James West

May include blinky lights. And cocktails.

Agua de Valencia

Why wouldn’t you make a jug-full?

This is a refreshing jug of instant sunshine. You might thing a mix of orange juice, gin, vodka and Cava is only a summer drink, but you’d be wrong. As a reminder of warmer weather on a dark winter night this is just the job, and as it’s so refreshing it might help if you over done it with the winter warmers.

Agua de Valencia is really easy to make. You’ll need a jug that’ll hold about a litre. Pour in a wine glass full of orange juice, add a little dab of sugar, 50ml1 each of gin and vodka and top up with as much of a bottle of chilled Cava that’ll fit in your jug. Pour immediately into wine glasses and get on with it. When you’ve served your first glasses you can top the jug up with any Cava that’s left in the bottle.

We first came across this on an episode of Travel Man when Richard Ayoade and Sara Pascoe enjoyed the drink in Valencia, and had to have a go at making it ourselves. It’s a lovely drink, and I’m sure we’ll also be enjoying this outside in the summer months.

#inventadvent submission – Father Christmas’ naughty or nice detector

Seasonal hacking inspired by Les Pounder is now officially a thing. Invent:Advent asks you to spend no more than a tenner in pound shops and add that to crafty/makery things you’ve already got lying around to make festive Christmas hacks.

So here’s my go. I bought a wooden Father Christmas with a spinning panel in his belly to let you to show whether you’ve been naughty or nice, several strings of LEDs powered by 2 AA batteries and a sparkly reindeer. I decided to make Father Christmas a bit more high-tech in his approach to declaring your behaviour status, and to give him a less binary choice. The plan was to press a button and see just how you’ve behaved appear on a screen.

For this hack I’ve used the Father Christmas and a set of the LEDs (although a second set was sacrificed to some careless snipping). I raided my box of making bits for a USB power bank (I could easily have afforded to get one at Poundland, but I knew I already had this at home), a Raspberry Pi Zero W with Pico HAT Hacker, a PaPiRus Zero e-ink display which formerly ran a Twitter display, one small button with a red cap, hook-up wire, some left-over transparent red Perspex and lashings of hot glue.

I took the spinning panel out of Santa’s tummy and found the PaPiRus Zero was a good fit vertically, but left a gap of about a centimetre at each side. I used the left-over acrylic to fill the gap and create a mounting plate I could bolt to Raspberry Pi onto. I drilled a hole through Father Christmas’ nose (sorry) to fit the button. Signal and earth wires for the button were soldered to the Pico Hat Hacker and then to the button. The LEDs were also soldered on here, after I’d worked out which lead was positive and which was negative and shortened the train of LEDs to fit.

Everything (the transparent red acrylic holding the Pi Zero and Papirus Zero, the USB power bank, and all the LEDs) was hot glued into place. I’d already written the code and tested it while I was prototyping the hardware so all I had to do was fire up the Raspberry Pi and press the button – err, nose, to set Santa into action. I’ve made about ten statuses that Father Christmas might give you, but you can have as many as you like. They’re all delivered to the screen as black and white bitmap images which are 200 x 96 pixels.

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Cocktail lamp

On holiday in Menorca this summer I loved these bottle lamp-shades at a bar in Mahon’s old fish market.

Bar, at Mahon fish market

They look lovely, and I thought they couldn’t be too difficult to make.

As ever, YouTube is your friend and there are lots of videos showing various methods of cutting bottles. I had fun sourcing a trio of attractive and different bottles (drinking the booze is a definite plus point for this project, but please don’t attempt any making when you’ve had a drink) and decided to use a diamond cutting wheel on my Dremel to do the glass cutting. I half expected to shatter a bottle or two as I got the hang of this, but actually it went quite well and the bottles all cut quite neatly. I’m not going to write up how to do this, there are dozens of blogs and videos describing good techniques, but I would definitely advise wearing eye protection, a face mask and long sleeves if you use a rotary tool like I did – small shards of glass flew all over the place.

Having cut the bottles the edges needed grinding and sanding to smooth off any bumps and sharp edges. It takes a while to get really nice results, so spend as long as possible to make the cuts look neat.

I ordered a ceiling rose with three outlets, some lovely sparkly braided cable and three bulb holders from Creative Cables UK and waited for them all to be shipped from Italy. My bulb holders are hidden by the bottles so I got plastic ones, which meant I could use two-core wire without an earth. Metal holders look nicer if they’re going to be in sight, but don’t forget to connect the earth to them with three-core cabling. I wired up the bulb holders, slipped the bottles over each cable and connected them together in the ceiling rose with a terminal strip. Then I swapped my new lamp with the existing one in the front room (where the cocktail cabinet is…). If you’re at all unsure what you’re doing, get an electrician to help, and please make sure you switch off the circuit breaker for your lights at the consumer unit before you make a start.

Ceiling roses are always too small for the stuff inside them, but after the usual struggle I managed to get it secured to the ceiling and when I turned the power back on to the “ground floor lights” nothing went bang or let out smoke.

Boozy bottle lamp

I’m pleased with the result of this. I had considered longer wires and making a spider display with the individual bottles spread out across the ceiling, but I think they look nice nestled together. The bulbs are filament LEDs so strike a good balance between looking good, having a long lifespan and being energy efficient. The edges on my bottles aren’t quite as clean as the ones in Mahon, but unless you look closely they’re good enough.

If I did it again I’d spend even more time grinding, sanding and polishing where the cuts had been made. The base of the prosecco bottle makes a nice small dish for nuts or olives and the bottom half of the Martini bottle is now a straw dispenser, so I’ve been able to make use of most the bits of glass I didn’t need for the lamps.

Maintenance update: learning by fixing

It’s nice to think the things we make just work and will just keep on working, but obviously that’s not a realistic expectation. This week I’ve been back to two projects that needed a bit of love and attention.

I got both projects up and running again, and along the way learned a couple of things which will help me as I do more making.

The first problem was that the yellow LEDs on my global status indicator had stopped working. A quick look at the circuit showed all the connections looked sound, so I shorted across the button connectors to see if there was a problem there and the yellow LEDs all lit up.

Having diagnosed a problem with the button and checking I had a spare in my box of bits, I desoldered the connectors so I could pop it out of the map. Then I decided to try the button again, while it was out of its snug mounting hole. And of course it worked.

Old button works now its not snugly mounted in the frame.

What I think happened is that the hole I’d cut in the board was a bit too tight and was pinching the moving bits of the button that peek out of the sides, stopping something inside the button working properly. So I rotated the button 90 degrees, stuck it back in the map and checked it was going to work before re-soldering the connections to it.

What I learned: components stop working for lots of reasons, not just because they’re broken. I could have saved myself some time by just trying to reposition the button in its hole before starting to take things apart.

The second problem was a corrupt SD card on the Raspberry Pi running my desktop Twitter ticker. I know corrupt SD cards can be a problem for Raspberry Pi users, but until now I’ve never experienced it. When I built the case for the ticker I did consider making the Pi Zero W inside accessible, but that needed more steps and I just wanted the thing finished, so I glued the last panel in place rather than drilling pilot holes and finding some screws to close it up.

Now I used my Dremel to make pilot holes while the case was still in one piece, then levering from the bottom where any screwdriver marks wouldn’t hurt so much I managed to prise the back layer of plywood off the case fairly cleanly.

Raspberry Pi Zero W inside the Twitter ticker.

Then I managed to wriggle the Pi out of the case, reformat the memory card and flash a new OS to it using Etcher. Then I installed Twython and copied my code across and tried to run it. Of course it didn’t work because I’d forgotten to also install oauthlib.

It still didn’t run because I’d forgotten the Pimoroni one line installer for the ScrollpHat HD.

So eventually I got it working and screwed the case together.

Now includes screws!

I learned two things from this fix: if I’m going to blog about how I build these things I should be more comprehensive in writing up the software requirements, and I shouldn’t put Raspberry Pis in cases that aren’t easily openable.

Quick make: Adding LEDs to a world map to show the status of stuff

In a recent sale my local branch of The Works was selling this cork world map. It was only a few quid – even less than the £7 sticker price and I thought it could be improved by adding some LEDs to it.

Today I finally got this sorted, starting out with a test build of the circuit, wiring two groups of LEDs in parallel (blue and yellow to match the buttons I’d got), with a 100 ohm resistor for each one.

I decided where to put the LEDs on the map, and drilled 3mm holes with my Dremel for them. I also marked out where the buttons needed to go and used a craft knife to cut through the layers of cork, corrugated paper and card that make up the sandwich of the board. The LEDs were hot-glued into place after being pushed through the map, Because the board was quite thick they ended up being just about flush with the surface which gives quite a nice effect when they light up.

I also fastened a 3 x AAA battery box onto the back and stuck the power rails from a breadboard nearby to help hook up the LEDs.

Next I soldered a resistor to the cathode of each LED and wired up the buttons and battery pack to the breadboard. Then I connected the LEDs to the power and used electrical tape to cover up the exposed LED legs to prevent an short circuits.

I’m happy with how this came out. The location of the LEDs in this case isn’t important, they can be used to indicate whatever you imagine: the location of Dalek invaders and UNIT forces for instance. You could put them on specific continents or oceans to help with geography homework or show where particular food, animals, or resources come from.

Cramming the Google AIY kit into a Roberts radio

The Google AIY kit that came with issue 57 of the MagPi makes a great internet radio. The cardboard box it comes with, however, is functional, but not wife-compliant so I wanted to find a better enclosure for it. For a while I mounted it behind a perspex Muji photo frame, which was OK but still not what I really wanted. Then I remembered the Pimoroni ARRR600 which had an internet radio inside an old Roberts.

Roberts radios are fantastic. They look amazing and, and are well built. When I first started working in radio the BBC’s local stations used them extensively for off-air cue at outside broadcasts and they survived a lot of rugged handling while still retaining their looks and sound quality. So I went to eBay and found a few for sale as “spares or repair.” I didn’t want to gut a functioning radio, or pay too much for just the case. I was out bid on a couple of R600s, but won the auction for a Roberts Rambler 2.

Roberts Rambler 2

Taking it apart and removing the old innards was pretty easy. I had to make a mounting plate for my four new buttons, so cut down some 3mm acrylic sheets I had left over from something else, and carefully drilled holes in the right places, using the top cover as a template. I fitted the new buttons and pots, and soldered all the wires to them and to the Google Voice hat. I used the original speaker from the radio, connecting it to the hat via the volume pot so it can be adjusted without having to bother the AIY kit. (Although you can still say “Volume up” or “Volume down” to it if you like). The pulsing LED is mounted underneath the top panel, and shines through nicely. As there are plenty of spare GPIOs available on the hat I connected the buttons as mentioned, and added three extra LEDs too. These don’t do anything at the moment, but I suspect I could add some code for them if inspiration strikes me.

Usual mess of wires

I used KTinkerer’s code and excellent blog post to get the BBC radio stations playing on the AIY kit, but I modified some of the station names to be more on-brand and swapped my BBC locals for Radio Nottingham from their example.

Roberts Rambler 2

I’m pleased with the outcome of this, and it sits nicely on the desk in the front room with my Twitter ticker. Strangely the LED connected to GPIO 5 is always dimly lit. If anyone has any idea what might be causing that, or any other feedback, I’d be interested to hear in the comments.

Desktop Twitter ticker

I’ve already made a couple of Raspberry Pi powered Twitter tickers with wildly different display sizes and, honestly, levels of success. Most importantly, they’ve both failed to be wife-compliant; that is they weren’t finished to a standard where I’d be allowed to leave them out and actually make use of them!

With wifi now built in to the Raspberry Pi Zero W, and Pimoroni’s neat Scroll pHat HD available, I wanted to have another go at this, and having learned a lot of general makery-ness over the last couple of years I thought I could manage to box it up in a smart display.

The code was the easiest part of this project; I just had to modify my previous efforts to work with the Scroll pHat HD rather then the PaPirus Zero or LED matrices I’d used before and add some GPIOZero bits to get the buttons working. You can see the code on GitHub.

Perpendicular Pi

Raspberry Pi Zero W lies flat, but hidden behind the Scroll pHat HD and ProtoZero board

The hardware was straightforward too. I used a right-angle header on the Pi which connected to a ProtoZero board with a long female header to plug into the Scroll pHat HD. I soldered the wires for my two buttons onto the ProtoZero. I needed the Pi to lie flat so I could connect power into it while the display was standing upright. (I’ve used ProtoZero boards in several of my projects, they’re really useful for breaking out GPIOs and neatly soldering your buttons, LEDs and other bits and pieces onto.)

The case was the bit I expected to find most difficult. I wasn’t good at woodwork at school, and haven’t done anything like this before.


I did a lot of head-scratching and drawing before making any cuts.

But I had a plan.

I thought I could sandwich together sheets of plywood with a hole cut through the middle of them to make the case. There was some transparent red acrylic left over from supersecretproject#2 that would make a nice diffuser for the really very bright LEDs on the display.

So I did a lot of measuring of the assembeled hardware and drew my pictures, before heading out to treat myself to a jigsaw. This was a good decision.

A slice of the box

It doesn’t matter how scruffy the hole in the middle is, as long as there’s clearance to get the Raspberry Pi Zero W and Scroll pHat HD through there.

I cut the plywood into biscuits and then drilled out the corners of the big hole I was about to jigsaw out of the piece. I made nine of these to accommodate the hardware, and then the front and back plates with feet to stand the box up on the table. I made a tidier hole in the front panel to show the display through, but drilled just a 12mm hole in the bottom corner of the back piece for the power lead. I used wood glue to glue the front half together in one stack, including the plastic and front panel, and then glued the back half separately. I drilled holes for the buttons into the top of this back half and then sanded everything down, rounded the corners slightly and gave it a varnish. This really brought out the colours in the different layers of ply and I think looks rather nice. I pushed the nuts to secure the buttons onto the wires, soldered up the buttons and threaded then into the holes I’d drilled into the top.

Now I did a last test of everything before gluing it all up and happily found everything worked as it should.

Then I glued the rear half onto the front, pushing the Scroll pHat HD right up against the acrylic, threaded the power wire through the rear hole and plugged it back into the Pi and glued the final back slice onto the sandwich.

When it all dried everything still worked, but the feet weren’t quite the same height and it wobbled when you pressed the buttons, so I sanded a few millimetres off the offending foot and gave myself a strong and stable foundation for the project!

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I’m pleased with how this one has come out, and think it’s certainly wife-compliant, but as always I’d love to hear your suggestions for improvements in the comments.

UPDATE: Alex Burns tried to run the code from GitHub and found it wouldn’t run. This is because the Twython OAuth packages only install for Python 3 so you have to force the program to run in Python 3. To do this I typed the following at the command line:
python3 scrolltwitter.py

VW badge with LED rainbow

Wallpaper - Not VW camper vans

Not VW camper vans

When we redecorated the hall we went to B&Q in search of some wallpaper to run up the stairs. You know the stuff; probably floral. But then we saw this, and just had to get it.

We’re not massive VW fans, but the dream is to get some sort of camper van when we retire and hit the road, so it’s a little nod towards what might be.

When Cora, our neighbour, gave up her Golf she kept the badges off it’s boot and radiator, and when she saw this wallpaper she gave us one of them. I went to eBay and got a display frame to put it in, and it’s lived on the radiator shelf at the bottom of the stairs since then.

But it’s not felt quite finished; after all, everything can be improved by adding LEDs to it. There was (of course) a spare Raspberry Pi Zero and Blinkt! stick in my makers’ box, so I Dremmelled a Blinkt! sized slot in the bottom of the frame, poked the LEDs through and screwed the Zero onto the bottom of the box.

I’ve not done any fancy code, it just runs the rainbow.py script from Pimoroni’s Blinkt! library.

PS: This video was made with Apple’s Clips app. I really made it as an excuse to play with the app, which is a lot of fun and not that difficult to get started with.

Quick make: cocktail cabinet LED rainbow

We love our cocktail cabinet, bought at a vintage shop in Northallerton. But you can improve everything by adding LEDs to it, right?

Cocktail cabinet lights

After finishing my K9 build I’ve time to spend on a few smaller ideas I’ve had kicking around, like how to make the cocktail cabinet glow. I splurged on a Mote kit from Pimoroni and the pHat to go with it. I made a simple frame from some plywood that was in the shed and screwed the Mote strips to the outside edges. A Pi Zero W went in the middle and I threaded the cables through the gaps I’d left at the corners.

Mote sticks frame

A couple of screw eyes and some picture wire let me hang it on a picture hook behind the cabinet. I’ve just got one of the example scripts provided by Pimoroni running for the rainbow effect, but in the future I’d like to make the LEDs flash or change colour in response to a Twitter hashtag like #cocktailtime

I also think it’s time for that wallpaper to go, and paint a nice clean white wall instead.

Building a K9 toy

We have a young Doctor Who fan in the house. His bedroom door is painted to resemble the TARDIS and my original #SuperSecretProject was a TARDIS console that sits on Edward’s desk. For #SuperSecretProject2 I decided to make a toy K9. Definitely a toy, and not a replica prop; I wanted Edward to be able to play with his K9 without worrying about bumps and scrapes, and I understand the limits of my time, patience, and most of all skill.


I wanted K9 to be able to be driven around by remote control, to play some sounds from the TV show and for his red eye panel to light up.

Acrylic sheets

Excitingly it all started with sheets of acrylic bought off the internet. You can get this cut to size in all kinds of colours, so obviously I chose grey (and one transparent red sheet). I got 3mm thick sheets, cut to A4 size. I remember cutting Perspex in design lessons at school with a hack saw and spending ages sanding the edges to a smooth finish, but that was over 30 years ago and the internet suggested scoring the acrylic and then snapping it like tiles. I’ve never actually cut tiles, but get the idea and gave it a go.

Trimming acrylic

Nine times out of ten this worked really well, and as I’d deliberately over-ordered I wasn’t worried about the odd miss-snap. The deeper I scored the better this worked, with ten passes of my Stanley knife seeming to be enough to ensure success. I made paper templates and transferred the measurements to the acrylic, which comes with a paper sheet covering each side making it easy to mark up, and protecting the surface from finger prints and tool marks.

K9s main body is made from four trapezoids hot-glued together, with strips of acrylic inside the corners to hopefully reinforce the joints and make it more rigid. Before I built any more of the structure I needed to stuff it with the gubbins that would make the robot dog bark and run.

So I sketched out a schematic of the circuitry, ordered some more stuff off the internet and started coding. I planned to use a Raspberry Pi Zero W for the brains (built in blue-tooth was going to be helpful for connecting to the Wii Mote), a Speaker pHat from Pimoroni to allow the sounds to be played and the motors and motor controller from a CamJam Edukit 3 I’d previously bought. I added one red and one blue LED, as well as a big arcade button, all of which I soldered to a Protozero board sandwiched between the Raspberry Pi and Speaker pHat.

Power for the motors would come from four AA batteries, with the Raspberry Pi getting juice from a USB powerbank, with a Micro USB extension mounted on the back panel of K9 so he can be easily charged up in between adventures.

The red LED was to be mounted behind the transparent red Perspex of K9’s eyes, and the blue one was planned to go alongside a button on his back. The button would trigger playback of the sounds I’d chosen to include in the project.

I’d previously coded a robot with the CamJam kit using RPI.GPIO, but this time decided to use GPIOZero which has brilliantly simple motor and robot recipes built in. It’s also really easy to program buttons, so K9s audio would be easy to do too. While I was doing the coding I realised it would also be easy to make the A button on the Wii Mote trigger sounds remotely, so I added that option too. The code is on Github if you want to look – K9’s blue LED flashes when he’s ready to pair with the Wii Mote and he says “Affirmative” when the pairing is complete and the blue LED goes steady.

I got a prototype assembly of the hardware and software going with very few tweaks, which I was pleased about.

K9 prototype

Next I had to squeeze everything into the body. This was harder than I’d expected because I’d built the body without really thinking about how much I’d have to stuff in there, or how I was going to mount it. But with a bit of patience and lots of hot-glue I got most of the innards located and was able to test drive K9 without his head or back in position. This was very comforting moment, because I was now almost certain that I’d be able to complete the project.

The head was too complex a shape for me to make quickly and easily in acrylic, so when I found a pack of five white A4 sheets of foam board at The Works for £3 I was delighted. I began by sketching head shapes and then making paper templates I transferred onto the boards before cutting with a knife. I had some grey spray paint left over from something else which wasn’t a bad match for the body, so applied a couple of coats and then hot-glued four of the pieces together. I’d drilled a hole in the front of K9’s body to pass through the wires for the red LED and made another in the base of his skull. I used a short corner section of black drain pipe for the neck, threaded the wires through and glued the neck onto the body. Then I soldered the LED (and a resistor, of course) to the wires and glued the rest of the head together before sticking it onto the top of the neck.

The arcade button and blue LED were pushed through holes in K9’s back and also soldered to their respective wires before glueing the back onto the top of the body.

This picture shows the mess of wires and parts inside K9.

K9 internals

Shopping list:

Stuff I already had in my maker box:

Doing a larger project like this is fun because it has really got me to do some problem solving and has made me work with materials I’ve not used before (or not for a very long time).

Do let me know what you think in the comments – how would you do it differently, or what would you like to build as a robot?

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