quick figuring for parts and made a trip to my local big box hardware store and bought the basic pipe bits.  Unfortunately, they’re pipes.  From a hardware store.  So, they were greasy and kind of gross and I wouldn’t want them in my house, so I had to do some cleaning.

As I was putting together parts and looking at what I wanted to do, I started to notice that a lot of Steampunk uses brass or copper.  And some of the shades and lamps that I found were kind of cool looking with brass accents.  So, I decided that instead of strictly industrial, I was going to class mine up a bit and I would use brass bits (technically termed ‘nipples’) to connect the pipe parts.  And, I would paint my pipe black so I’d have the wood and black pipes and brass accents and old-timey bulbs.

I wanted to find some nice sockets but I didn’t want the standard pull cords or knobs to turn them on/off because I planned on using a switch on the cord.  That resulted in me exploring a very cool store my wife and I happened upon one weekend in Portland called Sunlan Lighting.  They source any number of cool bulbs, sockets, wiring, lights, lamps, hardware and various bits and bobs.  It’s a very cool and very Portland store and everyone in there was very nice and very helpful.

Here I found several difficult to find things:

  • Exactly the right lamp base I wanted – though it had a ⅛” threaded base
  • ⅛” threaded bit
  • ¼” threaded bit
  • ⅛” to ¼” coupler

This combination allowed me to thread the bulb base directly into the pipe fitting which ended with a ½” to ¼” reducer, which was a big deal and solved several problems!

Finally, after searching through options, I settled on these “Vintage Edison Bulbs 60W Squirrel Cage Filament Incandescent Antique Light Bulbs”:

And these covers, “Metal Lamp Guard, Industrial Wire Iron Bird Cage”, mostly because I liked the black and brass:

I found some cool cord, “Black Twisted Vintage Cotton Cloth Covered Cord”:

and some classic looking plugs:

And, finally, some inline rotary dimming switches.

After months since I’d started with “Hey, those are cool, I wonder if I could make something like that”, I was able to start assembling the results this last weekend to see how they would look.

Here are the results.

Now, they’re not 100% done.  I still need to paint the silver screws attaching the Black Iron Floor Flange Fitting to the lamp base.

I’m trying to decide if they’re too short relative to the base, but I think I’m good with that.  Additionally, I wonder if they need some aging to make them look less like something that was completed last weekend, but those are details.  Oh, and the caps that will sit on a table need something to protect whatever they will sit on or they will scrape the heck out of whatever surface that will be.  And, frankly, these are likely just going to end up in my office, anyway.  I won’t impose these on the rest of the house.

Looking back at the images that started me down this path roughly four months ago, my result definitely turned in to my own thing versus recreating an existing prop, but slavishly copying an existing thing wasn’t my goal (this time).

I learned a bucket load about woodworking and the bases certainly wouldn’t have turned out as nice as they did without the help of my friend Larry.  Having said that, I could point out half a dozen mistakes in the base that will likely only ever irritate me, but I also know that I would probably only have half as many of them if I ever do something like this again.

If I apply any reasonable value on my time, then these are ridiculously expensive, one-of-a-kind lamps, so I have once again failed to stumble on some money-making second career, but that was truly never my goal.  I simply wanted to make something cool based on something else cool that I saw one day while watching television.  I’m happy with the results, so I’ll call that a success!

Here are some links to pages I found that were helpful or gave me inspiration

How About Orange : How to Make an Industrial Floor Lamp http://howaboutorange.blogspot.com/2014/04/how-to-make-industrial-pipe-floor-lamp.html
Home Depot Blog: DIY Industribal Lamp: Cool Desk Lamp Made From Pipe

Steampunk Lamp: Dan is building cool things and blogging out what he did and how he’s doing it.  Excellent read and answered a question from me, which was appreciated. http://www.dplivingston.com/steampunk/steampunk-lamp-1

Make: 3D Printed Stackable Height Risers for RPG Minis

One of my goals for the year is to document some of my projects. Adam Savage of Mythbusters fame is credited with saying “Remember kids, the only difference between screwing around and science is writing it down”. Side note: according to Adam, it was actually Alex Jason, a ballistics expert working with them on one of the episodes. In any case, my head variation is “The only difference between actually doing something and fooling around is writing it down”. To that end, I’ll do some little after-project write-ups from some of my little side projects by way of differentiating between fooling around and whatever results I get, good or bad.

In this case, I was talking with the GM (Game Master) from our weekly Game Night and we were chatting about things including my 3D printing and I was lamenting that I hadn’t done much with it lately. He noted that if I was looking for a project, he would like small, stackable elements that he could use to differentiate players or non-players and the various elevations. This comes up because it’s easy to forget something was up in the air or how much versus a simple 2D position.

The conversation stuck and I started noodling and thinking about designs. So, step 1 was sketch and this is what I came up with:

As I started to think about how a 3D printer works (think of squeezing out a tube of toothpaste with a very narrow mouth, but instead with melted plastic and in 3 dimensions), it turns out it’s kind of tough to make something flat like the sketch standing on legs, because the printer prints in layers from the bottom up and going from legs to the platform will not work easily. I then realized I could flip it over and print the top surface first and the legs last and suddenly I had a plan.

The next step in prototyping is building a model. In this case the easiest and quickest solution was to build it using TinkerCAD. TinkerCAD is free, online CAD software that has enough functionality to do what I needed. So, after coming up to speed on the UI and how it worked, I started knocking out the design. In a CAD program, what you’re building is a series of shapes/solids and other shapes that act as holes which you use to cut, well, holes or shave pieces off the solids.

Here is what that looks like:

Or, rendered as a solid:

Now, with that, I can export that information in a file format that the 3D printer understands (typically a .STL or .OBJ). Next I import that file in to the software which communicates with the 3D Printer (in this case, Cura). Cura is used as a way to set up the print, describe options like quality and other obscure things like infill, whether to use support structures, etc. Once I was happy with those, I hit Print and wait 20 minutes for the results (and hope the 3D print doesn’t come loose and waste 20 minutes and the associated material).

Even with that, there’s a difference between what you picture in your head and what works in reality. In this case, what I determined after iterating on the design a few (like, six) times is that what I really wanted were legs that were narrower than the holes they fit in to to allow easy stacking that felt connected and wasn’t sloppy but you also didn’t have to force. So, yeah, only six or seven tries.

Before I offer the end result, I’ll show what I’ll call my Pile of Sadness. This is a combination of failed iterations and failed prints. This is what the middle bits between idea/inspiration and a working prototype look like:

The result, though, was pretty good. I was happy with it and will print up a number of them for our GM to use (or not) in our game. Because, in the end, it was really about making something that didn’t exist before as much as it was about solving the problem. But, solving the problem (satisfying my customer) also feels good.

And, as an additional bonus for lasting this long, here is a print I did just for fun of Baby Groot. (Design credit to Tom Davis and the model found on MyMiniFoundry)
Note: This will only be cool if you know the Guardians of the Galaxy movie and its sequel.



Make: 3D Printer!

I grew up on Star Trek. It was an escape for my imagination and it was a place where technology, albeit fictional technology, usually played a part in saving the day. Scotty, the ship’s chief engineer on the Enterprise, would often complain about the impossibility of a request, but always managed to come through. Smart people, whether the First Officer, the Doctor, the Engineer or even the Captain, were never denigrated for being intelligent and using that intelligence to save the day, one one-hour episode at a time

It wasn’t until Star Trek: The Next Generation, though, when they introduced the replicator. On the show, the replicator could be used to produce any material or object, so long as the pattern existed on file. So, Captain Picard could walk up and request “Tea, Earl Grey, Hot” and the tea along with the cup would magically appear.

We’re nowhere near that kind of technology today, but the 20th century is filled with examples of science fiction serving as fodder to help foster new ideas. The flip phone cellphone looked like it did because they modeled it after the communicator from Star Trek. Actual physicists and engineers will talk about things like Warp Drives and tractor beams which don’t exist, but they wonder if they could some day.

3D printers have been around awhile, but much like the PC in the early 80s, mass production and the reduction in cost of technology have caused the price to drop enough that the current state of the technology is increasingly accessible to the average person. It’s not sufficiently advanced for it to be interesting or useful to most folks, but for the tinkerers and the dreamers, it’s enough to make it interesting!

Most consumer grade printers available today print using a couple of variations of plastics, PLA and ABS. One is corn-based and the other is petroleum based.

The current generation have the ability to take in this plastic material, run it through a hot tip and extrude it in 3d space for a given X,Y,Z coordinate in the build space of the printer.

Typically, the technology uses a layered approach and prints the base of the object then prints layers upon very narrow layers until the object is eventually finished. I think it looks a bit as though a hot glue gun were married to a computer which could think in three dimensions.

I purchased a Printrbot Simple Metal after watching the technology for the last few years. I’ve been reading yearly reviews that Make Magazine produces yearly, watching the price come down as the quality increases. I chose this model because it was a reasonable trade-off between price and quality as well as openness of the technology. This particular model is modifiable to accept either PLA or ABS materials as well as others that are based on this basic technology. They also didn’t lock in the consumer to only use their branded materials as some others have done, following the printer approach of using DRM so that you can only a manufacturers materials with their printer.

This particular printer has a build volume of 6” cubed, which is mid-range for consumer printers. I can also mod the printer to handle up to a 10” cubed volume for a reasonable cost, but for now that’s sufficient.

Here’s my setup in my garage for the 3d printer. I have it in the garage because of both noise and the smell. My wife, though very understanding, is likely to respond poorly to the smell of melting plastics permeating the house. The noise isn’t bad, but it’s not silent by any stretch.

Garage Setup

The first thing I was directed to do was print several small boxes. This is to allow me to dial in the printer accurately. This went fine and I adjusted the printer accordingly once I figured out the right settings.

Next I wanted to print a shroud for the fan which blows air on to the extruder. The shroud would focus the air flow and is supposed to result in more consistent quality.

In the next pic you can see the results of my first attempt to print the shroud.

Failed Shroud Print

As you can see, it did not go well. The blue tape on the bed of the printer is simply blue painters tape. It gives a reasonably grippy surface for the print, but it’s not infallible. In this case, I printed on the same tape that I’d used to calibrate earlier and it appears that the shroud came loose from the build plate. Of course, the printer doesn’t know that, so it merrily goes about printing the remainder of the shroud, not realizing it’s gone from printing usefully to making modern string art.

LESSON 1 Change the tape between prints

LESSON 2 Print times are larger than any rational person would like.

The shroud took something like an hour, so I lost time when the first build failed and more time and materials to print it again. But, the printer is in the garage, so if the print fails, I won’t know till I go check, which I did roughly every 20 minutes. And, all I can do once it does fail is cancel the print and clean up the mess and decide whether I’ll try again.

Here is a pic of the results of my first nights attempts. As you can see, the pile of the left represents the successful prints. The pile on the right are the failed prints. Those piles are roughly 50/50, meaning my confidence in doing anything more complicated is not high at this time.

Success/Failure Ratio

I did try to print a little robot which has moveable joints, mostly in the legs, shoulder and neck. Sadly, my success with the printable joints was also about 50% and it took two tries to get him to print.

LESSON 3 Start reducing the number of variables to increase the odds of success.

Right now I basically try and print and see how it goes. Roughly half the time it works and half the time something goes wrong with the print coming loose or messing up in some number of ways.

I need to figure out why they’re messing up and what knobs and levers I have access to to make it more predictable. There are a plethora of configuration options in the software that controls the printer. Right now I’m using a basic setup and haven’t yet dug deep in to those other options.

Additionally, I suspect I’ll want to try with the other main material, ABS. That means an upgrade to my machine to add a heated bed and perhaps a new extruder. The PLA is very rigid and not very forgiving and I believe I may get better accuracy and results with ABS. Additionally, you can get different effects from ABS because you can sand it and even dip it in solutions to get a smoother finish, options that don’t exist for PLA.

That means this next phase is about trying to understand how to get the most out of this printer. I can’t treat it like a paper printer and hit Print and walk away. The technology is just not there, yet.

It’s a fair question to ask: What are the requirements for people to start buying these in volume for their homes?

I think we can look back to the days of the personal computer to answer that question. Having lived through those dark ages lo these many decades past, my belief is that killer apps were what caused people to adopt those early computers. And that meant two things:

  1. Games
  2. Business Applications (spreadsheets and word processors)

Because my crystal ball is terrible, I don’t yet know what the parallel would be for 3d printers.

Also, the technology needs to be much more reliable.

My first computer, a Commodore PET, was built out of sheet metal steel and the body could be lifted like the hood of a car and it even had a steel rod to hold the upper half up. This was necessary, at least in part, because I occasionally had to reach in to the guts of my computer to reseat the bus connector that connected the video to the main board. Imagine having to do something similar to a computer or a video game system today. We expect them to work and if they stop, as often as not, many people will throw it out and buy another one.

Here are the things I think will happen in the next decade to bring this technology in to the home:

  1. Prints have to succeed 95+% of the time, preferably 99%
  2. The speed of the printer has to be measured in minutes, not hours.
  3. The variety of materials and the characteristics of those materials needs to be sufficiently broad. This would include things like metals, ceramics, wood-like, teflon, rubber, etc. Did you know some people are already experimenting with printable food using chocolate and sugars and other ingredients? The food synthesizer of the original Star Trek doesn’t seem so far away now.
  4. The tools to make or re-mix a new thing need to be easy to use. Current tools and software require a great deal of patience and knowledge before you can be effective.
  5. The technology will probably be paired with a build-in low-cost scanner.

Back when I was making the case to my Dad to try and justify spending the then prodigious sum of $300 for my first computer since I didn’t have that money, he asked me a very rational question: “What are you going to do with this?” I didn’t have a great answer then, because I hadn’t had a computer before, but I probably talked about learning how to program and writing games, both of which I would later do for a ridiculous number of hours. That first computer undoubtedly put me firmly down a path which has paid off that investment many, many times over.

Recently when I was talking to my wife about 3D printers, she asked a similar question: “What are you doing to do with it?” There was similar hand waving and attempts at justification, but at the end of the day, I don’t need a 3d printer any more than I needed that first personal computer. But now, as then, I’m convinced that this technology is on a similar cusp of enabling amazing things and amazing times and, at the end of the day, I want to experience that joy of learning and joy of discovery much as I did 35 years ago with my first computer. So, what am I going to do? I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure it’s going to be cool!