Hacking Directions

To follow or not to follow. That is the question we ask ourselves when embarking upon a new project.
This past month students at Islip High School created wind tubes and marble runs in our library makerspace. Like all good ventures we sought out instructions, purchased supplies, cleared a work space, and got busy.

Instructions, like recipes, are sometimes spot on and other times well, let’s just say not so good. I’ve posted pictures of our creations and many have contacted me inquiring about the materials we used. So here’s a summary of our success and failure.

Let’s start with the marble runs. We used the directions from The Exploratorium.

Here’s an annotated list of the materials needed/used:

Dowel rods (not very successful) had a hard time getting them in and out of the pegboard holes and gave up and used traditional pegboard hooks.  Each dowel (36 inches long) was 98 cents (Home Depot) and a package of 50 clothespins was available from the Dollar Store. The box of 50 assorted pegboard hooks cost $6.99 from Harbor Freight.  To use the metal hooks you’ll probably need to hack a bit – use tape to secure or if using plastic, like water bottles, a hole-punch works well.

Spacers – The sizes listed were perfect but you really need to find straight, better quality wood than some of the pieces we got stuck with. We had some issues with warped and knotted wood. Be careful when selecting wood. Those of you who work with wood probably already knew this. I did not pay close attention and had to purchase a few extra pieces.

Pegboard – There are two options and we used both as we were making 6 marble runs. A 2X4 precut pegboard is available for less than $8 each board. Or, you can get a 4X8 pegboard cut into 4 boards; this runs about $20. We found that one of the boards didn’t align because it wasn’t cut accurately. So it’s cheaper but you need to be aware of cutting it properly or you have to go out and buy more boards. I still have an orphan pegboard that is waiting for some project.

Started with nails and quickly changed to screws.   Hammering was loud (really loud), the drill was less noisy and quicker. Guy at the hardware store offered nails so I listened. We should have stuck with the instructions… 

Wood glue – we used on two or three of the boards but not all. The screws were really secure. Let’s just say it didn’t hurt and  didn’t seem to help.

The wood base, unfortunately listened to the guy at Home Depot and went with a smaller size (4″ instead of 6″ high). Later tried the size in the directions (6″) and that worked beautifully. We were able to get three screws in to attach the base instead of two making it more secure and sturdy.

 We then made  wind tubes. We used the following instructions from The Exploratorium.

Here’s an annotated list of the materials needed/used:

Fans – Had to send fans back because they were really large. We thought that 18″ meant the blade, not over all. Of course that makes no sense with a 14″ hoop, but we did it anyway. So the first set purchased was the Honeywell HF-910 – too big. We then finally settled on Honeywell Model  HT-900. 

14″ embroidery hoops – perfect. Got these at Michael’s a local craft store that gives teacher discounts.

Acetate – ordered size from listed on the directions and it worked beautifully.  Kind of expensive so after this I thought I’d try out alternatives such as a ‘dollar store’ plastic tablecloth and lamination film (something that’s usually readily available in almost all schools.) After testing out the lamination film (1.5mil) it was just too flimsy and wouldn’t hold up. We ran it through the lamination machine (empty) once. Perhaps if one had a thicker film or ran the sheet through the laminator an additional time it might have been thicker/stiffer/better; I did not test this out. I also did not have time to test out the plastic tablecloth. It is thicker than the lamination film but not as stiff as the acetate we ordered. One note regarding the plastic acetate and getting the hoops around them – you need at least two people, preferably three; small hands and long arms better.

I didn’t use the wood blocks listed in the directions. I used a curtain rod instead. By this time we were tired of cutting/sawing and I wanted a non-messy quick fix. The adjustable rod was more expensive (double the cost) of thin wood or PVC pipe, but this was my choice. Sometimes time and aggravation are best alleviated by a few dollars. (I got this idea from Harris County Public Library.)

We used clear plastic book tape (packing tape is good too) to attach the curtain rod supports.

The tubes are very light but sturdy enough to handle some abuse. We used them at our local maker expo (SLIME: Students of Long Island Maker Expo) and they held up under under heavy use for hours.


While all this was going on, I remembered a trip to the Children’s Museum in Portland, Maine where my children used to play with a wind device that balanced a beach ball using the force of air. I surmised I could figure out how to make one. How hard could it be? I had Staples Reward dollars that were going to expire in 24 hours so I picked up the Honeywell Turbo Fan Model HT-908, oaktag/poster paper and packing tape. It’s that simple. Tape the thick poster paper onto the fan creating a tube. Go to the Dollar Store and find an inflatable beach ball. Voila! Bernoulli’s Principle easy peasy. (I had to find small beach balls to accommodate the small fan. Larger fan – larger beach ball…)

All in all it was great fun and a unique learning experience. Sometimes we follow directions and that’s what’s best and other times it’s better to adapt and hack.

*I list the stores not as an endorsement but to let you know our process, have a visual, and have an estimate of costs.

**See also Blog post on Power Tools in the Library

My Circus, My Monkeys!

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