I love when a DIY project gives you something that feels almost like a magic trick. The TV-B-Gone project is one such project, but so is this LED paintbrush project published by John Park on Adafruit.
John Park has an embarrassing number of great projects, but I ordered up the parts for this one specifically because I’ve been looking for an approachable project with a fun payoff to use for a beginner electronics workshop I’m teaching in April. I love the idea of students walking away with a unique gadget to show off, rather than just a blinking LED.
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).