It’s very satisfying to make a drawing, build a little model to figure out proporions and dimensions, and then go to fabrication and see the idea come into being.
I’m referring here to the installation piece I made for the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, as the work product of the Tough Art residency I’ve been doing with them this summer. (If this is new to you, you may want to go back and read my post introducing the program and my aims for the project.)
The major physical design element for the project I built, Drawn Together, are the two control stations that users interact with to move the cursor. (I’m building a giant Etch A Sketch, so one station is the horizontal controller and the other is the vertical controller.) I wanted the stations to be durable (i.e. “tough”), inviting, and as easy to use as possible. I had a basic idea of what the stations might look like, but felt like it was worthwhile to explore the possibilities a bit first before settling on a design and making fabrication drawings.
In addition to looking at different shapes of podiums (podia?) I didn’t want to prevent myself from thinking about more interesting, albeit wacky, possibilities, so I drew some “purposefully sketchy” ideas out. These are meant as sort of pie-in-the-sky drawings, executed quickly and without much thought, just to get interesting possilbilities on paper. Later, I could cherry pick any aspects that seemed especially worthwhile.
Having looked at these, and talking with the museum staff about where the control stations should be and how they should be mounted, I thought I’d want to make a sort of box on stalks coming off of some well-placed columns in the space I was working in. To flesh that idea out more, I made some scale drawings of those possibilities. These are executed more carefully, using a triangle so that right angles are really right, and following a scale so that things’ proportions are valid.
Side view; the column the thing is mating to is on the left.
This design would’ve been interesting, cantilevering off of the existing columns. But it turned out that the columns in question, which some museum staff thought would probably be very tough masonry and mechanically reliable, were actually sheathed in drywall, hollow to the knock. They weren’t going to be reliable enough to support a weird thing sticking off them on poles.
So then it was back to the monolithic design, two control stations, each firmly anchored in the ground.
Based on some prototyping I’d done using cardboard boxes taped onto my original prototype control stations, I wanted my two control wheels to be each partly exposed: the horizontal control wheel only has the top part of the wheel exposed, and the vertical control wheel has only the side of the wheel exposed. The idea is that this increases the legibility of the system without recourse to signage.
I made a drawing of the most basic version of the stations:
This is the direction I’d ultimately end up going. But before I’d start building these, I wanted to get a sense for what they’d actually look and feel like—how they’d fill space—and also think about the relationship between the wheel, shaft, and cabinet it would live inside of.
I went over to the MAKESHOP at the museum (a wonderful space for creative exploration) and asked to use some of their materials—cardboard and a coat hanger. I spent probably an hour or two building out these two little models of the stations, which actually ended up being very helpful in understanding how I wanted to make the final pieces.
Seeing these, I started to get comfortable with the final forms as these simple cabinets housing the wheels—one taller and skinnier, with a radius on it to accomodate the wheel’s curvature, and the other shorter and squatter, all right angles.
Finally, based on the models I made some larger-scale, more precise drawings using a real drafting table so that I could spread out and use a bigger scale carefully.
Note that I conceived of a sloping back to the cabinet at this stage—later I just made it a complete rectangular prism, no slope.
I did all the fabrication at the well-outfitted Children’s Museum fabrication shop, which is a short bike ride away from the museum in the industrial part of Manchester (a North Side neighborhood). My major materials were three 5’×5’ sheets of 3/4” Baltic birch, 2’ of 1/2” steel shaft and bearings to support it, polycarbonate for windows in the cabinets, and slightly thicker control wheels.
I started by cutting the big sheets down into the needed sizes, but before I used the saw, made some drawings to make sure I was using the wood as judiciously as possible.
Notice that I had to do some long division to get screw hole spacing right. Ultimately, getting fed up with the silliness of dividing 24 3/8 into four parts or whatever, I just measured distances in millimeters between the two endpoints and did the easy integer division to space out screws. There are limits.
I cut everything over length on the panel saw so that I could go back and do finishing cuts on the table saw, which is a more precise and much more controllable tool.
I also needed to cut circles, and for that, PJ from the museum taught me how to use a jig with a router (something I’d never done before). The basic idea is that the jig will allow the router to freely rotate around one point—so its motion will describe the circumference of a circle, and if it’s cutting as it goes, there’s your circle.
Router attached to jig, having started to cut a circle.
The router doesn’t want to cut through the whole thickness of the wood at once—it takes little bites, about 1/8” passes. Here’s what the edge of the cut looks like after probably 5 passes.
You can get some really nice scrap cutting a small circle out of a bigger one.
I ended up buying premade wheels of 1-1/8” laminated pine wood at Home Depot for my wheels—these were a bit thicker than the 3/4” material I was building the rest of the cabinets out of and felt more substantial. I painted the edges red, overpainting and then sanding off the excess to get a clean finish.
It ended up being quite easy to stand up the wheels to dry—I just put them on the shaft they’d eventually be living on, and I could spin them to access the whole face of them easily.
The surface mount bearings I was using needed a deep indentation to fit into, so I used a very large router bit that cut a triangular section to dig out the area needed, and drilled holes on the side on the drill press.
I cut more radius pieces to mount the curved polycarbonate window onto the vertical control station.
Screwing on the 1/8” polycarbonate one bit at a time, as it tried to stay straight, I worked from top to bottom of the curve. (The polycarbonate has its protective sheath on it still in this picture—I took it off right before final installation.)
Here’s a view of the horizontal control cabinet, without its lid and with the shaft not yet cut down to size.
Lots not pictured!
I was working a lot of hours and mostly by myself while doing this project, so I didn’t have the werewithal to step back and take pictures as much as perhaps I should have. Also there were plenty of processes that required both hands and complete concentration so that I’d still have both of those hands when I was done!
All in all, I probably spent in the neighborhood of 35–45 hours building these two cabinets, which is much, much longer than I would have guessed it would take. (This would’ve also been reduced if I hadn’t used three layers of polycrylic clear coating, each requiring drying and sanding before applying the next.)
The lesson was the same as always: doing it right takes way longer than I think. But I’m glad I put the time in, because the final construction serves its purpose and is, I think, built well enough to survive on the museum floor for a while. Time will tell!