One of my big goals since starting this crazy idea of having a CNC mill, was to support the Maker Faire Movement wherever I can. It has always been my goal to support girls in the STEM/STEAM areas.
If you aren’t familiar with the term, it stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Art (and Design!), and Math. I was a very fortunate little girl in that my parents almost exclusively bought learning toys for my sisters and me. Every building, making, learning or science toy under the sun available during the early to mid 90s could be found at our house. We had Tinker toys, Lincoln Logs, an Erector set, Capsela, MarbleWorks, Gearopolis, Legos, a cool circuit breadboard toy, and lil’ scientist experiments and working microscopes.
Because I feel lucky to have had such an upbringing, I want to help expose the next generation of girl do-ers to all kinds of tech. The Maker movement fits into that goal nicely. Cincinnati hosts a Mini Maker Faire. This year, I wanted to be part of it. It is free to be an exhibitor. The plan was to pack up my mill and do live demos and pass out samples of what a CNC machine can do. Currently the hot techs are 3D printers and to some extent laser cutters. CNC mills have been around significantly longer, and I wanted to help reintroduce all the makers out there to these machines.
I tasked my dad to work on the problem of how to get our rather large and heavy mill to Cincinnati’s Mini Maker Faire. Additionally he had to deal with the noise and the dust we’d make once we were up and running. For my task, I focused on the keychains we’d be making.
I had promised keychains to my Kickstarter backers. I had some idea of what I wanted to make, but nothing was set in stone yet. Because cutting all the way through the blank presented problems to us with our mill, I need a different idea. I liked the idea of having raised letters on a background with a border. As this was also ‘free advertising’ I wanted to incorporate my name or logo into the keychain somehow. I thought carving ‘Smallhouse Models’ on the back was tacky, and it would require a flip, so I needed something simplier. I’m pretty pleased with what I came up with. The little house at the end of our underline became the hole for the chain to go through.
Now that I had a design, we needed the blanks. We had cut a few from 2″ by 4″ pine scraps for our testing. It was already on hand and cheap and we had a fair amount of it. With those blanks I was able to come up with a good height, length, and width for the keychain. With a standard size, we could figure out a way of holding the blanks down in the mill during cutting. We needed a simple repeatable process. Additionally, we had to ensure every blank was in the exact same spot before cutting it out. We needed a jig, but we also needed it to be removable so Dad could prep the next one. Basically, we needed a jig for our jig. What we came up with, we called ‘boats’ because they fit into ‘docks’.
Next I started testing how to get a smooth cut that would not require any sanding. We weren’t going to take sandpaper or a palm sander with us. That would defeat the purpose of having the mill be an all in one key chain factory. I learned what kind of cut each bit can create, what happens when I cut the opposite direction, and how deep and how fast I can cut at a time. Each time I ran the job, I learned things and the keychains steadily improved.
The real idea was to cut out custom keychains with the viewer’s name on them while they watched. I made up a template for myself on my laptop so it would be easy to cut any name. All I had to do was drag their letters into my template and apply the toolpaths.
Now that I had a working toolpath file and a way to mass produce the keychains, we needed more blanks! Pine wood is very soft (makes for fuzzy cuts) and not very pretty, so I wanted a hardwood. I headed to my local Rockler store, and they happened to be having a sale on cherry turning blanks. I bought 10 for a dollar each and brought them home. Since, I had recently bought a planer, so the rough wood didn’t scare me at all.
Dad and I got to work cutting up each one into long thin strips. The table saw is Dad’s and honestly it scares me a little so I always let him run it. He wasn’t too thrilled with how thin I needed them cut. With a bit of brainstorming and the help of push sticks, we didn’t lose any fingers in the process.
After we finished cutting the strips to size, we sent them through the planer. We continued sending them through until the rough edges were gone and they were all the right height. Can you believe those gorgeous cherry strips were hiding inside that ugly rough log?
Each log provided 8 of these little strips, which we then cut into thirds for the keychains. 10 logs x 8 strips x 3 blanks per = ~240 keychains.
We cut some of the strips in half to accommodate longer names, and we cut others into fourths so as to not waste wood on short names. It averaged out to be around 240 blanks. Now we were ready for Cincinnati’s Mini Maker Faire!
Finally at the Maker Faire
Getting to the show and all set up was rather uneventful. The Cincinnati Museum Center is a fantastic facility with an awesome loading dock and very few transition bumps. My mill is on a heavy metal table with casters, so being able to roll the mill from the parking lot to my booth was a huge plus.
While Friday setup was easy, everything went wrong on Saturday. We broke all of our bits within the first few hours. Without bits, we couldn’t run the mill the rest of the day. We hadn’t had time to do proper testing in the significantly harder cherry wood. I had not thought to adjust the toolpaths to accommodate for that, and the bits just couldn’t handle it. With the mill down, I quickly rearranged the set up of my booth. I highlighted the dollhouse pieces I had previously cut out and brought with to show off our capabilities. I encouraged kids play with the keychain blanks like Jenga.
It ended up being a very long and stressful day, but we got through it. When things were slow I was madly trying to create new toolpaths. Dad had brought along thicker bits ‘just in case’. Toward the end of the day, two special little Makers came by, and I didn’t want them leave empty handed. With the thicker bit, we were able to cut out really rough looking keychains, which they loved all the same.
I spent the entire evening in the hotel room reworking the toolpath to accommodate the thicker bit. We went with the idea of cutting a standard keychain for everyone. I had to sacrifice the border around my keychain. I was able to keep the house logo and raised ‘Maker’. We got to the show an hour or two before opening. We set up, tested out the new toolpath, and rearranged the booth.
With only cutting out one word, I didn’t need the longer and shorter blanks. Taking inspiration from the kids yesterday, I turned that into a real building station. I used the square to prop up a clip board. I thought that it might make a good easel before we left home, so I brought it and graph paper. On it, I drew up a simple orthographic sketch of a house and posed a question kids, “What Can YOU Build?”. I spent a few minutes building a little house with a slanted roof. (I’m quite proud of that slanted roof. It was unsupported in the front and was still stable.)
We spent the whole morning cutting keychains. A few hours into the show, we couldn’t keep them on the table. They were a hit! Dad kept track of how many keychains he cut and we think we ended up doing 80 that day.
I also set out my furniture and put the cutting preview program on my laptop to demo. I also had a fish bowl for donations. That let people know the keychains were for them. Even though we only were running for one day, we did a good job recouping our costs through the donations. The other big hit for the day ended up being the doll chairs that I hadn’t yet glued together. I let kids try to assemble them. A few younger kids broke some of the pieces, but a few of the more dexterous nine year olds were able to get the chairs together after I showed them the trick.
All during Maker Faire I’d been visited by kids doing a scavenger hunt. I quickly discovered I was the answer to question number 9. “Find a woman who works with tech and find out what she uses it for.” Or something like that. It had something to do with being a female in a male tech space, but it was worded kid friendly. One really shy girl came up to me with her paper by the time I had figured this all out. I helped her along with asking me that question. It felt good to be a role model to all these little girls.
At the end of the day a troop of Girl Scouts came to my booth. I explained to them what Industrial Design is. I also talked about what I was doing with my doll furniture, and how my mill cuts the keychains. They stuck around for us to cut out a few last keychains for them and then the show was over. We packed up carefully and slowly and we were one of the last out of the show. A short three hour drive and we were back home.
While we had some serious issues on Saturday, I believe that our Maker Faire was a success. We had a lot of fun. I actually ended up running out of business cards. I had to tape the last one down and make a sign requesting that people take a photo of it. All in all, great time. My only real regret was that I didn’t have any time to see the rest of the Maker Faire myself. I stole a few minutes here and there to do speed runs one room at a time. I never made it outside where some of the bigger interesting things were happening. If you have the opportunity to attend a local Maker Faire, I HIGHLY recommend that you go. You will have a blast!
Edit: We are now selling the last of these keychains on our Etsy shop. They say “I <3 MINIS”. Grab one while they last!