Friday, December 29, 2017

Adding Some Dark Yin Yang to my Jewelry

I'm about to put some serious yin yang into a jewelry project. For years, I've put lights into jewelry, now it's time to put some darkness into the mix. Say what... ???

Well, not darkness exactly. But I can now block light on command thanks to new "light valves" from Adafruit. These light valves are thin glass sheets that can be darkened on command with a standard Arduino... think LCD screen or welding helmet, except the whole sheet darkens.

Why would I want to darken something, especially jewelry? I've put bright colorful LEDs onto every hat, scarf, shoe and bracelet I could find to make them sparkly. Why would I suddenly want to block light? It took me a while to find a problem for this solution, but I think I've found an interesting use case. What if you are working with objects that already have a beautiful quality of light?

Adding a dark background (upper half) completely changes to look of this piece of fused glass. The glass is so beautiful on its own that it doesn't need and LEDs in it. But changing how much light gets through the glass can affect the look of the entire piece. Imagine the background fluttering or pulsing between dark and light.  

A maker-friend creates lovely fused glass jewelry. The glass does amazing, wonderful things with light. It bends it and scatters it and refracts it. I've put lights behind these pieces of glass to great effect. But some of the pieces, especially the clear or nearly transparent pieces didn't work as well as I had hoped.

Translucent or heavily tinted glass diffuses the LEDs and creates a wonderful glow. But the nearly transparent glass always looked like I had just stuck some LEDs behind it, there was no magic or artistry. They looked cheap and tacky, a sad disservice to the beautiful glass work.

And the transparent glass really changes depending on the light that hits it, Some pieces look dark and nearly opaque in dim light, then turn crystalline and bright in sunlight. On a light background they look one way, on a dark background they look completely different.

What if I cold control the background, change it from dark to light, flicker it, fade it and pulse it? Well now I have a way to do that thanks to these new "light valves" from Adafruit. It's not as dramatic as an LED, but that subtlety is precisely the point. I've been developing ways to tone down LEDs for a long time, trying to make something a little less Vegas and more LBD evening gown-ish. Maybe the solution is to control the lighting effects from the opposite end of the scale instead. 

I just started this experiment, but I like some of the effects I'm getting so I'll post some of my successes and failures as I go akong (plus more about the light valves).

Stay tuned for updates.

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Tuesday, December 26, 2017

A Few Lines about Linemen for Christmas

Twas the morning of Christmas, snuggled deep in my warm westernized house, the fans and the heaters drowning out any mouse. Four o'clock in the morning, the hour barely wee, when I woke up early and not even to pee. Something was wrong, but I didn't know what. My nose was cold and my feet they weren't hot. I fell out of bed, being careful not to slip, to the nearest wall I did stumble, to the switch I always flip.

What to my wondering eye did appear, nothing, nothing at all light was emitted, the darkness did not flatten, the room stayed too silent and my mood it did sadden, Now I knew for sure there was something the matter, but no worries, for from far down the road there arose a real clatter. With big bright lights and many a beep beep beep, three trucks came a calling. When I looked out the window the snow it was falling. Outside at night, in coats that should've been thicker, several brave souls were already raising a tall steel cherry picker.

Santa's sleigh doesn't always look like we think it should. I got a humbling reminder of how much I have to be thankful for early this Christmas morning

Each morning caffeine I go seeking, so five minutes in and I was already freaking. While I a soft maker was missing his Peets, hardy folks outside worked their way down a cold winter street. Fifteen minutes later my mind was adrift, worrying about my day's plans, not the poor humans high up in their lift.

I couldn't PM and I couldn't send greetings, and if this went on I might not be eating. I stepped outside the better to see, not so much to help, but more like a big silent plea. With temps less than twenty and gusts up to fiddy, I watched as they tested each transformer in a safe slow motion jiffy. Each time I went outside I stayed a few seconds, and quickly got so cold I began to consider them legends.

As the hours stretched from two into three, the power came back on and the spoiled man inside was once again free. I went back indoors as they drove out of sight, knowing full well that I can code up a storm but I can't bring the light. As I gave out this year's precious handcrafted gifts, made with a big AC Dremel and my hands all a tremble, I remembered that all my nifty skills could fit in a thimble. When I hit a tough problem I too often sigh, while those folks on the line fix real problems so that people don't die

I think my whole block, but especially me, hope all in bright yellow got to spend time with their loving families. I'm about out of time and I'm losing the rhyme, but if you see such a group cold later today, wearing really thick mittens with their cheeks all frost bitten, please oh please just remember to say... THANK YOU !!!.

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Sunday, December 17, 2017

New Side Light NeoPixels make Complex Effects Easier

Adafruit just released a new "Side Light" style of NeoPixels with the LEDs perpendicular to the ribbon instead of parallel. This might seem like a simple thing to some folks. But for anyone who has tried to illuminate a circular or tubular object with a wash or raking style of light, this is amazing stuff.

Oh so simple, but so very helpful. Adafruit now has a 90 degree side light version of their Neopixels.

Until now, the LED strips always projected light away from the curved surface. The light went toward the viewer, not along the surface of the curve. So for the most part, we were limited to having bright strips of light shining at the viewer but not on the object. Now, it's going to be so much simpler to gently illuminate the surface of an object without blinding the viewer or requiring additional, often complicated reflectors to disperse the light.

We can finally throw a wash along a curved surface (LEDs at bottom) instead of projecting all the light out into space (top). 

In fact, these new strips negate years of my work (slight exaggeration) where I created reflectors and deflectors to control the light and bend it to go opposite the curve of the LED ribbon. And I'm not the only one, lots of makers have come up with their own solutions. After all, that's what makers do - we create solutions and have a lot of fun doing it. But I think we all knew there was a better way, we just never got around to creating it.

With cosplay and illuminated, glowing fashion becoming trendy and popular it was only a matter of time before someone came out with a manufactured solution. Adafruit popularized the addressable LED and made it simple enough to use that regular people could create with it. They named it NeoPixel and the world was never the same

Luckily for us, Adafruit is now working closely with Erin St Blaine, a professional costumer and performer. According to Lady Ada, the new Side Light style was initiated by St Blaine. While we amateurs tinkered and fussed to overcome the limitations of the basic NeoPixels, St Blaine spoke up for us and let the company know that she and other pros needed a simpler pre-made solution. And Adafruit responded. We amateurs also reap the benefits, yay us.

Right now, there are only a few configurations available in the side lit style, but if there is a good response I'm guessing Adafruit will expand the line. So come on folks, grab yourself a few of these strips and make something cool so we all get more options to choose from.

My project list for these new lights include:
  • Hat with the with a side-lit crown taper
  • Hat with a down light brim
  • Bracelet that throws patterned light on the arm
  • Skirt with a true down light
  • Cropped sweater with a real down light
Did you notice that all of these projects involve the human body as the subject of illumination? Well that's because the human body is basically a series of vertical tubes, Until now. we could wrap lights around the body so that the illumination projected AWAY from the surface of the body - basically creating a brightly outlined stick figure. But it was very difficult to illuminate the surfaces of the body without a lot of tricky workarounds. The always lights pointed away simply because that's how they were made.

I tried to work with illuminated clothes a few times with very limited and mixed success. After a lot of work and tears and carefully sewing in reflectors, the clothes still looked like they belonged on a Vegas stage. I had grand visions of creating decorative reflectors that looked like attractive and intentional embellishments, but only succeeded in making awkward boxes that looked like they were tacked on to hide the LEDs.

I love creating diffusers and reflectors for NeoPixels. ten hours of measuring, designing, printing and installing later and you've got yourself a nice project. But hey, now you can do a lot of the same thing just by using the appropriate strip of NeoPixels.

I, like so many others, defaulted back to EL-wire for light-up fashion. It's a lot less complicated, but much more limited than LEDs.

That's why I decided to stick to jewelry where it was easier to hide reflectors and such.  So I'm excited to re-try some of these failed fashion projects.

Other people seem really excited about making light-up signs and displays. It will certainly make that easier too. I'm also eager to try out mixing the two configurations to create a wall wash of one color with a center strip of another color.

This is a face-palm simple upgrade that just required a large enough community plus a dedicated creator to speak-up to a responsive company. Now we all have a fantastic new set of lighting tools to use. I can't wait to see what everyone comes up with,

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Monday, December 11, 2017

New Line of Steampunk Jewelry and Accessories

I am trying to create a new feel for my line of Steampunk jewelry and accessories. Commercial Fashion has finally caught up with me and I need to up my game to come up with a new aesthetic - something that really catches the eye and stands out from the crowd - but doesn't frighten the average customer.

Anyone that has been involved with Steampunk for a while probably knows my pain. We scavenged parts and cleaned gears and old lace, then combined them into odd collections that were too new for anyone but the hard-core geeks to be seen wearing. We created an aesthetic and a standardized compositional vocabulary, then watched as it slowly caught on to the point that normal people would wear them.

Yes, there are plenty of pre-made craft store items in these pieces. But they also use old PCBs, computer memory as well as real gears and hardware from old machines. I didn't copy anyone or steal a design to meet market expectations. But a few still sold so I'm doubly happy to be experimenting again and still have people like them enough to wear them. It's a good start.

Eventually, you could find clean, pre-made gears and bits from a regular crafts store. And it was awesome, so much easier just to assemble without needing power tools and a soldering gun to take apart old machines. And the sales soared - suddenly everyone wanted a piece of Steampunk in their jewelry boxes.

Fast forward a few more years and you can now buy pre-assembled clusters of steamy goodness for cheaper than you can buy the individual parts. Now, we take apart these massive collections to re-assemble them into something unique enough that it can't be found on the Tim Hotz aisle of the craft store.

But somehow, that doesn't feel right to me. I'm buying a fake Chinese gear meant to evoke an antique European history for American mall shoppers who have never read Steampunk and know nothing of its history or the socio-political underpinnings of the genre. It's just something else to consume.

I'm not saying I will never use Vintaj or Holtz items again (they are just way too convenient) but I do want to start using something a little more authentic, something that was actually used for another purpose before being turned into jewelry.

This is a sample of what I came up with. It's representative of the items I slammed together at the last minute before a recent craft show. I just couldn't create anything that distinguished itself from any other vendor. All my stuff looked like everybody else's stuff and I was getting frustrated. So I forced the issue and made these, um, things - let's call them accessories.

They are different and I was happy about them being different. But I was also afraid, because I remember the early days and waiting for another experimental soul to wander by the booth and choose to be adventurous with their hard earned cash. new is good, really new is bad - at least for sales.

I did sell a few pieces, more than I expected to be honest. Others didn't sell and, at the moment, I've decided to push them even further into the unknown (think working electronic displays). I'll post more about the pieces that sold and how they were created. And I will also post any successes as I continue working on the unsold items.

And you know what, it felt pretty good to once again be selling something experimental and somewhat challenging. Meeting the market demand for an acceptable product certainly has its place (the wallet) but if I'm going to call myself a creator then I need to keep pushing the boundaries a little or risk withering away into the chasm of simple retail.  Of course a couple of sales makes it easier to think that way too.

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Friday, December 8, 2017

Fancy Filigree Rings a Definite NoGo

Made these delicate filigree finger rings thinking they would sell quickly. Customers always ask for rings, and with Game of Thrones and Steampunk being all the rage they should be very popular right? Wrong!!! Not a single one sold, and they barely got a look.

I like these rings, though. They are both subtle and expressive and they could work with a lot of different looks. They range from "finger-length" to a tiny single gear - something for every need. I wasn't totally sure if there was a local market for this style so I only made a few. I didn't expect to sell them all at one show, but I was a little shocked that not a single one sold... crickets

The rings ranged in size from a full finger=length to a tiny one with a single gear.

There are a lot of customers who want a simple, inexpensive gift that isn't a cliché trinket. I wanted to offer something inexpensive, and these rings are simple to make, so I could offer them at a very low price. They were (I thought) perfect for "small gift for a friend" add-ons, bundles and kids who have a limited budget. Just a little something to complete a package or the equivalent of an impulse buy. Apparently, I completely misjudged the market, but I'll give it another try or two before I abandon them. I might even add items to the line.

Before the show, people told me they liked the rings. But they were seeing them in isolation with nothing else competing for attention. The only ring I sold was a huge ring the size of a mini-donut, one I really expected to have a limited audience.

And every other sale was also huge and unusual - all my personal work. And I sold nothing that I made specifically to sell to the anticipated audience (commercial). Either I totally misjudged the audience for this show, or my personal work is beginning to find a market. Whichever it was, it got me to thinking...

There are several other possible reasons the small rings didn't sell. They could have been in the wrong place on the table. Maybe people didn't realize they were a third of the price of the other pieces. The rings might have been too delicate and small to compete visually with the other jewelry, all of which are bold and big and bright. It would be easy for people to overlook a few small items scattered amongst a huge wall of bold statement pieces

So I'm thinking I need to make enough of these small items to create an entire section for them. Maybe a separate case so that the entire collection is big enough to grab peoples attention and get them to shift the "scale" of their thinking.

I don't have any more shows scheduled until Spring, but the theme for the next show is Fantasy and Fairies,,, so these delicate rings, being fit for a princess, might be popular at that show. Fingers crossed and I'll keep you updated.

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Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Flexible OLED Display for Hobby Electronics

Finally, a flexible and bendable OLED graphic display is available for the hobby electronics market.

Sparkfun just released  a 1.81" grayscale display that can be bent to a 40mm radius. It is a 160x32 4-bit grayscale display and comes with an attached SPI driver board. It's probably not meant for constant bending and flexing. But the ability to wrap around a changing picture around a curved surface opens up all kinds of possibilities.

Image courtesy of under the Creative Commons CC BY 2.0
Imagine the possibilities:
  • Hats with a changing logo, or showing "First Down" or displying the final score as you walk out of the stadium.
  • Bracelets with a scrolling images or the names of your children or declarations of love.
  • Shoes that show your current step count 
  • Just being shaped and non-flat makes the display eye-catching. Put one up at your next crafts fair or over your POS impulse purchase area.

  • Combine two or more for larger shapes.

Now that you're all excited about them, I have some bad news.

Sparkfun sold out almost immediately, and they currently have no estimated date of restocking. But if they found a source once, then they (or another vendor) will probably find  a source for it or a similar product. I'm considering it the first hint of things to come.

Second, even if you can get one of the screens, you are going to need a pretty powerful processor with lots of available memory to drive the display - especially if you want to do images or anything more complex.

Luckily, Arduino, Sparkfun and Adafruit all have small and very powerful M0 boards, and Adafruit is even working on an M4 version. I don't know about showing movies, but images and even simple games are probably possible.

So bookmark this new screen and keep an eye out for other versions from different vendors. Meanwhile, I'm going to be busy design a gaming bracelet custom made for a curved screen,

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Monday, November 27, 2017

SteamPunk Pendant with Round PCB

Made another Steampunk pendant necklace using upcycled parts scavenged from broken items around the house. This one uses a repurposed PCB. That's not very unusual in my projects, but this PCB is round with a hole in the center, which is very unusual.

The round PCB had a pretty green color, and I added some broken bling to it along with some scavenged bits from old jewelry and a faux gear from the craft store just to validate the Steampunk theme/ When it's all put together I think it works as a pendant quite well.

I don't remember where the board came from, maybe an old mouse or an old radio knob assembly. But I do remember having it sitting in the collection and taunting me for a long time until I finally decided to use it whether the project turned out nice or not.

See, I have a hard time using unusual parts because I'm always afraid I will fail and waste the one unique chance to ever use such a part. If it's a common, standard part then I'll take chances and use it quickly because I can always get another chance with another copy. But this is the first round PCB I had ever found and I waited and waited and waited.

Then inspiration struck, and after a year or more of hesitation, the entire piece came together in a matter of minutes - and I like it. I even found a way to decorate the back side so that it's at least not ugly or distracting if it spins around while being worn..

I even decorated the back of the pendant because necklaces tend to flip around when they are being worn. The back of the PCB was a dull brown, so I covered it with a large fake gear for the steampunk look and even added an oh-so-popular wing to complete the composition. It's not pretty enough for the featured front, but I think it's good enough for the hidden back.

But I waited a while to post it. I wanted to see if I still liked the final product after a few days, or maybe I was just so relieved to be rid of the teasing piece of electronic scrap that I had convinced myself it was attractive.

Well, it's been a few days and I still kind of like it so I decided to post it.

Unfortunately, in the same burst of creation, I also made a really ugly project from a unique part. I kept adding pieces and colors and sparkly things to that project hoping it would "come together" as a composition - and it remained ugly with every added part - at least to me.

I'll also give this failed project a few days and see if it grows on me. Or maybe I will decide that some people might actually like the large clunky thing. Or, I might just keep adding things to it until I can pretend that I had always intended for it to be one of those monstrous accretions you sometimes see in vintage stores.

Meanwhile. I'm working on another project that seems to be holding together as I add the parts. If I don't blow it, I might have a completely different style of PCB jewelry to share in a few days.

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Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Light-up Cosplay Boots may be happening

Both my hiking-boots and my work-boots completely wore out this summer. Cracked soles, popped rivets and split seams now make them useless for their intended tasks. However, their well-worn look gives them a lot of character and makes them good candidates for some sci-fi cosplay modifications.

I think it's time to revisit light-up shoe projects. Slap some LEDs or some EL-wire on those suckers and call the space-bound. I've already done lighting projects with tennis shoes and with high heels. But this time, it's going to be a little more industrial looking.

I might just add some glowing EL-wire panels to the boots and call it done,

I might keep it simple and just use some simple EL-wire or maybe some EL-panels. That's certainly easy to do. But of curse I have grand ideas about controllable light shows like in the summer blockbuster movies. I have some spare microcontrollers and extra LEDs in the shop that are taunting me from their dusty shelf.

And new products like the sensor laden Circuit Playground and the Bluetooth or LORA Feather boards suddenly make real interactive and controllable light shows possible for a reasonable price. My previous projects were limited to a few pre-set, repetitive light sequences and simple pressure-switches.

I haven't done any real designs yet, not even a single sketch - so I don't have anything to show you for now. However, I've done acceleration projects and sound based projects with the Playground, and my Bluetooth skills are coming along nicely. If I combine these with my old Neopixel controller code I might have a good start on some off-world footwear.

I still needed to refresh my memory on how these things are done - so I went back and re-found some of my favorite inspirational projects and tutorials. This time I decided to take notes and make an easy to use collection of helpful links and I thought I would share them here..

Most of the tutorials and guides I knew of all revolve around either sneakers or high heels. You know, normal everyday footwear - not the stuff of exo-planet explorers. But it's all I could find, so here's a list of my favorites to get you started:.

Sneakers and Tennis-shoes


Above and Beyond

Right now, I'm thinking some rack-mount headlights, some basic running lights and some sound reactive and acceleration reactive lights. Since these are boots, I can add some clunky control panels without destroying the lines of the shoe - big and clunky work well with boots.

If you have any ideas, images or tips to share for cosplay boots, please send them my way. I'll try to post up some progress pics soon.

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Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Connecting App Inventor and Bluetooth Low Energy

Finally found a great tutorial on using Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) with MIT's App Inventor for Android. The guide is well written with lots of details on the connection process. This isn't surprising since (I think) the author is one of the people who created the BLE extension for App Inventor.

Check out the tutorial at

I've been using App Inventor with Bluetooth classic for a while now and am comfortable shipping data to and from several versions of Bluetooth modules. But the new BLE extension for App Inventor looked like it was a lot more complex to use, so I had avoided it until now. I still don't understand what all the extension's functions do, but the tutorial allowed me to get connected and communicating in just a few minutes.

Got a basic interface created and it's talking to the Feather board well enough to control color, speed and direction

The tutorial uses Adafruit's BLE Feather. The Feather line of boards is one of my favorite IOT platforms. It's a small but powerful Arduino compatible board, and there is a wide range of add-on shields for it. There are shields for controlling motors, LEDs, graphic displays etc. Adafruit also has BLE breakouts for adding to other boards.

And they already have free apps for both Android and  iOS for communicating with the BLE version of the Feather board. The apps are powerful and easy to use, but I wanted to create some custom functionality.My first project is to create an interface to give me more control over the Feather NeoPixel shield. This will come as no surprise to most of you - I always start learning new platforms with NeoPixels.

I'm not ready to talk much about the project yet. It's functioning and stable, but it's awkward to use. It's also a lot more complex than most of my Android projects, so I'm forced to get back into the whole UI/UX thing for the first time in years. Giving all those cues to the user is taking up a lot of my coding time, maybe more than the basic functionality.

In fact, I will probably have to break down the (soon to be released) tutorial into multiple steps - connecting, tracking settings, packaging data and UI manipulation - for both the Android side and Arduino side of things.

I'm telling myself all this work is worth it because I will finally have a full stack of parts that will allow me to create both household and wearable items that can be controlled over a phone by a non-techie. Stay tuned...

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Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Blue Oogoo with Chalk Pastels

Just published a new Instructable on making colored Oogoo.

What's Oogoo? Only the most fun DIY gooey semi-science project since green slime. Even better, it's useful for patching, connecting and covering just about anything. In the tutorial, I show folks how to use chalk pastels to add colors and even paint with Oogoo.

The basic idea is simple, something I learned in art school years ago. But I had never seen it used with Oogoo before,

Simply scrape off some fine powder from the edge of a stick of chalk pastel, then mix the powder to create custom colors. You can sprinkle or brush the powder onto wet acrylic paint or even polyclay.

The cool thing about Oogoo is that the pigments get embedded into the material. And if you do it correctly, they are permanent and durable.

Making colored Oogoo is simple. Just mix some cornstarch with 100% pure silicone caulking and some powdered pigments fro0m chalk pastels.

Use a stencil or embossing form and brush some pigment onto the surface, then work it in.

You can mix the pigments before or after you add them to the silicone and cornstarch

You can make colors that almost perfectly match the premade versions.

Now you can wrap tools or handlebars with durable but colorful silicone. Or make cute characters - or jewelry - or home décor. It's just silicone rubber and pigment - you can shape it into anything you want to and have fun doing it.

The tutorial has all the detailed information you need to start making your own.

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Thursday, July 20, 2017

Mecha-style stand for Bose speaker Challenge

Just got accepted for the Bose Speaker Challenge over on Instructables.

The project was designed and rendered in Fusion 360. The challenge was to design two panels (on opposing sides) for Bose's Educational Speaker Kit for students

As  you can see, I decided to go with a Mecha look.

The kit comes with translucent panels. And the back panel has LEDs that can be controlled via a phone app. I tried to get the render to show the glowing effect. It worked somewhat, but I still need to learn a lot about rendering emissive and translucent materials.

The lonely speaker-mecha wanders the desert looking for student interaction.

I wanted a design that would appeal to young kids. The Bose Build Speaker Cube kit is designed to teach about sound, electromagnetism, programming and assembly. That sounded like it's for younger students, so I also wanted to make sure it was very sturdy and very stable. I designed a very wide base and made all the parts super thick. It should hold up to classroom use for several years.

I also wanted to make sure teachers could print it easily, so I made it a single piece per side. Each side can be printed flat with a minimum of supports. The shapes should print easily without anyone having to tweak the printer settings. Teachers have plenty to do besides getting a delicate design to print correctly on the school printer. And students should get an easy success on their first try.

I tried to balance the level of detail with an engaging look. There are a lot of strong basic shapes, but not much surface detail. The strong visual massing and classic mecha shapes should trick the eye into thinking there is more detail than is really there.

The mighty mecha is at rest now, but could suddenly stand up and walk away in a cloud of dust and wall of sound.

Hopefully, the wide base will make it stable for kids to play with. The speaker weighs close to two pounds, so I wanted to make sure it didn't get top-heavy and topple over.

I learned a lot in this design project. Even though I know the basics of Fusion 360 I found myself getting bogged down in the sheer number of objects. I might have made a mistake keeping every object separate until the last minute. That made the object list cumbersome to navigate. But I learned to manage them on-the-fly from the design canvas much better than before.

And keeping them all apart till the final build also gave me a lot more freedom to make design decisions all along the process. Of course that freedom (power?) also meant I could get distracted making (too many?) minor changes for hours at a time.

I'm waiting to see what kids and teachers think of it, but overall, I'm happy with the result - both from a CAD standpoint and as a usable design for young students.

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