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How To Get Started With Making

I often have people ask me how to get started with making or makerspace things. While this can often depend on the individual, their interests, and how they can leverage those interests as an insertion point into making things, there are some general kits, projects, and books out there that I’d recommend to anyone (ages ~12 and up) giving their first try at soldering, microcontrollers, digital fabrication, etc. Here’s a list of some things I usually recommend:

Soldering

  • Conway’s Game of Life is a zero-player game that was invented in 1970 as a mathematical way of simulating cellular growth and destruction. There are plenty of websites out there where you can run a simulation, but Adafruit also makes these really cool, dead-simple kits that allow you to solder together your own small segment of a Game of Life board. I like these as first soldering activities because they aren’t too abundant in parts, so require less time and have a lesser chance of things going wrong. At the same time, they incorporate several different kinds of components, so you gain a wider exposure to simple electronics in this small package.
  • The Meggy Jr RGB Soldering Kit by Evil Mad Scientist is a great product for folks looking to get into soldering and interested in dipping their toes into the custom game platform space. Once built, this kit gives you a fully-programmable handheld game platform with a d-pad, A/B buttons, and an 8×8 LED matrix. This is a little more complex than the Conway’s Game of Life platform, but should only take 4-ish hours to complete.

Electronics

  • The official Arduino kit is a great way to get started with microcontrollers, breadboarding, and circuitry. It comes with a book of 15 projects, from beginner to advanced, that introduce you to the use of everything from LEDs to LCD screens to motors, and everything in between.
  • MakeCode with Circuit Playground Express is a fun way for folks of all ages to get started with electronics. Circuit Playground Express is a very inexpensive, easy to use electronics platform with all sorts of sensors embedded, LEDs, and other things in it and a lot of possibilities.
  • Makey Makey is a fun tool that runs off the same chip as the Arduino Leonardo, which means it gives you the ability to simulate keyboard and mouse inputs on any computer. This device is an extremely low-barrier-to-entry tinkering platform for all ages. The folks who made it even put together this fun video that shows you some of its possibilities.

3D Printing

  • Thingiverse and YouMagine are both great websites for people wondering what’s possible with 3D printers. Both sites allow you to download pre-designed files that you can then print. But don’t stop there! I’d highly recommend learning by taking those designs and modifying them, gradually becoming more comfortable with the design tools until you’re making your own things.
  • There are several interesting collaborative 3D printing art projects (Project EGG is a cool one, Jeff Solin’s students’ Chicago flag is another that also incorporates laser cutting and CNC routing) that have come and gone. If you can’t find enough people to make something like this with you, another route you could go is joining We the Builders to collaborate on a massive 3D printing project.

CNC Routing

  • I have one strong recommendation for folks getting into CNC routing: check out open source furniture. Opendesk is a great website where you can (for free) download designs that you can then cut out on a larger format CNC router, put together, and stick in your living room. Some of these designs are really slick, too.

Laser Cutting

  • One really fun project to do with laser cutters is designing your own book cover complete with a living hinge. These are great gift ideas for friends and family with a favorite book, and is a really clever use of the precise nature of laser cutters.
  • For those more artistically inclined, and looking to take on a more complex project, laser cutting your own 2.5D topographic wood map is a fun craft project where you’ll find yourself designing, laser cutting, gluing, and painting a full relief map of… wherever. Instructables has a great walkthrough on how to do this..

Textiles

  • Some of my favorite maker projects mix the new with the old. Case in point: vinyl cutting out a design, then silk-screening it onto textiles. Bonus points if you first sew your own object (I usually prefer a simple bag) before putting the design on it. That’s really making something from soup to nuts.

Books


Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

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