It all started a little over a month ago, when I was working on a "fiberglass-over-foam" project out in the cold in our driveway, and managed to get myself COMPLETELY covered with white polystyrene dust. When I headed inside for a minute to warm-up and grab the kitchen electric carving knife to continue cutting foam, our two-year-old daughter saw me. Immediately, she looked up and squealed with delight "Daddy a SNOWMAN!"
Sure enough. I was covered head to toe with static-charged white bits that looked just like snow. Children don't lie - they just call 'em like the see 'em. Daddy was a snowman.
I'm a very visually imaginative person and could right away see myself inside a giant snow-globe, with stryrofoam "snow" swirling around me. Was there some way I could freeze this image and create it for others to see?
Thus began the "Daddy a Snowman" custom snow-globe.
Step 1: Tools and Materials
The materials for the project are a combination of new, used, and salvaged. Tools were varied, but nothing too unusual as far as crafters and hobbyists go, other than that you may or may not have a router.
- Custom Figurine (See step 4)
- Glass or plastic globe
- Block of wood, proportional to globe
- "Singing" Greeting Card
- Small gauge wire and solder
- Small Normally-Closed push-button switch
- Silicon Glue or Caulk
- Waterproof Sealant
- Disposable gloves, plastic cups, mixing sticks
- "Snow" from craft store, home-made, or recycled from another snow-globe
- Masking Tape
- Distilled Water
- Cordless Drill or drillpress and bits
- Router with radius tool
- Clamps (to hold down work while routing, sanding, etc.)
- Soldering iron, wire strippers, wire cutters
- Razor knife, straight edge, tape measure, pencil
- Laser Cutter, wood-burner, or other engraving tool
- PPE (Safety glasses, hearing protection, work gloves, etc.)
Step 2: The Globe
The first thing I needed for the project was the globe itself.
The size of the globe would determine the size of both the figure and the base.
On a more basic project, it would have been simple to use a jar or other watertight glass item, but I was really determined to have a sphere, and make it a TRUE snow-globe.
I looked at big-box and thrift stores for ideas for materials. In the lighting department at a big-box home improvement store, they had 6-inch glass globes for lamps, but they were only available as frosted white or a strange antique finish, neither of which would work for my project.
Later, at a thrift store, I found the same size lamp globe in clear. (Actually it was "smoked" but only a very light tint.) Even better, there were TWO of the globes there. I bought both.
The globe is essentially a 6-inch diameter and has a 3-inch diameter mouth. The lip of the mouth had a bit of a "wiggle" to it where thumb-screws can attach the globe to a lamp. This gives the lip a bit of thickness, which came into play when I was cutting the wood base to fit the globe.
Having two globes was also an advantage in that I could work on the wood base in one location, while the figure was being worked on elsewhere at the same time. (See step 4)
Step 3: The Base
The base of the snow-globe is primarily a wood-working project.
The base needs to be a size and shape appropriate to the globe, and of an attractive material. (Plastic or other materials could also work fine, but I like the look of wood.)
I stopped by a local cabinet shop, run by a former high-school class-mate of mine, Steve. I asked for his advice on what wood to use for the base and how to shape it. He recommended tight-grained hardwoods that would have minimal reaction to water, should it get wet. (NOT oak!)
He showed me several samples of wood, and then handed me a block of gorgeous maple, which was two inches thick. It was too small to make anything useful at the cabinet shop, but more than large enough for my use. There were also some scrap pieces of maple in the cut-off bin. I grabbed several of those as practice pieces, so that I could rehearse cutting and routing, before attempting on my final product.
I originally wanted the base to be round, to roughly match the shape of the globe. However, cutting round really needed a good band-saw, and quite a bit of sanding. I decided that with my merely basic wood-working skills, that a square base would be simpler.
I headed over to my Dad's "back-of-the-garage" workshop to do the woodworking. He had a few wood tools there and gave me a bit of a hand with the project as well.
The block of wood was 7 inches wide, and the snow-globe was 6 inches wide. Seven inches square would be about the right size for the base. It also meant that I would only need to make one cut instead of two to get the wood to the right size. I marked the seven inches across with a tape measure, pencil, and straight edge, then drew lines from opposite corners to mark the center of the square. (Leaving the piece of wood long right now gave me more material to clamp the piece down right now to do the routing. The piece was cut short AFTER being routed.)
Using one of my scrap pieces as a sample, I tried cutting a circular groove in the wood with a 3-inch hole saw. Unfortunately, the groove wasn't as wide as the lip of the dome needed. Instead, I would use a router to cut this groove.
Many routers include a guide that allows you to cut circles. A bar extends from the side of the router to a pin. You drill a hole where you want the center to be, and put the pin of the router in it. Then, the router can carve a perfect radius around the hole. However, many routers can only do about a 4" hole minimum. So, we drilled a very small hole through the Lexan guard of the router, 1.5 inches from the router bit. We drilled a hole in the marked middle of the wood, and put a finishing nail (used as a pin) through the router guard, into the would. I routed the circular groove around the pin, carving in to about a third of the depth required by the lip of the globe. I then adjusted the depth of the bit to another third deeper, did a second cut, and repeated for the third time. Doing multiple cuts allowed me to make a deep cut total, while still not abusing the tool and its motor and bit.
I set the globe over the wood base, into the groove, and could see how well it set in there, with the bottom lip totally hidden, giving the illusion of a sphere sitting on a flat wood base.
Next, we cut off the extra length of the board. Adjusting the table-saw blade to a 45-degree angle, we then flipped the board over and cut a bevel on each of the four top edges.
The bottom of the wood would need some additional routing for the audio electronics. (See Step 5)
I traced the components onto the bottom of the wood with a pencil. Then I removed them, set the depth of the router to a little deeper than the thickness of the electronics, and freehand routed out the marked areas.
With that, the main woodworking of the base was done.
Step 4: The Figure
I don't claim to be an artist, and a big part of this project depended on the figure inside being recognizable.
I asked my brother-in-law to help me with this. He's an artist, and has worked extensively with hobbyist clays, creating some pretty amazing characters, including work on a number of custom wedding cake toppers.
He agreed to make the character for me. I gave him the whole story of how the character is a fantasy version of me in a styrofoam snow-storm in my work-coat with an electric carving knife.
I left him with a "costume-study" of a recent photo of me in my heated coat, and a photo of our carving knife. I also gave him the second lamp globe, so that he was able to create the figure at the correct dimensions, and make sure it fit in the globe!
He was busy working on the figure while I was creating the base, so it was nice to have two globes for both of us to check our work against.
The character is made from "Sculpey", a brand-name artist polymer clay, which is scupted and then oven-baked to cure.
Sculpey can be built over a basic wire armature, or character skeleton. This one was built over two pieces of thick aluminum wire. The electric carving knife was made from an aluminum pop rivet. The two pieces of wire extend out the bottom of the figure to mount it to a base. While being built, the figure is set into two holes drilled into a scrap wood base.
Once completed and baked, the character was hand-painted with details such as the silver coat zipper and the styrofoam "snow".
I was very pleased with how the character turned out. A big thanks for Fred for his work on the project!
If you wanted to make your own custom figure, but don't have the sculpting skills (or a handy artist!) you could alternatively 3D-Print one, use a modified action figure (or Lego Man!) or even a flat photograph printed out from your computer, cut out, and laminated!
Step 5: Inscription
I wanted to dedicate the gift with a title and date inscribed right into the wood base.
While there's a number of different ways to do that, nothing beats a laser!
I headed to the Milwaukee Makerspace, to use the laser cutter for a custom inscription.
The laser cutter works in much the same way as a computer printer, except that the output is a concentrated beam of light moved around an object, instead of ink sprayed on paper.
The laser is controlled by creating a graphic file in a VECTOR art program. We have CorelDraw on the laser's computer. While I don't know CorelDraw as well as Illustrator, it's still pretty simple to lay out a few basic shapes and text.
Since the base of the snow globe is a 7-inch square, I simply drew a 7-inch square in the art program and put it in the upper-left corner of the work area. I then centered a 3-inch circle on that to represent the mouth of the globe. From there, I was able to decide where I wanted the text to go.
I put the title "Daddy a Snowman!" on the bottom edge of the top face of the piece. I wanted a font that met with the child-like enthusiasm that inspired the piece, but NOT the over-used Comic Sans. I found an appropriate font that I really liked, and centered the text on the piece.
Next, I laid my wood block into the laser-cutter, but I put a piece of construction paper over the top of it, and pinned that down with masking-tape. I would first just make a very light pass onto the paper. Once that was done, I could see exactly where on the piece the text would be burned.
Happy with the alignment, I peeled back the paper, and ran the laser a second time at higher power, now directly onto my wood base. It burned a very nice title directly into the wood.
Then, I flipped the piece over, and did all the same steps again, engraving "To Sophie, From Daddy, X-mas 2012" on the top back and carving in a credit to myself for the project and to my brother-in-law for the figure.
I'm really glad that I have access to a laser-cutter. It works amazingly well for lettering objects. If you want to do some custom engraving, but don't have a laser-cutter, you could use a wood-burner, a router (or dremel), or even get a small brass plaque made at a trophy shop!
Next, I needed to install the custom audio electronics.
Step 6: Custom Audio Components
Besides featuring a custom figurine, and custom text engraving, the snow-globe also has a custom audio recording and music playback.
If you think that designing something like that is beyond your skill-set, don't worry, I thought the exact same thing... However, it doesn't have to be difficult at all.
There are a number of "Singing" Greeting Cards available at stores nowadays. We have a full-service Hallmark store nearby, so I headed there to see what they had for cards with winter-themed music. I really wanted to find a card that would play "Walking in a Winter Wonderland" when opened. I couldn't find one. The store had "White Christmas" and several other tunes, but I really felt that "Winter Wonderland" best suited the theme of the snow-globe.
I WAS able to find a card which allows you to record a CUSTOM audio greeting! The limitation is that it's only a ten second record time, but that's long enough for a simple greeting and song chorus.
I spent the $6 or $7 to buy the card. Once home, I followed the directions on the card to record my custom greeting. I recorded "To Sophie, from Daddy" in my voice, followed by just the chorus from "Winter Wonderland", which I downloaded on my computer, and simply played back through the computer speakers as I made the recording on the card.
Advantages of using a singing greeting card include the fact that it contains all the parts needed: microprocessor, battery, and speaker, AND that all the components are FLAT to easily fit in the card. That meant that I only needed to route a shallow, flat, area in the bottom of the snow globe base.
Once I had the custom recording completed, I cut open the card, and carefully removed the electronics. See step 3 for details of carving the area for the audio electronics.
The greeting card normally plays the audio file by a small piece of plastic being pulled when you open the card, which allows two spring-loaded contacts on the music circuit board to touch. That switch completes the circuit, and the audio file plays. Once the circuit is broken, it resets, and will play again next time the switch is closed.
I needed a different mechanism to activate the audio file on the snow globe than would be used for a greeting card. To do this, I would use a small, NC (Normally-Closed), pushbutton wired to the circuit board.
I drilled a hole in the base of the snow globe, near where the circuit board would be mounted. The hole was the diameter of the push-button, and deep enough so that the button WHEN PRESSED is flush with the bottom of the snow globe. That way, the button is usually "pressed-in" by the weight of the snow globe. When picked-up, the spring-loaded button extends, completing the circuit, and playing the audio file.
On the circuit board, I bent back the original spring-loaded switch on the card, so that it would no longer activate, but I could still manually bend back for testing, if desired.
I cut two short pieces of small diameter wire, about two inches long each, and stripped both ends. I soldered one end of each wire to the original switch contact points on the circuit board, and the other ends to the two connections on the push-button switch.
After soldering, the audio components were inserted into the bottom of the snow globe base. The push-button went in the drilled hole so that the top of the button extended out the bottom of the wood, but was flush once pushed. The other components were held in place by hot glue.
I made sure to remember to glue the battery-holder in right-side-out so that I could replace the battery once it wore out. The instructions in the card say that the card will hold your message, even when the battery is replaced. That's very important for any priceless or one-time-only audio recording. This particular greeting card was designed for you to record your child's audio wish-list for Santa, and be able to save and re-play it for years to come.
With the audio components secured to the bottom of the snow-globe, it's ready to play the custom greeting. Pickup up the snow-globe (to turn it over and make it snow) allows the spring-loaded button to complete the circuit and play the sound. Setting the snow-globe down resets the audio file and gets it ready to play again.
Step 7: Clear-coat and Finishing
When I talked with Steve about wood at the cabinet shop, I also asked about how to finish it. He said that for maple, just some sanding and then a nice clear-coat look great.
I also needed to clear-coat the Sculpey figurine to make it completely and permanently water-proof.
A long time back, I once used a sealer product that was designed for refinishing bar tops. It gives a nice thick, clear, shiny coat, and is completely waterproof. I headed to the store and found a similar product called "Parks Super Glaze" - a two-part clear epoxy finish.
I wanted to be able to use the finish to coat the base, the figure, AND seal the figure to the base. I also needed to get it down into the groove that the globe lip went down into.
However, I didn't know how well the sealant would work with the polymer clay, or how it would work BETWEEN the clay and the wood. So, just like I how practiced on scrap wood, I also did a test sample of a very small batch of Super Glaze on an old piece of a clay sculpture and some scrap wood.
( I found out that a GREAT way to mix a very small amount of two-part epoxy is with an accurate digital scale, reading in grams. I put a disposable cup on the scale, hit TARE, poured in a set number of grams of resin, and then poured in the proportional amount of hardener, tracking it by watching the weight on the scale. Everything is now in one small cup, instead of sticking to the sides of two cups, and just has to be mixed and used.)
I tested the Super Glaze on that other Sculpey piece and wood and was happy with the results, but also learned that I would have to be careful of the drips, and it would be good to add some sort of "handle" to the piece so that I could hold it without actually touching the wood while I brushed the epoxy on the sides.
Once I was ready to clear coat the wood base, I actually did it in two steps. The first was to coat just the parts that water would come in contact with - the inside of the 3-inch groove, and down in the sides and bottom of the groove itself. If I tried to coat the groove at the same time as the rest of the wood, the "self-leveling" nature of the Super-Glaze would have completely filled up the groove.
After the coat on just the groove was done, and left to cure for a day, I used blue painters tape to mask off the compete bottom of the wood base AND both edges of the groove. The tape would keep the coating on the figure and rest of the base from filling the groove. The tape on the bottom of the base would make it so that I could just peel off any drips that accumulated on the bottom edge.
I drilled all the way through the hole for the router pin (exact center of the piece) to create a hole on the bottom that I could put a screw into. This gave me a handle - a way to hold the wood block WITHOUT touching any of the epoxied wet surface. I also drilled the two holes that the wires from the figure would mount into. The holes were small enough that the figure could be pushed onto the base with the wires going into the holes, and no worries of the figure falling out when it was flipped over.
I prepared for the clear-coating by cutting two wooden blocks that the base could sit on, face up. These were set on a disposable aluminum pan. I put on some gloves and had a chip-brush handy. I mixed the clear-coat according to directions, and, holding the combined figure and base by the screw in the bottom in one hand, brushed on the epoxy with with the brush in the other.
The epoxy is thick, but also runs, so by slowly rotating the figure and tipping it both right-side-up AND up-side-down, I was able to get an even coat on the figure. The coating was extra thick by the feet of the character and oozed onto the base, acting as a thick and permanent binder between the figure and base.
I brushed the clear epoxy on the top of the wood base and it's sides, while rotating. I wasn't too worried about brush marks, as this material evens itself out. I set the combined figure and base down on the two wood blocks over the aluminum pan, with the wood blocks tucked under the base so that any drips would fall straight down, instead of sticking the snow-globe base to the support blocks.
The next day, the coating was dried, and I could remove the screw from the bottom and handle the work. Peeling the painters tape off the bottom took any hardened drips with it and left a nice clean edge. It was more difficult removing the tape that kept the clear coat from getting down in the groove, but a little time spent on it gave good results cleaning up that tape, and the grove was free of any additional clear-coat, with lots of room left for the lip of the globe.
The results with a beautiful, clear, hard, and shiny finish on the woodwork (which protects the top laser-engraving as well) and a durable and water-proof finish on the figure. The figure was also very solidly connected to the base.
Now all I had to do is get some "snow", water, and glue, and assemble the entire project.
Step 8: Snow, Water, & Assembly
Do you know what the "snow" inside a snow-globe is made out of? I didn't either. In fact, I STILL don't!
I was able to get a cheap snow-globe from the thrift store and take it apart, but I still couldn't figure out exactly what it was. It appears to be some sort of white plastic.
I checked at the craft store, and nobody actually sells something marketed as snow-globe snow. I found several types of glitter, something called "Diamond-Dust", and some neat little plastic pearls called "Micro-Beads."
When I tested these various materials, I was disappointed to see that glitter mostly floats, and the other materials sink like rocks!
Not to be disheartened, I thought I'd make my own snow! I headed for the recycling bin and pulled out white containers made from #2 and #5 plastics, as well as a piece of scrap PVC pipe I had. I took each material and cheese-grated it over a piece of paper, marked with what material it is. I then dumped each material into a jar of water to see whether or not it would make good snow for my globe.
Unfortunetly, NONE of them worked well. All the shredded plastics I tried floated!
In the end, I decided to use the "Micro-Beads" from the craft store as a "sinking snow" that would just pile up at the character's feet, along with the snow that I got from opening up the thrift store snow-globe.
Now, it was time to actually assemble the final product.
For starters, I needed some way to hold the globe upside down. Any sort of stout ring will work well for this. I had the end of a roll of duct tape around, and it was about the right size. I set the globe on the ring, upside-down, in the bathroom sink.
I then dumped my "snow" into the globe.
With the figure and base still right-side-up, I filled the globe groove with a fair amount of 100% silicon glue. The idea is that between the glue itself and the glass lip of the globe, the entire groove should be full and completely sealed against the water.
Next, I filled the globe, right up to the rim, with distilled water. (In my area, we have very high mineral content in the water, even using water softeners. Distilled water can be bought from the grocery store is about as chemically inert as you can get.)
I flipped the figure and base upside-down and carefully inserted the inverted figure into the water, and pushed it down until the lip of the globe went all the way up inside the groove. Plenty of water overflowed as it was displaced by the figure - that's good - it minimizes how much air can be trapped inside the globe.
Air also came out through the center hole in the base. I then sealed the center hole with a dab of silicon.
Next, I dried off the project and duct tape ring it was sitting on, and carefully moved it to an out of the way location for the silicon to cure.
I was a little worried about the globe getting bumped before the glue dried. Later, it popped into my head that wax, such as from a toilet ring, might also work as an excellent sealer for a snow-globe, and wouldn't have the long drying time that the silicon glue had.
Step 9: Give It Away
The best part of a gift is giving it away.
The project ended up taking some time to make, and included use of sealants and glues with long cure times. By the night before Christmas, the snow globe was assembled, but the glue was still curing.
Since I couldn't wrap it yet, I just had it in the bathroom (in case, heaven forbid, it failed and leaked!) lightly covered with a peek-resistant bag, protected by a warning, and a promise from my wife not to peek.
The next morning, I brought out and revealed the snow-globe. My wife's reaction was something like "Wow.... (Bewildered pause) Oh Wow....."
The two-year-old girl immediately recognized the character inside. Her response included "I LOVE it!" and "Tiny Daddy inside!"
I imagine that my wife really appreciated the gift right now, and that the more years pass, the more the girl will appreciate it.
Building this gift was challenging for me. It really stretched what skills I had in woodworking, electronics, crafting, and combining unusual elements.
I'm extremely pleased with how it turned out, and know that it will be a family keepsake for years to come.