Last week in my college physics lab we got to use these variable resistance 'boxes'. They had two inputs and six dials, and could generate one million different resistances across the two inputs. I knew I had to have one, and why not make it myself? This tutorial demonstrates how to build one for yourself for pretty cheap.
3" x 5" x 2" plastic project enclosure - radio shack: < $10
6 rotary switches (12 position) - parts-express.com: $20 with shipping
6 knobs (make sure they have set-screws) - www.mammothelectronics.com: $8 with shipping
54 resistors (9 of 1,10,100, 1k, 10k Ω, 10 of 100k Ω) - radio shack: $10
Copper wire (22 or 24 gauge solid core) - radio shack: $5
2 alligator clip connectors - radio shack: $3
2 banana plug sockets (optional) - radio shack
Soldering iron & solder
Drill or drill press, and bits
Step 1: The Circuit
Each knob turns one rotary switch from 0-9. Each of the six rotary switches deals with a different order of magnitude of resistance. The first rotary switch can select a resistance from 0-9 Ω, in increments of 1Ω. This switch doesn't have to have a '10' position because we can get a 10 Ω resistor by selecting '1' on the next switch. The next switch can select from 0-90 Ω, but with increments of 10Ω. So, with the sixth switch, we can get up to 0-900k, with increments of 100k Ω. Actually, the highest-order switch (the 0-900k Ω) will have a '10' position also, providing a way to get 1M Ω (because there is no higher-order switch, we can't just choose '1' on that one). By choosing values for each switch, we set each order of magnitude of resistance to the corresponding number on each dial. For instance, if we dial in a 5 on the low-order switch, a 3 on the next one, and then a 6 on the highest-order switch, we will get a resistance of 600,035 Ω.
The schematic for this is really simple, it just relies on the fact that resistors add in series. Basically, each rotary switch has resistors soldered across adjacent leads, and the 'output' of one switch gets connected to the input of the next. For instance, the lowest-order switch, the one that can select from 0-9 Ω, has a 1 Ω resistor soldered across the terminals that correspond to the 0-9 positions. The 'output' is the '0' terminal, and the input is the center terminal for the switch. When we select '5' on the switch, the input is connected to the output through 5 1Ω resistors, giving a resistance of 5Ω. Depending on which position the switch is in, the current is directed through a different number of resistors before it gets sent to the input of the next switch. Like I said before, the input of the lowest-order switch is connected to the output of the next switch, and so on. Going back to the example at the end of the last paragraph, if we choose '5' for the low-order switch, '3' for the next one, and '6' for the highest order switch, the input of the highest order switch gets connected to the output of the lowest-order switch through 6 100kΩ resistors, 3 10Ω resistors, and 5 1Ω resistors, adding to an overall resistance of 600,035 Ω. I might also mention that the input of the highest-order switch gets connected to one of the box's two inputs, as does the output of the lowest-order switch.