Ask MAKE: A New Maker in Town

Ask MAKE: A New Maker in Town

Ask MAKE is a monthly column where we answer your questions. Send your vexing conundrums on any aspect of making to 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.

Circuit Bending

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.

Basic Electronics

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.

Electronics Kits

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.

14 thoughts on “Ask MAKE: A New Maker in Town

  1. Cristian says:

    Hi. I am a newly born Maker, too. I am so caught by the culture and fascinated with it. Also starting from absolute scratch zero-point-zero. I have both combos of Getting Started with (Electronics and Arduino) with books and respective kits on its way, totally looking forward to starting using them and learning about it.
    In my case, I have already several ideas of things I’d like to achieve getting to build and make, all revolving around any form of interaction with light devices (from lamps to LEDs to LE-wires, fiber optics, etc, applied on clothes, furniture, objects, installations, etc). Would there be any further books or sources to read, consult and practice, that you would recommend to keep on learning more around those specific subjects?
    Thank you for your guidance.

  2. chuck says:

    Hey Sam, bully for you! I’d suggest getting to know your local Harbor Freight store (or other ‘cheap’ tool outlet). It’s a great place to buy tools and equipment at a much lower price than other retailers and websites. Also hit flea markets, thrift stores, and Craigslist. Cheaper is usually better for a beginner just getting their feet wet. As your skills improve you can buy better gear and the cheapies get retired as spares or loaners.
    When you’re just starting out Radio Shack can be a great source of components but if you are buying more than a few of any one part Ebay is your best friend. There are sellers in Asia with parts and components for pennies on the dollar compared to Radio Shack.
    If you are into electronics get anything Forrest Mimms wrote- his books are full of practical basic circuits that can be combined into some impressive projects. Another great circuitry resource is .
    Components can get expensive- learn to scrounge. If you see some broken gear with usable stuff get it and disect it. You shouldn’t have to buy switches, motors, potentiometers, wire, meters, jacks, machine screws and fittings, etc if you are creative.
    Be careful. The only place you shouldn’t try to save money is on safety gear. Buy quality safety glasses. If there are fumes use an extractor fan or a respirator with new filters. Take your time with power tools (being in a hurry cost me two fingers). Lift things properly. Measure twice, cut once. Ask old timers questions.
    Find a community! Whether it’s your local maker space, creative friends or an online group, having other folks to ask questions and bounce ideas off of is awesome. Keep reading this site. Make inspires me on a regular basis. It’s great to see what other folks are up to and everyone here is friendly and helpful.
    Most importantly have fun and don’t be afraid to break stuff. You can do anything!

    1. Rohit says:

      Good inspiration Chuck! I had been piling up parts for the winter months…you just gave me the extra push I needed

  3. seamustt1 says:

    My suggestion isn’t a project, but a bit of advice: “Don’t be afraid to fail.”

    You *will* have failures. Fortunately, most of them will not be catastrophic. The majority will simply manifest as an error message in a compiler window, or a moment of, “now why didn’t that work the way I expected?”. But every one of them is an opportunity – a little bit of learning – a piece of information which can be turned around and applied to get you to where you want to go.

    Yes, it’s disheartening when something you’ve worked on doesn’t go the way you’d hoped. Figuring out what’s wrong and how to fix it is part of what attracts me to the projects I attempt. I often do things just as much for the experience of learning as I do for achieving the end result.

    When you do eventually get to that place you’ve been trying to get to, it’s that much more rewarding and gratifying because you’ve had to work your way over and around obstacles to get there. You’ve figured it out – you’ve learned something in the process.

    So far as what to recommend: I see that the Arduino has already been mentioned. As an introduction to electronics, it’s pretty hard to beat. From the simplest ‘make an LED blink” to much more advanced projects interfacing with the Internet, it’s a powerful-yet-accessible platform. The board is designed to be quite resilient and tolerant of mistakes. If something does go sideways and you do manage to damage something on the board, it’s inexpensive enough that a total replacement won’t set you back too far. If you burn out one or more of the I/O lines on the microcontroller chip itself (I’ve never done it, but I know people have managed it), the chip is easily replaced for a few bucks.

    Even if electronics and programming aren’t what sparks your interest, there are plenty of other ways to get into DIY projects – just have a browse around the site and I’m sure you’ll find something that strikes your fancy.

  4. Joe says:

    Hey Mike, I am new in the maker field. I have designed a cool star trek bridge chair toy that is about 5 inches tall and I would like to incorporate led’s and a audio circuit that when someone places a phone into the chair it activates the blinking LED’s and a audio of some trek saying such as “aye aye captain” that lasts maybe 20 seconds. I am a novice so any guidance would be appreciated. Joe

  5. JamesRPatrick says:

    My only advice is to buy the best tools that you can and upgrade them whenever you can.

  6. Karl says:

    Hi all,
    too all new makers or those who wish to become so, WELCOME!
    I have two bits of advice; first bit- what or how you make something keep it fun. Don’t start by trying to make something you need or even want. Just make something to play with and have fun. That way you don’t feel as much pressure to “get it just right” and can just wing it.

    My second bit of advice; before you even start a project or go to the hardware store go to your local library and look up books on what ever subject you might be interested in, woodworking, electronics, welding, origami or whatever. Take to time to read a bit first and don’t be afraid to check out the older books as well as newer publications. Then start taking notes on projects you want to work on. The library is a fantastic source and you can take the books out and keep them while you work all for free.

    the only other bit I can say is to start simple, I mean really simple. Don’t build a bookcase, build a birdhouse KIT. (look for kits designed for kids, you can learn a lot from them)

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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.

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