Materials for the Maker/Provider

If we are are going to break free from total dependency on manufactured goods, we will need to make uncommon use of materials – materials we don’t normally think of using or materials that are new to us. Materials that will permit us to make a lot of different things ourselves, and in using them, we can craft our stuff to suit us better – whether we are hacking existing items or making something from scratch.

There is a great sci-fi book by Jerry Pournelle called The Mote in God’s eye. This book describes a race of people which are differentiated into specialized breeds. While such a concept (eugenics) is abhorrent to us here at ProvideYourOwn, the book is fascinating nonetheless. One of the breeds among this race is an engineering class. Not only are they brilliant tinkerers, but they have an array of materials and skills with which they are constantly making, rebuilding and/or hacking things to suit their needs. No rummaging through catalogs or wandering the store aisle; ending by buying something that only partly meets your need. No, these folks would cobble together exactly what they needed from a combination of miscellaneous parts and some very versatile materials. I think that is an idea whose time has come. Let’s explore some of these materials at our disposal and see how we can use them to make and hack our own stuff.

Everyday Materials

Let’s start our survey of everyday materials that we ought to think of, but rarely do. Put your McGyver hat on and let’s explore:

Wood

Yes wood. You know, the stuff trees are made of. It has been with us from the beginning, and it is still an all purpose material without equal. Unfortunately, we rarely consider it except for furniture and houses. What are some innovative uses? Well, next time you are eyeballing that new fangled contraption made from aluminum, steel or some combination of exotic materials, consider if you could make the same thing from wood. As far as strength goes, pound for pound, wood is equal to aluminum. I read an engineering comparison once between making a sailboat mast from aluminum or wood. Even though you will never find a commercially made craft with a wooden spar for a mast, aluminum is no better. Like most manufactured goods, metal and plastic are not used because they are somehow superior, but because their manufacture can be automated. If you are providing your own manufacturing, then wood is a great candidate for a replacement material.

Types of Wood

While we all admire the beauty of exotic hardwoods, unless your project needs the strength and hardness, stick with the softer stuff – pine, poplar, cedar and cypress, the latter being great for outdoor use. If you need a small durable part made, then by all means choose a hardwood. I was repairing a Yamaha G1 golf-cart, and I had melted the plastic speed control arm – twice. While obviously I had some other problems to deal with, I was tired of ordering new (and expensive) pieces of plastic. Instead, I took a piece of the hardest wood I could find (black locust), and carefully fashioned a replacement part.

It not only worked like a charm, but was absolutely free from melting under high temperatures. It did become a little charred however. As you can see in this example, plastic has nothing on wood. I also can’t describe the empowerment from making this exotic part in less than an hour all by myself.

Plywood

Let’s not overlook plywood either. It may seem to most of us like a rather mundane material, but it is really a modern wonder. We can build things from plywood that were inconceivable or else very difficult a few decades ago. While pine plywood may not be the prettiest thing around, with some pine 2x4s thrown in, you can build almost any kind of furniture quickly and easily. Another kind of plywood that has made an appearance lately is 5mm Luan plywood. Almost 1/4″ in thickness, it is made from hardwood, and is much higher quality than pine plywood. If a really high performance is demanded, birch plywood also comes in 1/4″, and Lowe’s sells a “premium floor underlayment” that has virtually no voids. Luan can vary as far as voids go, so it pays to inspect each sheet on the edge. What is Luan good for? Almost everything. You can make boxes (big and small), boats, you name it. Because it is so thin and strong, it is exceptionally versatile. At 5mm, you may be wondering how to make a box with it? That is the best part. Forget nails and screws, and just use glue. For boats, use epoxy. For big boxes, polyurethane adhesive may be the ticket. For small boxes, use hot glue. Besides building a great little canoe from just two sheets of Luan and some epoxy. I have also made:

  • a custom air-conditioner filter frame, using 1″ strips and hot glue
  • kitchen drawer dividers using hot glue
  • other boxes and even molds

Let your imagination run wild. Luan plywood is without equal for versatility.

Durham’s Rock Hard Water Putty

This stuff can be found in any home improvement store, comes in a round cardboard cylinder, and is great, cheap stuff. Like the name says, it is rock hard. It comes as a powder, and you just add water. It resembles wood putty, but cures as hard as concrete, yet sands like wood. You can color it, cast it, carve/sculpt it (and repair it if you mess up), repair stuff and model with it. The possibilities are endless. Visit their website for some ideas.

Duct Tape

This material used as a repair-all for virtually everything needs not much to be said. Keep some handy in all your cars as well as your shop. A variation on it that I have found useful, especially actual ductwork is aluminum duct tape. It is adhesive backed aluminum, and will stay stuck to your duct long after the duck tape has lost its adhesion and peeled off.

Other Common Stuff

Don’t forget to keep a supply of these:

  • Tape – electrical, masking and packing tape – lots of repair and maker applications
  • Vaseline (petroleum jelly) – lots of uses, including a molding release agent
  • Wire – solid conductor phone line cable, magnet wire, stranded multipurpose wire
  • Adhesives – epoxy cement, polyurethane glue (a.k.a Gorilla glue), super-glue, wood glue, rubber cement, contact adhesive, hot melt glue
  • Miscellaneous – pop-sickle sticks, index cards, small tubs for mixing

High Tech Materials

Plastic

Now we are leaving the realm of natural materials, and into the more modern ones. Normally, when we think of plastic, we think of a manufactured good – unmodifiable, un-repairable, impossible to use for DIY (do-it-yourself). These conceptions are all true. The fault lies not with plastic per se, but with the kinds of plastic that lend themselves to mass production. It tends to be hard, brittle and unrepairable. Those are not the only kind of plastics however. Step with me into the world of plastic, and let’s explore some more Provider friendly plastics:

Hot Glue

Hot glue, or hot melt adhesive is not really a glue. It is a type of plastic. In order to expand your mind as a Maker/Provider, you need to stop limiting your thinking in those terms. When you think hot glue, don’t think adhesive, think – easily fashioned, repairable plastic. The properties of this stuff is amazing. Unlike most thermoplastics, its flows easily when melted. That means you can even make your own plastic injection mold and use a cheap glue gun for the injector. Just imagine – you can make your own plastic injected parts without $20,000 setup charges. What’s more, these parts are soft to the touch, have incredible flexibility yet strong, and if you do somehow manage to break it, you can just hot glue it! My first application of this idea was my Kindle Light. It far exceeded my expectations. Lastly, don’t forget, but you can get it in different colors as well as milky clear.

Epoxy

Unlike many plastics that melt when hot, epoxy belongs to a unique group called “thermosetting plastics”. They are usually mixed from two liquid parts which then cure and harden. They cannot be re-melted. The advantages of this type of plastic is that it flows very easily (low viscosity), and can often resist considerably high temperatures. You can buy 5-minute epoxy in the store, but it’s high cost limits applications to adhesive ones. A much cheaper epoxy can be had from specialized firms (still retail however), and this epoxy usually sets up in about 30 minutes, giving you plenty of time to work. It is self-leveling (used for covering kitchen counters) and easily molded. The fact that it adheres to almost anything makes it a great repair product. You can even use it to repair holes in rotted wood.

My favorite application is of course boat building. This stuff is so strong that with a thin strip of fiberglass cloth, you can actually join two sheets of 5mm luan plywood using a butt joint. After it cures for a day, you can toss the 16′ x 4′ sheet in the air by pushing on the joint in the middle, and it won’t break. In fact, the joint is stronger than the plywood itself. All I can say, is wow – what a material!

I buy my expoxy in gallon jugs with push-pumps. It never goes bad, and whenever you want to mix some up, you just pump what you need out and mix it up. I buy it from http://www.jgreer.com/.

Friendly Plastic

This thermoplastic has been used for decades by occupational therapists for molding various kinds of splints for people. I only recently discovered what it is called and how to buy it. While “friendly plastic” is a kind of corny name, that is the name by which you will find it most easily in the US. It is sold for crafting purposes – hence the goofy name. It comes in small colored strips and as white pellets. Unless you are crafting ornaments & jewelry however, you want the jar of pellets. This plastic is very unique in how you use it. You take the pellets and drop them in hot water. They get soft and will begin to stick together. When fully soft, you scoop out the plastic and work it with your hands as if it were taffy. Fashion it into anything you like. You can also use a hot air gun as an alternative. While I haven’t used it myself (other than watching the occupational therapist making a splint for my arm once), such a handy material has a thousand applications.

Silicones

This family of plastic is another thermosetting plastic, coming in both one part and two part kinds. You are most familiar with the one-part kinds used for making gaskets, aquariums and caulking windows. There are other kinds with lots of varying viscosities and hardnesses. Some of them are quite expensive. While a little more specialized in some cases, common GE Silicone II is a great product to start with. It is inexpensive and is non-acetic, which means it won’t corrode metal or electronics like regular silicones. You can use it for making molds, bonding stuff, and of course making aquariums. Use your imagination, and next time you are thinking of buying a new aquarium, don’t. Make it yourself!

Sugru

This new plastic has become popular in the Maker crowd. It is a type of silicone, but it differs in that is hand-moldable similar to putty. Unfortunately, it is a single vendor item, and that vendor only sells direct from England. It is pretty specialized stuff, and is also expensive. You use it similarly to friendly plastic, but you don’t heat it. Instead you squeeze it from a foil package and it sets up overnight. It is soft and pliable when cured. Given its availability and cost issues, I think its applications are rather limited considering the great alternatives out there. Hopefully, it will become more mainstream and cheaper in the future. Until then, in the spirit of ProvideYourOwn, mikey77 over on Instructables has created a DIY version of Sugru. Give it a try.

Other Materials

Besides the everyday materials and the wide world of plastics, there are some other innovative materials that are some useful, we should consider them as well.

Paracord

This seemingly odd cordage is not only unique, but far more useful and versatile than ordinary rope cordage. When you buy it make sure it has ‘550’ in the name. That number stands for the minimum breaking strength in pounds. Despite being only about 1/4″ in diameter, it is stronger than most rope of that size. In addition to its great load rating, what makes this cordage so useful is the fact it is made from 7 inner braided strands surrounded by a outer casing. All the parts are made from nylon. You can carry a decent length with you far various emergency needs, and if you have a need that doesn’t involve hanging from a rope, you can cut off a hunk, pull the inner strands out, and use them to make or repair stuff. People have made nets, bracelets, and other stuff with this wonderful material. Buy a reel of it and you’ll start thinking of uses for it. I would rank it up there with duck tape in my kit of stuff to have on hand. You can buy it in various colors here, or cheaper by the 1000′ roll here.

Tyvek

This odd sounding name is the trade name for a kind paper made from plastic. You are most familiar with it when you get one of those shipping envelopes that you can’t tear. While it is paper-like, it is virtually un-tear-able and water does not harm it. It is most commonly found as a building wrap (with the words Tyvek plastered all over it). You can also buy it online without the words. I haven’t had the chance to try my hand with it yet, but individual Makers are creating their own companies making products by hand using the stuff. A couple of outfits make wallets from it, and another company makes shoes. It also makes a great sail for small sailboats. This website lists some other innovative applications.

Materials for the Maker/Provider by Provide Your Own is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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3 Comments

  1. Posted January 3, 2011 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    Have you tried the friendly plastics and the Sugru home version? If not, do you know of any side by side comparisons out there in existence? Thanks! I’m enjoying the site.

    • Posted January 3, 2011 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

      As far as comparing them, think of friendly plastics as a hand moldable hard plastic such as ABS (which is used for most plastic consumer items), and Sugru as silicone rubber that you can touch without getting stuck to it. Basically, the former is a hard plastic and the latter a soft rubbery plastic. Both can be molded with your bare hands. That is their advantage over ordinary ABS or silicone rubber. Which one you need depends on what you are trying to do.

      I am glad you are enjoying the site. Please refer your friends and check back again for new articles.

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