Steampunk Geodesic Terrarium




Posted in TechnologySteampunk

Introduction: Steampunk Geodesic Terrarium

My name is Jacob Siler, and I'm currently co-founding a game development company through crowd funding. We're working on our first game, named Sky Bridge! It will be a massive online Steampunk universe -- quite unlike any game currently on the market. For more on the company (and the game) please stop by our facebook page at and help out on our funding campaign if you choose. Now to show you one of the Steampunk items I've built with my hands.

Around mid-October I got news of a steampunk/Shakespeare-themed Halloween party being planned at the local University. It was put on by a student organization, and they needed decorations for the celebration. I decided to pitch in something that I would enjoy planning and building -- the hope was that it would add the ambiance of some mad-scientist steampunkery to the room.

The general idea was to design something that Shakespeare would have in his office were he a steampunk mad-scientist.
I have a thing for geodesic shapes so the idea came to make a geodesic terrarium to go in the room. It was to be a dome originally.
I wanted to add fairies to the terrarium alongside the mystical vegetation.
Then some costumes my sister and friend were looking into inspired me to make the fairies from A Midsummer Night's Dream as a central theme of the terrarium.

Eventually I couldn't help myself and I chose to make it a complete geodesic sphere, whith sculpted clay fairies and light effects all over the inside landscape.

I am sure that the Bard would be proud to have the fairy cast of A Midsummer Night's Dream  in his laboratory terrarium -- assuming, of course, that he were mad, a scientist, steampunk, and also pleased himself by keeping fairies stuck in a sweet geodesic display.
I can see it being a subject for an intirely different play.

In any case I hope you enjoy the instructable, and can take something useful from it for your builds.


Step 1: Building a Geodesic Sphere

This part was tricky at first. I did a lot of thinking about this step and finally had to fall back on information from the internet (Don't judge.)
Regardless of how I came to know about any of this I learned a few things about Geodesic domes and spheres and how they are put together. I didn't learn a whole lot and there are large volumes on the subject if you are more interested in that aspect of the instructable.

All of the necessary findings I used can be summed up in this link.

I was not very practical at first in trying to tackle the idea, but this website saved my life and I give full credit to those who made the site. Let me be clear that none of that is my material. I relied on the site to help me figure out the lengths for the struts I eventually used.

Let me break down the simple jargon you may need to work on a dome, or sphere of your own (this is almost indispensable if you have a team working and don't want to make up all of the verbiage used.)

These are the intersecting points between each group of triangles that make up the shape: essentially, the vertices.

These are the lines that connect the hubs to other hubs.

Clicking on the above linked site will make what I just said very evident.

There are different levels of detail in a Geodesic sphere, and the math can get a bit complicated if you're like me.
To break it down to a simple level was my first priority, so for my sphere I decided to make a 2V shape because 1) it was simpler, and 2) it was cheaper. Since this was my first geodesic build (except for a straw/pipe-cleaner structure) I wanted to use my material effectively and make something that also looked nice.

There are a few things that are good to know when building a 2V geodesic dome or sphere:

1. There are six pentagons in a Geodesic dome, in a sphere there are, naturally, twice that many -- two domes connected make a sphere in this case.

2. There are ten struts across the bottom of a dome, on a sphere half of those struts are unneeded on both domes because the pentagons' bottom edges interlock, making the full circle complete (This will explain my use of less material later on down the page.)
Hence for a dome you do not need to make a bottom edge at all, only focus on making the six pentagons.

3. Finally the letter V in 2V, 3V, 4V and nthV domes and spheres is actually the letter Nu. Though I was originally trying to use Pi to figure out my sphere, with the calculator you can get away with Nu, or less (don't worry - I could even do this; no math skill required.)

Step 2: Getting the Materials

The first thing I did after all my thought, drawings, and research was buy the materials.
First I bought electrical conduit.
The website I linked to, shows how to use this inexpensive material to build domes. The site uses pipe for the struts and bolts to make the hubs; I did likewise.  I found the price for the conduit at local stores was uniform and reasonable. I bought mine from Home Depot for $2 per ten-foot section. Most hardware stores should have similar prices and products. 

Once you've picked a size for your sphere the dome calculator will give you a basic idea of how much you need to buy. I chose to do a five foot sphere so I entered half of that into the dome calculator to get back how much material I needed. It said ten ten-foot sections so I bought 20 to be sure I had enough for both halves. I did some extra calculations after buying them and realized that I only needed 17 of the 20 suggested sections, so I took three back and scored 6 unexpected dollars. That put a smile on my face. I then calculated it out and bought enough bolts for the sphere with a few extra. You can do the same by reducing ten bolts, and nuts, and twenty washers from the overall parts list -- this is my idea of heavy calculation! The reason for the reduced parts is the redundant struts around the bottom edges of both domes.

I decided to buy lock nuts for this project, but if your project doesn't need to stay together for a really long time you can save a few dollars by buying regular nuts. I personally couldn't foresee what I would use it for afterwards, so I wanted it to last.

Next I needed to figure out what tools to use for the build.

Please keep in mind that neither I, nor Instructables are responsible for any injuries or damages caused to you, others or property while working on your projects, or with tools used in the making of your projects, whether inspired by instructables or not.

That said, let's briefly go over a little safety info.

Step 3: Safety First

Caution should be taken in the making of this, or any other project.

It is important to wear eye, ear, and breathing protection when cutting, drilling, or otherwise working with metal.
It is also vital to keep your hands, fingers, clothing, and any every other part of you away from drill bits, saw blades, or anything else in motion. When in doubt always assume that a tool is on and dangerous; this is the surest way to prevent injury or accident. Also keep all flammable objects, liquids, or gasses clear of sparks and hot metal which will be produced in the use of metal cutting, grinding, or drilling tools. Keep yourself and others away from sparks. Freshly cut electrical conduit will be hot and may have extremely sharp edges; always wear gloves when working with it, and do not touch the cut ends or burrs for any reason. These can be razor sharp.

Please take every precaution available to you. Pay attention to anyone else working with you or walking around you while working.

To recap:

Wear heat resistant Gloves

Wear a Respirator

Wear eye Protection

Wear ear Protection

Wear flame resistant clothing, or an apron when cutting electrical conduit

Keep hands well clear or moving tools

Be aware that conduit becomes very hot when being cut, and sharp edges will be left by all tools being used on it

Move all flammable materials, liquids, gasses, and objects out of the path of sparks and hot metal that will be produced by any tools used.

Be cautious when working to ensure the safety of individuals and property around you.

Now that we have that pleasant business over, let's go on to what tools you will need.

Step 4: The Right Tools

This is not an exact science. The tools used on the dome site I've linked to will work perfectly well if you have the strength and time to use them. I ended up using 1/2 inch pipe on my sphere which rendered my weak arms totally incapable of smashing the ends the way the website describes it. Luckily my brother has made a living using a hammer for many years, sometimes for wood, sometimes for metal (He's a bladesmith who built aircraft parts for a while, and now does carpentry) so I made the trip to his house, and he made it work. Nevertheless I'll lay out what you need as simply as I can.

1. Something to cut the conduit. I used my brother's chopsaw with a metal cutting blade.
This worked quickly and consistently, and if you own a chopsaw (or can access one) a metal cutting blade is relatively cheap at your local hardware store.

2. Something to smash the conduit, and bend it. My brother did all of this as I mentioned. I reccomend a medium hammer, and some strong arms. If you have ones of your own, so much the better.
If you can get neither of those options I recommend a trip hammer, or maybe doing some research to find alternative methods. You can bend the pipe on, or in a vice as shown on the website, as for me, my brother pounded it flat and then to the angle in a few hits. He checked it against a couple of two-by-fours we had cut to the angles for A, and B type struts.

3. Something to drill the conduit. We used a good solid drill press. You'll want a titanium drill bit that's slightly larger than your bolts. Mine were a little snug which made assembling the sphere more difficult. One of ours broke so we needed to buy another one, you may want to plan ahead in case that happens.

Step 5: Cutting the Conduit

This step is somewhat time consuming, and you may wish to eat before, in the middle, and afterwards (I certainly did.)
First mark out the lengths for all of the A type struts on your conduit pipe. Consistency is key here, keep in mind that the saw will remove more than a pencil line sized piece, so the dome, or sphere may not be exactly the size you wanted originally, unless you account well for the extra length lost. I wasn't too worred about it being exact, so I just marked all of the lines consistently, and then cut them consistently. After the A type struts are marked, mark the B type. You may find the the extra portions of pipe left after marking the required number of A, or B type struts can accomidate a few of the other type of struts, saving you from having a lot of scrap pieces. Whether or not you take the time to figure that out is up to you.

Next mash a good 1 1/2 inch portion of each of the ends flat, and to the right angle for the strut type, or bend it to the right angle. It may be a good idea to mark which type is which before cutting them so you can tell what angle to go to, but if that doesn't happen just look at the size difference to know whether it's A or B type. Keep an A angle measure, and a B angle measure near you while doing this. You can do this by taking a small section of two-by-four and cutting in square on the ends, then with a wood cutting chop saw (Be careful, and keep your hands and fingers clear!) set the 18 degree angle on the guide and cut a 1 1/2 inch chunk out of one of the corners on one of the flat ends, then flip the board over and set the guide to a 16 degree angle, and do the same to that side. Use a pencil or some other marking device to mark which is A type and which is B type.

Next every flattened/bent angle needs to have a hole drilled about 1/2 inch in. Try to mark them as centered as possible. Use the drill press carefully, and don't be afraid to take your time; this will produce sharp scrap and burrs from the conduit. Be careful not to cut yourself, and use gloves during the whole process.

Step 6: Assembling

Now lay out the pieces making pentagons from the struts; then put bolts with washers on them through all of the intersections. Put a washer on the other side, and then a nut.

Assemble six pentagons to start, and when you connect them all together you can then assemble another six pentagons. Some of the bolts will be redundant, which won't leave enough to assemble the entire thing at once.  In other words, there are enough bolts to assemble the entire sphere, but not two seperate domes. When making the pentagons try to spiral the inner struts in a consistent fashion so the twist throughout the project will be uniform. It will then become unnoticable.  Otherwise it may make your sphere oddly shaped.

When the whole thing is put together, tighten the bolts as much as needed but not enough to cause too much stress on your project.
We drilled our holes at a tight fit, and when I had put one half of it together tightly I was able to climb on top of the tiny 2 1/2 foot dome with my whole weight. That was great, but in putting it together I almost stripped out several of the bolts, and it took all of the strength, and body weight, I had to connect all the pentagons together. Making your holes a tiny bit bigger will save you a huge headache, and it should still be just as strong if I understand the structure correctly. Just be careful; Standing on it probably is not terribly wise.

Now, what to do next?

Step 7:

This is where it gets a little more artistic.

Before painting or even trying colors I got a heat gun (you can probably use a hair dryer instead) and heated up the barcode stickers on the conduit, and then slowly peeled them away. I probably should have done this before cutting the pipe, huh? Then I got a can of mineral spirits (you can buy it at the grocery or hardware store near the paint section) and soaked a paper towel in it. I rubbed it liberally on all of the sticky areas left from peeling the stickers. This must be done outside; don't even think about doing it inside please. Mineral spirits is an extremely flammable substance. Don't use towels you want to keep either, because if it goes through the wash it might burst into flames at some random moment, which wouldn't be completely fun. Let the two domes/sphere dry for a little bit until they don't smell like the stuff anymore.

Got your spray paint skills ready?

So, I used three colors of spray paint on mine: a metallic nickel color, a metallic brass/gold color, and flat black.
You can do whatever variant you wish, or not paint it at all. It has a shiny zinc coating already, after all.

I sprayed it mostly flat black, really just darkening it and giving it a grungy dull old look.
I then lightly randomly added nickel, and gold to the entirety of the project, getting the look I wanted. Turns out that a bolder more coppery look might have been nice. Consider what you want before going at it. Spray in even strokes from 8 to 12 inches away to get a thin dispersed effect. Don't focus on any one place for very long and wait for coats to dry at least somewhat before continuing on; you don't want any pooling of paint.

We dumpster dove for cardboard to make other party props out of at clothing stores, furniture stores, and the dollar store for giant clothing posters, which we used those as drop cloths to save the yard from being all metallic and awesome.

Then I figured it was time to do some work inside.

Step 8: Where It Gets Interesting

Now, to make this into my designed vision I still had a long way to go.
I started off by sketching out various angles of the inner scene, and dreaming about fairies and light effects I wanted to see end up inside the terrarium.
I decided I wanted  the noise of fairies wispering eerily to each other while LED effects lit the scene. I wanted vegetation that was human-sized yet have the habitat unmistakably shaped by the Bard's little captive friends.

At length I decided to start making some fairies.

The first thing that came to mind for making them look somewhat realistic was sculpey -- we had a bunch already and it was easy to bake and mold, so we set out learning to sculpt it. Sadly we never did but it looks alright anyway, check out the photos of Puck and Titania standing on our dining room table. Honestly our anatomy is not too great but it works, and with a little smoke and mirrors it might just look pretty good. I left Puck's hand open to hold a wand I would make later on.

I also wanted an awesome glowy mushroom to go inside the terrarium because bioluminescent mushrooms are usually pretty awesome.

Step 9: Making a Mushroom

So I wanted this mushroom to glow and look awesome, but I had no idea where to get one or how to go about making something like that. All I had was a bit of time and a crazy idea. I had heard about how 3D printers worked in the past so I applied that to glue guns, and I manually printed out a cluster of mushrooms. It took me two seperate days and around 3 1/2 or so hours of careful annoying work to make them, but I love them. I laid the clear glue down in circular motions on top of a scrap piece of card until they reached the top of the caps and then sealed them off. It takes time and patience -- it's very easy to remelt past glue and cause lumps on your mushrooms. It doesn't always look bad when that happens though.

After it was all done I cut them off the piece of card using an Xacto blade (be careful when using any blade -- direct all force away from anything it may cut, especially your fingers.)

I had a few dollars in my pocket since I returned three of the sections of the electrical conduit so I went to radioshack and bought a super bright blue LED because frankly, I wanted some blue mushrooms.

I used the breadboard with some resistors  hooked up to my arduino diecimila to test the LED, then I used an Xacto knife (use caution, these are extremely sharp) to cut a hole in the bottom of the mushroom cluster and test fit the LED. I ended up placing it in the center where they all came together to disperse the light through the three mushrooms. You can see that I tried a few different configurations before coming to this conclusion. I then stuck the hot glue gun tip down inside the cut-out hole to melt the surrounding glue, and I filled it up with more molten glue. Then I quickly stuck the LED all the way down in the hollow and let it cool. The lights are awesome, but the squishy, hollow caps are still my favorite part of the mushrooms.

Next, I built a shelf to place the terrarium contents on.

Step 10:

In order to keep the "dirt" and fairies and stuff higher in the sphere I wanted to make a flat shelf inside of it, so after looking through the materials and tools we had I decided to use card and lock-together wood flooring to make it.

This is not ideal, but you do what you can to build what you need. If I were to make another I'd want a circle made of playwood or something more rigid. 
I laid out two pieces of card next to each other, and used a hoola hoop to draw a circle on the surface of them. I then took them to the scroll saw and started cutting, sadly the blade soon broke and I had no replacement, so my sister assisted me in cutting it with a serrated knife (do not do this if you have another option). This was dangerous, and though we were both okay I would avoid it in the future. I'm hoping that you have some tools that will work here, but in any case be very careful.

Once done cutting the two semicircles I taped the halves together firmly with blue painters tape. Masking tape is very handy in cases like this. I placed ribs down the middle accross the halves to line them up, and then strips down the center to secure it all. I flipped it over and did it again on the other side. It became surprisingly rigid, but it was just temporary, so I cut up the flooring planks and made three braces which I hot glued on, and then screwed into place through the card, and I hot- glued dowels diagonally between the planks to provide more stability. It looked pretty funny, but it held up well enough to move on.

I used plywood from an old seat bottom, cutting it into the right shape to fit around the bars of the sphere but still sit flat. This meant that I had to use band saw to cut it into an octagonal shape with long slots in it to ocommadate the shape of the base and still get it low enough to attach to the base securely with four lock-nuts (which I picked up for about $0.97  at the local blue-signed grocery store.) I also drilled a hole in the middle to let it fit over the bolt coming out of the hub under it. This was all just trial and error. I also drilled an extra hole for the adapter cord to go through for the arduino.

Since I was just using the arduino as an over-fancy power supply, I took a piece of generic PCB breadboard that you can get at radioshack, and soldered up all of my LEDs wiring with resistors, and then used some header pins to solder the 5v power supply, and ground onto the PCB breadboard to power it all. I had run all of the LEDs wiring in the previous step when I paper-mache'd the landscape and hot-glued the fairies, the mushrooms, and the LEDs. I also painted everything in that step.

Then I basically got a piece of styrofoam and mounted the PCB and the arduino to the fastener plate so it would all sit still down below the shelf.

Step 11: Filling the Shelf

I had a lot of fun and difficulty on this step. The idea was to build a landscape on the shelf, and deck it out to have grass, and glowing items, and fairies. So, my first task was to figure out how to build the landscape. I took my sketches and looked at what I had planned, and what space I had to put it in.

I took a pencil and sketched out the footprint of the mountainous areas on the card.
I used some "great stuff" gap filler to build up the footing of the mountains. This gave a nice rocky-texture and was pretty cheap. I got the idea from a prop-tree making tutorial I saw. Originally I wanted to build the whole thing out of the foam because I thought it would look cool, but a can of foam didn't cover very much area, so I was glad I filled in the outline with the foam. Then I had to figure out how to build up the rest of the landscape. I decided I would use paper mache'. I thought some type of mold would be necessary, but it turns out that I was able to ball up paper and lay down wet paper right over it. You can see how it worked in the pictures below.

I used a granger catalogue and ripped out and balled up pages and put them in the outline of the foam gap-filler. I took white glue and mixed it with water until it seemed to be a good consistencey. It wasn't an exact ratio of water to glue, but in any case I slid pages from the catalogue through the slurry and placed the pages over the balled up paper on the shelf.

When I had gotten about two thirds of the way through the mountains, I let it dry overnight. I simply ran out of time to work on it, so I left it and came back the next day to work on it some more. When I reached a point in my design that required LED effects or props I would figure out how to stabilize and attatch them to the area. I used a soldering iron, a drill, blue painters tape, and hot glue to run the wiring through the card and to the LEDs. I hot glued the wires just outside of where they came through the card. This would help keep the wires from pulling through when I soldered them to the PCB later on.

I used styrofoam, and hot glue to carefully build structures on the landscape, and to make various effects. I hot-glued down the cluster of lighted crystals and paper-mached around it, built a tunnel, and an archway. I covered any exposed bracing with paper to make it look like more ridges coming from the mountains, and part of it to look like a path leading to the archway. After it was all wired up and completely ready, I let it dry over night.

Somewhere during that process I also soldered the resistors to the PCB in parallel connecting to 5V and bridging to a disconnected area. Later I would solder the positive of the led to this area and the negative to the ground line on the PCB. You don't need to use a PCB for this at all, but I just wanted to.

I came back later and painted the whole thing with leftover house paint. I used charcoal, light gray, and various mixes of those two colors.

I wanted some eerie whispering from the fairies, so my sister and I got an entire act from A Midsummer Night's Dream and whispered the dialogue. She recorded it and added some wildlife noises and I figured out that I could use an MP3 player to loop it through a speaker in the base of the contraption.

Speaking of the base -- I used a pedestal dining-room table base for the stand. It happened to have an awesome ornate victorian style that lent it to steampunk well, plus it was octagonal, hollow, and had bolts to attach the table top to it which meant that not only could I store a six strip with the MP3 player, speaker, and ac/dc adapter for the arduino but I could also bolt the fastener plate onto the base to hold the sphere in place.

Step 12: After It Dried

After about 12 hours of the landscape drying I started on finishing out the little details. I got out my false flowers, my spanish moss, spray adhesive, and foam pipe-insulation.

My sister has the awesome idea of making the spider web out of hot glue wich we would put on a non-stick coated platter. We sprayed it down with cooking spray, and started designing the web. Then we put it in the freezer for a while. It worked out well and peeled off easily. We then placed it and tacked it down to the mountains in front of the spider tunnel with quick diliberate dabs of hot glue. It was tricky but we eventually got it worked out. Then my sister took a fairy head she had sculpted and mushed some raw sculpey on it to form a body. She used pearlescent glitter powder and hot glue creatively to make it look like a fairy wrapped in web. Then we placed it in the spiderweb.

After that I brought in the spray adhesive.
I worked with the door open, and a window with a fan blowing out of it, but next time I will work outside; these fumes are killer! Be very careful with this as the fumes are toxic, and highly flammable! Take proper precautions and work in a well-ventilated area.

So I took the adhesive and sprayed down the whole thing a piece at a time, carefully adding floral moss to make it all look more lush and growing. I used an Xacto knife to cut x-shaped holes through the card where I could poke false flowers through, and then hot glue them into place. I covered the entire thing with moss, flowers, and more moss with the exception of focal point areas that were already painted to the effect I liked.

My sister dressed the fairy she made, and I glued it into place on the top of the largest mountain. See the sketches for the location.

To make it sit snugly in the sphere I thought it would be necessary to have some padding to fill the gaps, so I found three scraps of pipe foam insulation. I was blessed, and the three pieces connected exactly tip-to-tip all the way around the circumfrance of the shelf. I laid it out, and then pulled the paper strips off of the pre-attached adhesive and stuck it on the card.

I was so tired at this point, but then it got a lot more interesting quickly.

Step 13: Transporting, and Assembling

We loaded the sphere (in two halves), the shelf, the base, the speaker, the mp3 player, the DC adapter, and the six strip and brought it to the school. Since the PCB was on the fastener that held the base to the sphere, it had not been soldered to the LEDs in the shelf yet.

I got to work setting up the table base over the floor outlet, and plugging the six strip, mp3 player, speaker, and DC adapter into it and stowing them in the base. I put half of the sphere on the base and bolted the fastener on. Then I put the shelf in the half-sphere and my friend and I began soldering and trouble-shooting as quickly as possible. I hadn't marked which wires belonged to what as well as I would have liked, but I did do a pretty good job marking positive and negative wires, so the soldering was acceptably simple other than having no light, or room to manuever in, haha.

 Eventually we completed the job, and we stuffed the base with net fabric to conceal the electronics. Then we got a few people together to help hold the top half while I used a crescent wrench and a socket wrench to tighten bolts through each of the remaining hubs. This got tricky quickly because the holes had no tolerance for twist. The 1/4" bit and 1/4" bolts didn't get along too well. Definitely drill a bit larger than the bolts if you have the option.

We got it all put together, I turned on the MP3 player and adjusted the volume so it could be heard well enough. I adjusted the speaker/MP3 volume by reaching up under the gap between the floor and the table base and fiddling with the volume knob and the MP3 player's volume to get it sounding just right to nearby spectators (my family.) Check out the pictures to see how it turned out.

I hope you enjoyed the instructable, thank you for reading, and please vote in order to assist me in my future projects!



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    This looks like it