Meet the Makers, MAKE Volume 28: William Abernathy & His Toy Steamboat

Meet William Abernathy. In MAKE Volume 28 William wrote a how-to on making a toy “pop-pop” steamboat that runs on heat and the water it’s floating in. To get to know William a bit more, I asked him a few questions.

Tell us a bit about yourself
I am a freelance writer. I live in Berkeley. I am interested in simple technologies, as I am a bit dim in the fields of electronics and digital computation. I have spent a lot of years as both a journalist and a technical writer, and now do a lot of interviews and profiles with scientists and engineers. I am fascinated by what they do and find the enthusiasm they bring to their work infectious. As a maker, I find I am drawn to metal as a material, but I’ve been working a lot with wood lately, because it’s difficult to machine furniture, and I want my two daughters to get some woodwork under their belts before I turn them loose on metal.

Why do you like making things?
I wish I knew! I went to a very trade-heavy high school, and spent much of my free time making model airplanes. Then I discovered motorbikes, which by dint of my poverty (and, too often, the quality of my workmanship), I spent a lot of time fixing. By my late thirties, I had finally settled down enough to have a “steady” garage, and found a bolt that for some reason needed its neck threaded. I got the right die out of my grandfather’s tap and die set, extended the threads, and spent much of the next hour jumping up and down around the house with the bolt in my hand, exclaiming “I cut these threads!” Many machine tools followed. Being able to machine a part out of metal makes me feel like I’m punching above my weight–that I can make a part that works just fine in something mass-manufactured or that I can improve some busted cost-engineered part makes me feel like I’ve done something better than a giant corporation.

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Can you tell me about the Pop-Pop Steamboat that you made for MAKE?
The pop-pop steam boat was something I first remember seeing in the movie Ponyo, but it had a strange resonance, as if it were a memory to me. If I ever saw one before, I have no idea where, but I’d be just as surprised to learn I hadn’t seen one somewhere else before. After seeing that, I made my daughter a boat modeled after Sosuke’s boat in Ponyo, but it was not a successful design.

For the article, I looked at other people’s efforts, and tried to create a design that could be built entirely with low-budget tools and materials (i.e., no machine tools and no materials like .003″ brass shim, which readers would have to source from an industrial supply catalog). Mass-manufactured boats rely on sheet-metal crimping and rolling tools, and a lot of the DIY designs rely on some pretty serious soldering skills. My solder-fu was not up to scratch when it came to attaching thin metal sheets to Altoid tin halves and copper pipe sections. I probably went through a dozen attempts, and finally got some inspiration when my milady, a book artist, handed me a book on industrial package design. I scanned all the diagrams, then slept on the problem. By morning, I figured out that I could use both halves of the Altoids tin to trap the diaphragm mechanically. The design made sense, but I still couldn’t solder it together properly. At this point, I was a little locked in by dogma: all other designs I’d seen used solder, and because they used solder, they couldn’t use aluminum for a diaphragm. By moving to JB Weld, I licked two problems: I could seal the boiler without having to make multiple solder seals *and* I could use cheap, easy-to-source aluminum can material for the diaphragm. Fortunately, it all worked out before deadline!

What kind of things do you dream of making?
I would like to build some sort of computer-controlled CNC or additive tool at some point. I would also love to work on efficient vehicles, and I’ve had a longstanding interest in firearms. I would love to be good enough (and have enough time) to make a revolver from scratch.

Can you tell us about one of your favorite tools?
For versatility, my Atlas lathe is a great tool, and I’m still tooling up and learning how to use an AAMCo metal shaper I restored from castings last year. Still, I have to say, my favorite, for its sheer mechanical competence, is the Barker horizontal mill. It’s mostly a slot and keyseat cutter and has a really tiny work envelope, but it’s a total brick, and once it’s set up, it’s an utterly rigid, implacably efficient metal-moving instrument. I actually look forward to projects that need a clean slot cut in them, just so I can use this thing.

See videos of William at work:

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MAKE 28MAKE Volume 28, Toys & Games!
MAKE Volume 28 hits makers’ passion for play head-on with a 28-page special section devoted to Toys and Games, including a toy “pop-pop” steamboat made from a mint tin, an R/C helicopter eye-in-the-sky, and a classic video game console. You’ll also build a gravity-powered catapult, a plush toy that interacts with objects around it, and a machine that blows giant soap bubbles. Play time is a hallmark of more intelligent species– so go have some fun!

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Mark Frauenfelder is the founding Editor-in-Chief of Make: magazine, and the founder of the popular Boing Boing blog.

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