Tips of the Year: The Best Tips of 2017

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Tips of the Year: The Best Tips of 2017

Tips of the Week is our weekly peek at some of the best making tips, tricks, and recommendations we’ve discovered in our travels. Check in every Friday to see what we’ve discovered. And we want to hear from you. Please share your tips, shortcuts, best practices, and tall shop tales in the comments below and we might use your tip in a future column.


This week, for our last Tips column of 2017, I have assembled some of my favorite tips of the year. Do you have any favorite tips and tool recommendations from 2017? If so, please share them in the comments. And, Happy New Year!

Cutting Perfect Jumper Wires

This tip comes to us by way of our own Make: Video channel and Charles Platt’s Make: Electronics. As the video points out, jumper wire kits are color-coded by length of wire. That means that, if you want to breadboard a project where you use red wire for power, black for ground, green for signal, or whatever, you are out of luck. It’s certainly easy enough to cut pieces of wire to make your own jumpers, but it can be a little fussy to get the lengths exactly right. This method the stripping, measuring, and cutting the wires makes it easy to create your own precise set of jumpers color-coded however you wish. It’s probably easiest to just watch the video to see how it works.

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Masking Off Gap Fills

We’ve mentioned this tip before and it’s one you should consider for gluing, gap-filling, or any other finishing that might leave material residue where you don’t want it. Here, Jimmy DiResta is making picture frames. He wants to gap-fill the joins, but wants to minimize the cleaning/sanding of the filler around the joins. So, he applies painter’s tape to either side of the gap. Then, after you’ve filled the gap and remove the tape, cleaning the area is minimal and easy.

Tape-Flag to Determine Motor Direction

Here’s a simple trick that will save you a lot of aggravation. When working with motor control, in trying to figure out what direction a motor shaft is spinning, make a little flag of tape to affix to the shaft. This makes it unambiguous as to what direction your motor is turning in. [Image from Nuts and Volts.]

Twisting Wire with a Drill

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The forever-clever John Edgar Park posted a quick-vid on Instagram this week reminding me of this little trick: using a drill for twisting up wire pairs. Note how he’s chucked the wires. I’ve seen people make and chuck little hooks into their drills but you really only need to do what John has done here.

Acetate Over-Notes

John Edgar Park shared this tip with us a while ago, but I bumped into it again this week. When figuring out project wiring or other parts of a project design that might be subject to change, tape sheets of acetate over your design and mark on that with a dry erase marker. That way, you can continue to change things around until you’re confident that you have the arrangement you desire.

Digging Post Holes with a Shop Vac

Our pal Jake von Slatt is at it again. Several weeks ago, we shared his tip on using 2-way tape to hold small nuts on your fingertips for getting them in hard to reach places. This week, he offered this gem on Instagram, using a strong shop vac to “dig” post holes. He was pretty jazzed by how well it worked.

Digging post holes with a shop vac is a game changer! 48" in about 10 minutes!

A post shared by Jake von Slatt (@vonslatt) on

Pre-Gluing End Grain

In this recent Make Something video on making relatively simple but swanky-looking picture frames, David reminds us of a great tip when dealing with end-grain wood that you’re planning to glue. The exposed grain of the wood can wick up a lot of the glue you apply to join it, weakening the resulting join. To prevent this, you simply pre-glue the end-grain to be joined. That glue will wick into the wood so that the glue you apply on top of that to create the actual join will stay put and will have more surface area to adhere to.

Making a Retractable Pocket Saw Blade

You can create a retractable pocket saw blade by removing the blade from a retractable utility knife and using it as a template to cut a suitably-sized hacksaw blade to size. Then drill a hole where the thumb-handle mounts and replace it into the utility knife housing. You now have a retractable pocket saw.

CA Gluing Hinges

Here’s a great one from Izzy Swan. In a recent video where he builds a gorgeous wooden box for a wooden watch, he uses CA glue and an activator to temporarily hold on hinges before gluing. In the video, also note how he sprays down the activator first and then he glues and places the hinges.

3D Printing Custom Sanding Grips

tieBob Clagett of I Like to Make Stuff offers this brilliant tip on 3D printing custom standing grips. Using 3D design software, you can quickly and easily create grips that are designed to conform to a specific surface on your project. If you have 3D designed and printed the thing you’re wanting to sand, you can even use the negative space information to create grips designed to sand inside of tough places. And as Bob points out, since resolution doesn’t mean much here, you can print at the lowest resolution to make print time much quicker. Which is a tip in itself, to always consider the application of your prints and adjust print resolution accordingly.

Bending PVC with Hot Sand

needleMake:’s Senior Video Producer, Tyler Winegarner, hipped me to this tip. On the Darbin Orvar channel, Linn shows how she experimented with heat-bending PVC piping. After trying to heat the outside of the pipe to bend it, she decided to try filling the insides of the pipe with hot sand. The results are impressive. For small-to-mid diameter PVC pipe, it looks like a great way to twist and form piping into whatever shapes you desire.

Clamp as Caulking Gun

paintingOn Twitter, Combustible Props‏ (@MrCombustible) posted the above image and the tweet: “Hehe, I’ve been there. When you realize the workshop doesn’t have a calking gun… :D Photo by @dev_dsp.” His image was in response to an Adam Savage (@donttrythis) tweet about making this gorgeous DIY compass out of a coat hanger and a paper clip when he was away from his shop, wanted to do some mechanical drawings (for a spacesuit costume he’s working on), and didn’t have a compass.

Paint Mixing Balls

This week I bought some hobby paints from a scale modeling supply company called AMMO of Mig Jimenez. When I got the paints, which come in eyedropper-style bottles, I was thrilled to discover that each bottle has an agitator ball inside (as found in spray cans). Why on Earth don’t other hobby paints have these? I have had so many paints, expensive hobby paints, go lumpy and harden in the jars. It would be so useful to have these ball bearings inside to help keep the paint well-mixed. I did a search to find this type of stainless steel ball and found plenty. Here are the ones I ordered on Amazon. To search the web for them, use terms like “stainless steel burnishing balls,” “tumbling shot,” and “nail polish agitator balls.” While I was at it, I also ordered 10 eyedropper bottles (for $2.34). I’m going to start transferring my paints from snap-top pots to these for better air-proofing.

“Finishing” Solder Joins

By way of the always-recommended Maker Update, Donald Bell introduced me to this technique for finishing off the solder points on a PCB. As Donald points out, many PCBs are so lovely these days, works of art in themselves, that you might want to have a more aesthetic finish to your populated circuit boards. To do this, rather than side-cutting the little solder mounds at the top of the mound, with this method, you cut as close to the board as possible and reheat and re-plump the points with a hit of the solder tip and some solder. What you end up with are these handsome little solder pillows. UPDATE: Donald has posted an Instructable with more details on this technique.

Adding Color to Laser Engraving

On the YouTube channel, Laser Wood Minnesota, they offer this great tip for coloring fine-detail laser engraving. Used a dye meant for coloring epoxy (such as TransTint), mixed with denatured alcohol. It’s easy to apply and you simply wipe the surface clean which leaves only the deeper engraved surfaces with dye in them.

Making Plastic Rivets with a Glue Gun

Barb Makes Things is one of my recent favorite maker channels. The video she posted in late November is an announcement about how she is going to change things up a bit going forward, but at the end of the video, there is a clip of her using the nozzle of her hot glue gun to create plastic rivets. Just press the plastic to the side of the hot nozzle, and bam, you have a rivet head. Great tip!

Super Clean Cable Splicing

needleIn this fantastic quick technique tutorial, Becky Stern shows you the best way of stripping, soldering, and shrink-tubing a cable splice. The trick is to offset the wire joins so that, when you add heat-shrink to the individual wires, and then the entire splice, you don’t get a big lump in the cable.

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Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. His free weekly-ish maker tips newsletter can be found at

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