DigiKey Electronics

I see that someone recommended Mouser as a source for electronic components. Digikey offered catalog sales (i.e., as a DIY source) long before Mouser and I have used them since the 1970s. Their product offering is fuller, their search engine works better, and they have better customer support. For example, if you order by 8PM CT, the order will ship later that night and thus can arrive the next morning, something Mouser and Newark cannot match. Most electrical engineers (like me) and DIYers I know check Digikey first.

-- Paul Bridges  


Laser cutters are machines that cut shapes out of flat material. Because laser cutters use digital files and the cutting is very precise, it’s possible to create multi-component parts with tight tolerances and ornate patterns. Laser cutters are used to make everything from jewelry to furniture. I’m much more excited about laser cutting than 3D printing as a tool for making stuff.

Laser cutters are becoming affordable (some sell for under $1000) but they require ventilation systems (to get rid of the combustion fumes), which add to their expense and complexity. I know a few people who have laser printers at home, but for most people (including me) it’s not practical. A better option is to use Ponoko, an online laser cutting service. You design your part using any 2D vector program that exports EPS or SVG files (like Adobe Illustrator, which is what I use), upload the design, select the material you want to use (cardboard, fabric, leather, metal, paper, plastic, rubber, or many different kinds of wood), and submit the design. In a few days, your order arrives in a brown paper package.

I’ve used Ponoko to make a white acrylic art frame in the shape of a giant eye (for one of my daughter’s paintings) and for an Arduino-controlled peanut butter mixer I invented (photo above). I laid out the design for the peanut butter mixer on a 384.0 mm long x 384.0 mm wide template (image below) and ordered it to be printed on a sheet of 3-ply, 6.7 mm bamboo (which was large enough to fit four mixers). It cost $40, including shipping. It turned out great.


-- Mark Frauenfelder  

Prices vary based on material and size

Adafruit PCB Ruler

The Adafruit PCB Ruler is more than just a way of measuring things. It is also the ultimate reference (at least for the size) for folks designing their own PCBs. The ruler is made of a 6” length of PCB laminate, and naturally it offers the requisite inches and centimeters. Where the ruler diverges from the expected is that it is covered, both sides, in reference materials for PCB design: want to know what a 24-mil trace looks like? What about a 28-gauge via? The ruler also has footprints for over a dozen surface-mount components like minuscule SOT-23 chips, the size of half a grain of rice. At $5 the ruler is a great deal anyway, made all the better by the fact that you can get one for free from Adafruit just by spending $100 in their store.

-- John Baichtal  

Adafruit PCB Ruler


When trying to solve the world’s problems with software, it is incredibly difficult to get stakeholders and collaborators to relate and contribute to solutions until after the software has already been developed – creating huge waste.

Paper designs and low-fidelity static mockups force people to use too much of their imagination, and each person’s imagination and perceptions are different. In the past, the costs of collaborating in this environment were large.

Enter InvisionApp.com – the simplest and fastest way to get dozens of project collaborators on the same page with a high-fidelity, clickable prototype (something everyone on the team can relate to) without the cost of previous generations of so-called ‘prototyping’ solutions.

Other tools like AxureRP or iRise are expensive and complex to use, and myBalsamiq makes it too difficulty to get to high-fidelity.

I have been using it for 6 months and it has been an absolute game changer.

-- Jeff Evans  

Free and subscriptions ranging from $13 – $90/month


Girders and Gears

Girders and Gears is the place for fanatical hobbyists and collectors of metal construction sets. Serious enthusiasts show off what they build with their sets, and share their knowledge about building techniques, history of the sets, and how to restore the old ones. They work in every historical and contemporary construction set. Not all construction sets are toys. Heavy duty ones can be used for prototyping.

Constructor sets come in 3 categories:

Repetitive Hole Beam
Consistently space holes along the length permit modular connections.

Bitbeam – LEGO Technic-compatible building technology. Bitbeam can be printed on a 3D-printer or cut with a CNC router or laser-cutter, which means it can be made out of plastic, wood, or aluminum.

– Make your own. Contraptor is a DIY open source construction set for experimental personal fabrication, desktop manufacturing, prototyping and bootstrapping. Not sold. Make your own, with Sketchup files.

meccano2Meccano – In the US called Erector Sets. Steel girders, bolts to bind them.

Merkur – Metric-based Meccano/Erector-like system , made in Czech, popular in Europe.

Slot Beam
A long slot in the beam permits a secure connection with infinite adjustment of spacing.

T-Slots – Industrial scale and strength. Both fractional and metric.

– Mini-T is a miniature version of larger T-slot building systems.

OpenBeam – Smaller version of industrial t-beam, with free plans that you can manufacture yourself or purchase.

Makeblock – Hybrid: Repetitive holes and slots. Various special shapes.

Beams and Connectors
Complicated rods — more than simple beams — slip into complicated connectors

K’Nex – Flexible rods with plastic connects allow non-grid structures.

Lego/Technic – Highly crenelated beams and smaller parts with repetitive holes plug into different shaped connectors.

-- KK  

Butterick’s Practical Typography

A couple years ago, I reviewed typographer-lawyer Matthew Butterick’s book, Typography for Lawyers. It “isn’t just for lawyers,” I said then, “it’s for anyone who cares about how text looks in print or on the Web.”

Now Butterick has web-published a new book on typography for a general audience, Butterick’s Practical Typography. It covers the same subject, but without directives specific to the legal profession.

This time it’s not a print book. It’s not an e-book, either. It was created and coded by Butterick himself specifically for the Web. You can read it through like a book, but it’s set up as an easy reference guide, with links to font basics, font recommendations, text formatting, sample documents, etc. For those in a hurry, there’s a “Typography in Ten Minutes” section.

The book is freeware, but you can kick the author some compensation for his work through the website.

I love type. I’ve read many bookis on the subject. Butterick’s are by far the clearest and most useful of them all.

-- Russ Mitchell  

Sample Excerpts:


Criticizing Helvetica is one of the fa­vorite pas­times of ty­pog­ra­phers: It’s bland. It’s overused. It’s in­apt for most projects. All true statements.

Yet they sort of miss the point. It’s like criticizing Star Wars be­cause the vi­su­al effects are un­re­al­is­tic. Or be­cause the di­a­logue is wood­en. Or be­cause the plot is pinched from The Hidden Fortress. All true state­ments. But so what? It’s still Star Wars. And like Star Wars, Helvetica will be with us for the fore­see­able future.

Should you use Helvetica? Look, I like Helvetica. Though most­ly in the rear-view mir­ror. Today, we have bet­ter op­tions. For Helvetica diehards, there is neue haas grotesk, a love­ly re­vival of the orig­i­nal Helvetica de­sign. Others can try a font that’s neu­tral with­out be­ing dull, like my own concourse, or the ex­cel­lent new atlas. Even good old frutiger would be an improvement.

And don’t wor­ry—no mat­ter which al­ter­na­tive you choose, Helvetica will still be with us.



The hyphen (-) is the small­est of these marks. It has three uses.

1. A hy­phen ap­pears at the end of a line when a word breaks onto the next line. These hy­phens are added and re­moved au­to­mat­i­cal­ly by the automatic hyphenation in your word proces­sor or web browser.

2. Some mul­ti­part words are spelled with a hyphen (top­sy-turvy, cost-effective, bric-a-brac). But a prefix is not typ­i­cal­ly fol­lowed with a hyphen (nonprofit, not non-profit).

3. A hy­phen is used in phrasal adjectives (view­er-sup­port­ed ra­dio, dog-and-pony show, high-school grades) to en­sure clar­i­ty. Nonprofessional writ­ers of­ten omit these hy­phens. As a pro­fes­sion­al writer, you should not.

For in­stance, con­sid­er the un­hy­phen­at­ed phrase five dol­lar bills. Is five the quan­ti­ty of dol­lar bills, or are the bills each worth five dollars? As writ­ten, it sug­gests the for­mer. If you mean the lat­ter, then you’d write five-dol­lar bills.

How Buildings Learn

Every building that endures will be modified. Yet few structures are built to be easily modified. The more stylized a building is now, the harder it is to change. Stewart Brand (who invented the ancestor of Cool Tools) teases out design principles for making buildings that can adapt — or “learn” — to new needs, new uses. While his examples are architectural, showing how the greatest buildings evolve, his advice is aimed at any kind of hard-to-change organization. Software programmers think this book is talking to them since they are often asked to adapt skyscrapers of code built with no concern about adapting it later. This book will be useful to anyone trying to build complicated things that will outlive them.

-- KK  

How Buildings Learn
Stewart Brand
1995, 252 pages

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:



I’ve long wanted a font based on my own hand. The easiest, cheapest and quickest way is MyScriptFont. To get my personal script, I wrote out an alphabet on their printed-out template (block letters only, no cursive), scanned the sheet and uploaded it, and then installed the scaleable font they handed back. It’s free. Takes only minutes.

Once I had my handprinting font, I figured I could quickly make other homemade fonts. It’s a quick cheap way to make any kind of unique hand-drawn font you want.

-- KK  

Free, donations accepted

Sample Excerpts:


Sign Game

It’s always fun to cruise through Fantagraphics’s store in the Georgetown neighborhood of Seattle. You never know what you might stumble across amid the new comics releases, independent zines and assorted odd runs and old stock there. I happened upon a copy of Justin Green’s Sign Game (ST Publications and Last Gasp Of San Francisco). It’s an 80 page paperback collection from 1995 of the monthly comic strips Green did for the sign painter’s trade newsletter Signs of the Times from back in the 1980s and 90s.

As detailed in Green’s comics, that was a turbulent time of transition for sign painters. Just as desktop publishing and digital photography transformed the graphic design and photography businesses (ask bankrupt Kodak about that!), the dawn of the computerized vinyl letter cutting machines undid the business of hand-lettered and painted signage.

Each densely rich comic takes on one arcane aspect of this dying art, from the ins and outs of doing gold leaf lettering, or how to wield a mahlstick, to the fine points of font design and brush technique needed for painting on the corrugated surface of metal trucks. Green’s sardonic tone and hilarious perspective also illustrate each hard won lesson of running a business, filled with characters like hard-boiled artists, chiseling customers, and back-biting competitors.

As a comic, Green’s one-page masterpieces employs a myriad of graphic techniques: send ups of Johnson Smith & Co. catalog layouts, Goofus and Gallant-ish profiles, Dick Tracy Crimebsuters comic crooks, and an endless supply of cartoon lettering intro panel gimmicks that ape plexiglass, peeling vinyl letters and stencils.

One installment is most telling: his predictions for the sign biz from 1994. Many were already coming true then, like computer-less mini vinyl letter-cutting systems. One thing he did NOT foresee: the current hipster renaissance for all things artisanal—like hand painted signs and lettering! A brand new book and documentary film Sign Painters by Faithe Levine and Sam Macon promises to tell that tale, and I hope it will be as funny and informative as Green’s Sign Game.

-- Bob Knetzger  

Sign Game
Justin Green
1995, 80 pages
$12 and up (out of print)

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

Pogo Connect

I’ve been using this stylus like crazy and I am in love! It’s a touch sensitive stylus for drawing and painting on the iPad which works incredibly well. Because of its touch-sensitive capabilities, this is the first stylus that allows me to think of the iPad as tool for serious illustration. I love my Wacom tablet, but using this is a completely different and, in some ways, a much more direct way to connect to my work… especially once I’d found the right drawing app. I suggest Procreate, which is designed to take advantage of the Pogo Connect.

Having said this, the Pogo stylus has a couple drawbacks. For example, the setup of the pen is unclear. This confused me and a number of other Amazon reviewers who expressed their frustration at never getting it working. Stick with it! Follow the directions… it does work and it works well!

Secondly, the build of the stylus is sorta cheap. During the first usage of my Pogo Connect, I pressed the (flimsy) plastic button into the hollow body. Arg! How infuriating! And I am not the first to have had this problem. With no button, the stylus was unusable.

The Pogo Connect is an awesome tool. Now that I have it, I’m unable to live without it! But I’ll always press that button with a feather touch!

-- Robyn Miller  

Pogo Connect

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Ten 1 Design Sketch by Robyn Miller

Sample Excerpts: