DIY cellphone

David Mellis at the High-Low Tech group at the MIT Media Lab built a DIY Cellphone, making a custom circuit-board and laser-cutting his own wooden case. The files are hosted on GitHub in case you'd like to try your hand at it.

An exploration into the possibilities for individual construction and customization of the most ubiquitous of electronic devices, the cellphone. By creating and sharing open-source designs for the phone’s circuit board and case, we hope to encourage a proliferation of personalized and diverse mobile phones. Freed from the constraints of mass production, we plan to explore diverse materials, shapes, and functions. We hope that the project will help us explore and expand the limits of do-it-yourself (DIY) practice. How close can a homemade project come to the design of a cutting edge device? What are the economics of building a high-tech device in small quantities? Which parts are even available to individual consumers? What’s required for people to customize and build their own devices?

The initial prototype combines a custom electronic circuit board with a laser-cut plywood and veneer enclosure. The phone accepts a standard SIM card and works with any GSM provider. Cellular connectivity is provided by the SM5100B GSM Module, available from SparkFun Electronics. The display is a color 1.8″, 160×128 pixel, TFT screen on a breakout board from Adafruit Industries. Flexures in the veneer allow pressing of the buttons beneath. Currently, the software supports voice calls, although SMS and other functionality could be added with the same hardware. The prototype contains about $150 in parts.

Mellis's Master's thesis is "Case studies in the digital fabrication of open-source consumer electronic products" and includes a 3D printed mouse, fabbed speakers and a fabbed FM radio.

High-Low Tech – DIY Cellphone (via Hacker News)

(Images: Laser-cut plywood and veneer case, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from mellis's photostream; Making a call, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from mellis's photostream)


  1. I like it! this stretches the boundaries of what we consider to be home-producible. The use of a GSM module is a bit of cheating, but not much.

    1. Not sure if you’re suggesting he’s supposed to laser-etch his own nation-wide cellphone network, or if there’s an actual viable alternative to using GSM in the US.

      Oh, if you’re talking about the module itself… well, it’s about as “cheating” as using an Arduino in your project, I guess?

      1. Yes, I consider using an Arduino to be cheating a bit, since it’s a prefab gizmo. On the other hand, I can’t imagine anyone other than a cellphone design engineer making their own GSM module, and even then it’s a major engineering challenge.

    1. Most large cities have places where you can rent time on a laser cutter.  It’s just a hair above saying “DIY for that portion of the population with a bandsaw.”

    2. You 200 years ago: “DIY for that portion of the population with access to a lathe”

      You 1000 years ago: “DIY for that portion of the population with access to a waterwheel”

      You 100,000 years ago: “DIY for that portion of the population with access to a properly knapped hand axe”

    3. Some people build laser cutters from DVD writers. Probably the same kind of people who build cellphones from scratch.

        1. Ain’t they all? It’s beyond my capabilities, but I’m able to do simpler things, like swap out the engine in my car for a better one. I know people that’d call in professional help to get a shelf put up.

  2. I’d like to see someone combine a module like this with a raspberry pi to create a home made smartphone/fablet.

    1. Almost sure you’d end up with something as thick as the original brick gameboy but that actually sounds like a pretty neat idea.

  3. Tip of the iceberg, and beautiful it is too.

    Within, what, 5 years, this will be so commonplace.  You’ll have someone in town chucking together beautifully designed and presented phones, using Samsung innards (or whatever), and custom-building them for you – cheap too.

    I love change.

  4. Okay, suppose I hire someone to build this thing: how does one go about connecting to the phone system? Do you buy some sort of pay-as-you-go contract with a carrier?

    1. Contract or pay-as-you go. Doesn’t matter as long as it’s on a network that follows widely accepted standards. So no worries if you are in EU, but might not work some networks in the USA.

  5. I look at it and want it to be a giant dock for an iphone.  I know it’d be completely non-functional as a carry-able phone, but at first glance that is all I can see.

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