Tips of the Week: Drawing Ellipses, Calculating Scale, Quick Casting, and Staying in Your Discomfort Zone

Tips of the Week: Drawing Ellipses, Calculating Scale, Quick Casting, and Staying in Your Discomfort Zone

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.


Yet Another Method for Drawing an Ellipse

There are a number of ways of drawing an ellipse on a workpiece. There are math-involved methods and methods that use string and nails. In this video, James of Stumpy Nubs shows you how to draw one that requires no math and is more accurate than the string method. It involves a carpenter’s square, a board, and two nails. It’s a little convoluted and easier seen, so watch the video for the procedure.

Cleaning PVC with Acetone

This may be something that lots of people are already aware of but it might be worth being reminded of. In this Nick Ferry video on building a PVC pipe-based tube, rod, and bar stock organizer, Nick reminds us that, if you’re making a PVC-based project where the pipes will be visible when completed, you can use acetone to remove all of the printing on the pipe and to clean it overall.

Scale Model Calculator

If you do any scale modeling, especially creating dioramas and terrain boards for models, wargames, or train layouts, you frequently want to know what size a piece of wood, sheet good, or other material or object would be in the modeling scale you working in. This Model Scaler calculator on the Woodland Scenics site allows you to enter the model scale you are working in. From there you can entire values in either the real-world size or the model world size and app will show you the appropriate size you’re after. So, for instance, if I want to put corrugated roofing on my post-apocalyptic garage shack (and I do), and I know that real-world corrugated sheeting comes in 2′ x 12′ sheets, I enter that and the app tells me that I need to cut my model corrugated sheets to 0.375″ x 2.25″ Nifty!

Stay in Your Discomfort Zone

If you haven’t been watching NBC’s new Making It contest reality show, you might want to check it out. It stars Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman. Make: contributor Jimmy DiResta is the show’s Shop Master. It’s fun, entertaining, and it’s great to see making and the maker movement being celebrated on network television. As part of the show, Nick, Jimmy, and other cast members offer online tips videos. Most of Nick’s are played for laughs, but there are some useful words of wisdom in there, too. In this video, Nick gives voice to something that has come up in this column several times: “Don’t stay within your comfort zone. Expand it until you’re comfortable everywhere. Then expand your zone until you are uncomfortable again. Then, take a nap, it’s been a good day.” Or, as David Bowie used to put it, when your feet are barely touching the bottom any longer, that’s right where you want to be.

Quick n’ Dirty Parts Casting

In this video on the Czech scale modeling channel, PLASMO, they show how easy it is to get surprisingly decent results for casting small (decorative) parts using only household silicone sealant and casting plaster. They also show the results using the silicone molds and a resin casting material. For much better quality casts, you want to use better mold-making materials, but if you need something quick and it doesn’t have to be perfect, this looks like a viable method. I plan on trying it this weekend on some small model parts I need to cast.

[From my new book, Make: Tips and Tales from the Workshop]


Trying to affix a brad or small nail in a situation where there’s no room to swing a hammer? Try pushing the nail into the wood by screwing down a C-clamp. This trick comes from The Family Handyman.

[Watercolor by Richard Sheppard]


If you get a copy of my book, please take a picture of yourself holding it, tag me, and use the hashtag #tipsandtales. Besides being a book about tips, this is also a book about the human side of tools and how they’re used. Tips and Tales itself is a tool, so I’d like to see the humans who are using it.

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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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