This is the Mini Strandbeest kit. It sells for as little as $15 online and you can put it together in under an hour. And when you’re done you have this cool, working, miniature model of a Theo Jansen Strandbeest.
Now, in order to fully get excited about this kit, you need to get fully excited about what a Strandbeest is, which is easy. The real things are these awesome, giant, moving, wind-powered sculptures made out of PVC pipe. Here’s a video that can start you down the rabbit hole of falling in love with these things.
After that, you’ll want the kit. Now, there are a bunch of variations out there, but this design seems the easiest and most affordable to come by.
They used to be as rare as hen’s teeth and the only way to get one was to find this imported Japanese issue of Gakken magazine that came with a kit and instructions in Japanese. Now, if you can find this, snag it, because it’s the best quality reproduction out there. It also comes with a magazine that’s so pretty, you can look past the fact that it’s in all Japanese. Adafruit stocks this version for $50 and has a link to English instructions.
If you’re paying less than that, you’re getting a counterfeit and it’s not going to come with the magazine and the cool box. I know because I ordered one. For example, I found this on Amazon for around $15, that advertises itself with an image of the magazine cover — but it’s really just a generic kit. Rest assured, it seems that there a bunch of knock-offs out there and I’m pretty sure they’re all this same bag of parts with printed instructions in English. **[See Update at End]
I also think it’s safe to say that none of these inexpensive kits are sanctioned by Theo Jansen himself. If you really want to make sure the artist is getting his due, order your kit from Strandbeest.com –that’s his site– and pay the $35.
That said, I’m going to show you what to expect on the more common $15 version. Maybe build this, gift it to a friend, and then treat yourself (and Theo) to the official version once you realize how cool it is.
Having compared both products, I can tell you that they’re functionally the same, they go together the same, but the parts on the cheap version aren’t made as well. I had some slightly deformed parts that didn’t affect performance but bug me a little, aesthetically.
Here’s what to know about this build. The parts are mostly injection molded plastic, and it kinda all goes together like Ikea furniture. Once you learn the pattern, you just sorta repeat it over and over until you have all your legs, then you arrange each leg on a frame, attach the joints, stack another frame on and repeat.
I will say this though, that it’s not immediately obvious that these A-frame pieces have an interlocking top side and bottom side. I noticed it after placing my second frame and had to undo some of my work, so watch out for that.
Also, the instructions make such a big deal about what order the rods attach to each section of the crankshaft that I psyched myself out and triple checked that I had it right. I even looked at the original Gakken instructions to confirm it. From what I can tell, just make sure the arms stack so that each successive arm is closest to you. That’s what I did and it worked fine.
For me, the genius of this kit is that it all goes together with no glue and no screws. You can back out of a wrong move very easily. The joints have all been designed to slot in together in a way that the natural motion of the Strandbeest won’t unlock them accidentally. There’s a rubber band that goes across the top of the thing, which you’d think is for some kind of wind-up action, but it’s actually just there as a simple way to cinch the whole thing together with tension.
Towards the end, two metal shafts get placed through each side, which helps to stiffen it up and connect the two halves.
The most fiddly bit is the turbine, where you have to attach these thin blades to the turbine frame. What’s interesting is that this is where the two versions of the kit differ. On the high-end kit, the blades have been shaped with a curve and are fitted to the frame with double-sided tape.
On this cheap version, the blades are flat, but take a slight curve when you press them into the frame with these tiny plastic grommets that stick out on front. It’s probably just a way to save money, and honestly, I have to hand it to them because functionally it seems to work just as well. That said, a dab of super glue on these grommets wouldn’t hurt.
The last part is just pushing on two plastic gears and the turbine, and running a short metal shaft through it. After that, prepare to get spittle everywhere as you try blowing this thing across your table. Seriously though, try digging up a small desk fan for some virtual wind or you’ll start to resent how much lung-power this project takes.
So that’s the Mini Strandbeest Kit. It’s a quick build with a fun payoff, and it looks really cool on your shelf. I like it so much, I’ve got it on my List of Top 5 Kits for Makers.
It turns out that there’s a third variation of this kit that includes the original Gakken box design, but omits the cool magazine. I received the following kit by ordering from this product page on Amazon. Your results may vary, but I was pleasantly surprised by this version and the price (around $13 on Prime).
Here we go again. I don’t want to jinx it, but I think I’m getting the hang of this. Let me here from you on the YouTube comments page or by emailing me. Here are the show notes:
Project of the Week
Micro Sketch by Fernando Jerez
Make Launches Comunity Projects Page (powered by Hackster.io)
DIY Steel Pipe Toilet Paper Holder by PhilL42 (Now GermanSize)
3D Print onto a t-shirt by Sahrye Cohen, Hal Rodriguez
Vintage Intercom Echo by Nick Brewer
3D Printed Pegboard adapters https://www.thingiverse.com/glitchpudding/collections/pegboard/page:1
Contests Ending Soon
5th Mini September 17 + 18, 2016 Seattle Mini Maker Faire Seattle, Washington USA
2nd Mini September 17, 2016 Wilson County Mini Maker Faire Floresville, Texas USA
4th Mini September 17, 2016 Nashville Mini Maker Faire Nashville, Tennessee USA
1st Mini September 17 + 18, 2016 Zürich Mini Maker Faire Zürich Switzerland
1st Mini September 17, 2016 Sherbrooke Mini Maker Faire Sherbrooke, Quebec Canada
1st Mini September 18, 2016 Southcoast MA Mini Maker Faire Fall River, Massachusetts USA
Donald talks at EBMF Sun, OCT 23rd
I have no shame admitting that I love making kits. Hell, I even get a sick satisfaction from making Ikea furniture. There’s just something nice about a project that’s been well thought out, with the instructions and all the pieces you need laid out for you.
So, to put my love of kits to good use, I figured I’d dedicate a page to this site to my running list of what I think are the five best kits for makers (of any age or skill level). You can find the top navigation bar of this site (tucked under Projects), or by clicking this link here.
If you have a kit you’d like to suggest adding to the list, I want to hear about it. Contact me.
Also, in full disclosure, I (theoretically) get a little cut of the money from the Amazon links on this page. So if you feel like supporting me, indulge yourself in buying a kit from the list. Thanks.
I’ve been having fun documenting, reviewing and recording project builds, but I can’t escape the fact that they take a few weeks to turn around. To fill the time in between, I thought it might be fun to host a weekly show rounding up some of the more interesting maker news and projects from the week.
So, here’s installment #1. I knocked the whole thing out in 24 hours — from script to export. I’ve bounced it off my friends and already I’ve received some useful feedback for the next episode.
If you have some suggestions for me, leave me a comment on the show page on YouTube.
Zip Tie Starlight lamp
Solar Powered Fairy House
Hot Wire Foam Cutter
I’m embarrassed to admit that it took me so long to get around to the TV-B-Gone kit. Mitch Altman came up with the design all the way back in 2004, but didn’t catch my attention until 2008 when Gizmodo infamously used one to switch off TVs throughout the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas (see video).
It was a jerk move by Gizmodo, but I can’t help but love that it demonstrates how potent and disruptive DIY technology can be. None of the manufacturers saw this coming because the device itself wasn’t made by one of them — and never would have been. It was made by one of use, arguably as a tool to fight back against the growing encroachment of TVs into every area of our lives.
Another reason why this kit is important is because the vast majority of maker-targeted electronic kits out there can be simply summed up as “neat”. They blink some lights, spin some motors, or emulate a vintage video game. Fun stuff, and empowering in its own way, but ultimately a novelty.
The TV-B-Gone, for better or worse, is a powerful tool that can be wielded for mischief or rebellion. I can think of no other kit that nails the dark art of hardware hacking quite the same way. Perhaps if Samy Kamkar made a kit version of his combination lock Combo Breaker, you could sell these kits together as a teenage hacker anarchist starter pack.
I mention all this because as someone who came to Maker world the long way around (music instruments were my inroad), I remember a time when I was young and regarded most electronic projects with a “Why bother?”. For those who aren’t naturally inclined to explore and tinker with electronics just for the hell of it, the payoff of the TV-B-Gone makes for a great incentive to dive in.
I built my TV-B-Gone from the Super TV-B-Gone kit sold by Make:, though it’s a bit of a misnomer. My sense is that when this kit came out they used the word “super” as a way to communicate that it was using a newer version of the circuit (version 1.2) to differentiate it from the existing first-generation kits on the market.
Regardless, whether you buy the kit from Make: (they seem to be sold out) or from Adafruit, inside the box you’ll find the Adafruit-manufactured version 1.2 of the TV-B-Gone, along with all the components you’ll need, including the battery holder (batteries not included).
You won’t find printed instructions, though, so you’ll need to pull up the online documentation from either Make: or Adafruit. The instructions on either site will get the job done, but Adafruit’s are more thorough. That said, Make: has a nice video walkthrough worth watching.
Honestly, in some ways the instructions on both are overkill. This project has only 20 parts, and both sites basically walk you through part by part. This is certainly better than when a project is poorly documented, but many of these steps could be collapsed so that all the component types are addressed in one step (ie. solder the capacitors, solder the resistors) with details on which component values go where spelled out within the step. Point being, with some thoughtful editing, this could be a 7-step project instead of 15, which could ease some of the intimidation for beginners.
Still, with the instructions as-is, I had no problem assembling the project. If anything, I made more trouble for myself by trying to make tidy soldering joints on the backside of the board before I realized that the whole thing was going to be glued down to the battery pack anyway, hiding my efforts. What’s great about that, though, is that amateur solderers and first-timers won’t have to be confronted with the roughness of their work when the project is finished. All the ugly bits get hidden in the battery pack sandwich you make at the end.
What I wish I knew before I started
All the ingredients are here for a successful build, but here’s what I only know now in hindsight.
1. There are spaces on this board that look like they should have components, but intentionally don’t. Specifically, the spots labeled R2 and R3 are meant to be unused (at least in the US).
The reason why R2 is included in the design is unknown (to me, at least). The logic behind R3 is spelled out on the board itself, which explains that users are only meant to solder in the resistor if they want the board to access the european-only list of TV codes.
And while I understand the function of that optional resistor, I have to admit that it bugs me when I finish a kit like this and there are spots that look incomplete. It’s like a paint-by-numbers painting where some numbers are left unpainted. Call it a pet peeve, but I would have felt more satisfied at the end if these either weren’t there or had been handled perhaps with a DIP switch. I suspect it comes down to component cost, and ultimately I agree that it’s more important to make a kit like this financially accessible to beginners than to satisfy my PCB OCD, but still it sorta bugs me.
2. You really don’t need to solder in the ICSP headers. A significant portion of the real estate on this board is given to the In-Circuit Serial Program headers, which I’m embarrassed to admit I had no idea what that meant when I started in.
These pins allow you to directly reprogram the microcontroller chip using an additional AVR programmer. And though I love that this thing is hackable, almost every tutorial I’ve seen on tweaking the firmware on the TV B Gone says you’re better off just popping out the microcontroller and programming it directly. If I had to do it again, I’d probably save a step and skip the headers. That said, reference item #1 to see how I feel about naked component holes on my kit PCBs.
3. Bend over the big cap. It turns out that there’s a space next to the bigger capacitor (220uF) that allows it to lay flat against the board. Without thinking it over or referencing the photos, I soldered mine in straight up and down. This wouldn’t be a big deal if the device was going into an enclosure, but if it’s going in and out of your pocket as a raw circuit, bending that cap over gives it a lower profile and lessens the likelihood of it snapping off. Next time.
4. Bring the LEDs in against the board. Initially I was quite pleased with how I bent the legs of my IR LEDs so that they all lined up in a neat row. But I made the mistake of cantilevering them out half an inch. It took about a minute before one of them got bet to the side and I had to push it back in place. If I had to do it over, I’d bring the bottom of the LEDs right to the edge of the PCB to minimize their chances of being bent.
Taking it further
A number of Makers have adapted and arguably improved on the TV-B-Gone design and code. There’s the TV-B-Gone hat, and the hoodie. There are also a number of miniaturized TV-B-Gone designs on Instructables.
But more interesting perhaps, are the design and code adaptations from PorkRhombus, whose 2.11 firmware update (and suggested hardware hacks) apparently improve transmission time and battery life, as well as offer a push-to-transmit mode that will shut off the device as soon as you lift your finger off the button (the original design continues to transmit for around 2 minutes). The PorkRhombus firmware also reprioritizes the order of TV models so that the less-likely older TVs are lower on the list. You can read more about his update on the Adafruit TV-B-Gone forum and find the code for it on Sourceforge.
Personally, I think my time with the TV-B-Gone began and ended with the kit, but it’s nice to know I could take it up a notch when the Trump-era media apocalypse is upon us.
Any fan of DIY electronics should make this kit. This and the Useless Box are like the twin pillars of the Maker kit world. If you’re like me and you just turned your nose up at it for being too popular or prankster-y, get over it. For the $20 and 30 minutes it will cost you, you get a low-grade super power in return. There aren’t many projects you can say that about.
Time: 30 minutes
Cost: $18.95 (Check price on Amazon)
Payoff: A pocket-sized remote control that can turn off any TV from up to 150 feet away.
Skills learned: Soldering, component identification, component polarity, wiring battery packs, socketing an integrated circuit.
Tools needed: Soldering iron, solder, snips/flush cutters, wire strippers, 2 AA batteries.
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.
For more reviews of great projects and kits, subscribe to the Maker Project Lab YouTube channel.