Making for the Mind


I took part in a global event called “Virtually Maker Faire” and managed to write and live stream this talk using only what I had to hand! It was a swift introduction to using OBS (Open Broadcast Software) and my first solo livestream. Let me know what you think!

If you’d like to take a look at the other talks from the event you can find a schedule here.

For a really good primer on using the free OBS software, check out this video by Sandy Roberts – it’s so clear!

I miss my log burner.


Yes, I know. An odd start to a blog post.

I used to have a log burning stove. It was great, it had a back boiler to heat water for the house and provide wood fired central heating. You could put a pot of stew on the top of it and magically have dinner ready. You could cook scones on top of it, straight on the baking tray and watch them like a hungry cat.

I had the tail end of a reel of neopixels left over from various projects, just three little pixels, and I was thinking of making them the “fire” in a little box frame I picked up for £2 from Hobbycraft. The pixels had electrical tape on them where they’d been hastily stuck to some test rig or other, and the contacts were, quite frankly, clumped up with crap worse than a set of false eyelashes.  This meant they were going to have to be hidden.


I was noodling around with a bag of sensors I picked up from the cheap and cheerful stall of ABX Labs, and looking at the odd ones that I hadn’t managed to incorporate into a project yet. Lighting up some pixels is kind of standard and not hugely interesting, so I wanted the “log burner” to fire up when it detected *something*.


Temperature sensor – it’s cold, fire lights. Light sensor – it gets dark, fire lights. Tactile button… let’s not even go there.

Both legitimate solutions, but it’s not in the spirit of things, is it? This is where I grabbed the more unusual sensors (yeah, the ones I didn’t recognise) and I started looking at sales photos on ebay to identify them. Turns out I had a FLAME SENSOR. Yeah, baby. It’s totally logical to me now.

Make a fireplace that lights when you light it.

I used a micro:bit because I wanted the project to be easy to copy, even for those who don’t write standard code.

The sensor detects a flame, or it doesn’t. You can adjust the sensitivity by using a screwdriver on the onboard potentiometer, turn it left (anticlockwise) to make it less sensitive, right (clockwise) to make it more sensitive. Try it out by connecting it like this:


Once you’ve figured out how close you want the flame to be, leave the potentiometer as it is. It will now be in one of two states – flame, or no flame. You can use this as a digital signal like a keypress to trigger an event using the microbit. Just make note of which pin you connect the data pin to, and use the “on pin (whatever) pressed… ” block.

Wire up your neopixels and sensor like this.


The code I used has a HUGE nod to Phil Burgess’ jack o lantern code for the Adafruit Circuit Playground, because it’s essentially a random flicker generator, and I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel. I just modified it to use the strip connected to the micro:bit instead of the onboard Circuit Playground lights (p.s. I bloody love the Circuit Playground but it wouldn’t fit in the frame).

Now, you can keep this randomly flickering all of the pixels at the same time, or you can create a thread for each pixel to flicker individually.

Here’s the simple version:


All that remained was to give the frame some little legs (cardboard painted black) and a few log burner fittings (more cardboard painted black), and now I have a log burner you can actually light.

Of course, this is an utterly useless project as per usual, but at least I have a shrine to my aspiration of living off-grid again.

DISCLAIMER: If you use a flame sensor and you are daft or misfortunate enough to set yourself/others/your belongings on fire, then you need to think about whether you should really be allowed Nice Things. Fire is a dangerous thing and you should only play with it if you’re responsible.

Baby Dragon

costumes, Uncategorized

For Halloween, my son told me that he wanted to be a dragon. What kind? I asked.

A fire breathing one.

Since small children with flamethrowers are generally frowned upon, he settled for sound reactive lights.


I am a busy person, so whatever shortcuts could be thrown at this costume, got thrown at them. First off, black trousers, red sweatshirt, base done. Secondly twitter informed me that articulated dragon wings are a Thing on the internet, so a set of those got purchased pretty sharpish. Luckily Child does not like having anything on his face, whether that be makeup or masks, so it was down to whatever I could figure out to whack on over the sweatshirt.

The design appeared, scribbled by me while Child looked on and corrected me. Frequently.


And this is how we ended up with this implausibly detailed design.


The idea is that there’s an Adafruit Circuit Playground Express on the chest, set to detect sounds, and then fire off er, fire-coloured lights over the front of the costume. The other part is that he wanted to actually code the lights, so I was limited to the microcontrollers he had experience of – it was that or the Micro:bit.

The lovely thing about the Circuit Playground is that you can code it at least three ways – MakeCode, Circuit Python, and that other thing. You know, that one.

More on that later.


As I’m sure everyone does, I wrapped half of Child in chip paper (Americans, it’s the outer layer of what fish and chips is wrapped in. The inner layer is too greasy.) and drew where the chest plate should go. The shoulder plates were fashioned out of the recycling (cereal packets) and tested for flexibility.

Then I marked the pieces out onto the back of some red glitter felt, cut them out and hit a snag. I wanted to pin the shoulder plates together with paper fasteners, but we didn’t have any, so I improvised. Turns out bent paperclips work just fine.


Chest plate next.


We did a lot of umming and aahing at this point, as the glittery red didn’t contrast very well with the sweatshirt. I focused on the positioning of the Circuit Playground and the lights while that got mulled over.

I cut a diamond/rhombus shape out of mdf, with a hole for the Circuit Playground to fit in snugly, before realising that wires are a fairly important part of the setup. Cue a bit of filing.


I gave the MDF a coat of primer, and set an orange perspex diffuser into the hole, and tested this out with the pumpkin candle tutorial from Adafruit to see how it looked. Pretty good, I thought.

There was a problem though. The diffuser meant that the microphone/sound sensor on the board wasn’t picking up enough of a difference between a moving child with rustling clothes, and a roaring child who was pretending to be a dragon. All sorts of misfires (pardon the pun) meant a redesign.


And then… into my life appeared this AMAZING dragon scale material. Couldn’t not use it, as it was both scaly and black (and thusly contrasted with the sweatshirt perfectly).


Enter the next three nights of my life, soldering these little things onto snippets of wire to fit on the pattern I’d drawn. Layouts are very important so that you don’t end up with too short a join, or an impossible bridge.


Exactly why I sat down and drew it first, before cutting all those little bits of wire. Sadly, my brain hadn’t registered that I was looking at the inside of the chest plate, and that the Circuit Playground would be facing outwards. [insert facepalm here]


Note the complete flip of the pins. D’oh!

I still hadn’t noticed, so I commenced snipping the wires to the right length and then soldering them at the right angles. I was feeling quite smug at this point.


And now all I had to do was fit the Circuit Playground onto the wired LED chest plate and… oh. I think I stopped taking photos at this point as I frantically rewired the start of each strand to the correct side of things, so as a consolation prize here’s a very ugly photo of my idea of securing wiring to the back of something where you know no one will see it.

DSC_1446We used MakeCode to add the lights in three sections, so that we could control them in a ripple effect (marked sections 0, 1 and 2 on the paper).


On the front, I used stick on gems as diffusers for the pixels. Surprisingly, we only lost one gem while out trick or treating!


And finally, it’s ugly and quick but it works, we duck taped the chest plate on (the wings covered it), popped the wings over the top and bada bing bada boom – one baby dragon! When he roared, the lights lit up from bottom to top in a kind of ripple effect, and as you can see in the last photo, it was enough to light the way for him and his friends when trick or treating.


Get Tanya to Maker Faire New York…


Ok, this is a tricky post. I am really lucky that my job allows me to travel occasionally to maker events, but it’s really time someone else at work got a go.

I got accepted to Maker Faire New York, and I’d absolutely love to go. Financial situations being what they are, I’m gonna need to raise some funds. Now, I’m not going to ask you to shell out to help with no reward, so I propose that I get myself to the Maker Faire through the medium of… making.

What more appropriate method?

Watch this space and I’ll update you on where we’re at with progress and what’s currently being made and up for sale. We can start with the potted components….


Thoughts on jewellery

Cool things, Uncategorized

While I was in America at Bay Area Maker Faire, I managed to meet the amazing Mary Etta West, who designs pcbs to *be* jewellery. In Berlin I happened upon some manufacturers of extreme close up cameras doing a surface mount soldering workshop.. on jewellery.

So of course, my autism demands that I focus wholeheartedly and intensely on jewellery (jewelry if you must, American chums).

First, Mary Etta West, aka LightningHawk. She designs pcbs and you’ll recognise a fair few of her boards – the LilyPad Proto Snap, the Sparkfun Weatherbit, and many others. She’s used her skills to make the most gorgeous jewellery with programmable lights under the nom de plume (nom de circuit?) Desert Bloom. Add a 3-d printed cover and you’re pretty close to geek nirvana.




Also, I clearly have an inability to pull a normal face in photos. L-R Angela Sheehan (@the_gella), Mary (@_LightningHawk) and me (@tanurai).

One of her pieces *may* have made it back to the UK. Via Berlin, where it was greatly admired.


For more about her designs, visit

Impending Forrins


It turns out that May and June are very busy.

Shortly I’ll depart for San Francisco. I will be writing for both Pimoroni and Make. I’ll be presenting talks at HDDG and at Make itself, and popping up at the Bring a Hack meetup. Air travel kinda stops you whoofing all your cool stuff into a car and just turning up with a bag of tricks, so the Americans are going to have to deal with an idiot Brit turning up with a bag of trash and a headfull of ideas.

Been Busy…


So since Christmas things have been a bit frantic. I’ve been updating twitter, but not this page, not as much as I should do. I’ll try to force myself to do a post a week, but don’t hold me to it.

A sort-of mini world tour is imminent, and although hectic there are some places I’ve been wanting to see ever since I got into this Maker lark. I’ve had to turn down some things (why does everyone hold an event on the May Bank Holiday weekend?) and other events because burnout is a Very Real Thing.

So – what have you missed?

January – How does that work?

I got a bit obsessed with finding out how our boards work, and delved into the ins and outs of components. Some tutorials came out of that, and you can find them at the Pimoroni blog.

During this time, the wonderful and talented Ruth Amos and Kisha Bradley were campaining for #girlswithdrills, so of course I bought a t-shirt to support the cause, and took a rather awkward photo wearing it. (And yes, I know one of those is a screwdriver, not a drill.)

In nicer photographic images, I rediscovered crochet thanks to the geeky hooker’s pattern for a Porg. I couldn’t stop making them.

Crocheted porg held in my hand, a bit lumpy but otherwise looking as annoyed as the porg did at chewy

Lasers also got a look in, and thanks to a pattern on thingiverse I am now the proud owner of some Portal earrings. I really do love plastic weld glue, it literally melts the surfaces of your acrylic together for a rock solid hold.

Portal earrings made from laser cut perspex and mirror.

I designed my current twitter avatar, which is a pixellated version of me. It was fun, but ridiculously constricting. Got hooked on Shenzhen IO, which is a brilliant if rather frustrating game that is a simulator of designing and programming circuits. Why I didn’t just learn to design pcbs, I dunno. It was in a Steam bundle and I’m impressionable.

In nail news (which might be why some of you are here, who knows? I discovered thermochromic gel polish, which has pigment that changes colour with changes in temperature. Here’s a gif.

In fact, as I write this I’m wearing lime green – bottle green thermochromic varnish. It hasn’t lost it’s appeal!

Went to BETT and saw loads of cool people, ideas, and innovations, and got some more insight into what we need to be doing to make STEM subjects more accessible. I also gawked quite enthusiastically at the Wall of Microbit!

Oh, and we had some little connector pins called Pogo Pins delivered at work, so I did a video with Sandy about how to use them.

And to end the month, I got a fever.

Turns out January was quite busy… the other 3 months will have to wait for the next post.



Xmas dress 2017


For our Christmas do, I usually do something along the lines of …well, lights. In my family we have always celebrated the Solstice and the sun coming back, because quite frankly, Winter is a bit miserable.

So, last year I wore a crown of ivy, berries, and little warm white lights.

IMG-20171106-WA0008 (2)

This year… I figured I’ve got a bit better at coding, so why not use that to make my lights a bit more interesting?

IMG_r32qnh (2)

I drew this sketch with all the enthusiasm and disregard for practicality of a 5 year old. First step was actually having a dress to put it in. Sewing is something I’m capable of, but I don’t have the patience to sew sequins on. Cue Chinese manufacturing.  Turns out if you send your measurements along with a rough sketch of what you want, then wait weeks and weeks, eventually a dress turns up.

IMG-20171219-WA0042 (2)

It also transpires that I can’t measure myself correctly, so the V shaped back is going to be a little more V-y than first planned. If you want a laugh, the zip also got stuck when I was trying it on, and I had to be helped out by a neighbour and a can of WD40. Plus point, the dress smells better now.

While I was waiting for the dress to arrive, I made up some prototypes. They kind of worked, but were a bit ugly. This version is a halloween witches’ skirt with red LEDs underneath – sort of works, and you get the idea of what I was aiming for. I wanted SNOW though. The lights on the prototype went up, not down. 😦

Screenshot_20171223-214426 (2)

It was time to be brave and dip a toe into Arduino to drive Neopixels. I got some WS2812B’s on Lorraine Underwood’s recommendation – they’re the ones she used for her awesome weather display stairs.

So, when you don’t know how to do something (in my case, ANYTHING) with an Arduino you turn to the internet. I used Adafruit’s tutorial on the Trinket to get the right libraries installed and to learn how to upload code onto a Trinket. Nothing gave off magic smoke, so all good so far.

Next, time to research falling snow patterns. My local Emporium of Shops (referred to as Meadowhell) had some great icicle patterns that appeared to drip snow. I nosied at their xmas decorations , but after a near miss with a balcony I gave up trying to look at their microcontrollers, and to be fair the security guard was giving me suspicious looks.

TO THE INTERNET!!!! I really admire the work of Kamui Cosplay – so I bought a book of Svetlana’s called Advanced Lights – Animated LEDs. You can get them from Adafruit or from her website. It’s a very fun and well written book with lots of little asides, and gave me the confidence to have a go at altering some code. Her Nova cosplay lights were based on these LED falls by Phillip Burgess, which in turn were based on these shoes by Becky Stern, so I guess my dress code is in good company.


I looked at the colours in the LED falls and how they were set – and changed the code so that it was shades of blue, white and cyan. I also think I may have found a bug in the code on the page – you need to add the word “const” before the line about the gamma correction table (line 11).

I uploaded this code onto the Trinket, and then tested it with one strip of 15 Neopixels. BOOM! Happy times, it worked straight off. I tested it out on all of the pins in turn, from 0 to 4. Still good. Next I had to work out how to wire up the strips to be stable enough to hang around all night on a skirt and not be a horrendous fire hazard or giant tangle.

There is a guide to wiring the LED falls on the tutorial page, but I wanted mine to be a lot more spread out to go around the dress, instead of all radiating from the same point, so I grabbed some card and made an extremely poor and non technical wiring diagram.

IMG_20171220_111222 (2)

The warning on the Adafruit tutorial says your soldering has to be Rock Solid, so I knocked up some mounting plates for the top of each strip so that the solder joints wouldn’t be under any stress. I cut them out of 3mm scrap perspex on the laser, with mounting holes on the top, and a textured front so that when I inevitably glued the neopixel strips on with hot glue it’d have something to grip on.


Soldering took ages because I stopped after each strip to re-test that they still did what I wanted, because there’s nothing worse than working your way through 42 solder joints and *then* finding out there’s a problem.

Next, I glued each strip to a mounting plate, and threaded a cable tie through the holes I’d cut. I then liberally taped with all up with black electrical tape, kind of to hide the joins and also because I feared bits dropping off.

The installation of electronics into the dress was a lot easier than I thought – largely due to the cable ties I nabbed off Jon, and the way that I wanted it to be removable for washing the dress. A cable tie through the mounting plate, then a safety pin through the cable tie and onto the dress. A few more cable ties sorted out any baggy wires, and then finally I pinned the board to the back, and added a USB cable so I could run the dress off a powerbank.

Yay! All was lovely. Until I plugged in the powerbank. Turns out that testing the electronics with mains power works lovely, but a powerbank just doesn’t give out enough current to light all of the strips. Yes, I should have thought of this before.

Cue a change to LiPo batteries. Which also couldn’t give enough oomph, so I had to double the price of the electronics (I’d spent £20 so far) and fork out for an Adafruit Powerboost 1000.



I know this isn’t a very detailed write up, but I made the dress for fun, rather than for a tutorial. Maybe when I make one for the toddler in the photo I’ll do a proper tutorial.

Parts used:

  • WS2812b reel of pixels, cut into 15 pixels per strip.
  • 7.5m of black stranded wire
  • 7.5m of red stranded wire
  • one scrap proto board liberated from Botlab
  • lead free solder
  • scrap 3mm perspex
  • about 20 black cable ties
  • 5v Adafruit Trinket ( Adafruit (USA) or Pimoroni (UK)  )
  • Adafruit Powerboost 1000 ( Adafruit (USA) or Pimoroni (UK) )