6 Inexpensive Materials, Dozens of Ideas

These posts first appeared in Education Community newsletters leading up to Maker Faire Bay Area 2014.

Where are the ideas? Click on any blue word to explore.

Make with: Paper

Paper is so readily available and versatile, making it the perfect material for making on a whim: foldrollengineer, or sculpt it, or go big with a paper clone, giant head, or fashionable dresses!

Try Picnic Geometry (vintage Make: 2006)

paper geometryDiscover the sometimes elusive “M” in STEAM with paper sculpture. In the first picnic geometry activity, paper plates are folded and stapled to create an icosahedron. This is a little tricky, so you may want to watch the video, or start with a smaller platonic solid, like a cube or tetrahedron. You can also use this technique to make large, lightweight, and inexpensive free-form sculptures.

Make with: Plastic Bottles

Recycling is great, but upcycling is outstanding! Plastic bottles are very versatile. Use one to launch a paper rocket, make LED “fireworks,” build a small vehicleprotect your valuables, cut into a flower, or automatically water your plants and dog. Think big! Reuben Margolin’s Soda Bottle Wave had a flood of appreciation at Maker Faire Bay Area 2009.

An interactive LED chandelier by students from Lighthouse Community Charter School made beautiful use of discarded water bottles.

Try Two-Liter Soda Bottle Boat

Maker Camp 2013 kicked off with this simple build, a boat made of a 2-liter soda bottle. It uses two important scientific principles, boyancy and stored kinetic energy, to float and drive a simple boat. Use waterproof markers to add style, or add components like fins for stabilization.

W(h)et your appetite? Go deeper with Howtoons Soda Bottle Submarine.

Make with: Toothpicks

Working with toothpicks is easy to pick up and hard to put down. From tiny buildings to topographic murals, from elegant sculptures to lampshades, toothpicks are the surprise building block superstars you may already have in your cupboard. They can even be used as guitar frets! Still want to use them for their original purpose? Don’t forget to flavor them first.

Stan Munro’s St. Peter’s Basilica & Square (left) and Scott Weaver’s Rolling Through the City (detail, right). Both artists have appeared at Maker Faire.

Try Toothpick Engineering: A classic engineering challenge, building a bridge using only toothpicks and white school glue is sure to engage emerging engineers for many hours. DIT (do it together), and do some research before building. Masking tape holds pieces in place while they dry, working on wax paper prevents getting stuck to the table, and nail clippers (Scott Weaver‘s tool of choice) make cutting easy. A search for “toothpick bridge” will bring up many great resources.

Short on time? Hold toothpicks together with gumdrops or mini marshmallows.

Make with: Foil

Aluminum foil is malleable, conductive, and — best of all — shiny! Take advantage of these properties to make a solar ovenmaskelectric origami, or even sharpen your scissors.

This touchless 3D tracking interface uses little more than an Arduino, six resistors, and some aluminum foil.

Try MaKey MaKey Journey: Combining tinfoil, a MaKey MaKey, and the free software program Scratch, creates countless opportunities for modifying games like Dance Dance Revolution and Operation. The MaKey MaKey Journey is a game designed just for the MaKey MaKey. It involves 2 players working together to move through an obstacle course without losing their connection with either each other or the tinfoil. Click through for instructions, including the Scratch project code. MaKey MaKeys are available from MakerShed.

Make with: Tape

Tape comes in many forms, and is most commonly used to attach things to each other. But tape can also be used to make sculptures, mannequinswallets , iPad sleevesroses, and even kayaks. Get inspired by contest entries from Duct Tape’s Stuck at Prom (deadline July 8) and Scotch Tape’s 2012 Off the Roll.

Try: Spiderweb Illusion

EepyBird shared the Spiderweb Illusion activity from their book, How to Build a Hovercraft, on Maker Connections this spring. The only material this sneaky optical illusion requires is a roll of painter’s tape! Download the PDF here.

If you’re inspired by forced perspective installations like the Spiderweb Illusion, check out this video of Stephen Doyle’s “Grit” installation. Other artists using tape for site-specific installations include Eric LennartsonNumen, and Rebecca Ward.

Trending Tape: Conductive

Chris Connors’ TapeTricity (left) was wildly popular with Maker Faire Bay Area 2013 attendees. Circuit Stickers (right) takes conductive tape to the next level with sensors.

If you’re looking to spice up your tape collection, look no further than copper or aluminum foil tape. Many educators have recently discovered the wonder of combining it with LEDs and coin batteries to illuminate paper creations. Learn how to with Jie Qinexmap, Chris Connors, the Tinkering Studio, or purchase a set of Circuit Stickers.

Make with: Old Clothes

Want to clear that T-shirt drawer, but short on time? Project Repat can transform your old T-shirts into quilts.

Ready to clean out your closet? Old clothing is one of the most plentiful materials we can upcycle. Old jeans can become a stylish bag or durable tool wrap, old towels a stuffed animal, wool sweaters a rug, old T-shirts a stuffed chair, neckwear an eyewear case, and scraps a no-sew collage masterpiece.

A few of the thousands of Maker Faire attendees who have upcycled their fashion with Swap-O-Rama-Rama showing their creations at the Maker Faire Trashion Show.

Try Hula Hoop RugHaley Pierson-Cox has brought many innovative upcycling techniques to makezine readers. She spotted this “t-yarn” (T-shirt yarn) loom alternative: use a hula hoop! This giant ring will let you give a dozen old T-shirts a new life as a rug. Hint: Weave loosely or your rug may curl up like a basket.


1 thought on “6 Inexpensive Materials, Dozens of Ideas

  1. Chuck Stephens says:

    PVC is my go to material. Pipe, fittings, fence posts, sheets of Cintra- it can be easily cut, joined and shaped to all kinds of projects. I salvage pieces of PVC pipe from construction sites and save bits from my own plumbing projects. The PVC fence material popular at the local big box store is amazing- it’s square and stiff. Find a local fence installation company that works with PVC and ask nice- they may give you scraps or damaged pieces. Cintra is a PVC sheet material used in the sign industry. It joins with standard PVC cement and is really easy to cut and bend. Ask at your local sign shop for scraps or discarded signs. I use PVC to make project enclosures, flutes, disposable clamps, brackets and many other things.

  2. George Carlson says:

    I think you mean Sintra.

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Jessica designs art, making, and STEAM experiences for learners of all ages. She's developed and produced hands-on workshops, public programs, video media, project guides, and PD resources for organizations like Maker Media, the Exploratorium, and Franconia Sculpture Park. She holds a BFA in Sculpture from RISD and an EdM from Harvard.

She's shared hands-on activities with attendees at Maker Faires since 2007.

View more articles by Jessica Henricks


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