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I’m old (never you mind the hard number). But I’m still a kid at heart and I love toys. And I’m not talking about motorcycles and cars and speed boats, aka “grown-up toys,” I’m talking model rockets, radio-controlled anything, little toy soldiers, and board games. TOYS! The cool thing about being an adult, and being into the toys of youth, is that you’ve got a lot more money in your piggy bank! In this, our first Make: Gift Guide 2009, we’ll look at a few top of the line traditional toys, with an emphasis on toys you build, mod, and hack. Please share with us in the comments what sorts of cool toys you’d like to see under the Christmas tree or Hanukkah bush this year.

Initiator Rocketry Starter Kit (Aerotech, MSRP: $299/$172 at Tower Hobbies)
Most every grown up geek remembers being a young geekling and building and flying Estes Rockets. If you haven’t been paying attention, you may not know that hobby rockets have been growing, in power and size, ever since. And growing, and growing, and growing. Motors are designated in nearly every letter of the alphabet now (and each lettered motor is twice as powerful as the previous-lettered motor) and some rockets require teams to build them (and heft them to the launch tower — and it’s a tower, not a rod). AeroTech is one of the leading manufacturers of hobby rocket motors. Their Initiator Rocketry Starter Kit will launch you into this very grown-up hobby (where your credit card bills may get equally astronomical). The kit includes a launch system and a 3′ 9″ rocket that can handle motors E thru G. This starter kit usually costs $230 (w/ one motor), but Tower Hobbies has it for $172 (w/ no motors). Motors will cost you about under $20 each.

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Novus CP Nano Sized 2.4GHz RTF Helicopter (Heli-Max, $220)
R/C cars, planes, and helicopters keep getting more sophisticated and more “real” by the year. Just as hobby rockets keep getting bigger, more powerful, and are closing in on the smaller, cheaper, faster bottom-end of commercial and governmental rocketry, hobby R/C is starting to look not that different from man-portable recon systems used in the military. In fact, that line has already been largely erased. New technologies and economies of scale are also allowing extremely sophisticated R/C vehicles to be offered at really affordable prices, such as with the Novus line of “nano-sized” helicopters.This Novus CP model shown here is actually the top of that line and capable of some pretty amazing aerobatics. Several cheaper models are also available, for as low as $125.

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FPV Flying Systems
Long Range Ready to Fly FPV System (ReadyMadeRC, $4,500)
One of the more amazing things to come out of the R/C flying (and driving) world is FPV (First Person View) systems which use tiny cameras in the cockpits of model planes and wireless transmitters and receivers to send point-of-view video to a video monitor, or even a virtual reality-type head-mounted display, on the ground. This allows you to fly the plane like you’re in the cockpit. Some FPV hobbyists have gone so far as to put instrument panels in the cockpits, displaying real-time flight information, so that you feel as if you’re really flying the plane. With the VR rigs, when you move your head, the camera’s POV moves with you. As you can imagine, this is not a cheap hobby to get into. You’re adding wireless color video and virtual reality equipment on top of radio-controlled flying gear. The above $4,500 system, from ReadyMadeRC, includes the plane, the R/C gear, the FPV set-up, and everything else — it comes ready to fly. FPVPilot is a great place to start exploring the FPV hobby.

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Compound Oil Immersion Microscope 163 (Maker Shed, $820)
While most of the items in our guide are toys, not tools, we couldn’t resist drooling over the new microscopes in the Maker Shed. I had two scopes as a kid, and had the greatest time exploring unseen worlds by peering through their eyepieces. This top-of-the-line microscope is trinocular. It has a third eyepiece so that you can attach a still or video camera to capture what you’re seeing through the binocular eyepiece. This is a laboratory-grade microscope, with surprising features and high mechanical and optical qualities, at a hobbyist’s price. Note that the other reason we have it in this gift guide is that you need to order the microscopes by December 3 to guarantee Christmas delivery. If you’d like some advice on what scope to choose, check out our “Choosing a Microscope” article in the Make: Science Room.

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Gakken Kits
When I was a kid, model kits from Japan had an intense allure. They seemed (okay, they generally were) of much higher quality than American kits, and the instructions just looked so dang cool! Age has not diminished this impression and the popularity of the Gakken kits we carry in the Maker Shed prove that lots of people feel the same. These are unique and gorgeous kits that any tech enthusiast and kit-builder on your list will be thrilled to get. Above are the Sterling Engine Kit ($120) and the Vacuum Tube Radio Kit ($100, currently on sale for $86). The Gakken range is wide, from mechanical centipedes to tea-serving robots to retro 4-bit computers. See all the kits here.

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DIY Mythos Buddies (Dreamland Toyworks, $10)
The designer vinyl toy craze seems to just get bigger and bigger. And along with it, vinyl toy modding and “DIY vinyl,” blank vinyl toys you paint/decorate yourself. Here are two DIY versions of the popular line Mythos Buddies. They are 2.75″ tall. They’d make adorable monitor pets, don’t you think? I see them wearing Make: and Craft: t-shirts. Genuine Article (and other online vinyl toy shops) has a whole section of DIY versions of various vinyl toy lines.

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Star Trek Hero Prop Type-1 Phaser Kit (Think Geek, $160)
This is a limited-edition version of the “hero prop” used in the original Star Trek series. Hero props are the ones used in close-up shots, so they’re the most detailed/realistic-looking. After assembly, this kit, cast from/modeled after the components of an original hero prop, works exactly as the original did, with complete mechanics and internal electronics — er… that’s late 1960s electronics, not 23rd century electronics.

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Star Trek Tricorder (Think Geek, $50)
This very realistic-looking tricorder, which even includes the handscanner Spock used to scan lifeforms, is loaded with lights, sound effects, and even audio clips of Leonard Nemoy, but it’s really begging to be hacked. This really needs to be a casemod for something. At $50, I’m tempted to get one for myself.

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Weta Workshop Rayguns (pictured above: Righteous Bison, $99 (top), Wave Disruptor, $888)
Before I saw Weta Workshop’s Dr. Grordbord’s rayguns in person, I expected them to be cool, but I expected them to feel like props, lightweight, with special f/x paint jobs to make them appear metallic and weathered. When I finally did see them, held them in my hand, I was blown away, so much so, my brain started irrationally scheming how I might justify the $700 or more dollars I’d have to throw down to own one. These rayguns feel like real guns, they’re heavy, all the components look authentic, the gun cases they come in look real, the maintenance tools that come with them look like they need to be there. The experience was all so thoroughly impressive, I can’t believe I stood there seriously contemplating spending hundreds of dollars on something that’d sit in its case and wait for me to show it off a few times a year. Weta answered the common cry for more affordable Grordbord weaponry by creating their miniature raygun line. These are really sweet, but they’re not serious rayguns, they’re cute keychain-sized replicas (at $50-60 each). This year, Weta has released a new line that’s exactly what I expected their original high-end line to be: more cheaply-made, full-size rayguns, made of plastic. Weta was nice enough to send me one, the Righteous Bison. It’s a gorgeous piece; the paint job and detailing are amazing and really make it look a lot its more expensive metal siblings. But the plastic makes it a bit of a letdown, and the $99 pricetag seems a tad high. Still, if you’ve really wanted to collect a Dr. Grordbord, or you’re a steampunk cosplayer who’s been dying to get your hands on a “realistic” looking raygun for less than $700-7,000 (what the main line of Dr. Grordbord guns go for), this is the perfect raygun for you. In fact, they designed it with cosplaying in mind. If you have a steampunk on your gift list who goes to cons or LARPs (live-action roleplaying), or would otherwise have use for a really nifty raygun, they’d be thrilled to get a Righteous Bison.

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Benchtop Vacuum Former (WidgetWorks, $90)
Any maker worth his or her multitool could likely build one of these vacuum forming tables from plans readily available online, but your recipient still might appreciate getting a ready-made unit (just add vacuum). This one handles sheets of plastic 12″ x 12″ and up to 1/8″ thick. Great for creating/copying plastic models, creating masks, doing prototypes, making molds for casting, etc. Anyone who had a Mattel Vac-U-Form as a kid (raising own hand) would love having one of these machines again (raising hand again).

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Space Hulk Board Game, 3rd edition (Games Workshop, around $140 plus shipping)
It’s amazing the response the new release of this game has gotten. Lots of gamers love to hate Games Workshop. They’re like the Apple of miniature wargaming — they’re design obsessed. Everything they put out is of the highest quality, but you pay through the nose to drink their Kool-Aid. Space Hulk was legendary, a board game they first released in 1989, which people have been hunting down in the used game and auction market ever since. It was a beloved board game that players thought they’d never see again. But then, in August 2009, Games Workshop announced a third edition and offered it for pre-orders. Pre-orders sold out in three days. When it arrived in stores, it was gone by the end of the week. People have been clamoring for the few remaining copies out there ever since. It sold for $99. Now you’re lucky to get it for $140-$160 plus shipping. And it’s REALLY heavy. The oversized box is crammed with sprues of 35 miniature plastic models, game tiles, rulebooks, and numerous other components. The models are all new sculps and are highly-detailed and seriously cool-looking. As you’d expect, they come unassembled and unpainted. The game takes place in the gameworld of Warhammer 40,000, on a derelict space ship (the “space hulk” of the title). One player takes the role of superhuman soldiers known as Space Marines, the other of hive-minded biological killing machines called Genestealers (think: HR Giger’s Aliens). The Marines are tasked with different missions through the cramped confines of the spaceship, the Stealers with stopping them. People who’ve bought the game can’t stop raving about how beautiful it is, how amazing the minis are, and how there are a number of welcomed improvements to the rules over previous editions. I kick myself for not picking this game up when I had the chance.

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Forgeworld Models
Also from the world of Warhammer Fantasy and Warhammer 40,000 comes the resin model kits from Forgeworld, an offshoot studio of Games Workshop. If Games Workshop makes games, miniatures, and game terrain that are ridiculously expensive, Forgeworld takes the money hemorrhaging to a whole new level. Here you can spend up to $1,000 on a space outpost complex or $400 on a single model (the massive Titan warmachines). I have a spaceship model from Forgeworld (received as a present) that costs $200. But if you’re into incredible sci-fi and fantasy models, beautifully sculpted, and a true modeling challenge (resin-cast models are not the easiest to work with), Forgeworld has amazing pieces to offer. Even though everything they create comes from the Warhammer Fantasy and WH40K sci-fi worlds, because these worlds are so diverse, there’s lots to choose from, from bizarre alien lifeforms to demonic creatures to WWII-like tanks and soldiers to medieval buildings, bridges, and graveyards. They have a free print catalog you can sign up for which makes for some seriously fun, covetous browsing.

Shopping Tip: If you’re looking for Games Workshop products, or just about any sci-fi, fantasy, WWII, historical tabletop wargame or RPG, I highly recommend The War Store. I’ve been shopping there for nearly a decade and have always been satisfied. They consistently have the lowest prices, good service, and a huge selection. They’ll match anybody else’s price, too.

In the Maker Shed:
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Want more? Stop by the Maker Shed. We’ve got all sorts of great holiday gift ideas, Arduino & Arduino accessories, electronic kits, science kits, smart stuff for kids, back issues of MAKE & CRAFT, box sets, books, robots, kits from Japan and more.

Holiday Shipping Deadlines in December:

04 (Fri) – Deadline for microscope shipping
11 (Fri) – postal shipping deadline
14 (Mon) – ground shipping deadline
18 (Fri) – FedEx 3-day shipping deadline
21 (Mon) – FedEx 2-day shipping deadline
22 (Tue) – FedEx overnight shipping deadline

*Customers experiences on orders with these ship methods placed after these dates may vary, the dates listed are what we call “safe dates”

USPS (Any Method):
Due to the high volume of mail that the postal service deals with around the holidays, order by Dec. 10th, however, many packages are lost or delayed in transit and we do not replace or refund any orders lost using this ship method, we strongly encourage you to not use this method in December.

Gareth Branwyn

Gareth Branwyn is a freelancer writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture, including the first book about the web (Mosaic Quick Tour) and the Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Building Robots. He is currently working on a best-of collection of his writing, called Borg Like Me.


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