Introduction: The Pixel Art Puzzle
While mansitting my faux nephew (mansitting because he's not a baby and faux nephew because although my title is "Uncle BALES," we aren't actually related), I noticed a gap between his desire for creative play and his actual skill set. The specific toy was a small lego vehicle with several minifigs and while he jumped right into assembling the figurines, he stated that the vehicle was too hard and that he wasn't good at following the instructions. I tried to make it less intimidating by knolling the parts and gathering what was necessary for each step, but he didn't take the bait. He had absolutely no problem finding the proper parts, he just didn't want to put them together.
Now, I'm no behavioral specialist ... In fact, The Warden will tell you I don't behave at all ... but my leading theory is that he's overwhelmed by all the different parts and possibility of improper assembly. Translation: too many choices and opportunities for failure.
My idea was to create a game or puzzle based on pixel art. Instead of uniquely shaped pieces, they would all be identical. The only variables are a choice between black and white and where to place each cube. They could be placed randomly to create random or repeating patterns, but they could also be used to mimic simple pictures.
"The Kid" is 6 years old, so I wanted to start with a smaller field. 11-13 pixels squared seemed like a good starting point. This play area could be reduced by starting with a border, while being large enough so that it won't immediately be outgrown.
Step 1: Cutting the Pixels
I planned on using 3/4" poplar board offcuts for this project, but my available selection contained too much variation (greens, purples, gnarly grain) and not enough of any one tone. Fortunately for me, I had a stack of plywood which was very clear and consistent. The box store labels it as "blondewood," so it's probably poplar as well.
A 13x13 field requires 169 individual squares. I considered 16x16 (256) and even 32x32 (1020), but 169 seemed like an adequate amount of pain for prototyping.
First step was to cut the plywood into 1" strips. I noticed some voids in the plywood and knew I'd have some throwaways due to veneer chip out, so I cut extra stock.
Second step was to cut the 1" strips into 1" squares using a small parts crosscut sled with a stop block. You could use a bandsaw with a fence and backing block or miter gauge set up, but I prefer the table saw.
Cutting the 1" squares from plywood like this basically results in the two display sides being face grain, which is the same orientation I would've had if I had used 3/4" poplar board stock. Another option is to buy 1" square stock from a big box store and then slice it into your desired thickness. A 36" length ($3.38) would result in around 40 squares if cut to a 3/4" thick and the orientation would result in the display sides being end grain.
Note: My assumption is that end grain would absorb dye/stain differently and result in bleed down the sides, but I'd have to test to be certain.
Step 2: Cutting the Tray/Frame Parts
Continuing the plywood theme with the tray/frame, I ripped 1 1/2" wide strips and then cut rabbets to accept a 1/2" plywood back panel.
I used a 45 degree small parts crosscut sled for cutting the miters. The first end is a freebie - just make the cut close to the end so you don't end up short (learned that lesson before). For the second end I used a stop/spacer block to register the work piece against the fence. The block is removed prior to the cut in order to avoid any dangerous binding. The inside dimensions of the tray are 13 1/16" x 13 1/16", which gives a little extra space for placing pixels.
Once all four sides were cut, I used masking tape to dry assemble the frame and get a measurement for the back panel. I cautiously snuck up on the cut until I had a perfect fit.
Step 3: Glue Up
When gluing up small boxes and/or frames, I've taken to using masking tape (packing tape works well for larger work). I use tape on the outside corners to help align the miters. I also use it on the inside faces adjacent to the joint as a glue barrier. It's really not necessary with a frame or open tray like this, where you have access to wipe up glue squeeze out, but it's extremely beneficial if you are gluing up a closed box and can't access squeeze out. Even if you are able to clean up the glue, some woods are quite porous and the quick contact is enough to affect how the material takes stain or dye.
With the tape in place, I added glue to each miter, and rolled the sides up like a square burrito. A bead of glue was then added to the bottom rabbet and the back panel dropped in place. I used 1" pin nails to secure each corner, as well as the back panel, which in combination with the tape, was more than enough clamping pressure.
Once the glue was dry, the outside tape peeled right off and the inside tape needed minimal persuasion with a chisel in the corners.
Step 4: Sanding and Washer Keyhole Hanger
I had cut my rabbets a tad deep to ensure the back panel didn't end up proud during glue up. Flushing the side edges to the back panel was just a matter of a few very light passes through the drum sander. VERY light - you don't want to sand through the plywood veneer. Once the back was flush, I flipped the tray and ran the front through a few times to remove burn marks from the table saw blade.
A quick sand with 120 grit on the orbital sander removed any lines left by the drum sander and then I broke all the edges and corners with 150 grit by hand.
Since I want to be able to hang the tray/frame on the wall when not in play, I added a shop made keyhole hanger. I found the horizontal center and then measured down 2" from the top edge. A Forster bit was used to drill a 1 1/4" hole just deep enough for the washer. The hole was continued with a 1" Forstner bit - making sure to drill just deep enough for a screw or nail head, while not blasting through the 1/2" plywood. The washer was then adhered to the resulting shelf/step with two part epoxy.
Note: If you shop is cold, give your glue a warm water bath to improve flow and mixing. This also works with spray paint.
My process for making the keyhole hangers can be seen below:
Fabricating The Hanger
1. Drill a 3/32" hole in the washer 1/3 of the distance from the inner hole.
2. Use a step bit to enlarge that hole enough for the head of a screw.
3. Remove two sharp points between the holes with a file ... I used a round file, but you can use whatever.
4. Sand off the burr left by the step bit using the OSS.
Fitting The Hanger
1. Use a Forstner bit the same diameter as the washer to drill a hole just deep enough to recess the washer.
2. Continue that hole with a smaller Forstner bit .. deep enough for the screw head, but not so deep that blast though the other side of your work.
3 Glue the washer in place. I used epoxy.
Detailed pictures can be seen with my The Dog Walking Station Instructable.
Step 5: Black Dye
As previously mentioned, I wanted a binary color palette - black and white. White being the natural wood and black being my favorite method - leather dye. I dyed the squares individually, which took less than 10 mins for around 180 (I made some extra).
Note: I did consider dying the plywood prior to cutting, but decided against it after considering throwaways due to voids and veneer chipping. I might be a good method if one were to use spray paint instead of dye.
I decided to only dye the outside faces/edges of the tray because I liked the color contrast. I didn't have a few spots of bleed on the back, but I was able to remove them with 120 grit and the orbital sander.
My brand was added with black spray paint and a stencil.
Step 6: Topcoat
Initially, I was leaning towards clear shellac as the finish. Although I'm sure I could've thinned the mix a bit to eliminate any runs/drips and dry time would be quick, it was still too manual ... and there was a chance that the leather dye would bleed. I opted for a spray finish, which I believe is some form of acrylic lacquer, but I could be wrong.
I laid out all the squares and sprayed a light coat from each side. Once dry, I flipped them over and applied another coat. 3-4 light coats were applied to the tray/frame - top and bottom. I don't expect the finish to be bullet proof ... it's mainly there to lock in the leather dye and as a barrier against oils and smudging.
The spray finish left a minimal bumpy feel, but it was quickly removed with 220 grit sandpaper - three swipes on each face was all it took. I stacked up the squares in blocks of three when sanding the edges and blocks of two when sanding the faces. The tray/frame was also quickly sanded by hand with 220 grit.
Step 7: Glamour Shots
Time will tell if this idea helps "The Kid" conquer is creative play trepidation, but I can tell you ... I REALLY like playing with it. I also like the ability to hang it on the wall so it can be enjoyed when not in play. Actually hanging it takes a bit of skill because if you lean it too far forward, all the squares fall out. A cookie sheet or book would be a quick solution, but adding a front panel of plexi, which slides into a groove from the top is a future design consideration.
The design/idea is also very scalable. Below are just a few variations which have come to mind
1. Enlarging the play field for more pixels and therefore larger and more detailed images.
2. Decreasing the pixel size from 1" to 3/4" or 1/2" for more detailed images.
3. Adding 2-3 different grays for grayscale.
4. Adding color with stain or paint.
Note: If you limited the colors to 6 and used cubes instead of squares, you wouldn't need additional blocks.
5. Using exotic woods to achieve color variations.
Note: If you want to allow for free play, you'll have to make a lot more squares or blocks.
6. Make second board for 2 player head-to-head game play. Pick a picture to mimic and the first one done, wins. [This idea courtesy of friend and sometime nemesis, Dan The Maker Man]
Step 8: Glamour Shots - Arcade Nostalgia
Having fun with video game characters from my childhood.