Custom Photo Latch Toy

Elijah loves playing with anything that has a latch or a knob. We also want to teach him about his relatives. I decided to combine the two into a homemade toy.

I started with a piece of 1” thick, 12” wide common board. I cut two pieces about a foot long. Out of the top one, I cut out four holes that would match the pictures. I thought I’d use the scroll saw that Tim lent me, but I had to cut a pretty big hole to start the blade and I wasn’t very good with the scroll saw. I decided to go with a jig saw instead but that still required big holes in the corners to start the saw. It wasn’t ideal but it worked.

I laminated the photos (as you can see there are quite a few bubbles in the lamination which was another mistake) and then I glued the two boards together with the photos in between. I used the table saw to trim up the four sides of the glue together boards, routered the edges with a roundover bit and then sanded it all down. Everything got two coats of polyurethane and then I attached the hinges and latches. Voila!

As with just about every project I do, there are so many things I could do better the second time around, but Elijah loves it as it is.

Homemade Baby Gate Part 2

After the success of the first baby gate, it was time to start the second one. Construction was almost identical to the first except for two improvements. First, I cut all the frame pieces just a bit too long. After everything was glued together, I used the jigsaw to trim them flush and then sanded. That fixed a problem I had the first time where some of the boards ended up being ~1/8” too short after it was glued up and I had to do a lot of sanding to get things to sort of look right. The second process improvement was really sanding down the ends of the dowel rods so they sat freely in the holes. This made it easier to glue the whole thing together without getting lots of forces trying to twist the gate. Getting 17 rods to line up without that sanding work would have been nearly impossible.

I’m happy with the way this second gate turned out. We decided to mount this one flush with the carpet for added stability and to reduce the strain on the mounting points. It drags on the carpet when you open and close but I think it’s a net win. The only downside is that it looks slightly different from the first gate which was mounted off the ground but oh well.

I didn’t plan this, but when you open both gates, they come together PERFECTLY with about 1/4” between them. We could, in theory, add another latch and have the two doors connect together to wall off a smaller part of the room and leave the walkway free. I don’t think we’ll do that, at least at first, because it’s not very stable.

The final total for both gates was just over $100 which is about 50-70% of what we would have spent to buy pre-made gates. I like the look of these and it was a fun project so I’m happy we did it this way.

Homemade Baby Gate

Tyla and I have been thinking about building a “baby jail” for Elijah. The idea is that it’s a blocked off area with toys in it where there isn’t anything terribly awful for him to hurt himself. He can play in there safely while we turn our backs for a couple minutes here and there. Since our dining room isn’t in use, we decided to block off the two entries there and just use the whole room.

The doorway to the kitchen is a normal size and there are plenty of gate options for that in the $50-60 range. The other entry to that room is 7 feet long and there isn’t much available to fit that well. I did find a couple options that were about $120-140, but I didn’t love them. So instead of spending close to $200 on baby gates, I decided to build them myself!

I built the smaller one first. It’s pictured below. I based it loosely on this plan from diynetwork. The frame is made up of 1×4 mixed whitewood (super cheap) boards glued together to make a 2×4. Dowel rods are spaced to create no more than 4” gaps. By choosing my measurements carefully, I was able to not have much waste wood and this whole gate only cost $32 including the hinges and latch. I sanded the whole gate quite thoroughly with the random orbital sander that I picked up for my last project, and then I covered it all with two coats of oil-based polyurethane. Yes, that’s safe for kids to suck on once it cures.

I think the longer gate will cost about $70 when I’m done. It’s not a huge savings but we end up with something that exactly fits our needs and looks pretty good.

So I’m saving money right? Well… sort of. I quickly realized that drilling ~60 perfectly perpendicular 1/2” deep 7/8” diameter holes for the dowel rods was going to be a tedious task with a normal drill. So I bought a brand new drill press to help. Ha! In fairness, I tried to buy a couple used ones on Craigslist and failed. The drill press worked wonderfully and will come in handy for lots of future projects.

P.S. We did NOT choose the paint colors for that room! Once it’s done being a baby jail, it’s on my list of rooms to redo. I’m thinking that we’ll have wainscoting along the bottom and then choose a better color for the top. The previous owners had almost the whole house coated in a hundred shades of yellow.

Custom Closet Storage

We have a closet underneath our stairs that opens out into the kitchen and family room area. That’s where a lot of our cleaning supplies get stored along with extra trash bags, paper towels, etc. We’ve always wanted to have that be a little more organized so I embarked on a small project to build some shelves and cabinets.

I started by designing the project with Google Sketchup. I’m really liking that tool and hope to use it more. It’s a great way to visualize the design decisions and then also to take measurements of the various pieces that need to be cut. The entire project was built out of 1/2” MDF with a little bit of 1/4” MDF for some facing. I cut everything to size first and painted it before I assembled it. I’ve never painted/stained a project BEFORE putting all the pieces together but it sure made painting a lot easier. I’ll probably try that again, but I won’t do it for a project like this where everything needs to fit precisely into a pre-defined space. As I started installing it, I realized that the closet wasn’t square so I ended up with some goofy looking gaps and pieces that didn’t fit quite right. The pictures below show it loaded up with our supplies and honestly you can’t see most of the issues. I do need to cover up the screw holes around the door (this would have been a good use for a finish nailer) but that should be pretty quick.

I got to use some new tools in this project. The table saw was a huge help as I was able to make big, repeatable cuts very quickly. I don’t miss crawling around on the floor, clamping a straight edge onto the big sheet and then using the circular saw to make each cut. I also made good use of a self-leveling laser that I got for Christmas. It made it super easy to attach the closet support pieces to the wall and get everything at the same height.

All in all I’m happy with how quickly this project came together (7 days from first cut to final install). If I can’t learn to live with the gaps then I’ll either rebuild part of it or add some trim, but something tells me that probably won’t happen. I learned a lot from this project and will probably put the skills to use again in one of our upstairs storage closets.

Converting DC To AC

[UPDATE] A couple days after I declared success on this project, the village piece stopped lighting up even when I put batteries back in it. If any of you electrical wizards out there can tell me what I did wrong, I would love to know. Or maybe it’s just some crazy coincidence that both bulbs burned out at the same time mere days after I changed the power source. Occam’s Razor disagrees with that theory. I’ve left the post as it was originally written so you can debug it for me (and laugh at my feeling of success.)

Tyla always sets up our Thomas Kinkaide Christmas village as part of the decorations. Just about every piece has a plug so it all goes into a power strip which, this year, we can control with a remote. But there were two pieces that ran on batteries and thus had separate switches. This year I set out to convert them to use power from the wall just like the rest of the pieces.

The first piece I tried were the street lights. They took two batteries. I purchased an adjustable power adapter, set it to 3V, touched the wires to the right places and POOF. I blew out the lights. I still don’t know what happened because I had tried quite a few things before I realized the lights were broken, but I think I might have hooked up the power while the batteries were also inserted resulting in 6 volts to the lights. Oops. I immediately went online and purchased replacement streetlights. They’re from a different village set but look fine in our set. This new set was sold with a power adapter so I had no problems there.

The second village piece was a little skating rink. Now it should be noted that there’s only one place to buy pieces for this village set (The Bradford Exchange.) They’re extremely annoying to deal with. Anything you order takes at least a month to arrive, most pieces are limited editions, and you often have to sign up for a set of pieces that arrive installments just to get the one you want. The net effect is that if destroyed this village piece, there was pretty much no way to replace it. I was appropriately nervous given the broken streetlights staring at me from the trash can.

I measured the voltage of the adjustable wall wart and even though I had it set to 3V, it said 3.2V. For most projects, I would have just tried that to see if it worked, but I decided to learn something new and build a circuit to knock the voltage down to something more like 2.6 or 2.7V which is what two lightly used AAs would produce.

To that end, I purchased an LM317 adjustable voltage regular and dug out the rest of my electronics parts. After watching some YouTube videos and lots of trial and error, I ended up with a simple circuit that spit out 2.72V. Perfect!

The next task was to transfer this off the breadboard and solder the connections. I made everything nice and neat with shrink wrap and a small box to hold the voltage regular and it’s heat sink. (I added a heat sink after taking the picture above.) I used red and black wires to help me remember positive and negative voltage, but it dawned on me later that I should have used white so it was easier to hide under the fake snow. The wire was twisted using a trick I learned from Ben Heck: clamp down the wires on one end and stick the other ends in your power drill. Voila! I also added a plug near the village piece for easy setup, takedown and storage.

The last piece of the puzzle was connecting the wires to the terminals where the batteries would normally go. I could have soldered them on, but I was trying to modify the village piece as little as possible. So instead of anything permanent, I created wooden batteries! I cut 1/2” dowels, drilled pilot holes in each end, and attached screws. The first battery got the positive and negative leads from the plug attached to its ends. The second battery just has a wire running between the two ends to transfer the power. Now I have removable “batteries” and I suppose I could use this same setup to power other 3V battery devices.

It was pretty nerve-wracking the first time I tried it (after measuring the voltage a hundred times), but everything works! I was able to turn the wall wart down to 4.5V and still get 2.7V out of the voltage regulator. The heat sink is doing it’s job and the box has a very tiny bit of extra warmth but nothing anywhere near dangerous. Here’s what the finished product looks like with the light inside the cocoa stand and the large pine tree:

If we get any more battery powered pieces, I should be able to add a couple more leads off of this same voltage regulator, make some more wooden batteries, and be done pretty quickly.