MakerBot Cupcake CNC


I highly recommend the MakerBot Cupcake CNC, a very cool tool! I’m an engineering student and worked as an intern for MakerBot last summer, which gave me the opportunity to play around with their bots a lot. I got one for myself, and am very happy with it. For those unfamiliar with the MakerBot Cupcake CNC, it’s a desktop 3D printer that takes digital design files and builds objects up to approximately the size of a large cupcake by laying down many minute layers of ABS plastic.

The MakerBot comes as a kit requiring assembly. All you need to put one together are some basic tool skills, and a few days of work. It took me a weekend of on-and-off work to get mine from boxed-up to printing. The most complex, and definitely the process requiring the most adjustments, and a little bit of basic soldering, is the construction of the extruder. Once your bot is built, it shouldn’t take you more than an hour to get it printing.

Since building a MakerBot is a large DIY project, some things will not be perfect and will require some tinkering on the builder’s part. You might come across some problems such as loud, shaky X- and Y-stages, an angled Z-stage, or an extruder that clogs, but MakerBot has lots of solutions to the most common problems on their wiki.

There’s nothing else similar that’s readily available for purchase. The RepRap is in many ways the antecedent of the MakerBot, but it’s not for sale as a kit, as is the MakerBot. Since the RepRap project and all of MakerBot Industries are completely open-source, they have worked together. All the boards used to run MakerBots are actually used to run RepRaps, and many of the parts sold in the MakerBot store, such as motors and electronics, can be used to build a RepRap.


I’ve used my MakerBot to build a 7-piece block puzzle and Owl Headphone Wraps (pictured), and in the future I plan to build a refrigerator clip and a small puzzle box with my MakerBot, among other things.


I would also highly recommend looking at all the cool stuff on It has a lot of free design files of things you can print with your MakerBot. The website was created by Bre Pettis and Zach Hoeken, two of the three MakerBot co-founders.

-- Eric Weinhoffer  

CupCake CNC Basic Kit

Available from Makerbot

Printing the Statue of Liberty on a MakerBot 3D Printer!

How to Build With Grid Beam

Think of it as a giant Erector Set. Grid Beam is a great way to make working prototypes of furniture, experimental vehicles and even small buildings. If your idea doesn’t work, you can change it until it does. If you don’t need it anymore, Grid Beams are easily demountable and ready to use for the next project. I find the ability to try ideas quickly in analog form to be a huge advantage. With nothing simulated, you know for sure it works, not merely that it should work. A drawing can lie to your client or worse, to you. Grid Beams never lie. The book illustrates a remarkable array of projects, all real, and many actually at work. Inspiring!

-- J. Baldwin  

How to Build with Grid Beam
Phil Jergenson, Richard Jergenson and Wilma Keppel
2008, 288 pages

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:



Figure 1.5: Four types of commercial grid beam. From bottom: 1-inch (25mm) steel, 1 1/2-inch (40mm) wood, 1 1/2-inch aluminum, 2-inch (50mm) steel double-hole with a 1 3/4-inch (45mm) insert. You can also drill your own.



Figure C.17: The wood-framed workbench that Phil assembled in chapter 1.



Figure C.1: Ken Issac’s Superchair, the first commercial grid beam product, has built-in shelves and a book holder, snack tray and overhead reading light. The seat back lowers to make a bed.

Alvin Architect’s Scale

Most of my analog design tools now sit longingly in a cabinet, but one I still use daily is my architect’s scale. Aside from a pencil, my scale is the most versatile tool on my desk.

I use a three-sided Alvin brand imperial unit model with inches and ten different fractional scales. It’s a handy basic ruler and straight edge for drawing or cutting, as well as for measuring and creating scale drawings. The aluminum model also makes a fairly intimidating weapon during heated meetings (the corners do tend to bend if it’s dropped).

Though so much of my process is digital now, I still use this tool for drafting and measuring drawings almost daily. It’s far quicker and less cumbersome to pull out a scale and create an accurate drawing on the back of a document right in a meeting than going back to a workstation and building a digital model. Sometimes I’ll need to explain why something will or will not work because of scale without breaking the flow of a conversation.

Our analog tools were once so precious. Designers built collections over the course of their careers. The most prized ones were cherished and passed down from mentors and older family members in the field. Who cherishes his copy of AutoCAD — much less carries an old floppy disk around in a velvet-lined box?

I still cherish my aluminum Alvin ruler. And it rules.

-- Michael Doyle  

Aluminum Architects Scale 2200 Series
6, 12, 18 and 24 inches
Available from Drafting Steals

Manufactured by Alvin


With YourFonts you can make a TrueType font from your own handwriting for free. The process is simple, quick and basically idiot-proof. Print out a template from the site, write in your letters, scan, upload and — voila — there you have it. If you’re a real fonthead, you might want more detail and control over the fonts you create. I remember even years ago seeing an ad in MacWorld for a “make your own handwriting font.” The template that software had was a lot more sophisticated, since it asked for examples of different letter combination as well as individual letters. The YourFonts template basically replicates the characters on a standard keyboard, with an optional extension to characters with accents/umlauts etc.

By far, this is the best, quickest, easiest and cheapest option I’ve found thus far. YourFonts offers proper font creation software that can be purchased at what seems to be fairly reasonable prices. But the free font creation tool is heaps of fun and available for use without any form of obligation. I’ve already gone back and improved my first efforts, opting to fiddle with character heights and positioning in GIMP a lot (see below). I’m now keen to create a couple more fonts for my fledgling web site. This is quite possibly the start of an addiction.

-- Craig Shaw  

Sample Excerpts:

Here’s my somewhat egotistically-titled font “Shaw Hand” in various iterations. Being a bit anally retentive, I wanted to improve the uniformity a bit and improve the look of some characters. Because there’s no direct control over kerning, etc. the width of the character is important — nothing “tucks in” under/over adjacent characters. Note my somewhat idiosyncratic “g”, and how my initial “e,” “w” and “h” were a bit wide. I also found matching the template guides for height was important. Since it can be hard to achieve this on paper (despite practice!) I did the best I could and then — since the template is scanned as a .jpg, — I actually ended up using GIMP to do some editing, such as stretching individual characters vertically or horizontally, or making minor improvements to their shape. Below are just improvements on the one style. I haven’t even started to create a new style yet. :-)


How To Wrap Five Eggs

Presentation is everything in Japan. Go to any department store and buy even a small sack of tea, and the time and effort put into packing up your purchase is enough to astound any n00b Westerner. This tradition goes way back, of course. First published in 1967 and long out of print, this picture-heavy book of classic Japanese packaging has finally been reprinted in paperback. The title is misleading. There are no step-by-step directions, only black and white images up front with annotations in the back, detailing the materials used, region, specific use/occasion/tradition surrounding each item. For example, in Aizu Wakamatsu, miso is sold in tiny, exquisitely-woven bamboo baskets. Why? Soup made with miso gets lumpy if it isn’t strained properly. The packaging doubles as a sieve. This book brims with the perfect, little offspring of form and function.

How to Wrap Five Eggs
Hideyuki Oka
2008, 224 pages
Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

Ordinary rice straw is used imaginatively to create a most functional and beautiful container. Since a set of items in Japan is five rather than half a dozen (five teacups, five cake plates, and the like), this carrier contains just five eggs. Devised by farmers in Yamagata Prefecture in northern Japan, it is an example of packaging born of rural necessity. Interestingly enough, it seems to emphasize the freshness of the eggs. (book cover image)



The Osaka restaurant Sushiman invented this rather fantastic looking container for one of its specialties: suzume-zushi, or pressed boiled rice and kodai (small sea bream). The lid is firmly lashed down with lengths of vine wound around sections of split bamboo. The buff tone of the wood, the bright green of the bamboo, and the greenish brown of the vine lashings combine to give the package and inviting look and a decided air of freshness.



Homeishu, Japan’s oldest medicinal tonic, is a kind of liqueur made from a number of different Japanese and Chinese herb essences. The famous homeishu produced in Fukuyama, Hiroshima Prefecture, is sold in bottles of Bizen ware wrapped in straw matting. Two styles of wrapping are shown here… In the more complicated style (pictured) the bottle is placed in a box, and three pieces of matting are tied around it to create a package of considerable rustic charm.



This delightful product of the Mamemasa confectionery in Kyoto features sugarcoated beans arranged in tiers in a diagonally cut cardboard box pasted over with decorative printed paper. The ingenuity of the design speaks for itself, and one could hardly ask for sweets to be more temptingly packaged. The woodblock-printed label (not seen here) pictures a beautiful woman of Kyoto.


Benjamin Moore Aura Paint


When my husband and I moved into our new apartment recently, we knew a coat of fresh paint would spiff up the place, but with a new baby we wanted to pay special attention to the kind of paint we used. Unlike a lot of VOC-free paints (VOC = volatile organic compounds), Benjamin Moore’s Aura line of low-VOC acrylic paints isn’t thin or runny, dries really fast (literally an hour or less) and it’s available in a satisfying array of colors in eggshell, matte, satin, and semi-gloss. It’s VOC rating is less than 50 grams per liter (a standard paint might have 250 grams; VOC-free paints can still have up to 5 grams per liter). The Aura paint isn’t cheap — I think we spent $10-15 more per gallon than we normally do — but I have always been partial to more expensive paints because the colors appear truer and, in many cases, they require just one coat. With Aura, we found even the deepest of wall colors only required two coats to cover, and we didn’t use primer. The best part is there was no stinky paint smell residue, only beautifully-painted walls to gaze at with our little one.

-- Amanda Hughes-Watkins  

Benjamin Moore Aura Paint
(1 gallon)
Available from Moores Hardware

Or search for a retailer via zip code (top right)

Manufactured by Benjamin Moore

Subhead Grip Stickers


Why sacrifice style for safety? Subhead grip stickers are an attractive, very effective, functional alternative to regular, boring, anti-slip tape. For the last year, I’ve been using the star-shaped stickers on some wooden steps outside my home. Just recently, I affixed the skull stickers to some rattan sticks I use for martial arts. And in the near future, I’m planning to add some fleur de lis stickers to some other steps. High foot traffic areas also experience a lot of visual traffic — walkways, pool decks, boat decks, ship ladders, etc. Most anti-slip tape is that boring rectangular stuff, long black or yellow grip strips that, to me, sometimes look too industrial or institutional for a home, garden and even some businesses. Instead, these come in fun, eye-catching designs that will also draw people’s visual attention, potentially making it even more effective than standard rectangular anti-slip tape. I imagine some people would prefer to make homemade stickers/designs, but quite honestly, I lack the dexterity, patience, & hand strength to be able to create detailed, attractive & consistently-sized/shaped stickers (ironic given that I practice martial arts, I know). Still, I am certain if I tried to make the stars, my versions would look like an injured sea star or Dali-inspired Rorschach blots. It’s much easier to just click and buy these.

-- Linda Matsumi  

Subhead Grip Stickers
Available from Subhead Grip


HP OfficeJet Pro K5400 Printer


As everyone knows, manufactures give away printers almost free in exchange for the steady revenue of expensive, tiny ink cartridges. That’s the “give the razor, sell the blades” strategy for the new economy, and it works. I use my printer less and less, but I still print enough pages in a year to go through an alarming number of high-priced disposable ink cartridges. The pain is not just overpriced cartridges; the machines rarely allow cartridges to fully empty, vastly decreasing their actual efficiency. (See this PC World article which says as much as 60% of the ink is wasted.)

I’m sick of surrendering to this economically and environmentally costly habit, so I set out to find the most cost-effective inkjet printer I could find.

Printer models are on a fast cycle of obsolescence, so there is little across-the-board comprehensive testing for ink cartridge efficiency. Based on manufacturer’s specs and the comparative testing by PC World magazine, my research points to the HP Officejet K5400 as having the most cost-efficient ink supply right now. The estimated cost per page of black ink for the K5400 is 1.4 cents, and color is 5.9 cents per page. My previous printer ran 10 times that. I have not been able to find a lower page rate for any other desktop machine.

The bulkier the ink container the more likely the cost per page will be lower. In my studio I have a workhorse of a printer, the Epson 3000, now 15 years old, that uses big fat bulk ink cartridges. I use this industrial printer for printing large scale photographs, but I can print a decade’s worth of office printing on a single cartridge — and have. You can buy one of these venerable machines used, and still get cartridges, but the beast is the size of one-yard steamer trunk. It’s overkill for most folks. Alternatively, there are kits which you can purchase to modify your desktop printer using fine capillary tubes connected to exterior ink bottles to drastically lower ink costs. Yeah, it works, but it’s a messy hack, and you’d need to be printing a real lot to warrant it.

The Officejet K5400 is a decent compromise. It costs $130 (as I write). I’ve been using it for three months now and am delighted with its performance. It prints extremely fast, faster than any desktop printer I’ve seen. It runs reliably, and prints with near laser-quality for office stuff. It’s not the ideal photo printer, but does okay. Most importantly, judging from the ink status box, after 3 months I still have 80% of the ink in the first set of cartridges left. But this unit is not small. It’s about the size of a roller carry-on luggage. I expect to get 10 years out of it.

A true evaluation of printing costs should include the cost of the printer, amortized over the number of pages printed in its lifetime. For some people with very minimal printing needs, the price of expensive ink cartridges is canceled by the zero cost of a free printer. Go for it! For those who need to print more, such as contracts, manuscripts, maps and other currently unavoidable paper copies, the HP Officejet 5400 is the most cost-efficient way to deal with ink.

-- KK  

HP OfficeJet Pro K5400 Printer

Available from Amazon

Or $150+ via Google Shopping Manufactured by HP

Recycled Chopstick Folding Baskets

These ingenious collapsible baskets are made out of recycled chopsticks. Beyond the “green” aspect, we love them because they fold flat, so they’re easy to put away. Very transportable for camping and potlucks. They come in four sizes. We have a Large Tea Stained one that is out on the kitchen counter year round for fruit and veggies, and a Medium Natural basket for the overflow during the summer. They hold a lot of fruit, which doesn’t seem to spoil as quickly because of the airy design — makes it easy to clean, too. We have given several as gifts and notice they get used.

-- Kelly Powers  

Recycled Chopstick Folding Baskets
$15+, depending on size
Available from Kwytza Kraft

Emblems from the Pentagon’s Black World

Trevor Paglen is a thorn in Uncle Sam’s side. Known for snapping telephoto candids of CIA planes and Area 51, the artist also gathers “patch intel,” which he’s collected in this provocative book (main title: “I Could Tell You But Then You Would Have To Be Destroyed By Me”). The fruit of several Freedom of Information Act requests, Paglen’s book proves that classified black opps concoct esoteric team insignias just like other military divisions. In this case, 75 de-classified patches with colorful eagles, skulls, swords, dragons, wizards and even aliens (!). Surveying iconography that was never intended for your eyes is both exhilarating and frustrating. Decoding them is often impossible, which only leads back to the obvious: How else are our tax dollars being spent in secret? Unlike grainy, questionable YouTube clips of UFOs, Big Foot and Loch Ness, in this case, seeing guarantees believing.

I Could Tell You But Then You Would Have To Be Destroyed By Me: Emblems from the Pentagon’s Black World
Trevor Paglen
136 pages, 2007

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

“Triangulum” is reported to designate a variation on the RS6b SENIOR SPEAR sensor system built into some versions of the U-2 spy plane. The Triangulum system allegedly uses twelve antennas along the aircrafts’ fuselage and an antenna on each wing.

The Electronic Warfare Directorate is the primary EW test organization at Edwards Air Force Base. Electronic warfare consists of defensive and offensive avionics and includes the so-called “Infowar” revolution in military technologies Commenting on information-warfare, Air Force Chief of Staff John Jumper told Aviation Week and Space Technology that “we’re rapidly approaching the time when you can tell an SA-10′s [surface-to-air missile system] radar that it’s a Maytag washer and put it in the rinse cycle instead of the firing cycle.” The first letter of each word in the phrase “Nitwits Rubes and Oafs” spells out the agency responsible for this patch: the NRO, the National Reconnaissance Office. Furthermore, “OAFS” could be an acronym for Onizuka Air Force Station, an Air Force Space Operations base in Sunnyvale, California colloquially known as the Blue Cube. It is unclear what the collection of three white stars and one black star represent, although they may be related to the collection of four triangles from the NRO’s “We Own the Night” patch…The phrase “Setec Astronomy” figures prominently in the 1992 film “Sneakers,” in which the phrase is an anagram for “Too Many Secrets.”

This patch is from the Phillips Laboratory Military Spaceplane Technology (MiST) Program Office at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico. The original version of the patch sported an “X-Wing” fighter from the Star Wars movies. When lawyers representing George Lucas delivered the unit a cease and desist order, the aircraft on the patch was changed into the shape that appears in this patch.

The letters ATOP depicted on this patch stand for “Advanced Technology Observation Platform,” whose first flight was on October 28, 1990. The Latin phrase “Furtim Vigilans” translates as “Vigilance Through Stealth.” No further information about this patch or program is known. Officials at the Flight Test Center at Edwards Air Force Base claim that the program depicted “isn’t one of ours.”

This was the original version of a patch commemorating a flight test series involving a B-2 “Spirit” stealth bomber. The lower case Greek sigma symbol on the test shape’s outline signifies the unknown RCS value. The number “509″ refers to the 509th Bomb Wing, which operates the United States’ stealth bombers from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri. The alien is a reference to the 509th’s lineage. In 1947, the 509th was based at Roswell, New Mexico, home of the infamous “Roswell incident,” which ensued after the 509th’s commander, Col. William Blanchard, issued a press release whose headline stated “Roswell Army Airfield Captures Flying Saucer on Ranch in Roswell Region.” The dog-Latin phrase “Gustasus Similis Pullus” translates as “Tastes Like Chicken.” Note the knife and fork. This patch was eventually modified when Air Force officials insisted that the phrase “Classified Flight Test” could not appear on the design. In an updated version of the patch, “Classified Flight Test” has been replaced with the words “To Serve Man,” referencing a classic episode of “The Twilight Zone.”

Related items previously reviewed in Cool Tools:


Dictionary of Symbols

The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Representation