Introduction: Keyboard Cap Micro Watercolor Bots

About: Hello! I'm Steve Davee, Tinkering/Math & Science/ pre-K- adult teacher, Education Consultant, Professional People Appreciator, and fan of anyone who strives to make lives better for everyone. Some past Ti…

These little robots stem from a favorite personal design challenge: to explore the minimal amount of materials and tools necessary to make something. In this case, something that is and/or makes "art."

Closely tied to this goal is my desire to use and recycle things like old keyboards whenever possible, and to allow for easy re-building, adaptation, customization, and re-use of all materials, over and over again. This is incredibly important to me, both for sustainability and educational reasons. As an educator, I strive to provide the kinds of materials and questions that motivate designs that can be taken apart for easy re-use of every component. This robot needs no hot glue, ideally no tape, and no tools other than optionally scissors. (Any teacher will tell you, if you don't know, the vast difference in time, space, and expense between one thing and 30+ things.).

I hope this robot gives you ideas. I must say I've been the beneficiary of a nearly infinite creative genius source: that of students of every age, for a very long time. I hope I can share some of that inspiration here. So, this little bot is just one design. A start. Even if made exactly as I describe here, It meant to come apart, be remade, tweaked, added to, and ultimately serve as an inspiration and possible starting point for your own personal creations. Enjoy!

Step 1: Gathering Supplies + Safety Notes

To replicate this design, you will need:

(x1) Salvaged Computer Keyboard Key Cap *

(x2) Cotton swabs (akaQ-tips, by brand) (paper stem, preferably. Plastic ones are worse for the environment and slightly different in stem diameter. Still massively useful for tinkering, though, so I re-use them all of the time.)

(x2) 3/4" Brass brads- like these.

(x1) LR44 Button cell battery (provides 1.5 Volts)

(x1) Vibe motor, 4-6mm diameter (I used 6mm motors in this example. You may also like these smaller 5mm pager motors) Both links are from my dear friends at Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories, a business worth supporting

(x1) small plastic coffee stir stick, or any other small straw that snuggly fits over the tabs of the 3/4" brad. (a small piece of tape can be used instead). This design uses the near-ubiquitous small red stir sticks you still see just about everywhere.

(x1) 1/4" diameter neodymium disc magnet. I've used the Rare Earth 1/4 in. x 1/10 in. Disc Magnets from Home Depot for this project. DISCLAIMER! Such tiny, strong magnets are DANGEROUS if ingested. if you are using these with young students, or young children, you must take care that they are aware not to out these in their mouths or leave anything using them in a place that might be found by a young child. I exercise extreme caution when using these with students of every age, so that everyone has a chance to discuss and be aware of this danger. For maximal safety, you may substitute a glue dot, double-sided sticky tape, velcro dots, or tape here if you like.

Also of note regarding something you would not want swallowed: The battery I've used here is the most common type of 1.5 Volt button cell, the LR44. You can use any other near- sized button or even 3 volt coin cell that fits between the cotton-swab legs beneath the motor mount and magnet. Note that some 3V coin cells are not magnetic. I've yet to encounter an LR44 that isn't.

*A big caveat:
This design is centered on one very common type of salvaged computer keyboard key, but it might not be the kind of key you have on hand. I've found this exact design with the same or at least extremely close dimensions used in many many different keyboards, especially from the 90's onward (old 90's laptops, and 2000-2010's keyboards). I'll have notes at the final step for some ideas about adapting other Keycap designs for this kind of robot. As far as designs I've found most interesting and useful, the older and clunkier the keyboard, the better! These keycaps shown here are shallow compared to the oldest and clunkiest of key caps.

The spirit of this problem is to make the best use of what you have. You can salvage a larger vibe motor from a Dollar store electric toothbrush, a tiny pager motor from an actual old pager or cell phone, or just about any small motor from any number of old toys. Get creative with what you have, and embrace your creative constraints! I'll address more about alternative and additional materials in the final steps of this project (specifically, On 5/09/20 I've added an alternative version using a larger, clunkier key cap for your inspiration in STEP 9)

Step 2: Marking the Center of the Cotton Swabs

Measure and mark the center of each Cotton swab. The Q-tip brand swabs I've used here are 3 1/8 inches long, so I've marked at 1 9/16".

Step 3: Bend and Cut the Swabs

Bend each swab into a gentle curve. the amount of curvature is completely up to you. It does help to try and keep the curvature symmetrical in respect to the center, in order for the bot to stand upright and perpendicular to the surface.

Alternatively, you may just pinch and bend the swab in half several times, breaking it. This is a nice option if access to scissors is not immediate, or if you are doing a large-scale workshop and minimizing the number of tools required. This can be a tool-free project!

Step 4: Inserting the Swab Legs.

With this particular keyboard cap, the cotton swab "legs" fit perfectly in the corners of the key cap's center structure. I love finding these kinds of fortunate friction fits between parts! It's the basis of so much of the tinkering workshops I provide- materials that fit together in unexpected ways, that can only be discovered through exploration, trial and error, and a mindset that starts to see the possibilities of how things might fit together. I think of this tinkering drive as the finding of "serendipitous fits."

The world of loose parts can become your own custom construction set!

What if you keyboard caps are of a very different design? Congratulations! You have the fun challenge of finding your own serendipitous fits and solutions.To handle other size options, you may use small pieces of tape, or small sections of the stir stick, to shim the swab leg size for the desired friction fit.

As I've shared in the gathering parts step, many other keyboard caps may have slightly differing dimensions, or completely different designs from the examples you see here. It's a fun challenge to take the spirit of this project (minimal parts, all-friction fit, no glue/tape, no tools beyond optional scissors) in your own directions. Good luck!

Step 5: Motor Clampin'

Hello, my name is Brad. Brass Brad. I'm here to be bend and re-formed around your small vibrational motor. I'll also hold onto that black (or red if you like) motor wire end of your vibrating motor. I have plans to meet up with Ms. Magnet for the next step. I hear she can introduce us to Lady LR44 and help us hold on to her negative terminal!

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Go ahead and bend my tabs out, wrap the wire around one of my tabs, then pinch and fold me back over the motor so that I hold it tightly.

To think my maker thought I would be used to hold paper together. If only they could see me now! I have another Brad brother joining us in this project later. He gets to be a switch. We're a highly achieving family of Brads.

Step 6: Attaching the Motor Mount.

Once, a very brave knight of the Brass Brad set about on a motor mount quest with his buddy, Baron von Vibe Motor. They had ambitions to join forces with Captain Key Cap, united by the powers of of serendipitous fits...

To attach the brad to the underside of the Key Cap, I have used a small section of plastic stir stick as a shim. If you don't happen to have one, you can use tape, heat shrink tubing, or any other possible thing to shim the tabs so that they fit snuggly into the central part of the key cap. This whole assembly will suspend the battery, so the fit has to be fairly snug.

In order to better show the connection, I have shown here both the motor mount attached to the keycap both with and without the swab legs attached. You may find it easier to fit the motor mount to the keycap without the legs first, then attach or re-attach the legs.

Step 7: Motor, Magnet, and Battery: Assemble!

Take the 1/4" neodymium disc magnet and place it on the head of the brad. Then, attach the negative terminal (the top part of the cell, that is electrically isolated from the outer shell) of the LR44 button cell to the magnet. Boom. Magnets are rad. Magnets and motors and brads and batteries together are mad rad. You're almost done with the assembly!


What's inside of these motors? How might they work? When students discover, through research, dissection of motors, or by learning from peers or teachers, that motors rely on magnets to work, a question often arrises: why would this motor still work when you stick a super strong mini magnet to it?

Another question: Does the side that the of the magnet is attached matter, as in the polarity of the magnetic field relative to the motor, or perhaps even to another robot of the same design?

Questions you don't necessarily already know the answers to are the best! Finding them out through discussion, exploration and experimentation, that's science stuff. There's a huge amount to designs like this, in being able to change single variables and parameters, that lend them to exploring scientific method.

But I digress. Sorry, I can never take off the teacher hat. Let's finish!

Step 8: Brad Makes the Switch!

KCMWB! I could probably think of a better name/ acronym...

It's time to get your first Key Cap Micro Watercolor Bot fully operational. So! Take the free wire (red, for positive by convention in this case, black if you decided to be awesomely individualistic in step 5) and wrap it around a tab of the second brad a few times (you will have best luck stripping the wire to about 1/2 inch or so.). Take this brad and wrap it around one of the cotton swab legs, on the level of the battery. It probably already turned on as you were attaching it!

As you can see, when the brad touches the outside of the LR44 battery, the circuit is complete for the motor. There's also the bonus that the small magnet makes the entire battery magnetic, so it sticks to the switching brad. You will have to play with the positioning of this brad to find an orientation that works best to allow you to move it to break the connection and turn it off.

Trust me, if you are new to this, you'll have fun and learn a bunch about switches as you try to get this to work. I'm also 100% certain that you can figure out your own ways of turning this little bot on and off. This is one area of many (well, actually all!) that could be vastly different than the option I present here.


I love being able to turn my various microbots on and off easily. As a teacher and educator, I have found that simple to complex switch design is a fantastic challenge. It's very tangible, and the results are rather immediate. This is one area that you explore other options, and if you are introducing this kind of project to others, invite custom ways of switch this bot on and off.
I''ll not show it here- but I do want to add that there are small magnetic reed switches that close or open in the presence of close magnetic fields out there. Imagine a bot that doe not turn on unless another magnet gets closer... electromechanical swarm behavior? hmmmm....

Step 9: Let There Be ART... and Experiments, and Alternative Designs!

...or doodles, or scribbles, or random/ repeating patterns, whatever you want to call it. I once had a Maker Corps Member argue that Artbots should not be called "Artbots" because the drawings they made were not in his mind "art." OK buddy. I'm glad the vast majority of artists I know (that includes every single child I've ever met, taught, and learned from) does not have such a narrow and strict view of art. Art is expression. It is personal. It is whatever the heck you decide you want it to be, whatever gives you and others joy, or whatever provokes thought or feelings. I think the marks made by a creation of your own design fall into this category, so for me, I do like Arbot. I also like scribble machine, or doodle robot, or drawbot, or any other name someone wants to give something that moves, makes, and/or is, art. It's whatever you want to call it.

End accidental soapbox rant on art!

This little bot moves in unpredictable ways, which is a form of art, like dance, for example. To give your Bot another way to help it express it's inner artist, give it the gift of pigmentation. I like using liquid watercolor, but pallet watercolors works, as well as food coloring. Dip the cotton swab "feet" in watercolor paint and let it go!

You'll see in the video of the first step two slightly different versions of this project. One one, I've clamped on a tiny clothespin to the counterweight of the vibe motor. This kind of change makes a difference in the kinds of marks and patterns the Bots make. Many things do! I encourage you to customize and change it. Experiment with bending each leg in different way. Small changes in the center of mass can make large differences in the behavior of these kinds of vibrational-based simple robots, for example. I trust you will find many more ways of changing the behavior of your robots, and of the types of art/doodles/scribbles/ masterpieces that they make.

Alternative Versions for Different Keycaps

I love the challenge each kind of keycap provides in making these types of Bots. I hope you find as much fun in adapting your own Keycaps as I have.

I've included pictures of a different keycap bot design of mine here, for your inspiration. You will note that the cap is considerably clunkier than the shallower black ones. to add legs, I've used pipe cleaners feed through the slots on the underside, and stick them into the tips of cut-off plastic cotton swabs (more evil than paper ones, so I take great care in my education uses of them to re-use the plastic ones as many times as possible especially).

Step 10: Endless Possibilities! Additional and Alternative Materials, Resources

I've used these same 6mm small vibe motors along with other small motors of all kinds and sizes salvaged from old toys and computers by prek-12 students for many many years, in conjunction with all kinds of materials. I'm providing some examples here from preschoolers in particular. They've always embraced taking their own designs and adding motors to them, without the need for any examples from me. Inspiration and help comes from the materials I provide and the questions and setup I use to promote exploration and provoke original responses. The most powerful inspirations comes from their peers, and from being asked things like "I see you've figured out a way to attach that battery and motor, and ways to turn it on and off. Are you OK with helping anyone else out that could use it?" It's super empowering to recognize students who have struggled and figured out things, and to immediately help them make use of their earned knowledge and expertise by helping peers.

In this way, tinkering and material exploration can help nurture authority and expertise that is child-centered and driven. By reflecting "Who did you help? Who Helped you? And Who or what inspired you? Who did you inspire?" we further bond in seeing each other as assets to a larger creative community, build self-identities as people that can provide help when asked, want to, and that give credit and attribution for the kinds of help and inspiration that they receive. Sounds like the Instructables community! Yall are so incredibly generous and inspirational to me. :)


I've been making these kinds of Robots personally for over 45 year (yep,I started very young, and I'm kinda old!). I've also been making them with young children, young adults, and adults for over 40 years, in all kinds of formal and informal educational settings. For the vast majority of tinkering workshops and classes I run, I use the exact same materials with preschool students as I do adults. Young children are incredible capable, and all adults deserve to tinkering and play, as children so naturally do when given the chance.

I've compiled some of my learnings from running such workshops in a guide I wrote when I was the Chief Maker Educator at Maker Ed, Setting Up and Facilitating Tinkering Workshops with Educators .

(Thanks to my dear former colleagues for editing/format help, and to all my students and workshops participants!).

Step 11: ​My Most Important Hope: Make This Your Own!

I'm not one to usually post step by step directions for any of my robotic creations. I spend a huge amount of time creating the maximal amount of possibilities for student-driven and student-developed original designs. With very few exceptions, I hold back from showing my own examples. Whether working with preschoolers, k-12 students, or a group of adults, I have in the past decades of running tinkering workshops, classes, and camp sessions always been rewarded and inspired by creations I would not have otherwise imagined. For all the time I've spent imagining and making these kinds of things, It makes me the most happy to know with certainty that you will show me things I have yet to see or imagine. Such is the power of a supportive, empowering, and inspiring creative community.

So, this example is meant to inspire your own minimalist designs. My bet is that you can do even better in lowering part count and complexity, adding functionality, and completely taking the concept in your own directions. I can't wait to see them!



Contexts for Standards & Learning

The beauty of artbots, drawing machines, scribble machines, and moving electromechanical creations is that they seem exiting and “alive.” Their behavior is compelling and fun. Their creation is challenging and makes use of some vital basic engineering, electronic, circuit, and design concepts. Their value goes well beyond STEAM standards though, into the territory of holistic learning and the integration of all academic subjects.

My intention here is not to provide a step-by step list of standards that can be specifically addressed or that naturally arise. It’s to demonstrate a breadth of context for sparking inquiry, real world problems, imagination and story-telling, and ties to things like literacy, story-telling, and artistic expression.

STEM Vocabulary and Concepts

The wordcloud above is just a snapshot of the kinds of STEM concepts, vocabulary that artbots provide strong contexts for. In this case, the emphasis is on math, physics and electronics. They represent just a tiny fraction of the vocabulary you can use as an educator in-context while working with electromechanical creations especially. But you can also use artbots for other science areas, ones you might not normally expect for robotics, such as life sciences.

Living creatures from the tiniest of single cell organisms to the largest of animals all exhibit behaviors and drives to eat, survive and replicate. Even some cells within our bodies, like white blood cells, move about in ways that seem animal-like in their nature.

Questions that you might ask and invite speculation and research into include: What motions and behaviors in the living world seem random, or are actually random? What ways of moving by cells or living things might seem random but are driven by sensing the environment?

How might artbots driven by vibrations “sense” their environment? Do they move differently on wet versus dry sections of paper? Parts that are smoother or rougher? When multiple artbots run into each other?

We, and all of life, are fundamentally made of physical components. We are parts that move and interact. We have a huge amount in common with robots. The deeper you look into biomechanics and biochemistry, we're really made of robots within robots within robots... (look into motor proteins! ATPases! We're made of protein motors!).

What often stand out about these kinds of vibration-based robots is that their movements are often very organic and life-like. In my experience, students often see them as pets, bugs, or small little creatures that they feel a connection to as if they were alive.

As a teacher, this is a beautiful thing to harness as an invitation to tell, write, illustrate, and share stories around these kinds of creations. Meaningful stories naturally emerge from all youth creations and endeavors. They can be serious, whimsical, personal or just plain silly. They all have value.

So, ask, who are these robotics creatures? What motivates them? What do they love to do? Most of all, allow time to play. The best possible stories emerge from free-play. Imagine inviting students to develop and share their stories, and revisit them over time, in combinations with other characters and materials. (OK- time for a plug for the Story Workshop work of my wonderful former colleagues at Opal School I had the great pleasure of supporting).

Also imagine inviting students of every age to post instructions to their creations on Instructables. Holy cow, it's a fun challenge. It takes time and care. It's a fantastic reason to convey information in clear and (hopefully) entertaining ways. This is my first post, and it's taking me a very long time, but it is a hella-fun challenge, and it has been a great way to dust off my writing chops.


By asking students to tinker (play, explore, revise) and develop their own designs, we are building autonomous designers and creators, as well as the kinds of citizens that not only can but want to solve the kinds of desperate problems we are facing. This kind of mindset can begin with the kinds of materials I've listed here, and even simpler. I could go on forever and ever about the importance of play and tinkering. Fortunately, I've written plenty about it so you can skip it or look up more here:

A short column I wrote for a print edition of Make Magazine.

The Youth Makerspace Playbook. (I was the Content Lead and Primary Author of this book, developed with colleagues and Maker Ed Partners)

And finally, I'm on the Board of Portland Free Play. You'll see a video on our website I made of public K-8 students playing, and inventing and tinkering loose parts during recess and lunch outdoors. I can never say enough about advocating for the right for children (and adults!) of all ages to play. But let's get back to artbots, eh?


What other sizes and kinds of motors and batteries might you use? What kinds of switches and sensors might be added to this? A 555-based timer to control motor speed? A few electronics parts like transistors and CdS sensors to create light-responding behavior? There is an Entire world of BEAM robotics and electronics that I encourage you to look up if you are not familiar. What I love about the BEAM approach is the essential nature of aesthetics in design and engineering elegance. I once was part of an effort of friends in the Portland Area Robotics Society ro develop super simple brushbots robotic swarms, controlled and communicating through simple microcontrollers. We found that by varying the speed of just a single vibrating motor, we could actually steer these simple brushbots. At low speeds, the bias in direction imparted by the bristles made the bots veer one way. At higher speeds, the torque vector of the motor and counterweight overcame this bias and reversed it, causing the brushbot to veer in the opposite direction.


Don't have an old keyboard or salvaged keyboard caps around? What other random piece of wood, metal, or plastic might you use to be the basis of a small robot?

Please take this design for the inspiration for your own completely different creations I hope it can be! In all of the countless classes, camp sessions, and workshops I've facilitated over the decades, It is the variety of designs that emerge from simple invitations, like "With these parts, make something that make and/or is art..." that has spawned an astounding diversity of designs among my students, friends, and workshop/ MakerFaire/ youth tinkering colleagues and collaborators. For the last three years especially, I've been giving these same tiny motors and batteries to preschool students in three different schools. I have never needed to give an example. They have always come up with things I never thought of or would have imaged. We start with all kinds of materials, recycled small plastic bits, pieces of polyethylene foam, LEGO and K'NEX, feathers, leaves, twigs, and other natural materials, you name it.

In addition to potentially serving all standards, content areas, and areas of learning, tinkering is just plain fun. It provides joyful learning experiences that have deep academic and social- emotional benefits. Yes, Standards are important. Content and skills are important. Vocabulary is important. A true love of learning, and freedom to express and explore curiosity, wonder, ideas, kindness, and creativity is priceless.