Champions of wood planing

In woodworking, planing is the process of using a very sharp blade to shave off pieces of wood. The people in the video above are some of the best at it in the world. The shavings they skim off are less than 10 microns thick. For comparison, the thickness of a sheet of standard copy paper is about 100 microns. (via @colossal)

The bug killing tool preferred by mosquito researchers

Meet The Executioner.

Earlier today, I got a tour of the mosquito breeding facility at North Carolina State University. Basically, it's a small room — about the size of my bathroom at home — where scientists breed and grow the mosquitoes they use in scientific research. The downside: Mosquito enclosures are somewhat less than foolproof. Which means the mosquito breeding facility has a significant number of loose mosquitoes. That's where The Executioner comes in. There were multiple Executioners in that one small room. Then entire time I was talking with the scientists, they were simultaneously swinging around these electrified tennis racquets to zap any mosquito that blundered into their personal space.

Personally, I consider this a hell of an endorsement for any bug killing tool.

Why put magnetic paint on ants?

It seems like a weird past-time, magnetizing ants, but it has some practical purposes. At his blog, media engineer Andrew Quitmeyer explains how he mixed magnetic powder into insect-safe enamel paint, and what he was able to do with it.

The big benefit to something like this is that it could allow scientists to easily alter the populations of social insect groups. Each colony of ants functions, in many ways, like a single organism. So what happens to that hive mind if you remove all the ants doing one particular type of task? Instead of painstakingly picking out each worker with a pair of tweezers every time you want to try this, you could create a colony in which all the workers have had magnetic paint daubed onto their abdomens. Then, you could quickly and easily collect some of them, or all of them, using a magnet. Hunting ants with a tweezer once > hunting ants with a tweezer over and over and over.

Another, possibly less legitimate, use of the paint is demonstrated by Quitmeyer in this video. (Quitmeyer, for the record, is not a social insects researcher.) Using single painted ants in a population of unpainted ants, he plays around with the way colonies remove unhealthy members of their own community. When a magnetized ant starts flopping around erratically in response to a nearby magnet, nearby ants quickly react.

As Quitmeyer says in the video, this demonstration quickly passes from science into mad science (or, at least, YouTube science).

Thanks to Leah Shaffer!

Pedal-powered scroll saw

My little brother and I went to the Blue Ridge Parkway Folk Art Center in Asheville, NC, today and ran across this very cool piece of maker history — a scroll saw operated by a pulley powered contraption resembling a stationary bicycle. Pedal punk?

Read the rest

Science proves that you should wear glittens

They're the mullet of cold-protective clothing. Half glove, half mitten — really, fingerless gloves with a handy mitten flip-top.

They are also fantastic.

Now, partly, this is a matter of personal opinion. But partly, it's just good science.

Before you spend your weekend outdoors, or take your next chilly commute, let's talk briefly about glittens — and the science that makes them superior hand covering.

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Leatherman multi-scissors for medics

Leatherman has announced the Raptor, a set of folding multi-scissors for medics, which include "a carbide glass breaker, a ring cutter, a ruler, an oxygen tank wrench and strap cutters that can be deployed one-handed." It'll be out in May 2013.

Leatherman Raptor For Medics

Dremel's EZ Drum sander mandrel -- about damn time


I have the Dremel tool drum sander mandrel on the left. I don't think the design has changed since 1962, and it sucks mightily. Sanding drums get stuck on it and new ones don't fit on it (at least not for me). I just read Stuart Deutsch's post on Make about the EZ Drum Sanding Mandrel, which sounds like a game-changing improvement on the black rubber mandrel.

Dremel has introduced a couple of new “EZ Lock” rotary tool accessories in recent years that allow for tool-free bit/disc/pad changes. The newest EZ-change addition, a sanding mandrel, has quickly become one of my favorites. With the old-style sanding mandrel, you must toil with a small screw before and after swapping in a fresh sanding sleeve, but with this one you just push and pull.

I have been quite pleased with the direction Dremel has been headed. They dominate the rotary tool and accessories market, so they don’t really need to upgrade little things like mandrels, but they have been doing it anyways. Recent models, such as the 3000 and updated 4000 series rotary tools, feature a built-on collet wrench, and it looks like the upcoming Dremel 4200 will feature a new completely tool-free collet-lock mechanism.

Tool Review: Dremel EZ-Change Sanding Mandrel

Beautifully made tiny miniature 18th century toolchest with tiny, working tools


On The Toolchest Site, an astounding miniature replica of the 18th century Hewitt chest at Colonial Williamsburg, created by miniaturist William Robertson. Robertson's work is mind-boggling in its detail and virtuosity. The article notes that this was a 1,000-hour project.

There are also cast brass Rococo drop handles as well as beaded backplates. It should also be noted that the miniscule lock actually works, and the label on the underside of the lid is printed on 18th century paper — in lettering to perfect scale of course.

As you would expect from something so masterfully created, the tool chest was made with the same construction as the original chest. Tool trays and drawers are fully dovetailed with hand-sawn dust boards. The dividers are v-notched and crosslapped and the lid sides are tongue and groove.

Robertson’s tool chest contains all the same tools that were found in the original. All the tools work, even the plane’s tote (handle) is set a scale 1/8″ to one side as the original. The saw has 160 teeth to the inch. Robinson says that the hardest tool to make was the folding rule with 5 leaf hinge. It is about .030″ thick and hand engraved on boxwood. Things like the shears and dividers also have nice little joints.

William Robertson Miniature Tool Chest (via Make)

Dubstep power tools

MysterGuitarMan's excellent "Dubstep Power Tools" video, a promo for a home improvement shopping site.

A directory of wonderful sounds

Carnegie Mellon University's Auditory Lab has a huge collection of high-quality audio recordings of random sounds—from a marble dropped onto sheet metal, to bubble wrap being popped, to crumpling newspaper, to the sound of a sponge being squeezed out over empty tupperware. I trust you all will come up with fun uses for this stuff. At the Annals of Improbable Research you can hear one of the lab's sloshing sounds. It is a very good slosh. (Via Marc Abrahams)

Homo erectus and the paradox of human tools

Over the weekend, at the Earth Day tweetup at the Science Museum of Minnesota, I heard an interesting fact: Human beings are now the dominant agent of landscape change on this planet, more than any natural process. (That's right. Suck it, glaciers!)

We tend to think of this kind of thing as a result of modernity. But I think that's only partly true. Modern technology has given us the tools that enable us to change the landscape of Earth in massive ways we weren't capable of in the past. But throughout human existence—even before we were technically human—we have made relatively large alterations to the world. It's not like human beings woke up one day and thought, "Hey, it's the 20th century, let's start messing around with stuff!" In reality, what makes our modern impact on the planet different from past—other than scale—is mainly that we've developed more self-awareness about our impact on the planet, and have actually started talking about whether we like the side effects those impacts bring.

Case in point: A recent study of ancient African animal species that suggests our ancestors drove a huge proportion of fauna to extinction basically as soon as they were technologically capable of doing so. Here's how Ann Gibbons described it at Science Now:

After comparing fossils of 78 species of carnivores that lived during five different periods of time between 3.5 million years ago (when large carnivores were at their peak) and 1.5 million years ago, Werdelin found that all but six of 29 species of large carnivores (animals that weighed more than 21.5 kilos) had gone extinct in that time. Moreover, the mass extinction began just before H. erectus appeared in the fossil record 1.9 million years ago. He also found that the community of carnivores alive 2.5 million to 2 million years ago ate a much broader range of food—with species within a community filling a wider range of dietary niches. By 1.5 million years ago, just hypercarnivores that ate only meat, such as lions and leopards, had survived while omnivores that scavenged and ate a wider range of foods, like civets, had disappeared. "Even I was surprised by the dramatic drop," Werdelin says.

Those omnivores that went extinct were in direct competition for scavenged carcasses with hominins.

This sounds kind of depressing, but I think it should actually make us feel a bit optimistic. Two million years ago, Homo erectus might have killed off 23 species of large carnivores. They had the tools to hunt and the desire to eat. But, even if they'd wanted to, those H. erectus wouldn't have had the tools necessary to organize other H. erectus' and better manage their own use of natural resources.

And that brings me to another interesting point that folks from the Science Museum of Minnesota kept making over and over at the Earth Day event. Modern life has created some pretty serious environmental challenges. But, at the same time, it's also put us in a much better position to deal with those challenges. Humans today are better educated, healthier, wealthier, and better connected with one another than any humans that have ever lived before. Our tools have helped us create some pretty big problems. But our tools are also exactly what we need to solve those problems.

Read the rest of the article at Science Now

Image: Homo erectus tools, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from hmnh's photostream

Inside Santa's science workshop

On Saturday, I spoke at an Earth Day Tweetup at the Science Museum of Minnesota. As part of the event, the museum took tweeters on a behind-the-scenes tour, including the exhibit workshop. (The Science Museum of Minnesota is one of the few science museums in the United States that designs and builds all its own exhibits from scratch.) Also on the tour: Science House, a nifty resource center for Minnesota teachers. That's where this photo comes from.

Science House is a separate, detached building, set in the Museum's "backyard", that's open to teachers during after-school hours and during the Summer. It's home to a vast array of science paraphernalia. Besides this collection of skulls and plastic biology models, there's also racks of microscopes and chemistry glassware, a bookshelf full of solar system models, a regiment of Van de Graaf generators, and a full human skeleton dangling from a hook in the ceiling. There's also dozens and dozens of intriguing red plastic tubs lined up on shelves. The tubs are full of equipment, tools, and books that aren't available in every school. Teachers can check out any of these things from the museum, like you'd check out a book from a library.

See more pictures from the tour at my Google+ account.

Find out more about Science House, and how teachers can use the space.

A car that can run on the road or the rails

This customized 1957 Pontiac was used by the Erie Mining Company to transport supervisors up and down the company's 74-mile-long Mainline railroad, which shipped taconite from mines in northern Minnesota to coastal ports and processing facilities on Lake Superior.

Every day, seven 96-car trains full of taconite travel down this rail line. The Pontiac was tricked out to allow it to drive on both roads or on the Mainline rails, themselves, with rail wheels that could be raised or lowered. You can see the rail wheels in the photo below.

Both photos come from my visit to the Lake Superior Railroad Museum in Duluth last month.

Annihilator: a multifunction demolition tool


I've been satisfied with the Stanley FuBar demolition tool that Mark reviewed in 2008 (available in safety yellow!), but I am sorely tempted by the Annihilator Wrecking Bar, which sports all the same features as the FuBar, along with a bottle-opener, a board-straightener, a "multi-purpose nail-puller," a demolition axe, and a chisel. Plus, it's called THE ANNIHILATOR. John Scalzi's bought one for his kid to use for zombie-defense training.

Dead On Tools AN14 Annihilator Wrecking Bar, 14-Inch tools,zombies,gadgets,total destruction the only solution

Vintage aluminum label-embosser kicks your labelwriter's ass


Make's Sean Michael Ragan reviews an old-school Dymo Metal Embossing Tapewriter he found cheap on eBay and finds it to be an eminently satisfying piece of kit. There are modern versions but they'll cost you lots more, and this thing is pretty much indestructible so there's no reason not to buy a cheapo one on eBay.

But in terms of construction quality and durability, the Tapewriter is as far removed from those cheap plastic embossers as a Mercedes is from a Kia. It’s 10″ long, weighs almost two pounds, and is made almost entirely from cast aluminum, with steel fittings here and there, and all held together with machine screws. The only polymer in the thing, as far as I can tell, is a rubber friction coating on the internal tape drive wheels...

Embossed aluminum is pretty much the ultimate labeling material. Without wanting to be morbid, there is a reason why military services around the world choose it for personnel identification tags. Secured with mechanical fasteners, instead of adhesives, an embossed aluminum label will stand up for years against water, extremes of heat and cold, prolonged direct sunlight, and any organic solvent you care to throw at it. This is a true “industrial-grade” labeling tool, and if you can snag a used one for a reasonable price, you can expect a lifetime of use from it.

Tool Review: Dymo Metal Embossing Tapewriter