After years of building and testing DIY project kits, these are my five favorite picks that will satisfy makers of every skill level. It’s just the tip of the iceberg when you consider the hundreds of DIY kits on the market, but these are the surefire hits (either for yourself or as a gift).
What makes a kit great? I look for kits that are well made, well documented, and include every part you’ll need. But most importantly, as makers, we live for that moment when the project is complete, the power switch is flipped, and all the work you put into the kit comes back at you as pure delight. If a kit doesn’t make me smile, it’s not on this list.
If you’ve already made a kit from this list, than you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, than this is going to be a real treat. Find a kit that looks like fun, buy it, and bookmark this page because you’ll probably be back for more.
Do you know of a kit that should be on this list? Let us know.
#1: Useless Box
Best Overall Maker Kit
$49 – Check Price On Amazon
Don’t let the name fool you. This project is one of the most practical and efficient devices I’ve seen for making people smile. You flip a switch, and a little mechanical lever pops out of the box to shut off the switch. The first time you experience one, you’ll probably flip the switch at least a dozen times.
Now, why does this get our top pick? First and foremost, it’s a project that delights 100% of the time. This kit is a staple of DIY electronics and nearly every maker I’ve met has some version of it on their shelf because there’s just something inexhaustibly satisfying and fun about flipping that switch.
This project also offers a nice introduction to a range of skills and components. You’ll learn the basics of soldering wire to a PCB (no components or schematics to confuse a beginner). Then there’s the enclosure, which on the Solarbotics version of the kit is made from laser-cut sheets of black acrylic that you’ll join together using Pettis joints, which are unique and oddly beautiful in their own right. A PDF of the assembly instructions can be found here.
#2: Solar Marble Machine
Solar-Powered Kinetic Sculpture
$45 – Check Price On Amazon
The solar-powered marble machine is a relatively new project that has quickly become a beloved maker kit. The finished device uses solar power to slowly crank a marble up to the top of a spiral ramp, where it descends and starts its journey over again.
There’s a lot to love about this kit. It’s a great example of how relatively easy it is to integrate solar power into a project. And because it’s solar, it has a sort of life of its own. You could leave it to do its thing all day and not worry a bit about feeding it a fresh set of batteries.
It’s also a wonderful showcase for the engineering potential of laser cut wood. The majority of the kit consists of five panels of wood with all of the gears, ramps, and structure precisely laser cut for easy removal. Most of the project involves simply glueing together this intuitive system of slot-and-tab wooden parts.
There is some basic soldering required to get the five components installed on a simple circuit board. Printed outlines on the circuit board make it a beginner-friendly task, similar to a paint-by-numbers.
Mischievous Maker Super Power
$24 – Check Price On Amazon
The TV-B-Gone is a small, handheld device that allows you to turn off any nearby TVs with the touch of a single button. The first time you test it out, you feel as though you’ve been given a sinister super power. The rest of the day is typically spent devising pranks and testing the patience of your friends.
Unlike the previous two kits, the TV-B-Gone is an electronics project through-and-through, and better for someone who has at least a few soldering projects under their belt. That said, it’s a great project for the kind of beginner who’s ready to step up from soldering a few wires and LEDs, and get their feet wet with transistors, capacitors, and integrated circuits.
This kit makes a particularly good project for a hard-to-motivate teen, because the allure of being able to piss-off adults by turning off their TVs is a powerful incentive for completing the project.
#4: Mini Strandbeest Kit
An engineer’s desktop pet
$15 – Check Price On Amazon
For a completely non-electronic kit that’s both fascinating and mechanically elegant, you can’t beat the Mini Strandbeest kit.
This is a working model of the beach-roaming PVC creatures made by Dutch artist/engineer Theo Jansen. If this is your first time learning about Theo and his Strandbeests, you’re in for a treat. If you need more convincing, watch this video of Adam Savage geeking out with Theo Jansen and one of his creations.
Be aware, though, that there are three variations of this kit that are easy to confuse. The original model (created by Japanese published Gakken) runs around $50 and comes with a beautiful Japanese magazine. This is the best quality model I’ve seen in terms of material quality, however, the instructions are in Japanese but a translation is available online. A second option, is to purchase the same-quality model (but with no magazine) directly form the author for around $35. The third, and least expensive option is to purchase the kit linked here on Amazon, which is functionally identical to the other kits and includes printed instructions in english, but the plastic quality is a little thinner.
All of the parts fit and snap together without glue, making it a tidy build. Once finished you’ll have your own miniature Strandbeest that can stroll across your desk with just a gust of breath. Like the Solar Marble Machine, the battery-free operation of the Gakken Mini Strandbeest gives it a pet-like quality.
Honestly, what also makes this a fun build is that it makes a great conversation starter. If you get a chance to introduce someone to Theo’s work, you sound all smart and artsy.
Adorable fun with a Raspberry Pi
$120 – Check Price on Adafruit
The Cupcade kit from Adafruit is an adorable miniature arcade cabinet that you can load up with hundreds of vintage video games. It’s not an easy or inexpensive kit, but it is painstakingly documented and well-supported by Adafruit. Plus, the promise of video games when you’re all finished is a great motivator.
This project also makes a great introduction to the Raspberry Pi single board-computer, which is the foundation of many of the most exciting maker projects of the past few years. You will need to purchase your Raspberry Pi (be sure to get the original Model B) in addition to the kit in order to complete the project, adding an extra expense and an extra step.
It’s worth the effort, though, as you’ll walk away with both a cute, functional arcade machine and an increased familiarity with the Raspberry Pi that will open the door to other projects.
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Boldport’s Tap Sensor project is a beautiful refresh of a project that first appeared in the premier issue of 1974’s Elektor magazine. The organic lines of the circuit board traces — a hallmark of Boldport’s design aesthetic — look right at home on this retro project, which is largely unchanged from the original ‘70s design.
The kit includes the bare board, a few stickers, a printed link to project information, and all of the electronic components you’ll need to complete the board. In order to functionally demonstrate the project you will also need three LEDs, a breadboard, some hookup wire, female-male header wires, and a 5v power supply. If you’ve completed Boldport’s Cordwood Puzzle project, you can also hook the Tap Sensor directly to it with some header wires and skip the breadboard and LEDs.
Because Boldport’s boards are so thoughtfully labeled on the underside with component outlines and reference numbers, the project basically revolves around correctly placing and soldering things, with bonus points for clean, tight work that can complement the beauty of the board.
Welcome to the lab. What I’m attempting here with Maker Project Lab is a space to rebuild, evaluate, and review other people’s projects (O.P.P.).
So, why review projects? Well, the short answer is that it’s something I’ve been trained to do, so I may as well do it. When I was a Projects Editor at Make: magazine, my job was to find great projects, rebuild them, fix errors, and make the instructions as clear and easily understood as possible before running it in the magazine. In a way that’s what I’ll continue to do here, though it remains to be seen how much I’ll be publishing project instructions or something closer to tips and annotations that point back to the original project.
The longer, more thoughtful answer is that I believe that the Maker community needs a place to reflect on their best work and possibly refine it. A place that sifts through and polishes up the best of what’s been done and sheds some pretty words on what makes it so good and why others should make it too.
I love the group of artists, engineers and tinkerers that make up the Maker movement. I have never known a more enthusiastic, motivated, intelligent and inspiring community of people. It may sound obvious, but Maker’s are extraordinarily good at making new things. Every day, I check the feed of new projects coming from places like Instructables, Make, and Hackaday, and it’s like standing under a waterfall.
But — and I believe this is true with any creative pursuit — the people who make a thing aren’t always in the best position to explain it. And instead of putting in the work required to explain it better, they do what they do best and move on to their next invention.
I don’t think that’s a bad thing. No one expected Pablo Picasso to make a beautiful work of art, then write a book on how he made it, beginning with a foreward on why his art is important and how his style fits within the canon of great art. But somehow, we expect this of Makers, and it doesn’t always work.
So, for my part, I’m going to let Maker’s make, and use my skill set as an editor and wordsmith to select and highlight great projects, kits, and tools, and help them reach a wider audience. If that sounds like something you’d enjoy, be sure to subscribe to my YouTube channel, sign up on the email list, and follow Maker Project Lab on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.