Best of 2012: Projects from the Pages of MAKE Magazine

Maker News
Best of 2012: Projects from the Pages of MAKE Magazine


Looking back on 2012, it’s hard to believe we’ve been producing MAKE magazine for eight years now! I remember working on Volume 01 back in 2005 and the excitement of launching something so new and renegade. DIY is thankfully a part of mainstream culture now, and we’re thrilled to see so many people choosing to make instead of buy. May the trend continue and grow. In 2012, we published MAKE Volumes 29, 30, 31, and 32. It’s hard to select a handful of projects from the many we’ve printed over the year, but here’s a healthy array that reflects the variety we value. Every project listed below is linked to its entry on Make: Projects, where you can see the full how-to and start building to your heart’s content. Thank you all so much for being a part of our amazing community. Here’s to many more fun builds in 2013. Cheers!

MAKE Volume 29

air guitar hero

Air Guitar Hero

Drop the controller and shred songs using the electrical signals from your arm muscles.
By Robert Armiger and Carol Reilly

We created Air Guitar Hero as a fun rehabilitation exercise for people with amputations. Here we’ll show you how to make an inexpensive version so anyone can play Guitar Hero without pushing buttons. It uses an electrode cuff, a modified Wii guitar controller, and open source code.

When a muscle contracts or flexes, it produces electrical activity. While faint (in the millivolt range), these signals can be detected by placing electrode sensors on the skin. The technology to measure, evaluate, and process muscular electricity is called electromyography (EMG).

Air Guitar Hero uses EMG to send signals to the Wii console to control the game. But since the electrical signal generated by twiddling your fingers is very weak, additional computation must be performed to generate reliably accurate commands. The system uses pattern recognition algorithms to identify patterns in the EMG signals and decide which colored button to activate.

hovercraft shop vac

Hovercraft Shop Vac

Mod your vacuum to float obediently behind you on a cushion of air.
By Bill Wells

I have owned several shop vacuum cleaners, but regardless of the make, I never liked the way the casters worked. They never rolled where I wanted them to. When I recently had to replace a worn-out shop vacuum, I looked for a way to improve the mobility of the new machine. That’s when I realized that the vacuum’s discharge air might be a way to do this. I decided to make the vacuum self-levitating, to turn it into a hovercraft. Then it would just obediently float along the floor behind me.


Tacit: A Haptic Wrist Rangefinder

This ultrasonic “bat glove” lets you feel things at a distance.
By Steve Hoefer

Tacit is a wearable system that translates the distance to anything you aim your hand toward into pressure on your wrist. The closer the object, the greater the pressure. Sweep your hand around, and the device conveys to you a tactile image of your surroundings. I designed Tacit to help vision-impaired people navigate their environments, but it’s also a fun and effective sensory enhancement for fully sighted people — especially in the dark.

hot air balloon

$4 Hot Air Balloon

Up, up, and away, with Scotch tape and a painter’s drop cloth.
By Jesse Brumberger

For all you readers who enjoy that special kick that comes from seeing an unusual homemade rig actually work, here’s some fun that can be had on a kite-string budget. The single-drop-cloth balloon presented here encloses about 75ft³ (2.1m³), weighs about 8oz (227g), and will provide another 4oz (113g) of extra lift when heated to the plastic’s safe capacity. These smaller balloons provide shorter flights but are much easier to handle.

MAKE Volume 30

the towel

“The Towel” R/C Stunt Plane

Build a robust R/C flying-wing airplane that’s fun to fly and great to learn on.
By Breck Baldwin

The great power of the Towel is that everyone thinks they can make one — and they’re right. Stupid-simple to build, all it takes is a spare afternoon, $100 worth of gear, and some DIY chutzpah.

The Towel is a great-flying airplane that’s optimized for typical urban flying conditions: gusty winds, small flying spaces, and rough landing spots. Unlike store-bought beginner planes, the Towel has a 1:1 thrust-to-weight ratio that makes it highly maneuverable. This allows it to fly in tight spaces and turbulence. It can also carry a camera.

bacteria battery

Bacteria Battery

Microbial fuel cells generate electricity from “metal-breathing” bacteria in ordinary mud.
By Ashley Franks

Microorganisms often get a bad name because some of them cause disease. But many have useful abilities, from making beer, cheese, and wine to processing waste and cleaning up toxic chemicals. One type of bacteria, discovered in 1987 by Derek Lovley, can generate electricity. Here’s how you can find bacteria like these in a local pond and put them to work.

yakitori grill

Yakitori Grill

Get cookin’ with this Japanese-style skewer grill.
By Bob Knetzger

One of the most memorable and delicious aspects of travel is sampling the local foods. A trip to Japan gave me a chance to enjoy favorites like takoyaki (octopus fritters), okonomiyaki (cabbage frittatas), and other Asian eats in their native setting. A new (to me) treat was yakitori, a simple bar food snack of grilled chicken.

Back home, I wanted a way to cook yakitori myself, so I came up with this easy-to-make grill design and some specially designed roll-proof, double-crook skewers. Use them to try delicious yakitori recipes.

eternal flame

Eternal Flame Indestructible LED Lantern

Build simple, rugged, floating LED lanterns that glow for days.
By Steve Hoefer

If you’re like me, you’re the bane of hardware store employees. I wander through the whole place picking up everything, looking at possibilities more than parts. Some things just seem useful, even if I can’t think of how at the moment. One time I found matched pairs of PVC caps and plugs that fit together into little airtight pods of various sizes. For what, I didn’t know until I wanted a way to float lit LEDs down a stream.

The result: simple, rugged, floating LED lanterns that glow for days. They’ve survived being submerged for a week, frozen, and laundered in the washing machine. I even hit one with the lawn mower, and it still works. When they get dirty, just hose them off.

MAKE Volume 31

sound o light speakers

Sound-O-Light Speakers

Surprisingly simple PVC pipe speakers are clear shining performers.
By William Gurstelle

Clear PVC is stiff and dense, which makes it excellent material for audio speaker cabinets. I had seen uniquely shaped speakers made from regular white PVC, so I wondered if clear tubing could make decent-sounding cabinets that also generate lighting effects.

I connected an iPod (playing ZZ Top’s “La Grange”) to a 20-watt amplifier and a small speaker, and played around with different configurations of LEDs on the speaker wire. The best visuals, I found, came from simply connecting 3 ultra-bright LEDs in series, in parallel with each speaker. Voilà! At moderate volume and above, the same audio signal both drove the speaker and pulsed the LEDs in time with the music — and I discerned no difference in the speakers’ sound with or without the LED load.

Introducing the Sound-O-Light Speakers. They’re easy to build, they get surprisingly good sound out of their single 3″ drivers, and they look hella cool.

mendocino motor

Mendocino Motor

See photons turned into motion with this solar-powered, magnetically levitating electric motor.
By Chris Connors

The Mendocino Motor floats in its own magnetic field and converts light into electricity and magnetism, which are then converted into the motion of the motor. It provides the satisfaction of creating an amazing bit of technology, and the opportunity to explore magnetism, electromagnetism, electric motors, solar power generation, and personal manufacturing.

Build the base that holds the magnets and provides a bearing point for the motor. Then wind the motor coils, and solder them to the solar cells. When the motor is assembled, you’ll balance it so it spins freely, and perform any troubleshooting to make it work properly.

fetch o matic


Build your own automatic tennis ball launcher for dogs.
By Dean Segovis

Several years ago I watched a viral YouTube video that starred Jerry the Dachshund, whose engineer owner had built him his very own automated ball launcher. I had two dogs at the time, and was also unemployed with some time on my hands, so I decided to try my hand at building one.

The Fetch-O-Matic is the third and best version yet of this configuration. It will launch a tennis ball through the air about 25 feet with enough velocity to bounce and roll on for another 20–30 feet. It runs on 12–18 volts DC, so cordless drill batteries are an ideal rechargeable power source.

folding wing glider

Folding-Wing Glider

This balsa wood glider catapults up with wings folded back, wings pop open and it gently glides down.
By Rick Schertle

As a kid, I remember my dad talking about this seemingly magical balsa wood rocket glider. With the wings folded back, the glider shot into the air using a hand held rubber band attached to a stick catapult. Wind resistance held the wings back, then when the glider reached its peak, the wings popped open for a long and graceful glide down. Especially exciting to me, was when the glider began to wear out, he would attach a fire cracker to it and then launch it into a shower of balsa wood confetti glory.

With these gliders out of production, I had to have a new stock of my own. In the past, balsa wood planes would be punched out using a large die machine with metal cutting blades. After a certain run, the dies would wear out and need to be replaced. With modern laser cutting technology, a perfect cut is achieved every time. Using the one remaining glider I had left, with help from some folks at the Tech Shop, I began reverse engineering the project and now present it here to MAKE readers as a how-to. Along with MAKE, I’ve also developed it into a handy kit available from the Maker Shed with the parts pre-cut and ready to fly in just about an hour. Like many fans of this glider over the years… pull the glider back on the hand-held catapult, aim straight up and let it rip!

MAKE Volume 32

awesome button

Awesome Button

A hardware solution to help you when a synonym for “awesome” doesn’t come to mind immediately.
By Matt Richardson

Ever since I started writing for MAKE, I’ve kept an eye on all the awesome websites out there for awesome makers and the awesome projects that are posted every day. Luckily for me, there’s no shortage of awesome work to write about. My only difficulty was I needed more words to describe how awesome this stuff is.

To fix this problem, I created the Awesome Button, my own custom USB input device that keys in a random synonym for awesome, on demand. With the Awesome Button, when I’m writing about a project that I like a lot and I get stuck on how to describe it, I hit the big red button on my desk and it takes care of the adjective. Now instead of awesome this and awesome that, I’m writing about incredible robots, fantastic camera hacks, and cool electronics projects.

fast toy wood car

Fast Toy Wood Car

Zip along with this easy-to-build toy car.
By Ed Lewis

Lots of my friends have kids, and that means lots of birthdays. I wanted to have a custom present that’s easy to make and has lots of room to play, in terms of design. A toy car fits perfectly. So I can build cars and make kids happy? Win-win!

laminar flow fountain

Laminar Flow Fountain

Make a cheap, high-tech nozzle to eliminate turbulence and create incredible water effects.
By Larry Cotton and Phil Bowie

Laminar-flow water charms and fascinates. It behaves quite differently from ordinary turbulent water, such as the flow from a faucet or garden hose. A laminar stream is so perfect it could pass for a glass rod. It doesn’t splash upon hitting a surface, it will conduct light like a fiber-optic cable, and it’s so cohesive, it will enwrap and levitate a smooth sphere, even at a surprising angle to the vertical.

In 2011, we drove 600 miles from our North Carolina homes to Disney’s Epcot theme park to study the “Leap Frog” fountain, which chops a laminar stream into arcs, creating impish, cavorting water creatures. We’ve been obsessed with laminar flow phenomena ever since, joining an online cult of experimenters.

We have achieved laminar flow simply and inexpensively by making a nozzle from a big plastic peanut butter jar, scrub pads, drinking straws, and standard PVC pipe and hose fittings. A fine way to show off its elegant stream is to build a fountain using this nozzle as its heart. It’s easy to make, and can produce captivating shapes or even levitate lightweight spheres.

nellie bly smoker

The Nellie Bly Smoker

Make a hot/cold food smoker from a 55-gallon steel drum.
By William Gurstelle

Food prepared in a smoker is always a treat, so building a backyard smoker is a perfect project for those who love to combine making things with eating things.

This project is primarily an exercise in sheet metal work. You may need to purchase some tools and learn some new skills. Fortunately, the tools are relatively inexpensive and the skills not hard to learn. Plus, there’s the benefit that, once obtained, both the tools and the skills will likely be useful for myriad future projects.

This electric smoker incorporates several useful features, including multiple doors and a large smoking area. The most interesting feature is the separate, movable firebox. By adjusting the distance between the firebox and the smoke chamber, the backyard charcutier can experiment with hot, warm, and cold smoking.

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I'm a word nerd who loves to geek out on how emerging technology affects the lexicon. I was an editor on the first 40 volumes of MAKE, and I love shining light on the incredible makers in our community. In particular, covering art is my passion — after all, art is the first thing most of us ever made. When not fawning over perfect word choices, I can be found on the nearest mountain, looking for untouched powder fields and ideal alpine lakes.

Contact me at or via @snowgoli.

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