Introduction: Glowing Steampunk Flash Drive

About: Engineer by day, maker by night. I love learning from other people's projects, and I hope they can do the same from mine.

I got the idea for this project after seeing these cool flash drives made from old vacuum tubes. I really liked how they lit up, but I didn't want to shell out $70 for one. Instead, I decided to create my own with inexpensive materials. The total cost for the project is about $20 if you buy all of the parts new. I ended up only spending about $6 because I had everything but the LED and the flash drive on hand. I encourage you to be creative with your materials to get a look that you're happy with. If you come up with something cool, leave a picture in the comments. I'd love to see it!

Step 1: What You'll Need


  • Vacuum Tube (from ebay or a vintage radio)
  • 1/4 in. Female Brass Quick Coupler (from your local hardware store or Home Depot)
  • Mini USB Flashdrive (from ebay)
  • 0805 Surface Mount LED (from ebay)
  • 330 ohm resistor
  • Solder
  • Super Glue
  • Hot Glue
  • Small, Flat Piece of Brass or Copper
  • Optional:
    • Small Piece of Copper-Clad Board (from an old PCB)


  • Dremel Rotary Tool (with cutting and sanding attachments)
  • Soldering Iron
  • Hot Glue Gun
  • Metal File
  • Fine Grit Sandpaper
  • Small Flat-head Screwdriver
  • Hammer
  • Needle Nose Pliers
  • Tin Snips or Scissors
  • Optional:
    • Band Saw

Step 2: Make the Base

Begin by disassembling the quick coupler. Identify the cylindrical piece with a flange and four holes at one end (shown in the pictures). It is possible that some quick couplers do not have a piece like this. Since I used a broken one that I had lying around, I cannot provide the exact part number for it. However, I believe the one from Home Depot (linked in the intro) should suffice, since it looks identical to mine.

Draw a line around the piece, approximately 3/8 in. from the end without a flange. Cut along the line using a dremel or a band saw. Be sure to make a clean, square cut. Do the same where the flange meets the cylinder. You should now have three pieces: a solid ring, a ring with 4 holes in it, and disc with a hole in the center. For this project, we will only be using the solid ring and the disc.

Sand these to pieces using a dremel or a metal file. Once they are relatively smooth, use fine grit sandpaper to finish them off. When you are done, you should be able to place the ring on top of the disc and see no gap at the seam.

Depending on the size of the hole in your disc, you may need to file a small notch on the inside to accommodate the USB connector. This can be done using the edge of a metal file or with a dremel attachment. Alternatively, you can just drill the hole out larger.

Now, super glue the ring to the disc and sand away any white marks (from the glue) that may appear.

Step 3: Wire It Up

With the base now assembled, we can move on to modifying the flash drive. First, you'll need to remove the plastic casing from the back of the drive. This needs to be done carefully, to prevent damage to the inside. I decided to use a small flat-head screwdriver and a hammer to accomplish the task. I placed the back of the flash drive on a table (with the connector at the top) and positioned the screwdriver vertically on the seam of the case. I then gave the top of the screwdriver a good hit with the hammer to split the case along its seam. This process was repeated until the case could be slid off of the drive.

Now look at the back of the connector (where the plastic casing was). You should see two small, metal tabs that keep the flash drive (black rectangle) contained within the connector. Bend these tabs down and carefully remove the drive from the connector. There are four gold-colored segments on the drive that make a connection with your computer. Position the drive so that these segments are facing towards you (as they are in the fourth image). From left to right, these segments represent negative power, positive data, negative data, and positive power. For this project, we will only be concerned with the power segments.

Because the LED was so small, I decided to mount it on a small piece of copper-clad board for stability. To make such a board, cut out a 1/4 inch by 3/16 inch section of an old PCB, and sand off the insulation. Make a cut midway between the short sides, just deep enough to separate the copper. Now, carefully solder the ends of the LED to the two copper pads. At this point, it is important to check that the LED is still functional. I accidentally ruined one here, either with heat or electrostatic discharge. If you don't have a 5V power supply or test leads, don't worry. You can actually test the LED with just a 9V battery. First, place the negative end of the LED on the negative pole of the battery. Don't touch the pole with your skin. Then, place one finger on the positive end of the LED and one on positive pole of the battery. The LED should glow faintly. In this way, your body acts as a resistor, allowing a small amount of current to reach the LED. Pretty cool, huh?

Now, solder the 330 ohm resistor to either end of the board, as shown. Solder the extra piece of resistor wire to the other end. When you attach this assembly to the flash drive, you want the LED to be about 1/2 inch away from the drive and the wires to overlap the power segments by about 1/16 inch. Trim the wires accordingly. Solder it up, put the drive back in the USB connector, and bend the metal tabs back up. Also, make sure that the wires are not touching the connector. If all has gone well, your flash drive should still work and the LED should light up when you plug it in.

Step 4: Adding Details

If your brass base doesn't have the aged look that you'd like, now is the time to fix it. First, scratch it up a bit a hammer, flat-head screwdriver, or whatever else you find lying around. Your goal is to add small nicks and remove sharp edges to make the piece seem well-worn. Be careful not to overdue it, though. It's a lot easier to put dents and scratches in that to take them out! Second, you may want to dull down the color of your brass, especially if you used a shiny new fitting. I didn't do this, since my fitting already had a nice patina from earlier use, but I believe it can be done rather easily with some "brass ager" or even vinegar. I found a nice video on the topic, but I haven't yet tried the techniques myself. If you have experience with the process, I'd love to hear your tips and tricks in the comments!

Once you are satisfied with the base, you can begin making the metal pieces that will go on the bottom. I decided to use copper for these, to provide some contrast with the brass, but the choice is entirely based on your preference. First, measure the size of the hole in the base. If the diameter is approximately half an inch, mark your metal sheet according to the diagram above. If you used a different fitting you may need to alter the dimensions. Cut out the sections with tin snips or scissors. Glue your flash drive in place and make sure that the pieces fit snugly around it. When everything is aligned, glue them in place.

Step 5: Final Assembly

You're almost finished! Remove the leads from the bottom of the vacuum tube (using a dremel or side cutters) and place it on top of the brass base. The LED should be as close to the bottom of the tube possible. You may have to bend the wires so that it sits at the right height. Apply hot glue to the inside of the base, so that nothing moves around, and super glue the vacuum tube on top. Now plug in your creation and test it out! (Hint: It looks even cooler with the lights out)

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