Introduction: Turn a Generic Plastic Gadget in to Something a Little More Beautiful

About: Appreciate what you've got, every day will bring something new.

During the Summer I'm either surfing or working on projects around our small garden/farm. Winter is upon us here in Boston and I'm ready to start attacking the long list of projects I've postponed for the 'indoor months'.

However, I have hit the problem I face every Winter. I suffer from Season Affective Disorder which can result in a lack of energy in the dark Winter months. I have many ideas waiting to be made - but I've lacked a degree of motivation, until now that is.

Instructables to the rescue:
Eric's dawn simulator put me on to the Soleil lamp: I purchased a Soleil on ebay and I'm very happy with the lamp, my boss is happy I'm turning up for work on time... but...

The problems with the current design...
Feature creep is defined as the proliferation of features in a product such as computer software. Extra features go beyond the basic function of the product and so can result in baroque over-complication rather than simple, elegant design.

I'm a designer and believe that design, in part, is the art of removing the non-essential such as a 'Demo' mode. This is an alarm clock folks... my microwave oven has fewer buttons. I continue this critique in step 2.

The other major aspect of design is the visual aesthetic. I've included an image comparing the Soleil with its twin sister Mrs. Dalek and its cousin Robbie the robot. Danger Will Robinson.. you're about to be woken up by an eye sore.

Electronics devices do not have to be so drab
You don't need a laundry list of expensive tools nor a degree in industrial design to remake manufactured products.

With this Instructable I hope to demonstrate how you can both construct a new home for almost any gadget and utilise a simple hand drill for any number of jobs; achieving some pretty nice results.

Even if you do not particularly like the final outcome of this project I hope it motivates you to take a second look at those generic plastic products that clutter our lives and re-make them in to objects that suite your needs and please your senses.

So, with superfluous functions and the looks of a Dalek from Dr. Who on the chopping block.... my first project of Winter '09 is the Alarm Clock Retrofit.

NOTE: many people have reported problems watching the videos for this instructable. It seems google video is having problems. I recommend hitting your browser's reload button and clicking the play button again

Step 1: Design 1: Understanding What I've Got to Work With

When I purchase a new device, one of the first things I do is take it apart to see how it works, see if there's anything interesting going on inside. There's a lot to learn from doing this and as the Maker Mantra goes - if you can't open it you don't really own it.

Inside this alarm are all the standard parts you get in any $10-$20 alarm clock. I was a little dissapointed to realize I paid four times that amount for an alarm clock WITH a light bulb that wouldn't look out of place on a Christmas tree. Now, I'm super motivated to remake it.

Functional design basics
'"Security mode", Automatically turns the lamp on at random intervals to give burglars the impression that someone is at home....
I highly doubt this will deter any burglar worth his salt.

Seriously manufacturer... just because you can incorporate a particular feature doesn't mean you should. The more complex a device is, the harder it is to use it.

When redesigning something ask yourself these questions;
1) What exactly is this feature?
2) How often will I use this feature?
3) With 'less is more' in mind, can I remove this feature and have the device/product still meet my needs?

Go where no average consumer has gone before:
As I dismantled the device, I was happy to find that it would be relatively easy to solder in new switches for the front panel. The Volume and Tuner controls are going to be a little trickier but not impossible. The Tuner display and related cogs are going to be difficult and then it struck me! I only ever listen to one radio station, the local NPR: Boston's WBUR. A second, closer look at the tuner control told me it was going to be more difficult to convert than previously anticipated. That sealed the deal - one less 'feature'... this radio is going to be a 1 trick pony with me waking up to Tom Ashbrook covering the world's events.

With the research expedition into the clock complete, I reassembled the parts and moved on to prototyping the new design.

List of features and functions I need to carry forward into the new design:
Time: 7 segment display & am/pm LED
Light: will require a holder
Sun up setting: momentary switch
Sun down setting: momentary switch
Alarm or time set: momentary
Alarm on/off: momentary & LED
Volume control

List of features and functions being deleted:
Snooze. (I abhor this feature on any alarm and its the point of many a debate with my wife!! (o;)
Tuning Dial
AM/FM Switch
Radio Buzzer selector. This will always be set to radio as I hate buzzers

For more information on the alarm clock itself;

How to take apart electronics

Understanding the different types of switches

Step 2: Design 2: Ideation & Prototyping

When I come across a 'problem' like a bad alarm clock looking for a redesign, I start by browsing great resources like Instructables and visiting cool local designer or antique shops for inspiration.

After you have your 'lightbulb going off in your head' moment its time to get on with the project, but never forget that while creativity starts with an idea, ideas only take form once fleshed out on paper. The act of capturing ideas on paper is a visceral part of the creative process. Do not skip it! It helps refine and evolve your concept and only serves to improve the final design.


With a rough idea in my head, it's then time to start getting a feel for what those concepts might look like in real life. I start with sketches of different ideas and then focus on one solution, adding more and more detail. It's a design principle called Breadth First Depth Second... capture lots of different concepts and then settle on a specific design. Don't jump straight into the first idea that comes to you.

Check out my instructable on how to mod a notebook in to an on-the-go idea capturing machine (ok, it's just a notebook with a pencil & sharpener built in .. but I swear by it!)

Eventually, this process elvolves; from pencil/paper to the computer. As you can see from the images I went from a couple of ideas on paper to Google's Sketchup

Prototyping the Alarm Clock in Sketchup

The in-video annotations should help guide you through the steps. Apologies that there is no sound, problem recording audio.

I do have to point out I'm the type that generally goes with the flow and avoids getting bogged down in the details at a start of a project. What might look cool on paper may turn out to be impractical in reality. Think of concept car designs versus what you actually see in the show room; things change and evolve due to practicalities. Just use your intuition and rule of thumb for now. You won't see any measurements or dimensions for a few steps.. just a general adherence to principles such as the Golden Ratio.

Of course, this method of 'making' is a process of jumping in head first without every detail accounted for. Do mistakes happen? Yes! however you can never get every design right first time and only by making mistakes will you get a feel for the boundaries of what works.


Tips on prototyping
This article talks about prototyping games but contains a wealth of information on how to inspire creative ideas in a product development environment.

Allows you to browse lots of images quickly, try it with the images results from a google search

Tutorial on using sketchup;

Some instructables that use sketchup to plan in advance

3d Mouse
The Logitech 3DConnexion

Step 3: Faceplate 1: Mark and Cut

At last! actual work! I recommend picking the most difficult part of a design and building around that. Its a fundamental of Experience Design, for example, high end car manufacturers start a new car design with the driver seat and build the rest of the car around that part. In this case it's going to be the front panel (aka face plate) and the box will form around that central component.

I roughly laid out the required switches and a bottle cap for the volume control, then marked up the back of an old aluminium sign with a ruler, square and scribe with rough dimensions. Once happy with the over all size I get to power up the tools. I started by swapping out the wood blade on the 10" Bandsaw for the metal blade.

I donned my wear eye & ear protection, as with any power tool, and cut two identical pieces for front and back.

Using the band saw to cut the faceplate & backplate

Note that I'm guiding the piece through the bandsaw by hand, this will result in an uneven edge. This isnt much of an issue in this case as the faceplate edges will be hidden in the box. If you want to cut a straight edge then you can clamp a piece of wood to the bandsaw table to act as a fence.

Great tip in the comments below from user Tyler Durden... he writes: "When I build stuff that has panels with switches, etc., I use a very easy technique for laying the panel out for cutting. I start by making a scale drawing in a CAD program. I place switches, displays, controls etc in the drawing with cross hairs at the hole centers. When I have decided it looks the way I want, I print the scale drawing out at full size with a laser printer. Then I spray the panel material with adhesive and press the printed drawing down on it. Next use a punch to mark the hole center locations. Then i drill holes and if there are square cutouts for LCD displays I cut those holes last with a saber saw. Finish up by using a reamer to clean off the sharp edges and then wash the paper/glue off."

I will definitely use this method in future.


Eye & Ear protection

Band saws

Step 4: Faceplate 2: Cut Out Holes for Switches & Display

This is a great example of where the design can change in the course of the build. I originally put the clock display to the upper left in the sketches. As I laid out the switches according to the original design it became clear that placing the clock display in the center was going to work out better.
I marked up a new layout with a felt pen on the faceplate that centers the clock display, it had a much nicer feel to it. Never be afraid to change course in mid-build but always double check any change against the original design... there might be a reason you did something a particular way.

Drilling the holes for the switches (part 1)

Drilling the holes for the switches (part 2; close up with safety tips)

And yes, the holes were still a tad too small and I had to use the next bit size up. Better safe than sorry!

Round holes done, now on to the square holes...
Next up are the square holes for the seven segment clock display & alarm on/off button. I am more of a woodworker than metalsmith so I'm happy to hear suggestions on a better way to cut square holes in metal. I chose to use my scroll saw and it worked out pretty well. I was able to finish the job off with a flat file.

Cutting out the square holes for the clock display & alarm on/off button: part 1

Cutting out the square holes for the clock display & alarm on/off button: part 2

I love the way the video capture rate of my camera is just out of sync with the scroll saw and gives the impression the saw blade is only barely moving up & down

Drill bit sets from Sears
Compass from Sears
Bench vise from Craftsman

Step 5: Faceplate 3: Polish and Finish

I setup my trusty drill in its bench top mount, attached the wirebrush that came with it and I'm ready to brush off the crud & oxidation to achieve a brushed aluminium look

Using the drill with a wire brush & bench mount to polish the aluminium

One critical piece of safety info I forgot to mention in the video is to setup the drill with the direction of rotation 'pointing' away from you. Note in the video how I place the aluminium on top of the wirebrush and it almost took the piece away from me... not towards me...

The next video is actually from a few steps down... once I finished framing the box I found that the tolerances were too tight... that is, the aluminium plates would only just slide in to place. I need to make the edges of the plates a little narrower....

Bench drill setup as a sander
This video was taken after I made the box and realised I had a little adjusting to do on the faceplate. I've placed the video in this step because it also demonstrates using the drill to work/finish the aluminium faceplates.

Dam it! you'll see me monologuing about tools in this video when I should have picked what woody went with

Bench grinder/sander & accessories from Sears

Step 6: Case Construction 1: Choosing the Wood & Setup

The box will be constructed with a low cost wood; pine, and then veneered with a more expensive wood; oak. The purpose of veneering is to reduce costs and allow you to cover up joints to achieve a more aesthetically pleasing look.

Using the table saw to first rip length ways to desired width
I need to cut both edges of the piece of stock I'm using to make the box, in this case its 8" shiplap that will be taken down to 5 3/4"

Using the table saw cross cut
The main difference between ripping and crosscutting is the use of the fence versus the miter. In both cases follow the golden rule of table saw usage; keep your fingers as far away from the blade but not so far that you cant effectively control the piece of material you are working on.

I cut the veneer sheets in to lengths just larger that the width of the box; 5 3/4" by placing the veneer sheets on a piece of supporting wood and ripping it as in the video.


Step 7: Case Construction 2: Framing the Case

With the stock wood cut to length we will follow these steps
1)rout out the grooves for faceplates
2)Rip, on the table saw, the two ends of the box - they will be the same height as the face plate*
3)Put the ends on the faceplate, see image 4 below. This will give us the overall length of the box
4)Mark & Rip the top and bottom pieces based on the measurement from the step above, see image 5 below.
5)Use the router to make the Rabbet Joint, see image 6 for details of the joint.

Using the router to cut the grooves for the face & back plates

Making the Rabbet joint
I've somehow lost the video on making the rabbet but it is a fairly simple joint to make, and strong too. I took this video after completing the project to demonstrate how to cut a standard Rabbet joint and the stronger version employed in this project

I first cut the two end pieces, see image four. Then finished with the top & bottom. You can see in the video its a very tight simple to make joint and as demonstrate by the number of times I've opened & closed the box throughout the videos - strong & durable

For more detail and measurements please refer to image 5 below taken from "Elementary-Woodwork-Manual-Training-Classes" by Frank Henry Selden (1906)

Cutting the box in half with the tablesaw

Why cut the box in half?
1)I can get the electronics in easily and re-work as necessary
2) the edges mate up perfectly. Theres no chance in hell Ill be able to build the two halves to be perfect copies of each other.

Ideally if I had a proper woodworking bench and good handsaws I would have taken the time to mark up the cut, clamp the piece to the bench and completed this step by hand.

Unless you're really comfortable with operating a tablesaw, take the time and do this step by hand.

*the end piece should not be exactly the height for the face plate - they need to be longer by the width of the table saw blade... so that when the box is cut in half the end piece become shorter to the desired height.

For more information on the Rabbet joint as well as the router table;

Step 8: Case 3: Veneer Laminating

With the box cut in half and the faceplates sanded its time to finish the box. Before we get to the fun messy glue part... I decided to put 4 dowels to help the top & bottom halves line up

Putting dowels in to the box

Now that I'm up to a point where everything fits together smoothly and no more powertool work is needed (hopefully) its time to beautify the box. I picked up some oak veneer on sale a while back at my local Rockler store. Not necessarily the most inexpensive place to shop but definitely the place to go for quality

Now, I'm not much of an expert at veneer laminating but it is fun and the results can be very rewarding. I first cut the oak laminate in to lengths of 6" (just wider than the box) with the grain of the laminate going front to back. This will allow the laminate to wrap around the rounded corners of the box.

First spread some glue out on the box, then on the laminate and apply the two together. Its that simple. More information on how to do it properly...
I cant say I did as Joe prefers but the results work for me.

I had originally intended to use a large rubber band wrapped around the piece to act as a press. However, the rubber band hadn't been used in quite a while.. it disintegrated (o; Time to whip out my old vacuum press and do the job properly.

With all the sections of laminate attached to the box, I placed the composite in the vacuum bag and fired it up. Within a minute I was getting a nice even press on all edges. Before the glue set I took the piece out for a moment and wiped off the excess woodglue with a damp cloth. This will make finish-up much easier once the piece is set.

Removing the veneered box from the vac bag
After letting the glue set overnight I take the box out of the bag and trim the excess veneer

Final sanding to finish of the edges
I hand sand around the edges. While the veneer is still properly glued to the pine base it is still prone to splintering off. Along with sanding, a couple of coats of paint will ensure the final result is rock solid and will wear the test of time well.

Veneer sheets from Rockler
Titebond III from Rockler
Instructable to make your own sanding block

Step 9: Wiring: Connecting Up the Faceplate

I scavenge all sorts of parts from broken old electronics for re-use in projects such as this. You'll learn a lot from breaking things down.. not only is this knowledge useful for repairing 'stuff' but you'll also be able to construct new projects using some of the standard methods industrial designers employ, without having to go to industrial design school.

Again, focusing on the most tricky part first.. I start by hot gluing the switches to the faceplate.

Attaching the switches to the faceplate

Note the little plastic tray.. these are indispensable when working on any project of this kind. When taking screws out of a device I place them in order along a row. Then when it comes to re-construction I can reverse the order and never be at a loss as to which screw goes where.

Marking up the switches for soldering

Again, because I was using a variety of different switches, some with up to 6 pins on the back, I need to 'measure twice, cut once'. I used a continuity tester to detect which pins are the ones that make a circuit when the button is pressed and marked them with a felt tip permanent marker.

Timelapse video of the actual wiring

Although this video is a little short, this is the time consuming part. I first cut a pair of wires for each switch, striped the ends and wicked them with solder.

Testing the new front panel for the first time
With enough of the wiring completed for me to test the alarm I couldnt wait to plug the various parts together and take if for a test drive. Its always a little nerve wrecking powering something new up for the first time and experience has taught me to double check before connecting electricity

I figured out just afterwards what the 'quirk' was with setting up the alarm. I forgot that the light does not come on at the alarm time, it comes on 30 minutes before and gradually gets brighter up to the alarm time. So, its all working and I can proceed with the finishing touches.

Weller portable soldering iron from Sears
Craftsman Hot Glue Gun
Parts storage from Sears

Step 10: Buttons Are for Pressing

There are two types of buttons on the faceplate of the alarm clock, caps for the push buttons and a knob for the volume control.

Construction of the push button caps
This is a really simple process which can produce a very unique look for your faceplate. The stock plastic button caps are fine but a little generic looking, plus.. they add another material to the box (wood - metal, now plastic?) and I feel 2 materials gives a less cluttered feel to the design.

Using the drill as a lathe to make button caps from a dowel rod

1) Cut a small length off the rod, place in the drill and round the end with sandpaper.
2) Mark and drill a pilot hole, then a hole big enough for the button shank
3) Paint the wooden button cap to seal it and then glue on to the button shank.

The Volume control knob
This is a little more detailed. Following the images below
(Image 1) Cut a circle on the scroll saw
(Image 2) Round the corners with the drill sander
(Image 3) Clamp a piece of very fine sand paper to the bench and with your other and pull on the paper enough so that it forms a curve around the piece your working on when you sand. This will allow you to smooth out any edges.
(Image 4) Drill out a dowel to fit the control that needs to rotate. In this case I have drilled a small center hole for the screw and a larger hole that fits around the volume control rod which the screw goes in to.
(Image 5) Use the correct Wood/Metal glue and attached the screw in to the smaller hole in the dowle
(Image 6) Cut the dowel and use woodglue, clamp lightly and set overnight.

Various grit sandpaper roll from Harborfreight

Step 11: Light Housing

Cutting an old glass bottle to make the light cover

Safety first here, glasses and gloves are a must. Dust mask probably wouldnt hurt. A wet tile saw will cut glass like a warm knife through butter but the blade will throw up all sorts of little pieces of fractured glass.

Using the drill as a 'lathe' to make the end caps

The drill is such a versatile tool... here I demonstrate how is can perform some of the functions of a lathe. I've cut a circle piece of oak for the endcaps and I need to round corners off. I drill a hole in the center of the circle piece of wood I'm working on, then put a bolt through the wood and fix the two together with a nut. The mount it on the drill with a bolt an 'turn' it as you would with a lathe

Finishing the end caps with a mini tour of the drill - router - bandsaw

With the complete piece taken down to a shape I like I then need to cut a groove for the glass housing... similar to the groove I cut in step 7. After that.. cut the piece in half to make the 2 endcaps.

Step 12: Finishing Touches

Adding feet

Quite simple,

1) cut a wine bottle cork in to 1/4" sections
2) Glue to your box

What more is there to say other than... why didnt I think of this before?

Labeling the buttons

Another simple step. Once your box is complete, put it face down on a scanner. Pull the scanned image in to an image editing app like photoshop (I recommend the free alternative GIMP) Although you could do this in Microsoft Word.

Once you've finished placing the labels as I've done in the video you print on to a Transparency suitable for your printer. Cut it out and stick it on.

Using a steam iron to bend veneer
In the end I decided to go to the effort to veneer the front of the box as opposed to paint it. Bending veneer around such tight corners requires the use of water & heat - best applied in the form of steam

Once bent the veneer is first cut at 45 degrees and then clued.

Step 13: Conclusion

Video of the finished clock

I'm very happy with the way the retrofit came out.

I still have not decided what colour to paint the front edge of the wooden box - orange maybe?

Since making this box I've been asked if I would redesign a radio for an elderly relative. The buttons are too small for her and features too confusing - an all too familiar story of products designed by engineers for themselves. I seemed to have graduated from the family IT guy who knows how to fix computers up to the Designer guy who can make things more usable.

Final word:
I hope I managed to get across the point that you don't need a suite of high end tools at your disposal to make something like this. About 2/3rds of the work was accomplished with a hand drill manufactured before most of us were born. I picked up at a yard sale for $5. While I did use a router I could have finished this project with a drill, hand saw, soldering iron, hammer & chisel if I wanted to.
Almost every tool in a workshop is simply a motor, configured to do a specific job. The the most basic configuration is the hand drill. While you cannot replace the router or table saw with a hand drill you can still perform a wide array of operations and achieve great results.

In this modern world, its hard not to feel swamped by technology sometimes. I see technology as a double edged sword; can't live with with it, can't live without it. Designed by us to solve our problems, it can become be our master at times. I don't believe this has to be the case.

I encourage you to look at technological devices as 'systems'; Things that have inputs and outputs. Controls that tell the device what to do and displays to tell you what they have done for you. Once you start breaking devices/systems down into their components, it's not hard to start combining functionality & methods for displaying information in new ways. In the process, creating new solutions that meets your needs, solutions you have designed.

As Eric would say in his newsletter - Now go make something awesome!

Step 14: Reference 1: Tools & Parts

Before I go in to the bill of tools & materials its worth mentioning that having multiple eyeglasses, ear muffs and face masks around your work area is a good idea. Its one thing to intend to use safety equipment, human nature tends to urge us to proceed in to a 'quick job' without bothering to stop what we're doing and go find the correct safety wear. Its these 'quick jobs' that are most likely to result in accidents. I've found that by having a pair of glasses at every workstation I'm able to quick don the protection before starting work.

Quick run through some of the tools used to make this project

Materials used to make the box
8" Shiplap available from any lumber supplies outlet
Oak veneer, I recommend Rockler
1/8" Aluminium sign for the faceplates
Old glass bottle for the light housing
1" Oak board for the light end caps
Assorted switches salvaged from broken electronics
Wine cork for the feet.

Powertools used and recommended price on craigslist : ymmv
Scroll saw :craigslist for $50
Band saw : craigslist for $40
Table saw : craigslist for $100
Hand drill : Yard sale for $5 - yay!
Variable speed plunge Router: Rockler $dont ask - I was tired waiting for one to turn up on craigslist.. and guess what happened after I bought this (o; $150 is a good price for this model

Various hand tools for this or any project
sand paper,
sanding block,
Dowel center
Selection of good woodworking drill bits
Knife for cutting veneer
Hot glue gun.

Additional references
Intructable: Upgrading the fence on an old crafstman tablesaw

Craftsman Workshop of the Future Contest

Finalist in the
Craftsman Workshop of the Future Contest