I like to build these little wood boxes studded with vacuum tubes lit by blinking LEDs. I call them “BlinkenBoxes” and they delight me for the simple fact that when you flip the switch they light up and blink, and that is all they do.

A friend has been going through a bunch of difficult stuff recently, and were were going to be getting together with her on a Saturday. That morning I decided to build her a BlinkenBox. So with about three hours before we had to leave, that is what I did. With the time frame I was limited to only things I had on hand, fortunately I keep a lot of random stuff on hand, so I wasn’t lacking for options.

This is what I started with, a simple cheap balsa wood box from a craft store. I bought a few of these a while back with a plan to build a Useless Machine for exactly the same reason I love my BlinkenBoxes, but I never got around to it.


Next up was rooting through my box of vacuum tubes for a few that had the right look. Like many people into steampunk & dieselpunk I love the look of old tubes. I bought this box when I was building Templebot as a huge box full cost only a little more than the few I needed for that project(this same fluke of costs is why I have hundreds of LEDS for a project that needed less than two dozen).



I decided to have one huge tube sprouting up out of the top of the box, and a window on the front with a few smaller tubes behind it. So out came the hole saw and I attacked the box. I decided to make everything off-center both to make it more interesting, and to make at least part of the inside of the box usable to store stuff. As soon as I’d gotten the holes made, I wiped the box down with some cherry stain left over from restoring the floors in our house. Which went a long way to making the box look fancier than it actually was.


As you can see from how I was holding the tube in the picture above, I needed something to space it up so it would protrude how I wanted it to. Using some scrap balsa I built a small platform that could hold the tube up, and hide most of the wiring as well. Once it was built it was sprayed flat black to keep it from standing out. I also added a divider between the blinky stuff side and the storage side.

Next up a screen was added to the front “window”, and the switch was mounted. For me the switch is the best part of these, so I use real heavy-duty switches so they have a proper “clunk” feel when thrown. This particular switch was salvaged from my old artcar “Scar” before it was scrapped.


I wired up the tubes using these excellent LEDs I found on ebay a few years ago. They are RGBs and blink semi-randomly through all three colors on their own. I used the same ones for the tubes in Templebot’s head. The LEDs for the two smaller tubes are actually a bit below the tubes so they would light the whole front of the box, not just the tubes.

Since I was in a hurry and it was a simple circuit, I use some speaker wire and soldered it together and used hot-glue to insulate the connections. It is ugly, but hidden so it doesn’t matter. Amusingly the only thing I didn’t have on hand for this project was a 9-volt battery. I had to steal one out of a smoke-detector to test the thing, and buy one on the way up to give it to her.

Once it was wired some final tweaks were done (painting the inside of the compartment black, painting the grill from silver to black to make the tubes more visible, adding a divider so the battery wasn’t visible from the front) and it was done.

And when given to our friend, it got exactly the gleeful response I had been hoping for.

TempleBot 2012

What you are looking at was my excuse to play more with wiring, circuits & LEDs. I’ve done a little before but back this last August I wanted to get into it more. Conveniently I’d gotten involved with the Templecon retrofuturist/gaming convention here in RI. We were talking about interesting ways to promote the convention and the 2012 theme of “1950’s post-apocalypse”, and it occurred to me to build a ‘robot’ to bring to other conventions and hold signs/flyers. So off to my favorite toy store(Home Depot) I went.

I spent a good long time wandering around looking for something with the right aerodynamic shape. I knew if I had to sculpt something it would take forever, however I ended up getting lucky. The main body is made from, of all things, an upside down flowerpot. Not only that but a cheap one at $2.79 each, so I could hack them up without fear. A few more stops for plumbing bits, drop ceiling support wire, wire loom, MDF board & plexiglass and I was ready to start building.

I started with the head, two bases for the flowerpot stacked together gave me the height I needed. The original plan was to ring it with vacuum tubes, but that didn’t look right so found a junk camera for $10 at a flea market and raided it for it’s lens. I mounted the lens to a piece of PVC pipe, and mounted a red LED I’d scavenged from a Nerf gun inside pointing out. The neat part is the iris of the lens still works, so you can adjust the width of the light beam. Three random vacuum tubes became his “brain”, I mounted some LEDs in them I had left over from another project, they blink randomly between three colors and do a good job of looking really complicated for not much effort.

Some more building got me a torso and two arms capable of bending wherever I need them. The photo at right shows black plastic clamp ‘hands’, but this kept breaking so they were swapped out for metal ones. Now came the hard part. I wanted the bot to appear to be hovering, and to that end the plan was to have several plexiglass rings light up in sequence. I did a lot of reasearch and was frankly daunted by trying to figure out how to make it happen. Then I stopped by  “You-do-it” Electronics outside Boston. There I found a $7 solder-it-yourself kit that let you light up to 8 LEDs in sequence. Perfect.

A lot of soldering, and a fair amount of trial and error got me four rings with either 4 or 2 LEDs per ring that all blink in sequence and light to the same brightness.

Once everything was working I carefully assembled the lower half, testing each section before epoxying it to the base(this would bite me in the ass later when one of the rings stopped working). Some final wiring and everything worked well off two 9-volt batteries hidden inside.

Next I found an appropriately military looking flat green paint and painted it up. A base was welded up out of threaded rod & some flat stock.


After I finished it I dropped it off with my friend Grant, who runs Templecon for a custom post-apocalyptic makeover. After working his magic, the newly christened TempleBot was born.

Click on this pic for a whole set of pics

Soon he was pimping Templcon at various events around the northeast. At Templcon itself TempleBot had a place of honor next to the registration booth. Now that it is over he’s going to decorate my living room.