Ask MAKE is a monthly column where we answer your questions. Send your vexing conundrums on any aspect of making to email@example.com. If we don’t have the answer, we’ll scare up somebody who does.
On the Google+ Make: Forum Sam Sager asks:
I love the maker community and culture, but for some unknown reason I am pathologically gun shy to get something started. I need some help. What are some of your recommendations for the reluctant maker? What are some good first projects to cut your maker teeth?
Thanks in advance for any tips and advice.
Dear Sam, There are so many ways to break into making and you’re lucky to have come to the right place. Since I’m not sure of your exact proclivities, I’ll list a few different ideas. I hope one or more of them will strike your fancy and you can get started on your first project.
The Arduino is a physical computing platform that is easy to use, and comes with a robust online community willing to help out even the newest user. You can start with a project as simple as making an LED blink, and the sky’s the limit in terms of complexity. I recommend the Getting Started with Arduino kit and the book, Getting Started with Arduino. The kit comes with an Arduino board and a bunch of components you’ll need to start your first projects. The book gives step-by-step instructions on getting the Arduino to do what you want it to. Both are available at the Maker Shed.
If you have any battery-based toys, instruments, or keyboards that make sound, you can get new, glitchy noises out of them by circuit bending. Originated and popularized by Reed Ghazala, circuit bending is the process of probing a device’s circuit board while it’s still on to find new sounds to make. Since you’re dealing with low voltages, the potential for injury is extremely low despite the device being switched on. Start making random connections between solder points with a wire, and when you find an interesting sound, you can solder in a switch or potentiometer in between the wire. Now you have control over that sound. This is circuit bending at it’s simplest, but some projects can become extremely complex, with new enclosures and entire breakout boxes to control all the different glitches. Be warned that there is a chance you can break the device, but this is a low-risk way to get your hands dirty and start off on learning some basic soldering skills.
The inner workings of electronics can sometimes seem like invisible, magical goings-on in the ether that we’ll never have any inkling of. Luckily, there are ways of breaking those principles down so the layperson can understand them. The veritable bible on this subject is Getting Started in Electronics by Forrest M. Mims. The book has been around for years, and is written entirely by hand, with succinct drawings that explain the lessons. He starts off with the basic ideas of electricity, and progresses to explanations of different components and simple analog electronics labs.
Another book that’s definitely worth mentioning is Make: Electronics by Charles Platt. The style is a bit different: full color photos, coverage of digital components, and more emphasis on just doing it.
If you want to start out in electronics by making something right away, with no need to know anything about the theory, a kit may be the right way. A good kit has all the components included, simple instructions on how to assemble it, and a troubleshooting guide should something go awry. You can browse around the Maker Shed’s kit section, but I’ll also suggest the Drawdio and the Atari Punk Console. They’re both kits that are easy to assemble, and are really fun to play with once you’ve finished them.
This is my advice if you want to get started in woodworking: build a box. All you need are a saw, a square, a pencil, and a screw gun or hammer and nails. Find something in your house that needs a place to be put away. Get rough dimensions of it and add a little bit so it will fit into the enclosure you’re about to make for it. I suggest using plywood because it’s strong and unlikely to split. Cut your base around the measurements you took earlier, then cut the sides based on the width of your base. Before you cut the other sides, remember to account for the thickness of the first sides you cut.
If you’re still learning how to use fasteners, practice on a piece of scrap wood. Hammer those nails and drive those screws over and over until you get it right. Then go back to your box and fasten it together. If you’re not entirely confident in your fastening skills, you can drill pilot holes first to make the job easier.
I hope these suggestions spark your interest in becoming a maker. If anyone else has suggestions for Sam, please leave them in the Comments.