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Santa’s helpers (students from UC Woodlawn Charter Schools) solder resistors to Christmas LEDs

This holiday season, MAKE has teamed up with Craftsman, Chicago’s Butler Street Foundry and hackerspace Pumping Station One to create a number of techie projects as part of the Craftsman Experience store. The main collaboration is an Ultimate Santa’s Sleigh, complete with an air cannon, LED lights, and other festive effects. You can check it out on Friday and Sunday nights, from 6:30-7:30pm CT (Live or Online). See the Craftsman Facebook page (click on the Experience tab) for more info and live streaming.

Here, Christina Pei offers her account of the initial phase of design and building the sleigh. —

On Saturday, November 20, a team met to begin building Craftman Tools and MAKE magazine’s Ultimate Santa’s Sleigh. John Lamonica, Gabriel Akagawa, Glen Trebilcock, and the rest of the team at the Butler Street Foundry, generously offered their space as the meeting and eventual building space. We were joined by special effects artist RJ Hermanowicz, and assistant director of the University of Chicago Woodlawn Charter Schools, Assata Moore. This rag-tag team of metal workers, engineers, artists, designers, and educators started with nothing more than a few pieces of paper, some chalk, and Craftsman Tools catalogs.

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Courtesy of Glen Trebilcock and Gabriel Akagawa of the Butler Street Foundry, a scale model of the Ultimate Santa’s Sleigh constructed of cardboard and glue sticks

We got to work inspired by what we saw around us. John explained that foundry work was slowly being outsourced overseas, and Chicago, once a hub of the manufacturing world, was losing its artisans. The Butler Street Foundry is one of the last of its kind, still making sound architecture and creative artistry by hand. We toured the space, the noisy tools and humming metals, the wood-burning furnace that kept the workshop warm in the winter, the narrow passages that led to offices that seemed at place in a history museum. Except this was a living museum, where we could touch and learn and watch materials formed by human hands.

So the team decided that we would use what we had at hand, right in the shop. We would make a modern Santa’s Sleigh out of steel, and mount it with tools and special effects.

By the next day, our project had already grown tremendously. Glen delivered a 3-D technical rendering of the sleigh. We sketched out dimensions on a steel table. Gabriel led the construction of a cardboard model. We gathered ideas and ordered supplies. For the next week, we were on a tremendous time crunch to get this project out for the holidays.

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The Butler Street Foundry team put together the nuts and bolts of Santa’s Sleigh

Monday, November 29th, Butler Street Foundry started cutting through diamond plate and welding steel. The entire team worked almost exclusively on the project, so that by the time I joined in on Thursday, December 2nd, the sleigh had been mostly constructed. It was a massive 5 foot by 14 foot piece, with nuts and bolts coming out the sides and flames rising from the front. It looked like a Santa’s Sleigh that could have been in service for a few hundred years.

Thursday also saw the arrival of a lot of new faces and eager helping hands. Assata brought her class of 20 engineering students from UC Woodlawn. Most of them had never seen a foundry. John took them around the shop, challenging them to bend inch-thick bars of metal, then finally turning on some heavy machinery to demonstrate the work they did. We set them up into four teams, each constructing their own metal designs for the sleigh. Each team got to watch their work get welded in the shop, and showcased their final constructions for the Craftsman camera crew.

RJ, who had the task of stringing together hundreds of LED lights for his special effects switchboard, showed the students the basics of soldering and electronics. Every student got a chance to solder some resistors onto LEDs. Some were so excited just by melting metal that they spent the rest of their stay lining up to solder more components. One student asked John if perhaps he had a summer internship he was looking to fill.

The students left, a little chilly, but with big smiles. We hope to see them back again at the Craftman Experience store this weekend, to view their final pieces of art, and maybe help us solder a few dozen more LEDs!


Bio: Christina Pei is a Wall Street analyst turned math teacher turned pirate. She currently works for Paul Sally, the University of Chicago “math pirate” who’s been hacking math education for decades. Christina is always looking for innovative ways to improve inquiry-based, hands-on education, a practice that’s flailing in traditional schools but is still alive wherever people want to create. Someday she hopes to bring the DIY mentality back to school.

More:
Here’s a link to our Press Release, with more info about the event, schedule, and the maker groups involved