MAKE Asks: Difficult Skills

MAKE Asks: is a weekly column where we ask you, our readers, for responses to maker-related questions. We hope the column sparks interesting conversation and is a way for us to get to know more about each other.

This week’s question: There are some maker skills that we take to easily, and others that can prove to be a bit more challenging. What is a skill that has proven to be particularly difficult for you to master? For others reading the comments, what are some strategies that can make it easier to learn those tasks?

I have naturally unsteady hands, but have been able to become good at soldering despite this. A big help in this is making sure to brace my ironing hand on something to make it stay still. However, doing SMT work is just beyond the pale for me. What can I do to bring this skill into my toolbox?

Post your responses in the comments section.

17 thoughts on “MAKE Asks: Difficult Skills

  1. Welding thin aluminium (1.2mm) with Oxy-Acetylene is somewhat tricky and hard to master. I was lucky to have someone who knows what they are doing show me how and I picked it up relatively easily. A lot of people claim it can’t be done. Aluminium melts with almost no warning whatsoever unlike steel which gives you lots of notice. There is a trick to it though – blue goggles. The flux used gives of an intense orange glow. Blue coloured welding glasses cut out the orange and lets you see what is happening in the flame tip. Just before the aluminium is about to melt you can see a change come over the surface. I made my own goggle using clear ones with blue lighting gels in them. The other tip is to make your own filler rods by cutting strips a few mm wide from the material you’re trying to weld. Your filler is then the same material as the base material you’re trying to weld. I’ll use this skill when making the skin of a vintage car I am building.


      1. It depends on how dark the gels you use are. I experimented and started off with several layers and ended up removing them until there was only one remaining. The light from the oxy-acetylene flame is bright but nowhere near as bright as the arc from MIG say. And there aren’t the massive amounts of UV given off like MIG. IR might be a concern however but I have never been able to find out how dangerous this could be. The best bet would probably be lightest shade oxy welding goggles you can get (which should have the proper IR protection built in) with a layer of blue filter just to cut out the orange light. I used proper welding goggles for mine.

        When trying to find out the dangers most studies are based on occupational welders. It’s hard to tell what the dangers are for us casual users.


        1. Yeah, that was my concern. So out of moral obligation to the non-welders, let me amplify: You can’t do this with MIG/TIG/Arc welding processes, or you will wish you had merely stabbed hot pokers into your eyes. Worse, you won’t immediately feel it, so you won’t stop in time to save your eyes, but end up screaming (and probably blind) in the ER later. It has happened, so learn from the expensive mistake of others. There is a ton of UV (and even a small amount of gamma rays) emitted by electric welding processes, unlike oxy-acetylene, the flame-based process described here.
          IR is of some concern, mostly because it will be focused by your eye and could heat things up in a spot, but an IR blocking lens that is around a #3 or #4 glass should render this technique reasonably safe. But do your own due diligence, YMMV, don’t just listen to some guy on the internet etc etc.

          1. Absolutely! I am no expert. Just careful with my eyes. I use a totally different welding helmet for MIG welding of course. And a different set again for braze welding.

  2. I haven’t tried SMT work myself, but it seems to me that you could try: 1) the technique of sticking components down with blu-tack before you solder, 2) building/hacking a reflow oven and 3) switching to decaf (heresy!)

  3. I was thinking that perhaps you could rig a steady-rest, like a pool-cue bridge (but smaller and heatproof) or use a metal ruler above the work to slide/rest against. Haven’t done SMT yet, so dunno if it’s realistic. You’d need a way to clamp/de-clamp easily.

  4. I love to construct circuits, either from my own designs or from schenatics. My biggest difficulty comes when it is time to house/box it. Almost ALL the “instruments” I have built look hokey and with some of them, are almost unusable because I either can’t get the controls to “stick out where I want them to or I can only cut a crude hole and the control won’t reach outside the hole. Any tips on contain construction would be helpful

    1. A lot of components like switches and potentiometers only have a small amount of thread to work with, so this can definitely be a problem. Using thin gauge steel or aluminum can solve this. Get yourself a good set of Cobalt drill bits that can go through metal. Start with a small bit to drill your first hole and work your way up in size. Make sure you run the drill slowly and add some oil if necessary. Wood enclosures can be trickier because they’re usually thicker. In that case, here’s what you do. Drill a hole where you want the thread to fit through. Then on the underside of the enclosure, you’ll need to drill a larger hole for the rest of the component to fit through. You’ll usually need something like a spade bit to do this. Here’s how you make sure you don’t go too far and blast through the original hole you made. Line up the component on the edge of the enclosure and gauge how far up you want the threads to go, then place the spade bit next to it so that the flat edge of the spade bit is flush with the depth you want to achieve. Where the other end of the spade bit hits the other end of the material, stick a piece of strong tape (like duct or gaff) to the bit. Then when you drill, you’ll know when to stop because the tape hits the edge of the material. It’d be easier to show you, but I hope this explanation helps.

    2. In addition to the drilling tips I would suggest getting a tapered hand reamer (this sort of thing: Then you can drill undersized holes and enlarge them to the perfect fit using the reamer. It’s great for making tight, push fit holes for LEDs for example. You can use it on wood, plastic and metal. Another handy tool is a hand nibbler (like this:,162_Hand-Operated-Nibbler-Cutter.html) for cutting thin sheet metal. It makes square edged cuts. Also handy is a set of fine needle files. When marking up your enclosures for drilling stick down masking tape and draw your guide marks on that. I use the finest tip Sharpie I can find. Drill pilot holes first, that’s a small hole, accurately placed to start with, then increase the drill size bit by bit till you get the size you want (or use the hand reamer). That way if a hole goes slightly off centre you can fix it with the needle files before it gets too big. Make a punch mark before drilling the pilot hole to create a little depression the drill bit will centre in, especially in metal. I use an automatic centre punch ( All those tools mentioned are relatively cheap and available easily so if you hunt about you’ll find them. Those were just the first links I found.


    3. Oh, another though. If the problem is the control not reaching through how about cutting one big hole in the enclosure and mounting a thin metal plate over it. Aluminium is easiest to work with (but can be a pain to paint). Then mount all you controls on the aluminium panel. If you mount the panel on the outside the hole in the enclosure can be ragged and the panel will hide it.


      1. Thank you ! Some really good ideas, I will have to try out. It nearly embarrasses me to be so good at electronics only to fail to house them decently afterwards.

  5. I’m still new to electronics, so it boggles my mind the things someone can do with just a 555 timer. I’m a software guy, so its almost all greek to me. I look at these things and I don’t have the mental toolkit to say “well I can make this to do that”

    1. Over the years I have seen so many I.C.s come and go ( like the LM741 ) that I just loved, replaced by more complex I.C.s.
      But, I am also thankful that the immutable LM555/LM556/LM558 timers are all still easily available.

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In addition to being an online editor for MAKE Magazine, Michael Colombo works in fabrication, electronics, sound design, music production and performance (Yes. All that.) In the past he has also been a childrens' educator and entertainer, and holds a Masters degree from NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program.

View more articles by Michael Colombo