Maker noob - where on the web should a maker wannabe start?
December 3, 2014 7:08 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking to dip my toe into fiddling with electronics, robotics and similar stuff and wanted to know if there's a place that is better for beginners than others. It's hard to tell without spending many days lurking on the many sites that turn up from a quick google search and I'd prefer to just seek your wisdom first before I go down that route. Thanks!
posted by HopStopDon'tShop to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (15 answers total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
It's a little vague. I would start with Code by Chuck Petzold and any of the free in-browser circuit simulators out there. The book will walk you all the way from tin can telephones through basic logic gates and circuits up to the basics of computing. After that, you'll be much more literate when you look at other projects and communities.

If you want to get your hands on some hardware right away, get the Arduino Starter Kit or something equivalent and work your way through the projects.
posted by michaelh at 7:13 AM on December 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Could you be a little more specific about your goals and your current background? That might help people point you to relevant info.

As far as hardware/kits/instructions, the whole O'Reilly "Make:" empire does a really good job of trying to be accessible to new folks. They have a few getting-started kits that, I think, come with breadboards and bags of components. I'm personally a big fan of Adafruit, too (due disclosure: I know a couple of the Adafruit folks socially, so I may be biased). They have a few newbie-friendly kits too.

I read Hackaday pretty religiously. They tend to link to project logs from people doing somewhat more complex work than your average Make: project. Since it's work collected from other peoples' blogs, sometimes the documentation is good, sometimes it's bad.

The Art of Electronics is a seminal textbook, and you should probably own a copy even if you never read it cover-to-cover.
posted by Alterscape at 7:20 AM on December 3, 2014 [3 favorites]

Alterscape is correct – some more info about what you already know (any programming experience, for example?), and what you're hoping to accomplish, would be helpful.

I'm very much a noob myself, but I found the Arduino to be an accessible entry point. There are many models, but I did a bit of research and ended up ordering this starter kit. I don't think you could go wrong with that.

For the non-electronic parts of your 'bots:

I've used Ponoko for on-demand laser cutting, with excellent results. Just create your design in Inkscape (free 2D vector design software), upload it to Ponoko, choose a material, and pay – your cut product will be shipped to you.

They also do 3D printing (Google SketchUp is a commonly used tool here, I think), and so does ShapeWays.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 7:27 AM on December 3, 2014

Make Magazine and the Make Blog seem to be about 40% Arduino these days (and 59% 3D printer, with 1% actual useful stuff for those of us who aren't into either) so you might want to look around over on their archives.

I like scanning over on Tested every few days. It's a lot of movie props and electronic reviews that I'm not personally into but they do have some robotics and maker-related stuff now and then.
posted by bondcliff at 7:28 AM on December 3, 2014

Many thanks, you've already given me plenty to work with!

Background: I know nothing, no programming, no electrical experience. Nada. I'm good at colouring. :)

Goals: 1. personally, I see fun little projects in Wired and Popular Science and elsewhere that I'd like to try but I don't because I have zero confidence (and no tools). So after years of this I've decided I need to make a bit of a concerted effort to get the confidence to try those things. (And I mean simple stuff, like the plexiglass + penlight lens + iPhone = microscope project for example.)
2. I would like to do some of this sort of stuff with my daughter so that, if she's interested, she can do more of it by herself and I can answer some of her questions.
posted by HopStopDon'tShop at 8:04 AM on December 3, 2014

You might very well enjoy Instructables. It's very broad: arts, crafts, electronics, cooking and so on.

On preview, oops! Seems you already know that! Ignore me, then.
posted by Too-Ticky at 8:31 AM on December 3, 2014

Good luck starting out! Don't be afraid to try things and break things. If you follow the instructions on most of these things it's actually very hard to get into trouble. Low voltage/current DC is about as safe as you can get!

Oh, and if you've got a bit of money to throw around, Trossen Robotics has some neat robot kits. We've used their kits in projects at work, and they resell some really interesting serial-controlled servos. Overkill for many things, but if you need relatively precise/repeatable control, very shiny.
posted by Alterscape at 8:37 AM on December 3, 2014

The Art of Electronics is a seminal textbook, and you should probably own a copy even if you never read it cover-to-cover.

Even if the 2nd edition is now 25 years old. If you're waiting on the 3rd edition, it continues to be six months away.
posted by zamboni at 9:31 AM on December 3, 2014

Depending on the time you have to commit consider looking for a local First team. They have robotics programs for school aged children (6-18). If your daughter is interested you could do it together. If not you could still volunteer with a team, especially if you started at one of the younger levels or found a team that was okay with you learning as you go. There are numerous ways you could contribute right away too while learning. My point being don't be discouraged by your current lack of knowledge.
posted by Shanda at 9:44 AM on December 3, 2014

Little Bits Electronics Deluxe Kit
posted by rada at 9:58 AM on December 3, 2014

When I had the urge to get into electronics a bit I followed someone's internet advice to buy a bunch of stuff from a very affordable electronics outfit from Thailand called Futurelec. They outlined exactly what to get.. The original post seems to have disappeared, but I recorded what I got for posterity here.

This info below is from 5 years ago, so may be a bit out of date. Also, I think some of the very particular chips (decade counter, hex inverter) were for a particular project I had in mind.

For ICs, futurlec doesn't have a great selection, iirc, but for resistors, capacitors, leds, switches, potentiometers, etc, their prices were *very* competitive. On the downside, they are _slow_ to ship. Like at least a month, so if you're wanting this by xmas, forget it.

Here's what I ordered.
Qty    ItemNumber  Unit Price  Total Price
1         RES14WPACK    1/4W Resistor Value Pack                2.45          2.45
1         RES12WPACK    1/2W Resistor Value Pack                4.95          4.95
1         CERPACK       Ceramic Capacitor Pack                  2.95          2.95
1         ELEPACK       Electrolytic Capacitor Value Pack       3.95          3.95
1         MYLARPACK     Mylar Capacitor Pack                    3.95          3.95
1         MULTIPACK     Multilayer Ceramic Capacitor Pack       3.95          3.95
1         LEDPACK       Led Value Pack                          4.95          4.95
1         TRAPACK       Transistor Value Pack                   4.95          4.95
1         LINEARPACK    Linear IC Value Pack                    5.95          5.95
1         DIOPACK       Diode Value Pack                        2.95          2.95
1         ICSPACK       IC Socket Value Pack                    5.95          5.95
5         PROTO777      Prototyping Board - 777                 1.50          7.5
3         PRBRDLG       Prototyping Board - Large               2.95          8.85
4         POT1K         1K Linear Taper Pot                     0.55          2.2
4         POT5K         5K Linear Taper Pot                     0.55          2.2
4         POT10K        10K Linear Taper Pot                    0.55          2.2
4         POT100K       100K Linear Taper Pot                   0.55          2.2
16        KNOB4         Black Aluminium with Pointer - Small    0.90          14.4
10        SPST10ST      SPST on-off Standard Toggle Switch      1.15          11.5
4         CD4017        CD4017 - Decade Counter/Divider         0.30          1.2
3         CD40106       CD40106 - Hex Inverter Schmitt Trigger  0.35          1.05
30        LED5W         White 5mm Round LED                     0.68          20.4
1         JUMPERKIT     Breadboard Jumper Kit                   4.90          4.9
2         BREADBRD      Breadboard                              5.90          11.8
3         2XAAHOLDERB   2 x AA Battery Holder                   0.30          0.9
2         4XAAHOLDERB   4 x AA Battery Holder                   0.50          1
2         6XAAHOLDER    6 x AA Battery Holder                   0.55          1.1
1         4XDHOLDER     4 x D Battery Holder                    1.10          1.1
10        9VBATTCLIP    9V Battery Clip                         0.10          1
1         SOLDERPEN     Solder Pen                              0.95          0.95
Sub-Total                             143.40
Postage                               14.00
Total                                 157.40

(Actually there was an additional $31.00 to ship via FedEX,)

posted by smcameron at 11:16 AM on December 3, 2014

For robotics, also consider Lego Mindstorms.

+1 for Arduino. Arduino is like a revolution, and there is so much stuff out there to help you!

Have fun!
posted by hz37 at 12:18 PM on December 3, 2014

Snap Circuits is marketed to kids as a way to learn about and build examples of circuits. There is however no reason why you couldn't start with something like this. When I was a kid in the 1980s there were similar types of kits from Radio Shack and the like that wasn't as cutesy as Snap Circuits but did the same thing.

You of course can do all of this with online circuit simulators but sometimes being tactile helps.

On edit, I see you also want to involve your daughter so this might be perfect.
posted by mmascolino at 1:06 PM on December 3, 2014

I'm kind of a n00b, too, and Lenore at Evil Mad Scientist has always been helpful and patient and encouraging. (Another disclosure: I use their LED menorah kits to make the hacked menorah I posted on Projects last month.)

I'm not sure where you are located, but seeing Alterscape's answer makes me think L.A. needs a Maker Meet-up so maybe there's an opportunity for you to get some people together and make stuff!
posted by Room 641-A at 1:09 PM on December 3, 2014

I usually suggest as a gentle introduction to programming.

Check out the tutorials, as well as the fun examples to be had!
posted by TrinsicWS at 6:14 PM on December 3, 2014

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