how to get tinkering
March 13, 2010 8:08 AM   Subscribe

I want to make little machines that do cool things. I've been daydreaming and doing moderate "research" for years and years. How do I make this into reality?

When I was a kid (5th-7th grade) I was all about C++, Lego Mindstorms, and computer camp. For a variety of reasons, I set aside dreams of friendly robots for books and writing. Now that I'm almost through with college, I'm sick of everything being so opened ended. I love problem solving, and (at least the thought of) crafting things with my hands, particularly bizarre amalgamations of small, everyday objects.

Last year, I started reading a lot on the tinkering community and the cool things people do with Arduino boards. I planned to make an interactive coffee table and got some glass and wood, but never got any further. I feel like I'm just piling up ideas in one corner, which are lovely to think about it, and solving some conceptual problems about how they would function, but not sure how to begin making them into reality.

How do I get a serious tinkering hobby cranking? Should I set up a workbench? Buy a particular book? I would love to get into the hobby with a friend, but I've never really 'hobby-dated' before (do people do that?) In terms of a long-term goal, I would love to create a fleet of little beautiful machines that can communicate with each other & loved ones. 'Physical tweet machines' like a bulldozer that would rearrange scrabble pieces into messages, or a mini hot air balloon that would wander around the apartment avoiding objects and streaming NPR (okay, impractical). I've always been intrigued with sculpture and would like to acquire some good techniques to work with metals/wood as well.

As a sidenote, I'm leaving to study abroad in Tokyo for five months in a couple of weeks. Anything I can grab there, ways to learn more, etc? Thanks mefi folk!
posted by elephantsvanish to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (8 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
You could try participating in time-based challenges that give you a really strict deadline to get something done, and at the same time connect you with a community of other people who are facing the same challenge. Make a thing every day. Join next weekend's synchronous hackathon. These deadline-based projects force you to trim your ideas down to something you can really do in one hour, or one weekend, rather than letting the plans grow until they seem too big to tackle. You also learn a lot that you can apply to the big plans later.
posted by moonmilk at 9:01 AM on March 13, 2010

I like the term "hobby dating" and thats definitely a thing that people do. I hobby date with a poet on Friday afternoons making music that goes behind his words. We aim to make 1 completed and mixed song from nothing every afternoon we meet. It disciplines us both and, for me, feeds well into my other musical efforts as it makes me work in a more structured way.

You could try to start a meet up on or I bet you could find someone on metafilter nearby who'd team up with you. What you want to do sounds cool. If you're anywhere near NYC I'm in!
posted by merocet at 9:14 AM on March 13, 2010

This is not tinkering advice per se, but this is the best advice about hobbies that I've ever received. Not that I'm doing all that great, either, but this always kicks me in the ass.
posted by McBearclaw at 9:43 AM on March 13, 2010

An LED coffee table? That's a huge project, IMO.

You need to build some momentum. The best way to do that is to start small, but not too small. Like, the Arduino making an LED blink is probably too small. But getting an Arduino-based robot kit to roll around the room, that's probably enough to get your excitement up and your momentum to an unstoppable level, because once you assemble the platform, you won't be able to stop modifying it, making it do new things, and improving it.

Start with some things that don't require huge fabrication investments on your part. In other words, buy some kits. Given the sorts of things you've named, I'd get some kind of Arduino-based robotics kit. You could even take it with you to Japan, and program it there.

Starting at that kind of level will give you the flexibility to test out your ideas and a platform for experimenting with new ones. Go for it... you'll need little more than a laptop, a soldering iron, and your native curiosity.
posted by fake at 10:13 AM on March 13, 2010

If there's a hackspace in your town, definitely check it out. My local space (VHS) is very friendly to newcomers.
posted by blue grama at 10:15 AM on March 13, 2010

Let me offer you this, as you've said you're headed for Tokyo.

There is, still, a large traditional culture of manufacture in Japan, but it is most alive in rural areas, where traditions are intentionally preserved, and there is no zen difference between skill of hand, and skill of design. One very much informs the other, still, in the best things that Japan makes. And many of these things, because of their incredible quality and subsequent cost, have no market, and no intention of a market, outside Japan.

I recall, for example, some dress shirts I saw being worn by a machinery vendor I used to deal with in Nagoya. They were subtly incredible, and as someone who sold shirt manufacturing machinery for a living, I was not only impressed, but insistent to see the source of such shirts. After nearly 2 years of oblique comments and compliments by me on the quality of those shirts, it was finally arranged that I would go to see the factory in which they were made. It was a day long revelation, at the end of a 2 hour car journey from Nagoya into the central mountains of Japan, to a small, single story building on the edge of a small village. Hardly a single piece of automated machinery in the plant, and over 200 separate hand operations to make those shirts, from cut to packaging. That's more individual manufacturing operations than entire men's suits go through, up to the $2,000 level. And after I went there, I wasn't surprised to learn that shirts from that factory cost $380 each, and you had to wait 18 months for new orders. They were, however, absolutely incredible shirts, and had I any chance of fitting into Japanese sizing, I might have ordered some. But I digress...

If you can get out of Tokyo, and be admitted to some of the places that actually make the top quality goods in Japan, you'll be surprised. It's actually fairly hard for gaijin to get into many Japanese manufacturing operations, not because of industrial espionage issues, although the Japanese are very sensitive to this, but because, so much of the best manufacturing practices in Japan seem so simple, so unautomated, and depend, so much, still, on the skill and judgement of the worker, that Japanese manufacturers are reluctant to put their production processes on view to foreigners.

And yet, if you get lucky, and make the right contacts, and appear to have the intelligence, humility and capacity to appreciate what is hardly more than slight of hand, put before you guilelessly in answer to your questions, scales can fall from your eyes. Even a chance to watch some of the Living National Treasures of Japan, in whatever public demonstrations or appearances they might provide, may prove instructive.

5 months in Japan will not be enough to learn how to make anything. But, it might be enough time, to learn that you want, eventually, to be a real maker of things.
posted by paulsc at 11:54 AM on March 13, 2010

If you are going to be in Shibuya, check out Tokyu Hands. It is a hobby shop the size of a department store, with a fraction of a floor devoted to many hobbies that you've heard of (or seen) and many that you haven't. Check out Danny Choo's great pictures to get a better sense of the variety of offerings to be found there.

You should also spend some time exploring the hobby and electronics shops in the Akihabara neighborhood.
posted by jeffbarr at 12:47 PM on March 13, 2010

Further to what paulsc writes, I've launched a project to profile Japanese artisans. Here's a preview of a video on a master wood carver.

Three days ago I spent half an hour trying to get this old coot to let me film him making these intricate glass pens, but he says that after that experience with NHK (Japanese PBS) he doesn't want to be documented again. He can't hold his hand steady enough with the camera on him.
posted by planetkyoto at 7:36 AM on April 2, 2010

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