3D Printed Astrophotography Computer

control side on telescope

With the recent two month long stretch of clouds and rain, I decided to tackle the number one issue causing me to not take advantage of the rare (lately) clear sky…setup time. Living in the suburbs of Houston with a tiny yard, I don’t have the option of building a permanent, back-yard observatory. My best location is right in the middle of my driveway and even then I only have about 70 degrees of visible sky east to west…but I do have a clear shot of Polaris. The problem was that setting up is an hour long, very physical process and I can’t leave my gear in the driveway all night so I have to tear down at 2-3 in the morning…so…I would talk myself out of it most nights. If I wanted to image more frequently, I needed to simplify my setup/teardown routine!

Step one was easy and the most important. Getting a heavy duty medium size wheeley bar from JMI allowed me to leave the scope setup and just roll it in and out each night. This alone saved 45 minutes of labor!


After using this setup for a while, I realized that I was still spending 15 minutes running cables to the computer and power to all the electronics so I started looking at on-telescope computer control systems. I did find two commercial options. The AstroBar was light weight and reasonably priced but feature and performance poor. The Eagle2 had the performance and many of the features I wanted but it was fairly heavy and very expensive. Having electrical experience, a couple of 3D printers, and plenty of cloudy nights, I began experimenting with stick PCs. The results were generally positive but I did run into a few issues. First, I found most of the sticks I tested to be fairly underwhelming from a performance standpoint. Running Windows 10, camera control, image capture, guiding software, etc. on 2 GB of RAM with an Atom processor proved troublesome at times. Plus, there were multiple occasions where I lost my remote desktop session to the stick and I had to drag a monitor, keyboard, and mouse out to the scope to plug in the stick and see what what going on. The first time this happened, I was at the Houston Astronomical Society dark site with no peripherals…3 hour round trip plus setup/tear-down time for no images. Very frustrating! Additionally, at this point, the cable monster was beginning to get a bit out of hand! The telescope looked like it had lost a fight with a drunk Radio Shack sales associate!

It was time to plan my ideal, custom Astrophotography, on-telescope computer/control setup.


  • Incorporate the following products into one system
    • Computer
    • Dew Control
    • Camera Control
    • USB Hub and Power
    • 12v Accessory Power
  • Provide at least 6 USB 3.0 ports (primary camera data, guide camera, PoleMaster, mount control, hand controller if doing PEC, focuser, one extra)
  • Power status monitor
  • Small integrated touch screen display (back up to lost remote sessions)
  • Single cable running off scope (power)
  • Small

After two months of prototyping and testing I am very pleased with the finial product…I call it The Cube 🙂


  • Weight – 982g/2.16 lbs (this is actually 74g less on-scope than my previous non-integrated setup)
  • Size – 16cm/6.25 inch cube
  •  Intel M5 CPU, 4GB of RAM, 256GB of storage
  • 4 channel variable dew control w/low voltage cutoff
  • 7 external USB 3.0 ports each delivering up to 2.4 amps
  • 3 internal powered USB 3.0 ports
  • 5 inch multi-touch LCD display
  • Real-time voltage/amperage monitor
  • Highly regulated power control for the compute stick
  • QHY 10 camera control (TEC cooling/power/status)
  • Switched control for USB Hub, PC, Dew Control, and QHY CCD Camera
  • 4 unswitched 12v 5.5×2.1 mm accessory power jacks

Design and construction

I began the process by taking all the separate components I was trying to integrate and attaching them to a wooden block that could mount on the telescope so I could prove the concept and get a feel for the wiring involved and any potential pitfalls.


Next, I 3D printed some components that would let me mock up the internal spacing requirements. The USB hub I decided to use based on size and weight was wedge shaped. I had to measure the angle and print a test wedge (orange component below) to stand the hub vertical for the mockup. The yellow stand below straddles the power distribution block and the buck converter used to supply the correct voltage (5v) to the USB hub. The red box houses the compute stick power regulator (more on that below) and the green shelf mocks up the location of the compute stick complete with opening for the cooling fan.

The next step was to layout the front and rear panels. The front panel contains the USB hub, individual power switches (hub, PC, dew control, and QHY10 camera), PC power regulator control, master power meter, and dew heater outputs. The rear panel contains the touch screen and dew heater controls.

As a starting point I found a great parametric box and panel maker script that allowed me to use OpenSCAD to define my panel layouts mathematically after careful measurements with an accurate set of digital calipers.

Screen Shot 2017-12-26 at 11.06.25 AM

This method let me rapidly print and test prototypes for fit and layout.

Time for the real design work. Using the prototype prints from OpenSCAD as a starting point, I used SketchUp Pro 2018 to design the final box and panels. The front and rear panels feature raised lettering which allowed me to change filament colors once that layer was reached during printing (I went with light grey panels, orange lettering, and a black box to match my Celestron RASA/CGX-L setup). The upper box has an inset detail with precise holes for the QHY DC-201 status LEDs (more on that below). The lower box has a built-in wedge to lock in the USB hub in the correct position as well as built in tabs for positioning and holding the power distribution block and buck converter. Additionally, the compute stick shelf and integrated latch has a dovetail which joins it to the lower box half.

Printing time!

Final parts ready for assembly.

One of the trickiest aspects of the build was powering the Intel STK2MV64CC Compute Stick. When I tested earlier Atom based compute sticks, all I had to do was wire up a mini USB plug to a 5V power supply and the stick fired right up. However, I wanted a stick with a full m5 CPU and 4Gb of RAM which meant going with the USB-C powered version. The first thing I did measure the input voltage and current with a USB-C multimeter.

Compute Stick Power 20

Thinking I was in good shape with 5V, I tried a simple 12V to 5V USB-C converter.

Compute Stick Power 12

The stick would power-up, enter the BIOS check screen, then shut down…odd.

So I tried a higher end buck converter…same result…power-up, BIOS check, shut down.

Compute Stick Power 14

So, I decided to take apart the AC power adapter that came with the stick to see how it worked. This unique adaptor plugs into the wall and then delivers 5V over USB-C. Additionally, the wall adapter itself has two additional USB 3.0 ports that act as a hub over the type C connection. (the stick only has one 3.0 port on-board).

Compute Stick Power 2

Inside, I found a normal 110V AC to 5V DC convertor attached to a daughter board containing the USB 3.0 ports and USB-C connection.

Measuring the output signal on the USB-C link, I found a non-standard signal embedded in the normal data channel. It seems that Intel decided to stop users from using any power supply except the supplied Intel version. If the BIOS does not detect this input signal on the data channel of the USB-C connection, it shuts down. There is no way around it. I guess they were tired of users burning up their compute sticks with crappy cell phone chargers or other poorly controlled power supplies. My options at this point were to run a LONG USB-C cable along with the 12V power cable down from the scope to the ground and use the Intel power supply…or…get creative!

I realized that the daughter board was the only component that mattered and it was very small and light weight. The bulk of the power supply was the 110V to 5v converter which I didn’t need. I already had an extremely accurate voltage regulator in the Cube which I was planning on using to supply 5V directly to the USB-C port on the compute stick. Now I simply needed to supply that same 5V to the daughter board and use it to supply the connection the compute stick. So, I desoldered the daughter board from the rest of the power supply, tested the voltage (it was outputting 5.14v – 5.22v to the daughter board), soldered on some new leads, and printed a very small box to house the card internally. At a cost of only 32g, I was able to power the stick internally and I gained two additional powered USB 3.0 ports inside the box which proved very helpful later in the design process.

The next bit of major circuit reworking dealt with the dew controller. I decided to use the excellent 4-channel dew heater control unit from Thousand Oaks Optical . But, obviously, I didn’t want the plastic housing or much else from the retail unit. I just wanted the control board.

To save weight and allow the board to sit as close as possible to the screen on the rear panel, I desoldered and removed the 4 output RCA jacks and the 12v lead and aux 12v RCA input. I also removed the primary choke and soldered it back on the rear of the board to lower the profile.

Next, I soldered new RCA output leads and 12v input leads directly to the back of the board and provided strain relief with hot glue.

One final bit of major electrical work before assembly. The QHY DC-201 has 5 status LEDs that provide information on voltage, TEC cooling, and camera fan.


I wanted to mount the DC-201 inside the Cube but I didn’t want to lose visibility to these status LEDs. So, I unscrewed the housing and removed the board. Using a straight edge, I carefully cut off the portion of the box with the status codes printed on it (I’ll use it later during assembly). Next, I VERY CAREFULLY desoldered the 5 LEDs being sure to label their position and polarity (LEDs are single direction electrical components). Using a very fine gauge solid strand wire, I re-soldered the LEDs to the board with 4″ long “extensions” protected in heat-shrink tubing.

Time to gather all the parts and clear the work bench for assembly!!!

First, front panel assembly.

Rear panel is next. The slots to the left and right of the screen allow me to attach a red overlay for imaging at a dark site with light policies.

The lower assembly begins by attaching the power distribution block and buck converter for the USB hub into their pre-printed spots on the lower box half.

Next, the USB hub is slipped into its custom fit wedge which features a lip to lock it in place. No glue or screws required.

Dropping the front panel in completes the front of the box.

Time to begin wiring all the switches, converter, regulator, and meter.

Wiring 4

Adding in the dew controller power (later put on an internal 2.1mm plug so the rear panel could be easily removed for servicing the Cube). Also wiring in the 12v supply for the switch’s LEDs.

Wiring 5

The Cube features 4 unswitched 12v aux jacks. These are a simple barrel connector soldered to leads and protected with heat-shrink tubing. I choose this particular connector because it came with a rubber cap to protect unused ports.

Adding in the aux jacks, the compute stick power supply, and internal USB 3.0 ports. Note the white USB-C cable to power the compute stick and the 3″ USB 3.0 cable connecting the hub to one of the internal USB 3.0 ports on the red power supply. The other 3.0 port is used for the touch screen (more below).

Wiring 6

The compute stick is attached to its custom printed shelf with a simple compression latch. The shelf is designed to place the stick in the center of the cube for maximum ventilation.

The compute stick is attached to the screen via HDMI (for video) and USB 3.0 to mini for power and touch. While the USB cord is moderately flexible, most HDMI cables are not. Additionally, the connections are on the side of the screen with only a few millimeters of clearance. Luckily, there is a company that makes flat ribbon cable in various lengths between 5mm and 80mm with every type of termination you can imagine. You simply order the tips and ribbon and snap them together. I used a 20mm straight USB 3.0 to right angle USB mini and a 10mm straight female HDMI to right angle HDMI.

Dew controller connected and the lower half is complete!

Wiring 9

The top half of the box contains the QHY DC-201 and the Losmandy dovetail adaptor.

First, the modified QHY DC-201 is attached to the roof of the top half of the box and the LEDs are inserted into their custom printed holes. The previously removed portion of the DC-201 is glued into an inset on the outside of the top of the box.

Next a custom 3D printed adaptor is attached to the top of the box to mate with a FarPoint dovetail clamp.

The QHY DC-201 is connected to the lower half power distribution with a 2.1mm plug and the two halves are screwed together.

bench cam side

Now, the only wire running off the telescope is a single 12v line. This can run from a battery or a well regulated power supply…I’m a big fan of BK Precision and use their model 1688B for my setup.

So far, this has really increased my imaging time. I can roll out of the garage, PoleMaster polar align, and be imaging in about 10 minutes. I can put the scope away in about 5 minutes. And I can run the whole setup from the comfort of my house with a remote desktop session to the compute stick.


Backyard Sprinkler Park

Most of you know that I generally fill my summer up with construction projects around the house and for hire. This summer has been no different. I apologize for being absent from the blogosphere for a while, but I’ve just been enjoying my summer too much to sit and type. So far the for hire projects have included some sheetrock repair, hanging a new exterior door, fixing some rotten entry ways, enlarging some closets, new bathroom faucets, new kitchen plumbing, and a full bathroom remodel that had the room down to the studs and included new tile, shower, and walls. Pretty much every Friday through Monday I’ve been somewhere fixing something. It’s been great as I love doing this type of work, and it’s a nice way to supplement the teacher salary. On the home front it’s been all about the backyard. I’ll write about the pergola project in the next few days, but by far the most fun project of the summer is the sprinkler park. Being a stay at home dad (Tuesday through Thursday), this summer has been a blast, but unlike the previous years I now have a baby to take care of as well as an almost 4-year old. Needless to say this puts a damper on how much time I can spend playing with Annelise. As soon as we start something, Julianna needs her diaper changed or a bottle. Adding to this is the fact that the normal outlets for stay-at-home-moms are not available to a stay at home dad. She can’t have any of her girl friends over and we can’t go to any play dates. To make her summer a little bit more fun (and because I like cool projects) I told her we would build a sprinkler park right in our own back yard. So if you like totally pointless projects, or you just like the smell of PVC glue here is how to get started…

I didn’t really start with much of a plan. I had some ideas, but I really work best by going to Lowes or Home Depot and just playing with the stuff they have and seeing what I can come up with. I was in Home Depot with an assortment of 2″ PVC fittings stuck together in a configuration that should never occur in nature trying to spark some ideas when a man in a “Jon’s Plumbing” shirt looked over and said, “I don’t know what it is but it’s the most complicated thing I’ve ever seen.” The point is that there are a lot of things that can be used for other than their intended purpose…just be creative. I settled for lots of PVC, some small and large foam noodles, a sheet of pink high density foam house wrap, and lots of spray paint (the kind that is made for plastic).

Below you can see the basic core of each sprinkler. The basic idea is that water flows in on the left and can go into the sprinkler or out the other side to the next sprinkler. The whole point is that the sprinklers are all chained together and can be used separately or all together. The only issue with the design when this picture was made is that a second sprinkler hooked up to the right hand output side won’t have water pressure unless this sprinkler is on. My final design placed a T-fitting before the valve and just capped off the output side. Now all the sprinklers have water pressure all the time regardless of which ones are actually on. The valve I choose is a brass ball valve meant for gas. It was the easiest to turn on and off for kids.

You want the water to flow up into the sprinkler not down into the support tube (and the ground) so before gluing the lower tube in place I put a 2″ knockout plug on the top of the pipe.

After gluing the lower pipe in place you can see that the knock out plug has blocked the lower leg of the assembly.

I also painted on a nice layer of silicone caulk to the top of the knock out plug.

The lower pre-assembly is the same for all the sprinklers. Below you can see a basic pre-assembly attached to the “Dueling Noodles” sprinkler body. The top small pipe is capped and does not carry water…It’s just there to support the duck (you’ll have to look at the pictures at the end)

If you are going to use a noodle to carry water it must be one of the large noodles. The smaller ones just split under pressure. To attach a noodle to the PVC core you need an 8″ length of ½” PVC. I taped off ¾” at the end to protect it and coated the other end with plumber’s goop (actual name) and just pushed it into the noodle and let it dry for a few days.

Once it’s dry you can pull off the tape and attach any fitting you need.

If water is not supposed to come out of the other side you can glue a PVC plug to the ½” pipe. I used this technique on the “Tunnel” (again…see the pictures at the end)

For the “Dueling Noodles” station, I wanted to use small diameter noodles so I had to thread a length of ½” flexible hose through the noodle to bear the pressure.

For the “Flower Shower”, I bought the cheapest shower head I could find and broke it apart to remove the shower disc.

I filed the disc down until it would fit in a 2″ PVC compression ring fitting.

Then I screwed the fitting together to make the shower head. The flared out piece in the picture below (the one with the bar code) is not actually glued on anything. The 2″ PVC pipe carrying the water is passing right through it. The piece is a 2″ to 3″ adapter with the 2″ side cut off and just slipped over the pipe before the compression fitting was glued in place.

The flower head is just a piece of pink foam house wrap cut into a flower shape.

Using the basic ideas and techniques described above, I built the following four sprinklers.

Bucket Dump

This sprinkler, while being the most popular with the kids, is the most complicated to build as you must design a pivot mechanism for the bucket. I welded mine out of ½” square tubing and rolled a length of1/4″ round bar into a ring that the bucket could sit in. If you don’t have a welding machine (get one)…or you could probably create something out of wood. It may be a bit bulkier but it could be made to work. You can attach your pivot mechanism to the body of the sprinkler with 2″ pipe hangers. These are heavy clamps that fit around the pipe and have bolt holes for attaching your bucket contraption. I did a ton of math (finally a use for my otherwise useless Physics degree) to find the point on the bucket where the bottom of the bucket is heavier empty but the top is heaver at the moment the water reached the top, so it will dump automatically. Turns out the kids just want to dump it themselves, so I attached a string…

Dueling Noodles

This sprinkler is the most dangerous to the dry adults in the vicinity as it is capable of spraying close to 60 feet. The top decoration is just a silly duck noodle that I found at Wal-Mart and cut shorter and stuck on the top of the sprinkler body. The two noodles on the side can be picked up and sprayed at each other or any other moving targets within the neighborhood.

Flower Shower

This is the simplest and (according to Monique) the cutest sprinkler in the collection. We’ve even let Annie bathe out here. This is the sprinkler that first gave us the idea for putting little one ring pools at the bottom to protect the yard from turning into a mud pit.

The Tunnel

I couldn’t really come up with a cool name for this one, but it’s one of my favorites. Its two large diameter noodles attached together (using a 12″ length of ½” PVC and the goop described above) and have holes poked along the length. I actually used some 1/8″ tubing in the holes to get the spray to aim better. The tubing is attached to the PVC base with a threaded connection, so you can take the noodle off for storage.

The only part I don’t have pictures of is the actual anchor into the ground. I just used a 4-foot piece of ½” galvanized iron pipe hammered 2 feet into the ground. Into the lower leg of the sprinklers, I screwed in a 1 ¾” PVC cap with a ½” hole bored into the center. This fitting slips nicely into the 2″ PVC, and a simple wood screw from the outside holds it in place. With one of these at the top and the bottom of the lower support leg, the sprinklers can be slipped over the galvanized pipe. This makes the sprinklers stable enough to be left out all summer but portable enough to be stored in the winter. Come by and let your kids play sometime…the park is always open!

Custom Speaker Stands

Back in 2001 I was contracted to build a pair of custom waterfall speaker stands. This of course pre-dates the shop by about 2 years which means they were built on the back patio and living room of our first apartment here in Houston. If fact, if you look at the office picture in my apartment post you’ll see a piece of uncut copper under the table saw and the leaded glass sides right in front of it. This build was incredibly fun with loads of electrical work, plumbing, and design. In fact, I had pretty much a free hand to create whatever design I envisioned which is always fun for me. The final project took about 70 hours for both speaker stands with most of that spent designing and building the first one. Materials cost in 2001 was about $500 per stand but copper prices have more than tripled in that time so I’m not sure what they would cost to build today (I just hope the current owner doesn’t decide to recycle them). As this was back in the pre-blog days I didn’t take any pictures during construction. The current owner recently allowed me to take some pictures for the blog but bear in mind that the stands are now over 7 years old and unfortunately in need of a great deal of polishing but you’ll get the idea. I do have one original picture that I took back when the project was completed.

New and Shiny


  • Must use copper as main design element
  • Variable lighting
  • Remote controlled
  • Fit in a box 16”X16”x36”


  • Stainless steel angle, square tube, and sheet
  • Roll of 1/16” copper 24” wide and 6’ long
  • Leaded glass
  • Ceramic tile
  • Solder
  • Copper tubing and fittings
  • Pump
  • Various electronics


  • Table Saw (could do it with a circular saw)
  • Router (could do it with a circular saw)
  • Angle Grinder
  • MIG Welding Machine
  • Drill
  • Tin Snips
  • Propane Torch


To begin, I welded a stainless steel frame out of 1/2” angle and square tubing. I attached marine grade plywood panels to the top and bottom sections of this steel frame.

Basic Frame Skeleton

To this basic frame I attached a stainless steel triangular rear panel with an access door, copper water reservoir, electronics package, and lighting.

Basic Frame with attached components

Rear View

The electronics package consists of a primary junction box which routes power to the ground fault interrupt (GFI) to protect against water related short circuits, a remote controlled power switch (to allow the owner to turn both stands on and off remotely), a power switch for both the pump and fogging module, and a dimmer for the lighting system. This allows the waterfall to run in many different modes (water no fog, fog no water, both, no light, bright light, dim mode lighting, etc).

Electronics Package

The water reservoir had to fit around the main support of the steel frame. To accomplish this, I built two sections into the water tank with a connecting tunnel between the front and rear sections. This allows for water return and provides an attachment point for the frame. The reservoir also contains a retaining circle for the fog generating system.


The rear section of the reservoir contains a 120 gallon per hour statuary pump. This pump is supported by the main copper discharge line running to the top of the stand. It is attached to this line with a rubber coupling and held 2 millimeters off the bottom of the reservoir thus insulating the vibrations of the pump from the rest of the structure.

Pump Attachment

The fog (or mist) system sits in the front of the reservoir and consists of a water proof hypersonic piezoelectric disc which causes the water to vibrate with enough energy for individual water molecules to overcome their electrostatic attraction and separate from the surface of the liquid creating a mist effect

Hypersonic Piezoelectric Generator

Fog System Activated

The top of the stand supports the main spray arm which is simply a drilled piece of ½” copper pipe and the lighting system. The light is a 500 watt halogen bulb surrounded by a handmade copper heat sink. Both the spray arm and heat sink are grounded through the GFI.

Underside of the Top Panel

The sloped support arms of the main frame contain notches to receive the locking pins from the stone tray.

Locking Notches

The stone I selected is a bluish gray flag stone about 1” thick. I had the quarry cut the stone to the required tapered shape and smooth the back of the stone for attachment to the steel support tray. I used a waterproof construction stone adhesive to glue the stone to the steel and then glued copper strips the edge of the stone to keep the water from running off the surface of the rock. The tray can be easily removed from the frame for cleaning.

Stone Tray

Lock Pin Detail

Stone Installed Full View

Stone sitting below Spray Arm

The glass for the project consists of 3 custom leaded glass 3/8” thick panels per stand. Two are long rectangular panels with one edge double beveled and polished. The third panel is a square piece of single beveled glass. I taped a diagonal line on the long panels that matched the angle of the stone and used a high gloss enamel spray paint on the inside of the panel. This results in a perfect finish on the outside of the panel that hides the electronics and plumbing.

Glass Panels

The long panels fit into grooves cut at an angle into the top and bottom plywood panels.


Installing Large Glass Panels

Once the glass was installed I fabricated a copper splash guard/rock holder. This piece keeps the rocks at the base of the waterfall from falling into the main reservoir and keeps the mist effect from getting too crazy!

Splash Guard (front and rear views)

Installing the Guard

Rock Holder Function

Keeping the Mist Contained (somewhat)

Once all the functional parts were installed, I worked on trimming out the piece with the required copper. I attached brackets to the bottom side of each corner of the stand to support the lower trim piece. The trim is all hand fabricated soldered 1/16” copper.

Support Brackets

Installing the Lower Trim

To complete the lower trim, I cut section of ceramic tile and supported them on 4 adjustable screws.


Completed Lower Section

With the bottom complete, I next fabricated another copper trim panel to fully enclose the top section and support the glass shelf.

Upper Trim

Glass Shelf

With water added to the reservoir, simply press the button on the remote control and the water starts flowing!


Spray Arm On

Draining the unit is as simple as clipping the quick release drain hose in and turning on the pump.


Here’s a shot of the completed stand.

Complete View

Of course, compared to the 7 year old picture at the top of the post, you can see that they really could use some polishing but other than that both stands have held up remarkably well. This is one of my favorite projects as it incorporated so many different materials into one piece of functional sculpture. I don’t often get to design a piece with no preconceived notion of what it needs to look like. Most people have a picture in their mind and want me to somehow build to match that. These stands were just the result of me being allowed play…and it was a blast!

The Reason We Lost Our Deposit…

A lot of people ask when I started collecting tools…truth is I’ve always been into tools but the real collecting started after Monique and I moved into our first apartment. I just found these pictures in our box of non-digital goodies and thought you might like them. I only wish I had a picture of the welding machine that lived on the coffee table…

I don’t think the landlord appreciated the table saw and band saw in the office


A typical evening sitting in the living room, watching some TV and building a stainless steel pressure vessel for one of Monique’s experiments…


Over the next few days I’ll do some entries on some of the things I built in our apartment living room…let’s just say they needed new carpet when we moved out.

How not to save $3.52

We’ve been working hard these past few weeks on some projects to get the house ready for baby number two (I’ll do some project write-ups on them soon). As we were cleaning out a closet we came across some stuff that just made Monique laugh. It seems I’m infected with a disease that causes me considerable pain whenever I buy something that I could just make in the shop. The disease usually progresses like this:

  1. Monique mentions something that we need around the house that Wal-Mart sells for $29.95
  2. I tell Monique that I can build it in “about” 30 minutes for “around” $10.00
  3. I go to Lowes and spend $19.00 on materials and $79.95 on a new tool I need for the project but I don’t count the tool because “I’ll use in on all kinds of stuff…”
  4. I spend 5 hours in the shop working on the item
  5. I head back to Lowes and spend $7.43 on stuff I didn’t realize I would need
  6. 3 more hours in the shop working
  7. 24 hours later the paint and/or glue is dry and I proudly show off the results of my 8 hour effort to save us $3.52
  8. Monique heads to Wal-Mart to buy the real item because mine doesn’t quite work

Luckily, Monique was well aware of this aliment long before she agreed to marry me and many times my affliction does pay off. I love that our furniture came from my hands and I love spending time in the shop working on projects for my family. But there have been some real moments of “why didn’t I just buy this…” Below are a few examples.

A while back Monique wanted some crown molding style shelves.

My Version

Not too bad right? I think they look great too. Only problem is that it took about an hour and a half to build and another hour to sand and paint. Twenty-four hours for the paint to dry and about $16.00 in materials and paint supplies…After building 5 of them we found this at Wal-Mart:

Store Version

So we bought 2 of them for $12 each….oh well.

When it came time to mount my surround sound speakers I never thought to price speaker mounts at the store. I spent almost $20 on materials and the better part of a day cutting, grinding, welding, and painting to create this monstrosity:

My Version

A few months later I’m at Fry’s and I see these for $18.99 a pair…they are about a tenth of the size…you can’t even see them behind the speakers.

Store Version

When we first moved into this house I installed a laminate wood floor in the office. Part of the installation requires the use of spacers around the edge to create expansion room. I spent two hours cutting over a hundred 3/16″ thick spacers…

My Version

By the time I did the next room I discovered that of course they make a plastic spacer that cost like $5.00 for a hundred…

Store Version


But the real prize belongs to the time Monique asked for an aerobic step like this:

Store Version

But of course 2 hours later I deliver this 20 pound shin mangling embarrassment:

My Version

Aquarium Stand

I’ve been wanting to write up a few older projects for a while now. The only draw back is a lack of pictures during the process…all I have are the completed shots. Hopefully its still useful or interesting. A few years ago I was commissioned to design and build a fully integrated aquarium system. The requirements were for a fresh water system that could easily be converted to salt water without changing any equipment. The tank needed to be at least 100 gallons. No aquarium equipment could be visible. The stand needed to fit the existing decor (brick floor, warm wood colors, nothing contemporary) and the system needed to arrive ready to run, just add water and fish! I’ve included costs for those of you who stumbled in here looking for ideas on setting up your new aquarium. My labor charges are not included.

The scale is difficult to gauge in this picture. The piece is 6′ 6″ long, 2′ 4″ deep and 6′ tall. Needless to say it will take up some room in a house!


Aquarium Materials/Equipment:


  • ~65 board feet of rough cut African mahogany ($4.75 per board foot)
  • 1-4’x8′ sheet of 1/2″ mahogany plywood ($60)
  • ~24′ of mahogany crown molding ($3.35 per foot)
  • 1-4’x8′ sheet of 1/4″ mahogany plywood ($30)
  • 1-4’x8′ sheet of 3/4″ pre-finished maple plywood ($65)
  • 12-8′ select or #1 grade 2×4’s ($2.50)
  • Assorted wiring/electrical components (~$75)
  • Hinges/Hardware ($25)
  • Finishing Supplies ($50)


  • High-end Table Saw
  • Jointer (at least a 6″)
  • Surface Planer (12″ or greater)
  • Band Saw
  • Router/Shaper Table
  • Router
  • Shaper Hold Down Jig
  • Rail/Stile Bit Set
  • Raised Panel Bit
  • Edge Molding Bit (2″ High)
  • 1/4″ Cove Bit
  • Plate Jointer
  • Spindle Sander
  • Duel Bevel Compound Miter Saw
  • Random Orbit Sander
  • Finishing Nailer
  • Air Compressor
  • Pocket Screw Jig
  • Loads of Clamps


The tricky part of this project was the integration of 5 distinct systems into one piece of furniture.

  1. A support system that could hold up a 220 lb aquarium, 1,100 lbs of water, a 75 lb canopy (with other decor items on top), and 450 lbs of rock for a total of almost 1,900 lbs.
  2. An electrical system that could deliver power to the pumps, heaters, and lighting as well as control the lights via a timer or override switch.
  3. A plumbing system that could deliver water to and from the filters and the heaters
  4. A decorative wrapper system that would encase all the above systems and make it look like a piece of solid mahogany furniture.
  5. Fully integrated canopy/lighting system

Support System
Step one was to do the load calculations and ensure that the whole thing would not come to a very loud and very wet end. I keep a white board in the shop for tasks like this.

Aquarium Load Calculations


I began by taking high quality white pine 2×4’s and running them through the jointer, planer, and table saw to create 1.25″ x 3″ stock. I then built a frame with this stock using pocket screw joinery.

Frame Design


The front uprights were doubled up in thickness to create the column look. Below you can see the frame assembly from inside one of the cabinets

Frame with Pocket Screws


To the top of the frame and to the inside right and left bottom frame I attached a shelf made of 3/4″ pre-finished maple plywood. This plywood comes from the factory with a heat applied poly coating that is virtually indestructible…perfect for conditions involving water. Minus the back of the cabinet which provides my lateral stability this structure makes up the support system that will bear the 1,900 lb load.

Maple Plywood



Decorative Wrapper System
Next, I needed to disguise the frame with a mahogany wrapper. First, I attached some 1/2″ mahogany plywood panels to the outside ends as well as the inside of the inner frame. The bottom inner frame panel was milled with two dado’s to receive the upright panels. The inner upright frame panels were milled with a dado to receive the center shelf later. Next, I wrapped the upper portions of the frame with a 4″ wide 3/4″ thick band of mahogany. This would later become the support for the crown molding to attach to. For the last bit of plywood work I slid a 1/2″ thick piece of mahogany plywood into the center shelf dado’s and finished it with a small milled piece of solid stock to treat the edge.

Center Shelf



The main visual element of the design is the four fluted columns (they are not load bearing). To build these I glued up a three sided column (front and two sides) with biscuit joinery. Using a jig to ensure accuracy I routed 3 flutes and a corner detail into each column and then fitted them over the existing frame.

Column Fitting over Shelf


I also created a fake rear column on each side using a single piece of stock.

False Column


Next, I attached the top shelf which hides the bottom edge of the aquarium. I treated the edge of this shelf with the same half flute detail that I used on the center shelf, lower cabinet frames, and lower edge of the top wrapper. This simple detail repeating throughout the piece gives unity to the design and ties in to the full flutes on the columns.

Top Shelf Edge Detail


Next, I milled out the base board from solid mahogany stock 2.5″ wide using the shaper. Then I wrapped the bottom edge and columns with the baseboard.

Baseboard Detail


The last piece of molding detail was to install the crown molding below the top shelf and around the tops of the columns.

Column View


The final steps for the design portion of the system was to mill out a pair of raised panel doors.

Rail and Stile


When I installed the doors I made sure to line up the face of the door on the mid-line of the last flute…this allowed the reflection of the half flute in the door face finish to create the illusion of a full flute.

Flute Reflection




Power System
Now that the base was complete it was time to wire the system. The unit features a single line to plug in. This line feeds a multiple sets of outlets in each cabinet.



The white set of outlets on each side powers the filter and heater and any other accessories that require power at all times. The gray plug is controlled by a hidden switch and powers the lighting system. Rather then hard wire the lighting system I utilized this pass through plug design to allow for a timer to be installed on the lighting system at some point in the future.

Hidden Switch



Plumbing System
Now for the water handling system. The canister filters are installed on each side and the output and return lines are passed through the back panel and up to the canopy behind the aquarium background. The output line also runs through an inline heater on each side to avoid having heaters in the tank. You can also see the lighting ballast in this picture.

Inside Cabinet View




Canopy System
The canopy system needed to house the lights, route the plumbing, allow for access to clean the tank, provide an easy way to feed the fish, hide the top edge of the tank, and match the design of the rest of the tank. I built it using a 1/2″ thick plywood for the top rear section and solid 3/4″ stock for the rest. I kept the crown molding and half cove detail intact.

Canopy View


The front and forward 6″ of the top fold completely up to allow for periodic tank maintenance and also revel the 640 watt 24′ long VHO lighting system.

Top Opened


The bulbs are mounted in German 3 piece water proof high temperature T12 sockets and backed by a polished aluminum reflector. The lights are 8″ above the tank to allow for some heat dissipation. You could mount them closer to increase the light level as well as shrink your canopy but you would need fans and this client wanted the system to be as quiet as possible.

Light Mounting


On the right hand side I also installed a fish feeder door to allow limited access to the canopy compartment without opening the face.

Fish Feeding Door


Here is the final product

Competed View



With All Access Doors Open



This project had a materials cost of about $2,400 and a labor cost of around 100 hours. This was a very enjoyable build with lots of unique challenges and design features. Hopefully I’ll get around to doing a few more of these past project write ups.

Make your own 360 degree panoramic picture

I often get asked for advice on setting up a home shop so I started writing a series of posts on selecting tools and arranging your work space when I realized I wanted to include one of those cool interactive 360º scrollable & zoomable panoramic pictures you often see on web sites advertising vacation spots. These images offer users a virtual tour of the environment and just look really cool. I begin the process of learning how to create these images with one goal in mind. It had to be free! I wasn’t going to buy some panoramic lens for my camera, I wasn’t going to pay some company to produce it, and I wasn’t going to shell out any money for software. After 2 weeks of research and failed experiments I finally put all the pieces together. Below you can see the results of the experiment and a step by step how-to guide if you would like to make your own virtual tour (for free).

Click here to take a virtual tour of my shop
(4 Mb file)


To begin, you simply need a camera and a tripod. Take a series of pictures (15-20) rotating the camera a few degrees each time. When finished, you should have a set of pictures covering the entire 360º view. Try to make sure your pictures have some overlap as this helps the software when it stitches together the final panorama. I also found it usefull to put the camera in manual mode. In auto mode the camera adjusts the picture based on lighting. As the lighting may change for different angles, your pictures may not all look the same. This will make your final panorama have obvious seams. Manual mode fixes that. Here are the images I took of the shop. As you can see, each picture shows a slightly different area of the shop (and you can see the jatoba table waiting to be completed on the floor…).


Now you need to download the software that will create the single panoramic image from your photos. The best free tool I found was AutoStitch. After downloading and launching AutoStitch you can play with a few settings (although I used most of the defaults). I did change the scale value (edit>options) to 50% to increase the detail of the final product.


Now click file>open and select all the images from earlier. As soon as you click OK, AutoStitch will begin to create your panoramic image and save it as pano.jpg in the same directory as the original files. Be sure to move or rename the file if you want to try again as AutoStitch will overwrite without warning. Mine looked like this when it was complete.


The next tool you need is some software to take your panoramic image and turn it into an interactive movie. I found that the free version of Pano2QVTR worked great. It can even add clickable hotspots to your movie but I choose not to use that feature. After installing and launching Pano2QVTR you’ll need to change one setting. The default setting for image type is equirectangular but you need to choose cylindrical.


Next you need to tell it where to find your panoramic image (pano.jpg) from AutoStitch. Click the … button next to the “Cylindrical image” field and locate your panoramic image file


Under the “QuickTime Output filename” you can choose the location for your completed movie. Under the settings tab you can also change the size and quality of the final movie. When you are ready click “Create” and Pano2QVTR will take care of the rest. It’s surprisingly fast (about 30 seconds) and upon completion it will show you a preview of your movie. After that you can email or post it to the web if you choose. If you are posting to a web site, here is the minimum code for embeding a quicktime movie.

<object CLASSID=”clsid:02BF25D5-8C17-4B23-BC80-D3488ABDDC6B” width=”600″ height=”420″>
<param name=”src” value=”garage.mov”>
<param name=”controller” value=”true”>


There are other options you can choose to include such as an auto download of the QuickTime plugin. A excellent explanation for all the embedding options can be found here.

Have fun making your own panoramic movies!

PS the shop setup posts are coming soon…