Home » DIY » Page 2


Homemade toy train track

For some reason, a lot of people are interested in making their own Lionel train track. I don’t think it’s practical, but it’s definitely possible.

I found a 1944 Popular Mechanics article on making your own DIY Lionel train track. During World War II, toy production all but stopped, so short of buying from stores like Madison Hardware that sold old stock, making your own was all you could do. Even Madison Hardware had to resort to creativity, building a machine to straighten curved track sections to make straights so they would have straight track to sell.

The article used scrap tin salvaged from cans, wire salvaged from a coat hanger, and a homemade jig made of flat steel bar and wood. It was possible to make both straight and curved sections, although the article didn’t elaborate a lot on making curves.

I don’t think it’s practical, at least not today, when clean used O27 or O31 tubular track sells for $1 or less per section and most dealers take in used track faster than they can resell it. The jig will cost more to make than a circle of track costs, and then there’s the trouble of locating suitable metal sheet to use, which is likely to cost more than the track as well. Then there’s the time involved with cutting the metal, forming the rails, and assembling the track. It’s something to do because you really want homemade train track, not to save money.

But I do think the article is interesting from a historical perspective. If you found some track in a stash of 1940s trains that appears to have been homemade, there’s a pretty good chance the person who made it found the instructions in Popular Mechanics. And there’s a pretty good chance whoever made it didn’t have any other source for track at the time.

The rise and fall of Shack, and how to fix it

Wired has a nostalgic piece on the not-quite-late, not-quite-great Radio Shack. I think it’s a good article, but it glosses over part of the reason for the store’s decline.

It blames computers.But blaming computers ignores Tandy’s long and successful run in that industry. Most Apple fanatics and other revisionist historians conveniently overlook this, but when Apple launched the Apple II in 1977, Tandy and Commodore were right there with competing offerings. I don’t know about Apple, but Tandy and Commodore were selling their machines faster than they could make them.

Read More »The rise and fall of Shack, and how to fix it

And… bailing out.

Scratch one investment property.

Running the numbers, it might have still been possible to make it work. But a lot would have to go right, and this particular property didn’t have an especially good track record.We had a plumber come out and look over the biggest problem. He came back with a best case scenario of $5,000. He called this morning with what he thought was a more realistic figure: an eye-popping 15 grand.

Well, there’s a problem. The property easily needs another 15 grand worth of work. And most of it isn’t stuff that a do-it-yourselfer ought to be doing. It was overzealous DIY work that got the house in this mess in the first place.

According to the books we’re reading, we could afford to put $33,000 worth of work into the house, based on what it should rent for. But it’s easy to see how one project going over budget could blow the whole thing out of the water.

And, frankly, doing that much work would cause more debt than I’m comfortable carrying.

We’ll lose some earnest money. But the risks are starting to outweigh the benefits.

We’ve learned some expensive lessons. But at least we’ve learned. We’ve gone and looked at a couple of other houses already. And we noticed things we hadn’t noticed before.

Not only that, in one case we liked what we saw. The question is, how many other people have seen it and liked it too?

DIY paper CD cases

I have no idea why I never found this sooner: papercdcase.com.

Type in an artist and album name (or publisher and software name) and a track list, and this thing generates a PDF that you can print and fold into a paper case/envelope, complete with spine.I printed a couple at work for discs I use frequently. I think it would take about 10 to really master the folding technique.

This is much cheaper than buying plastic jewel cases, the result is more useful, and you’d still have to print and cut out inserts to put in that jewel to make it useful anyway.

I’ve made these myself manually, but it’s much easier to just type the information into a web form and have a computer do the formatting for me.

Make something! Fix something!

Clive Thompson: I’m sitting on the floor of my apartment, surrounded by electronic parts… It’ll look awesome when it’s done. If it ever gets done — I keep botching the soldering. A well-soldered joint is supposed to look like a small, shiny volcano. My attempts look like mashed insects, and they crack when I try to assemble the device.

Why am I so inept? I used to do projects like this all the time when I was a kid. But in high school, I was carefully diverted from shop class when the administration decided I was college-bound. I stopped working with my hands and have barely touched a tool since.

I can relate a little too well.I think part of the reason I was misunderstood for so much of my career was because I used to do stuff like this. I still remember the day when a new OS arrived for my Amiga 2000. It came on a ROM chip (remember those?) and some floppies to install. I had the Amiga completely disassembled, sitting on Dad’s orange OMT table in the basement. Dad came downstairs, his eyes got big and his jaw dropped, he pointed, and then looked at me. “You going to be able to get that back together?”

I barely looked up. “Yep,” I said, continuing whatever I was doing.

Granted, the Amiga’s design made it look like an onerous task–you had to remove the power supply, the assembly that held all the disk drives, and at least one plug-in card to get at the ROM chip I needed to replace. But at this point, I’d disassembled at least a couple of PC/XTs even further than that. It wasn’t long before I’d replaced all those parts that were strewn about Dad’s table and fitted them back into the case, just as they all belonged. I powered it up, and immediately knew I was successful–all those royal blue screens of Amiga DOS 1.3 were replaced with the gray screens of 2.1.

Dad watched me put it back together, and although he didn’t say much, I think he was impressed.

That wasn’t the only modification I did to that computer. Amigas operated a bit differently in Europe and in North America because of the differing video standards. Software designed for European Amigas didn’t always run right. There was a soldered jumper on the motherboard to switch between PAL and NTSC operation. I bought a small slide switch from Radio Shack, soldered a couple of wires to the motherboard, and ran them to the switch, which I hung out an opening next to the mouse port. Elegant? Not at all. Functional? Totally.

There were tons of homebrew projects for Amigas in the early 1990s. Some worked better than others. But you learned a lot from them. And I think that’s part of the reason I look at things differently than people who grew up with Macintoshes (a closed black box if there ever was one) and PCs. Sure, people have been assembling their own PCs from components for 20 years now (ever since PC Magazine declared on a cover that you could build your own PC/AT clone for $1,000). But there’s a subtle difference between assembling components and modifying them. No two 286 motherboards were the same, while the design of Amiga motherboards tended to change very little, giving lots of time for people to study and learn to tweak them.

So while the PC owners were swapping their motherboards, we Amigans were tweaking ours to give ourselves new capabilities on the cheap. And in the process I think we were learning more.

So I agree with Clive Thompson that I’m a lot less likely to take a salesperson’s claims at face value. And I think that gave me a lot less patience with people who are. With only one exception I can think of, I always worked well with (and for) people who’d taken a soldering gun directly to a motherboard or programmed in assembly language. Thanks to these rites of passage, we had a much better idea of how things worked. And it gave a certain sense of skepticism. Commodore’s own engineers didn’t know the full capability of the machines they built. So if the engineers who design a system can’t know everything about it, then what on earth can a mere sales drone know?

And that’s why I’m reluctant to buy anything that’s just a black box if I can avoid it. What if it breaks and needs to be fixed? What if I need to change something about how it looks or works? And besides that, if it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do, I don’t want to just throw it out and buy a new one–I paid good money for it!

But I have my limits. A few years ago I checked out some books on repairing Lionel trains from the library. The books suggested using mineral spirits to clean out the old grease and oil from a motor and bring it back to life. That would be good advice, except for one thing: I had no idea what mineral spirits were (a kind of paint thinner), or where to buy them (a paint store or the paint aisle of a hardware or discount store). And have you ever tried to punch it into Google? Trust me, in 2003, there weren’t many answers. The Wikipedia article didn’t exist until 2005.

I’m sure there are lots of people who are laughing at me because I didn’t know what mineral spirits are. But I’ll bet you that if you were to go find my 120 or so high school classmates and separate out the males who lived in the suburbs whose fathers were white-collar workers, the overwhelming majority of them would have no idea what mineral spirits are either. Why not?

Because when we were growing up, we were college-bound. People like us didn’t need to know what mineral spirits are. We needed to know things like the fact that there’s no such thing as the square root of a negative number. (Yes, I know that’s not a correct statement–but those were the exact words of my Algebra II teacher, and those words cost me a lot a couple of years later.)

I even remember one time, a group of us were talking about something, and one classmate’s name came up. “He’s going to end up being a plumber,” someone snickered.

Never mind that the last time I had to call a plumber, my plumber most certainly made more money than I made that year, and he probably got a head start on me because he didn’t have to go to college for four years either.

One of the reasons plumbers make a good living is because so many people don’t even know how to shut off the water valve when their toilet leaks, let alone how to go about fixing that leaky toilet. For the record, I can shut off the water valve, but I don’t know how to fix the toilet. I’m hoping they’ll show me on This Old House sometime.

My gripe with DIY books today is that the authors don’t necessarily realize that there are one or possibly even two or three generations of readers who may very well not know the difference between a wood screw and a machine screw. They don’t learn it in school, and Dad might or might not know, but in an age when fewer couples marry and divorce rates are sky high, is Dad even around to tell them any of this stuff?

Today, I couldn’t care less about imaginary numbers. But I’m reading old DIY books, desperately trying to learn the lost arts of making and fixing things. Thanks to Disney and other useless companies, I can’t use a computer to locate digital copies of anything newer than 1922. That’s a shame, because it condemns all of the DIY books of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s to obscurity. They won’t be reprinted because there isn’t enough market for them, they aren’t worth the expense of hiring a lawyer to find out if they somehow slipped into the public domain before the laws started really changing in the 1970s, and they’re scarce enough that you won’t always find them where old books lurk, making them a bit more difficult to borrow or purchase.

That all but eliminates a golden age, limiting me to 1922 and earlier. But admittedly it’s very interesting to read how people made and fixed things in the decades immediately before and after the turn of the previous century. So many books today start out with a list of exotic and expensive tools before they tell you how to do anything. One hundred years ago, people didn’t have as much money to spend on tools, and since things like electricity weren’t necessarily always available, there weren’t nearly as many exotic and expensive tools to buy either.

I found an incredible quote in an 1894 book by Charles Godfrey Leland, a teacher and author from Philadelphia. “It is much better not to have too many implements at first, and to learn to thoroughly master what one has, and to know how to make the utmost of them. This leads to ingenuity and inventiveness, and to developing something which is even better than artistic skill.”

That’s not just good advice for metalworking, which was the subject of this particular book. That’s an excellent philosophy of life.

Unfortunately right now I have more time to read than I have to tinker. But I think once I have a little time to tinker again, I’ll be able to make some nice stuff. And maybe someday when someone says they don’t make ’em like they used to, I’ll be able to smile and say that I do.

Making stuff the old-fashioned way

There are people on eBay who buy up old DIY magazines and books, cut out the individual articles that tell you how to make stuff, and flog them for $3 or $4 apiece. It seems like those magazine articles told you how to make just about anything.

But what if you get outbid? What if you don’t want to pay $4 to read a 4-page article? And what if you can’t find the article at the library? (Conveniently they don’t tell you where the article came from.)

I’ve got a web site for you.Visit vintageprojects.com. You’ll find a little bit of everything there. Woodworking projects. How to build go-carts and scooters. Even how to build tools so you can build ever more sophisticated stuff.

Give it a look.

And in the meantime, if you ever run across a stash of old ’50s DIY mags, you’ll recognize it as a business opportunity.

Incidentally, I found that link on retrothing.com, which is a really cool blog about old stuff in general.

Leave your DIY PCs at home

This is a response to the eWeek editorial Bring DIY Systems to Work. Nice theory. Unfortunately, lab theory and the real world don’t always mesh.

I like building PCs. I built my first PC in early 1994, back when everything was on a separate card and you had to set interrupts and DMA channels using jumpers and DIP switches and in most cases you had to tell the BIOS exactly what size drive was in it–it wouldn’t detect anything for you. I built my main PC at home myself. I built my secondary and tertiary PCs at home myself too. And my girlfriend’s PC, and my mom’s PC, and my sister’s PC.

Get the idea?

Read More »Leave your DIY PCs at home

An easy DIY mailserver

Mail the easy way. It figures that I would find this now, after blowing most of a Saturday trying to get a mailserver set up. This won’t give you any nifty spam filtering, but if you want a fast, reliable, secure, mail server with every other nifty feature you could want, run to Qmail the Easy Way. There, you can download a script that goes and gets all the sources you need and compiles them for you. You get Qmail for SMTP (the fastest and most secure mail server available for Linux), Courier IMAP and POP for receiving, DJBDNS for name resolution, and a nifty Webmail interface. Combine that with your favorite Linux-from-sources distro, and you’ll have a rock-solid, fast-as-possible mail server for a whole lot less money than an Exchange server. And the hardware requirements are far lower. Dan Bernstein, the author of Qmail and DJBDNS, claims Red Hat used a 486 to test Qmail and it performed so well they just threw it into production.
If I had a lot of IMAP clients connecting I know I’d want a Pentium-class machine, but I remember back in the day running Domino under OS/2 on Pentium-90s. When we moved to Domino on NT running on a 533 MHz Alpha, it made our heads spin because we thought 90 MHz was good enough. This was with about 200 people connecting to it. This qmail setup would be a whole lot more efficient than Domino running under NT.

And if you want it all? All you’re missing (possibly) is fetchmail for grabbing mail from foreign mailservers, procmail for a filtering language, and a spamfilter package.
Incidentally, Bernstein writes highly secure, highly efficient software, and he’s really dictatorial about what changes go in it. That’s partly because he guarantees its security–he’ll pay you $5,000 if you can compromise it and he can replicate what you did. Yes, it’s open source, and he gives it away, but since you can’t modify it unconditionally, the BSD people hate him. And since you can’t do anything you want with it except close it, Stallman and his FSF hate him. Since I try to offend the BSD and FSF zealots any time I can, I think that would be reason enough to use Bernstein’s software, assuming it was capable. But it’s not just capable. It’s smaller, faster, and more secure than any alternative and he’s even willing to warrant it–something the likes of Microsoft and Oracle will never do–and you can compile it on any architecture with whatever optimizations you want, and it’s free, so I say you and I are fools not to be using it.

Time to be offensive. It’s been a really long time since I’ve offended people by talking about religion. I was talking with one of my good friends from church (and another part of the conversation reminded me that if I ever decide I want to try to make a living by writing, I need to offer him a job as beg him to be my agent) and we were talking about God’s will. His son had been having some problems, and he was questioning his attitude a little. I understand. My attitude would be similar, and I’d be questioning it afterward too.

I don’t remember what he said, but I paraphrased it back to him to see if I understood what he meant: “I ask for God’s will, but I admit that a lot of times I’m afraid of what God’s will is, and that it might be different from mine.”

“Perfectly said,” he said. (He always says I state things perfectly. I’d better not ever read him that e-mail I wrote at around 9:30 on Wednesday that I’ve been regretting ever since…)

“I know where you’re coming from,” I said. “I’m afraid of it too, most of the time.”

He stopped for a minute and asked if that was OK. I thought about it for a minute. It’s definitely natural to want something different from what God wants. And if you think you might be wrong but want to be right, sure, you’ll be afraid of God’s will. And that’s certainly preferable to being hostile to God’s will, insisting on your way or the highway. You have to reach a certain level of maturity to be willing to ask God’s will, even when you’re afraid of it.

But that’s not all there is. God will take that if it’s all He can get, but what God really wants is unconditional surrender. The Lord’s Prayer says, “Thy will be done.” No strings attached. Jesus prayed, “If it’s possible, take this away from me. But not my will, but Yours be done.” No strings attached there either.
One of us cited Abraham as the human who got as close to that ideal as is humanly possible. But I pointed out how Abraham got there. For 99 years of his life, Abraham didn’t trust God completely, and he did things on his own. At least twice he felt his life was in danger, and he lied to protect his skin and nearly forced his wife into adultery in so doing. We can look back and say, “Abraham! God said he’d make you a great nation! You’re sitting there childless, and Sarah’s not pregnant yet either. Are you a great nation yet? No way! And God’s at least 9 months away from being able to deliver on that promise. You know what, Abraham? You’re invincible! Those guys could try to kill you and they absolutely would fail.” But we’ve got the advantage of hindsight.

At some point, Abraham must have looked back over his life and come to that conclusion himself. Because by the time he was about 110, he unconditionally did anything and everything God told him to do.

I’m convinced that Abraham became the superhero of faith by looking back over his life objectively and being observant enough to see God’s hand in everything, and being far enough along in years to be able to see a whole lot of God’s work, and see that God’s way was good, better than anything he could have possibly put together on his own.

So yeah, I feel bad about being 26 and attaching strings to my surrender. I’ve got a whole book of God’s made-and-kept promises, and I have read the whole thing, cover to cover. But nothing’s more convincing than your own experience, and at 26 I’ve still got some of that to gain. He’s further along than I am in the experience department and in the miracles department–he’s got two kids that no doctor can explain. The second is less than a year old, but if he’s like a cat and has nine lives, he’s already used up two or three.

Hopefully neither of us needs a whole lot more convincing. I think we’ll both get there before we turn 110, but I’m not surprised that neither of us is there yet.


AMD and DDR. Good news for hardware enthusiasts wanting AMD-based DDR systems. Via shipped its 266 MHz DDR chipset Monday. This is good news because Via can in all likelihood supply their chipsets in larger quantities than AMD can or will. It’ll take a little while for the KT266 to appear in earnest, but this should soon silence the DIY crowd, who’ve been protesting very loudly that they can’t get boards or chips. Virtually all of Gigabyte’s 760 boards are going to Compaq and Micron, which does make sense. Compaq and Micron will order boards and 266 MHz FSB chips in quantities of hundreds of thousands. The shops catering to the DIY crowd won’t. Given a limited supply, the big fish will get first dibs–it’s easier and less expensive to deal with two big customers than with a hundred tiny ones.

Infoworld. I think my Infoworld subscription has finally lapsed. I’ve been trying to let it lapse for months. I’d get a “This is your last issue if you don’t renew NOW!” warning attached to the cover, which would then be followed by six issues or so, before I’d get another warning. I think I’ve been getting these since last June.

Well, today I went to Infoworld’s site, and I remember why I’ve been trying to let my subscription lapse. They’re bleeding pundits. Q&A maestro Mark Pace quit. Then his partner, Brooks Talley, quit. Bob Metcalfe retired. Sean Dugan quit. Now, Stuart McClue and Joel Scambray are quitting, to be replaced by P.J. Connolly. They tried Connolly as a columnist once before. That experiment lasted about a month, probably because he wrote more about the Grateful Dead than he did about the subject at hand. (Which made me self-conscious about mentioning Aimee Mann and the Kansas City Royals too frequently, but I generally don’t mention them on a weekly basis, so I’m probably OK.)

Their best remaining columnists are Brian Livingston, Nicholas Petreley, and Ed Foster. Livingston has a lot of useful tips, while Foster is genuinely entertaining and provides a useful service to readers. Infoworld’s Robert X. Cringely isn’t quite as entertaining or as insightful as PBS’ Robert X. Cringely, but he’s usually worth a quick read. But there are half as many reasons to read the magazine now as there once were.

Amazon. Amazon’s under fire again from a number of directions, including Ed Foster, and I can’t say I’m in love with all of their practices, but I can’t help but notice something. From my limited vantage point, it would seem consumers don’t really seem to care all that much about Amazon’s business practices. I provided links to buy my book elsewhere, but the sales rankings at the other places are pathetic even after doing so. Sales at Borders and B&N are nearly non-existent. Sales at Fatbrain are sporadic at best. But there are a handful of venues where it sells well. The used places sell what copies they can get very quickly. And when Amazon can manage to allow people to order it, it sells very well. If they can’t get a used copy cheap, people would rather buy from Amazon, period. And they’ll even pay a higher price at Amazon than they will elsewhere. A number of people paid full cover price from Amazon off links from this site, even when it was available for less elsewhere. (Amazon seems to be currently selling it for $19.95 or so.)

Some people swear by Apple. I swear at Apple. Apparently Steve Jobs does too . (Not for the easily offended.)