A random, geeky blog


Stepper motor in antique color wheel

I’ve got an antique color wheel that has a frozen motor. If you aren’t familiar with what this is, it’s a rotating multicolor wheel with a lightbulb behind it to make an aluminum christmas tree change colors.

Here’s a picture:


I took it apart, and found this:


The original motor was geared to the correct speed, and was basically beyond repair. I started digging through my junk box and found the stepper motor from our old microwave. Perfect. All I had to do as far as wiring was solder two wires between the motor and the plug for the old motor. Instead of drilling lots of holes and putting bolts to mount the motor, I just glued it in place with some silicone.


It looks off center, but the shaft of the motor is exactly where it should be. Next, I drilled a hole in the middle of the plastic shaft, then screwed the wheel back on.


This whole project took about twenty minutes. Well worth it.

Snow-Regurgitating Christmas Tree

Last week, when I was on vacation in Hot Springs, I saw a model lamp post in a shop window that was spitting little styrofoam beads out of the top, and collecting them in an umbrella. It was about 3 feet tall, and used a regular sized umbrella. I immediately decided that I wanted one with a Christmas tree. My father, who was with me, challenged me to build one. I liked the idea, and agreed.

After thinking about it some, I decide that if I was going to invest the time, it would have to be full sized. I also didn’t want to spend any money on it, so the entire thing is built from crap I had laying around the house.

First, I extracted the blower from an inflatable Halloween cat I purchased from Walgreens for $5 a few years ago.


Then I cut 7 feet of 1.5 inch PVC pipe (yes, I have PVC pipe laying around…) and duct taped the blower to it.


After that, I took an old beach umbrella and cut the wires holding all the ribs in place.


I then wired the ribs up around the pipe. and duct taped it in place. You can ignore the fitting on there, it ended up not being used at all.


I cut a hole in the top of the umbrella and poked the pole through. After that, more duct tape.


Now, the rib supports (no idea what the proper term is. They’re the wires that slide to open an umbrella.) needed to be attached. At first, I was going to build a special ring to slide, but I ended up just putting another wire, which ended up working fine.


Next up, I cut a hole in the umbrella and fashioned a chute out of an old coke bottle. This leads the styrofoam out of the umbrella and into the pump. Sorry, no picture. I forgot to take one, and it isn’t visible anymore.

At this point, it was ready for testing. I ground up some styrofoam with a knife, poured it in, and powered it up. To my delight, it worked.

Now, all that was left was making it into a tree. I went in the attic and found one of those old Walley World trees that had like 98345769 different branches that would snap in one at a time. I took the branches and taped them onto the pipe with electrical tape, like so:


Here‘s a link to a video of the finished product. There’s actually a lot more snow than you can see in the video. I had every light in the house on, and all the windows open, but it still was too dark for my phone’s camera. If only my DSLR took video…

Now all that’s left is to make lots more snow. I’ve tried everything I could possibly think of, but all that works is slowly scraping the block of foam with a knife. Even a food processor didn’t work. It just gave me big clumps.

Hope you enjoyed, and Merry Christmas!

Halloween! Pt. 3

It is finally time for part 3 of my series on Halloween. This part will focus on the finishing touches of the display, namely the victim, the fog machines, and the pumpkins.

I’ll start with the victim. You may remember the web-wrapping body thing I showed earlier. There have been a few changes to it since then, namely completely ditching the idea of having the legs move with the body, and major changes to how the web is attached. We went to loop the web around the body and have it remain stationary, but it quickly caught on the body, and gave an amazing result. The body would spin about 1.5 times with the web stretching to match, then the tension became to great for the motor and it changed direction. I immediately decided to leave it that way because it looked so awesome, but I was halfway expecting the motor to break down after a few hours. Luckily, it didn’t and the display worked perfectly all week.

Here,‘s a video I took.


This video was actually picked up by hackaday.com, makezine.com, and probably many more. My photobucket account has generated at least 46,000 views in the last two days. Awesome.

Next up is the pumpkins. I decided to try to do the axe scene in The Shining this year, since I had plenty of time (or so I thought). I put in the blu ray of the movie, found the scene, then took a screenshot of it. Next, I opened the image in photoshop, converted it to greyscale, then maxxed out the contrast to produce a true black-and-white picture. I printed it out and taped it to the pumpkin, then started etching in a thin outline with my dremel. This took about two hours. When I finally finished, I went to get the carving tools, but they were nowhere to be found. I asked my father for his, and he couldn’t find them either. So I had to use whatever I could find. Armed with a screwdriver, a wood chisel, and a razorblade, I set at it. At about 5:00, I realized I was out of time, so rushed it to a stopping point. In hindsight, I should’ve taken a bit more time because I ended up punching all the way through in several places, which produced way too much light and made it much harder to recognize.

Here’s a photo of the result.

After that pumpkin, I had to do the fog chiller. I cut two holes in a 5 gallon bucket, then put a piece of PVC pipe running vertical from the bottom to the top, and another one at the bottom to let the fog out. I filled it up with ice, positioned the for machine correctly, and it was good to go. When I turned the machine on, it made a really awesome layer of ground fog, about 6 inches thick. By then, it was time for trick or treating to start, so I got out the candy bucket and starting handing it out. The house was a huge hit, with some people coming in cars just to trick or treat at our house. I did feel sorry for the neighbors though, because people became so distracted by my house that they skipped other houses. The whole night, I didn’t see one trick or treater go to the house next door, even though they were giving candy out.

At about 6:45, there was a large break, so I grabbed another pumpkin and made this.

That’s it for this year. I’ve got some pretty awesome plans for next year though, mainly building a motion-activated silly string gun to shoot the kids who get too close,and possibly a rebuild of the spider so it can stand up. I’m also considering building a civil war soldier with a cannon to shoot at the spider, though cost would be a big limitation for this. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

Halloween! Pt. 2

Part two of my series on my halloween display will focus on Itsy, the giant spider. Itsy is an inflatable spider made out of black painters’ plastic which has been welded together. When inflated, it is 17 feet long and 47 feet wide. An old AC blower keeps it inflated.

Picture time.

We attached a rope while building Itsy to allow it to be hung from a tree.

The rope is looped over a fork in the tree about 25 feet high.

Part 3 is coming soon. Don’t miss it!

So it begins…

What you are looking at is the underside of 260 Omron type MY4 relays, which I intend to build a CPU out of. The wire has yet to arrive, but I have made three of the registers using recycled wire from old projects.

The CPU is going to be based off Harry Porter’s relay computer, but with quite a few modifications to simplify it. I’ve decided to leave the instruction set as is because I couldn’t think of any need for other instructions. I am going to attempt to make 4096 bits of core memory instead of using SRAM, because I feel that SRAM is cheating on vintage computing projects. I have set a date of 1955 to use for components, meaning that anything that is a functional part of the CPU needs to have been available in 1955. This means that I cannot use any ICs, and amplifiers needed for the core memory will have to be vacuum tube based. Silicon transistors were available in 1954, but I am going to try not to use them. Also, any component that I can make myself will be homemade. I figure that should make this much more interesting.

Why am I doing this?

The main reason is so I have something to keep me entertained. I figure that a project of this magnitude should keep me busy for at least six months. The second reason is so I can further my knowledge. I wanted to learn more about the inner workings of computers, and this is the only practical way to do so. The third and final reason is because it is awesome. A huge machine clicking away with hundreds of blinky lights is much more satisfying than building a transistor-based CPU.

My wire should arrive in the next few days, so stay tuned for more details and a video.

EDIT 7/5/2011: This project is still underway, but I haven’t had much chance to work on it due to another project. Once I finish my current project, I will finish this one.

Halloween! Pt. 1

It’s finally time to put up halloween decorations! Yay! I’ve divided them into a three part series, so stick around for the rest.


Part 1: Background scene

Our display is all centered around the giant inflatable spider. Every year, we try to add two or three new items, and over the years, it’s gotten pretty awesome. This years additions were two new bodies and the rotisserie-thing for Tim. The bodies were originally going to be made using traditional methods (chicken wire, PVC pipe, canned foam, etc. until we found a whole bunch of those foam pool noodles for $0.45 each. It turs out that they can be cut really easily and they will take pretty much any shape needed. I split couple into 8 pieces longways to use as ribs, and the rest of the bodies are made of  whole noodles with little cut out tabs so they can fit into each other.For faces, I used props purchased last year at walgreens’ 75% off after halloween sale.

Okay, enough talk. On to the pictures.



Here’s the graveyard scene. All the tombstones are cheap styrofoam from walgreens (some of their halloween stuff is actually pretty great, especially at 75% off.), and there are various bones scattered about in it. You can also see the web on the bushes and all over our house.



This is one of the spider’s past victims. It’s made of fun noodles as described above, except I left out the ribs to give it a more dried out appearance.


Here is another of the spider’s past victims. This one consists of nothing more than a head and some strategically placed fabric.



Here’s yet another victim of Itsy. This one is made entirely of fun noodles with a Hillary Clinton mask attached to the top. I personally think the smile makes this one epic.



This is the big hanging ghoul thing that resides over the cemetery. I really have no idea how it makes sense with the rest of the decorations, but everyone seems to agree that it helps set the scene.



Poor Tim is being roasted until Itsy gets put up.



Here’s a photo of the entire display at the end of Part 1. Ignore the huge black mass in front of the tree

Web-wrapping body thing


Here is my current project. It’s a rotisserie-thing that will be used to create an effect of the giant spider wrapping the body. It consists of two wooden triangles with inset bearings, which a threaded rod goes through. Tim (the victim) is made of swimming pool noodles, some of that expanding foam, and a really freakish “hanging ghoul” thing from Walgreens a couple years ago. He has a pipe going through his body, which is held onto the threaded rod with some washers and lock nuts. The whole thing is rotated with an old rotisserie motor that didn’t fit our grill.

Click the image for a video of it in action.

Note that this is still a work in progress, so be sure to check back for updates.