Random Thoughts

Here are some fun "projects" that illustrate the process described in "why I'm glad I'm not an engineer."

Captions are below the pictures. I have drawings, or at least sketches, of most of these things if you really want to try to duplicate one of them.

First, let me point out that this site itself is an example of "something I designed and built."

Second, there is an "area of concentration" of well documented projects that has its own web site(s) - automotive work. Examples abound, but I'll direct you towards two highlights of sorts - building a window guard for my truck, and building a custom exhaust system for one of my cars.

After that, things generally fall into two broad categories - work stuff that I did to make my little factory more efficient or more pleasant to work in, and domestic stuff, which I suppose would include any "non-work" stuff, even if it's not in my living space. I'll try not to bore you with too many work related items, unless they have some sort of practical application outside of making speaker parts. So, in no particular order...

Here is an example of me failing to take advantage of available materials in solving a problem - my porcupine preventer for my willow tree.

Here are the bookshelves I built in to the end of my living room, under a 78" high loft floor:

Ed. Note: This image seems to be missing...

I think of them as "mixed media": The vertical parts are pre-drilled particle board covered with white melamine (I painted the front edges black). They have 1/4" holes every 1", about 2" in from the front and the back. The shelves are 1 x 10 pine, painted black, with oak trim carefully pilot drilled and nailed to the front, then oiled for long lasting good looks.

Here is my "almost matching" combination VHS/DVD video shelf:

It is made of three foot pine shelves, ripped narrower and using the ripped piece as a backstop. The sides are (rather strangely grained) oak, as are the front trim pieces on the shelves. The shelves are painted black. The trick was making them deep enough for DVDs, tall enough for VHS, while having it be easy to get them off the shelf and minimizing waste of material. The back is 1/4" oak plywood. All the oak has been oiled. I made a jig to line up the shelf mounting holes properly in the ends of the shelves and the side pieces. The screws holding the shelves are countersunk about 1/4" and plugged with oak button things. The sides extend about 1/2" below the bottom shelf in case it is to be stood on the floor. The shelf backstops provide a solid mounting structure to screw through into the wall wherever the studs are. I saved the skethces and the drill marking jig in case I ever want to make another identical one.

Spice racks:

I got sick of trying to juggle my various spice containers in the old white vinyl covered metal racks I had. I also need more space. These are deep enough for all common spice jar sizes, and tall enough so that stacked they leave enough height to accomodate them also. The ends and bottoms are ripped from oak 2 by 6, and the fronts and backs are 1/4" oak plywood. The plywood stuff did not rip as cleanly as I would have liked, but then I wasn't using a proper ripping or panel blade in my radial arm saw. I saved a few extra end pieces, and the plans, in case I need more.

Here is my annotated dual thermostat/single pump heater switch:

I have two separate heating systems, in the factory and in the werehouse/workshop, that run off a single circulating pump located at the boiler. To separate them, each leg has a zone valve, which output a "call for heat" signal to the pump relay when they have opened after their respective thermostats tell them to. This setup takes the two thermostat signals and dsitributes them and the AC power to the two zone valve power heads, and then lets either power head activate a relay that sends the "call for heat" signal back to the pump. You might be able to discern the reason for the annotation sheet pinned to the wall right above the doohickeys - I barely remember how it works, and if I have to change anything, I'll need instructions. In this photo the cover of the little "buss box" is removed.

Here is a mobile PC stand in my shipping department:

UPS had been "pressuring" me to stop using their old handwritten shipping logbook and switch over to their PC-based application. This pretty much meant I had to set up a PC in shipping, since using the office computer for the job would be a total pain. This is a little Pentium 2 type thing I picked up used, and cheap. CRT monitors are free, these days, and if you keep your eyes open, so are keyboards and mice. I managed to get UPS to sort of "give" me the little label printer above the printer shelf, which is cool, as they sell for about three hundred dollars. I had the keyboard drawer lying around from once upon a time when I thought it was useful. So all I had to do was buy some 1 x 1 angle iron and weld up a stand. The shelves are "scrap" 3/4" plywood, and I welded in nuts at the bottom of the legs so I could install some wheel I saved from something that broke. Painted all white, it looks quite professional! It can be unplugged from the wall and the network jack and rolled anywhere it is needed, if that need ever arises.

Generic hanging fluorescent light units:

This one goes back a while - to about 1990, when I bought this place. It came with a lot of eight foot fluorescent light fixtures, arranged in various weird ways. I knew they weren't where I needed them, but I also knew there was no way to know (thank you, Mr. Rumsfeld!) where I would really want them and how I would want them switched in the future. So, I bought lots of 3/8" eye bolts and screw eyes, and little pull switches, and started rebuilding them so each one could hang by two chains, be plugged into outlets on the ceiling (I figured I could run conduit and outlets without regretting it later), and be switched from directly underneath whenever they were needed. I managed to do most of it without buying any chain, since this place came with a lot of old crap, including a bunch of various bits of light chain. I had at least one totally thrashed extension cord I had inherited, so I cut that into eight foot or so lengths to make power cords. I suppose I also had to buy quite a few grounded plugs, as well. This has worked out well, since I have moved a few around, and once in a while, when a fisture or ballast croaks, it's easy to pull the whole thing down and fix it.

Like a few things on this page, I eventually redid this. The concept stayed the same - about twenty identical (except for, in some cases, power cord length) eight foot light fixtures. But now I finally had a source of affordable T8 single-pin LED lamps, rated 48 watts with a 6500k spectrum. I bought two to try them out. I reworked one old fluorescent fixture to use them, and liked the light, but one lamp was enough. The grotty old fixture with one lamp in it looked, well, hideous. So I designed and built a bunch of new fixtures. Each one consisted of an eight-foot 1x2 (I cherry-picked the B grade ones at Home Depot to get A grade ones!), painted white, with a single-pin receptacle at each end, fastened through the 1x2 with a 3/16" eyebolt to serve as the hanger. I used tiny plastic boxes to enclose the wire connections and made little brackets to hold the switches. I ran an 18 AWG solid neutral along the top, and used some nice pretty white 18 AWG lamp cord and a new snap-on plug for each one. I also bought some new lightweight chain to hang them.

I built them factory style. I worked out how to build them, and then wrote down a series of steps a caveman (me) could follow. Each day I would make another one (one rainy day I made two) and install it. I also made four that were slightly different to put under cabinets over workbenches.

The net results: Each fixture cost just under $18 to build, and the lamps were about $25 each. Total cost was just under $900. I sold my old fluorescent fixtures and lamps for $300 on Craigslist. The five fixtures I tend to have on every day for work will save me $20 a month on my electric bill, completely paying for the blance of the project in two and half years. And I have more leftover grounded plugs and 5/6" eyebolts than I will ever use.

Energy savings, no more flicker, no more humming ballasts, an excellent spectrum, no cold-start issues, and a nice modern high-tech look for the factory. Excellent!

Three ton television stand:

This thing is a "little" overbuilt, but who cares, it was mostly labor cost (free), really. I basically made two "H" shaped sides out of 1 1/2" black pipe and some fittings, and welded 1" and 1 1/2" angle iron across from side to side to hold the shelves. The top shelf is heavy duty, made out of a sheet of plywood with some nice oak 1 x 6's running front to back on top.

The other two shelves are scrap plywood with 1/4" oak on top. All the shelves have some trim across the front built in. While I did partly build that huge center channel speaker "to fit," it is pretty much the size I would have made it anyway. The three front amplifiers don't really fit the 36" wide shelf (the ones I used to have did), but a board thrown in there takes care of that. I could always use the bottom shelf for k-nick k-nacks if I put the amplifiers in a free standing rack. This thing is rugged as all get out. You really could set a car on it if you wanted to. What that means is that it does not wobble or lean at all with the weight of the tv on it. Of course, modern wall hung tv's make a design like this obsolete, sort of.

The detail to the right shows either how I set up the various parts, or how dusty it has become.


Built in stereo cabinet:

While a built in cabinet for "stuff" may be pretty banal, this one has a special feature beyond the nicely laminated sides and adjustable shelves:

The back of it sticks into my bathroom, and has a removeable cover. It is held on with four wingnuts and washers, that attach to these things I got that screw into wood on one end and have threads on the other. A pair of handles makes it easy to take off whenever I need access to the spaghetti and octopus soup that is behind any pile of stereo gear these days. When I built it, I also installed a bank of eight outlets on each side, each on their own circuit breaker. Just for once in my life, I have not run out of outlets, ever.

On the right, you see a detail of the PVC pipe I used to channel the wires (to the main amps, the TV, etc.) down to the wall, where they come out through a nice fascia thing, and are made even neater with a few pieces of split loom tubing. There is a similar one on the other side, and also a pipe running up to let some remote speaker and tv wires run out the top to serve this and another room. You can see how I used an electrical elbow/box thing, that can have its cover removed to make getting around that awkward ninety degree corner easier. These will eventually be buried in walls on each side of the cabinet, but I will make it so I can get to this cover after the finish work.


Hey, here's an ugly one - my homemade customer literature rack:

As the years have progressed, I have made more and more little instruction sheets and explanation notes that I include in my shipments. The conventional tray things I could get at office supply stores were no longer adequate and things were getting messy. I did have a set of five or six stacking trays made by Rubbermaid that were only an inch or so tall, and hence perfect for me - but I could not find anything like them out there in the world.

So I was bored and did some counting and drawing, and then some cutting and nailing together of a bunch of appropriate scraps. I really dug into the bottom of the barrel for these materials. The top, bottom, back and sides are crappy 1/2" plywood. The shelves are cut out of some 1/8" pegboard. To hold the shelves I just cut a series of grooves in the sides. The last step was adding three little rubber feet to the bottom.


Eventually that one proved to be inadequate. I needed more space, and decided not to make another butt-ugly rack to match this one.

So I made this:

Here is some early 1990s fun - my living room doors:

Hmmm, what can I say? I made these out of a bunch of 4 by 4's that used to be a crappy wall in my building. I made a jig to drill four holes through each piece so I could use threaded rod to bolt them together. I actually did not have enough full length (they are eight feet tall) lumber to make them "solid," but I lucked into these four little windows at some lumber yard warehouse (chicken coop) closeout sale that are the same width as two of the 4 by 4's, that saved me. I sketched them in my CAD program to decide where the windows would look good and balanced. Amusingly enough, although the wood was "free," the hardware ended up costing about $200 - and just after building these to fit the 8 foot high, six foot wide hole I had left in the living room wall, I found a pair of antique oak doors, with jambs, at Brimfield (a several times a summer antique "festival" in Brimfield MA) for $200! But I had already built these. The "handles" are part of a civil war era horse harness thing.

Next I will show you some things I have made for around the house out of "industrial" plumbing fixtures (I suppose the tv stand above should be moved to this section. One thing that is amusing about this is that the place I get my hair cut ("In Boston," in Portsmouth NH) has a decor that is largely made out of random things they find at the hardware store. Some of their pieces are more art than industrial, crafted by a friend of the owner, even though they have some parts which obviously came from a metal scrapyard. Others, however, are pretty simple and obviously belie their origin. For example, they recently set up a new place for customer coats by attaching a half dozen chains to the ceiling and the hand rail by the door (which itself is 3/4" black pipe and fittings), and just hanging about eight S-hooks on them. To hang up your coat, you grab an S-hook, attach it to your coat, and then hang it back on the chain wherever you like. It works very well.

First is my new pot rack (ignore the ugly ceiling!):

Simple and to the point. I just needed more hanging room after I bought these stew pots.

I made this toilet tissue holder years ago:

To do things like this, you bring your "real world" item to the store and start test fitting the bits they sell. I brought in a plastic tube spring tissue holder thing. These parts are all 1/2" black pipe, which I painted white after assembling. It mounts to the wall with one more 45 degree fitting, a close nipple, and a floor flange.

Hand towel holder:

Simple, easy to make, and cheap. One of these days, I should obviously make some bath towel rails that match.

"Afterthought" shower curtain rail:

This isn't quite as simple as the above "screw-together" items. But it is made from some 1/2" black pipe I had lying around. I had two pieces, one about ten feet long and one maybe three feet or so. I made the bends with a tool I have for bending electrical conduit. The long piece had three of the bends, and the short one just one. Then I angle ground their ends, to make a fillet where they met, welded them together, and ground the welds smooth. About 20 coats of white paint finish it off. It is hung from the ceiling by pipe mounting hardware and some threaded rod, one bracket at each end. Then three shower curtains hang from it, with the middle one centered on the "rear" bracket.

This is my "Arc de Triomphe" used car parts storage system:

typos? comments? mail me here

© Huw Powell

Printer-friendly version - (no indent)