Hack from slack #1

Jim posted a clever hack on the Workshop 88 slack workgroup recently. Here was his description:

One of the limitations of working with the dear old AT Tiny85 is that it has no UART.  Yeah, we’ve all debugged stuff with an LED or 2, but how about this:  Use an old phone as a serial terminal!My old (2 or 3 phones back) phone supports OTG.  I plugged a USB-serial adapter in, ran up the nice Serial USB Terminal by Kai Morich, and ran Tiny Serial Debug (write-only bit bang serial).  And it works!  That terminal supports CP210X, CH340G, FT232, Arduinos with 32U4 and more.  And it only costs one pin (plus ground)!

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Chess Clock 2.0 using an Adafruit MacroPad


I built a better chess clock. It’s no surprise that my first attempt (see http://blog.workshop88.com/2021/07/30/making-a-chess-clock-with-a-circuit-playground-express-user-interface-decisions/), while functional, was difficult to use. The buttons are tiny, you need a lot of prior knowledge to use it, etc. My wife refused to use it.

Just in the nick of time, I received the Adabox 019. It contained a keyboard circuit, keys, keycaps, OLED display, rotary encoder, encoder knob and housing — some assembly required. Adafruit promotes this product as a way to send commands through a USB port to the foreground program running on a computer. There is also a MIDI use case.

The included demo code interprets key presses based on a menu of items that are specific to a given program. You can have multiple menus for multiple programs. You switch between menus using the rotary encoder. Each menu can set the neopixels under the keys to visually group keys by functionality. Here’s an example menu I did for Inkscape.


Key 1 (upper left) resizes the document to match the selection
Key 2 is for Trace Bitmap
Keys 4-8 are for manipulating layers

It worked, but this use case for the MacroPad wasn’t satisfying. For me, a keystroke on the pad isn’t any better than just using the shortcut keys on the full keyboard. I soon started to hunt for a bigger itch that needed a bigger scratch.

The first one I came up with was to use the example menu framework to simplify my use of various Linux terminal commands. The ls command, for example, has dozens of options. The combination of dashes, case sensitivity, non-mnemonic codes, etc. makes the command tedious to type — especially if you need to use many different options in various combinations. Not to mention that the meanings of the options are different depending of the flavor of Linux!

Here’s the menu I wrote for the terminal on MacOS. I took better care on this menu to color code the keys. The yellow keys are for formatting options, the green key is for recursion, Key4 isn’t enabled, the red keys are for sort order and the purple keys are groups of file extensions. Pushing the rotary key enters the “ls ” command itself.

With an open terminal window, the MacroPad connected and my custom menu selected, I can use the keys to easily form the command that lists “code” files with units, long dates, sorted by size, in reverse order:

<Rotary><Key1><Key2><Key5><Key7><Key12> #These are the key presses

ls -h -T -r -S *.py *.sh *.sed #This is what gets typed at the prompt
-rw-r--r-- 1 appleadmin staff 75B Jul 9 09:40:36 2021 mymoduletest.py
-rw-r--r-- 1 appleadmin staff 72B Oct 19 09:59:35 2020 timezones.py
-rw-r--r-- 1 appleadmin staff 59B Mar 30 16:17:28 2021 getSkyCharts.py
-rw-r--r-- 1 appleadmin staff 58B Apr 2 16:39:43 2021 mymod.py
-rwxr-xr-x 1 appleadmin staff 46B Mar 31 06:38:26 2020 rhi.sh*
-rw-r--r-- 1 appleadmin staff 24B Aug 2 21:47:36 2021 goPad.sh

It works well.

Finally, having just finished my 2-Player+ Chess Clock, I made version V2.0 using the MacroPad. This time, I have a display screen to properly prompt for input and display time remaining, a rotary encoder with an “ENTER” feature for numeric value input and a physical, color-coded button for each player to push.

Here’s the result in action.

Making a Chess Clock with a Circuit Playground Express — User Interface Decisions


We are makers. Some of us take an object and reshape it to make something new. Others of us assemble components together. For 50 years, I’ve made computer programs. And I still enjoy it.

In this post, I want to explain about the User Interface challenges I faced while programming an enhanced chess clock.

If you’ve seen the movie Queen’s Gambit (or just about any other movie with chess in it), you’ve seen chess clocks. Chess clocks are used to ensure games end in a reasonable time.

A chess clock comprises two, linked stop-watches. There are two buttons on top. The left button stops the left clock and starts the right clock. The right button stops the right clock and starts the left one. The clocks measure the total amount of time each player has spent thinking about and making their moves. Each player is given a certain amount of time at the start of the game. If a player hasn’t beaten their opponent before their time runs out, that player loses. There’s an indicator that shows which clock is running, and a little flag that drops to indicate that time has run out. In this day and age, digital chess clocks have often replaced analog clocks.

Now that looks like something makeable. A couple of 4-digit, 7-segment displays, a few buttons, a 3D printed case, some LEDs, a microcontroller — and a little bit of programming.

I took a different approach. I didn’t feel like buying and assembling the individual components. I wanted to write the code and begin using it very soon. Also, while chess is a two-player game, my family plays Rummikub which can be 2, 3, 4 or more players — so I wanted a variable number of clocks. I decided to use a Circuit Playground Express (CPX) from Adafruit.

The CPX is a microcontroller board that includes 1 red “status” LED (Pin 13), x,y,z-accelerometer, light meter, JST battery port, USB port for communication and/or power, temperature sensor, digital and analog pins, 7 capacitive touch sensors, 3.3 and 5.0V power and ground, two clicky push buttons, slider switch, infrared tx/rx, speaker, microphone, and (this is the best part) 10 RGB pixels.

It’s a great product to introduce people to programming. Programming can be done with MakeCode (a block based language), CircuitPython or the Arduino IDE. I chose to use CircuitPython and the Mu IDE to make my clock. When the CircuitPython firmware is installed, the CPX appears as a thumb drive called CIRCUITPY when plugged it into your computer. If you copy a file called code.py to the root of CIRCUITPY, the firmware starts to run it. The firmware senses whenever a new code.py overlays the previous one and auto restarts.

The challenge with this project was to design a user interface that can be used for a variable number of countdown timers using only the built-in components on the CPX. Here are the decisions I made.

How to tell how many players will be playing.
When the CPX is powered up, it immediately launches the code.py program which waits to be told how many players there are. It assumes at least two players, so it lights the first two pixels red. If there are more players, press and hold the A button until additional pixels light up. It’s possible to accidentally turn on more pixels than you intended. If this is the case, use the B button will turn pixels off. Code prevents you from setting fewer than 2 players. To finish up this step and move on to the next, tap the A1 capacitance pad. (My CPX is housed in a 3D-printed enclosure and the pads are a awkward to reach. To solve this, I clipped the head of an alligator clip to the pad. Rather than touching the pad, I can touch the tail of the alligator clip.)

How to indicate who’s turn it is.
With 2 players, each player gets allocated 5 pixels. Each set of 5 is a different color. With 4 players, each player gets 2 pixels. A player’s pixels will light up with appropriate color when their turn begins.

How to indicate that the clock is running.
I use the red status led. Each second, I toggle the LED.

How to end your turn, stop your clock and start the next player’s clock.
When the current player is done, they click their button – either button A or button B. When the next player is done, they click their button. Internally, players are numbered 0 to n. Even numbered players share button A and odd numbered players share button B.

How to indicate which player makes the first move.
Games don’t usually last a long time (although some players in my circle have historically taken a LONG time to make their move — hence, the need for this clock) and it’s common to play a second or third game after the first is finished.

For the first game, one of the players is designated the starting player (however that gets decided). That is player #0 and is assigned the first set of pixels and button A. The next player is assigned the second set of pixels and button B. This continues for all remaining players. When playing several games in a row, the starting player of the first game is not necessarily the starting player of the second game. For the second and subsequent games of the tournament, a new starting player must be indicated.

The number of players is the same, the order of players is the same, player numbers, pixels and buttons have all been assigned. None of that needs to change. But the clock does need to know which player will make the first move. The CPX prompts for the identify of starting player by lighting the 1st pixel blue. If the starting player is actually the 3rd player, holding the A button lights up the other pixels. Continue to hold until the starting player is indicated. Code prevents you from turning on more pixels than there are players and from turning off all the pixels. Tapping the A2 capacitance pad will lock that choice in.

When to start the first clock.
The number of players is set. The player to make the first move has been set. The next thing is to activate the clock of the starting player. This is done by covering the light sensor with your hand. When the sensor detects a significant change in brightness, it will start the countdown clock of the starting player, illuminate their pixels and blink the status led blinking.

How much time left.
In this first implementation, the CPX is connected to the Mu editor on a laptop via a USB cable which supplies power to the CPX. The Mu editor includes a serial monitor to which the CPX can write status information (like each player’s time remaining). Mu also has a built-in plotter. If a tuple is written to the console, the plotter will display the values of the tuple in a time graph. If you want to know how much time you have, just glance at the plotter (or the serial monitor). Here we see that player 1 (zero relative) has run out of time and gone negative.

A future implementation of the clock will be battery powered and there will be no plotter nor serial monitor. Instead, a single 4-digit, 7-segment display connected to the CPX’s I2C interface will display the time remaining for the current player. This exceeds the design goal of no additional components, but, what the heck.

What to do if the current player’s time runs out.
I play a sad sequence of tones on the speaker and light their LEDs red.

Here is a two-minute video demonstrating a four-player game with an artificially short time limit.

Yet to be programmed:
Set the length of time: Maybe light up the LEDs. The binary equivalent will be the number of minutes. This would put a 17+ minute limit for each player.
Indicate someone won (rather than someone timed out), game over, start next game. This could be done by shaking the CPX since there is a built-in cpx.shake() function that can be queried.

Where do Workshop 88 members live?

We have members that live all throughout the Western suburbs of Chicago, but most of our members live somewhere in DuPage county. Most of our members live within a 30 minute drive to downtown Glen Ellyn.

Some of our members live a lot closer, though! We have members in Wheaton, Lombard, Carol Stream, and Glendale Heights. Those who live further out include members living in Elmhurst, Addison, Lisle, Naperville, Westmont, and Oak Brook.

Our members all have access to all the makerspace tools, like the woodworking, metalworking, CNC equipment, 3D printers, the laser cutter, and the electronics shop. More importantly, though, our members belong to a community of makers who are all interested in becoming better at making, building, and crafting.

What are you looking to make at Workshop 88? Open house is every Thursday from 7:00-9:00pm.

Laser Cutting a Jigsaw Puzzle


My 2.5 year old grand-niece loves jigsaw puzzles. I thought it would be a nice to make a custom puzzle for her using a photograph of people she knows.

Here’s how I did it.

My approach was to take a photograph, glue it to a substrate and laser cut it into interlocking puzzle pieces. I’ve seen my niece assemble 25-piece puzzles, so I wanted to keep the total number of pieces to about that number. The pieces need to be an appropriate size to fit her little fingers. Combining this with the 25+/- constraint, I decided to order an 8×10 print and to cut it into a 5×4 matrix. Twenty pieces is a little light on piece count but it matches the aspect ratio of the photo.

Puzzle pieces need to be sturdy. Simply cutting the photo into pieces wasn’t satisfactory. The pieces need a stiff backing. I considered three materials — 1/16″ basswood sheet, acrylic, and heavy card stock. I ran test cuts on all three materials. I printed three 5×6 test photos and used Locktite 300 spray adhesive to glue the photos to each of the above materials and let them cure overnight. Then I covered the photos with blue painters tape to prevent charing of the photo. It’s best if the width of the tape is LESS THAN the size of a puzzle piece. The 300 adhesive helps ensure that the photo does not separate from the substrate either during the cutting process or when removing the blue tape.

The first material I tested was the card stock. I’d picked up some mat board typically used for picture framing. I cut a series of 1″x1″ squares through the tape, photo and substrate with various laser settings. The best setting seemed to be 10% speed, 100% VC, 100% power and 2 passes. The pieces cut very cleanly. The edges of the square were darkened, but the backside only had a little bit of soot and the blue tape completely protected the photo. The next test cut was a single, 2″x2″ jigsaw-puzzle-shaped piece. I found and downloaded a vector image of a single puzzle piece. It printed beautifully. The stiffness was perfect — just like a commercial puzzle — and fit well when dropped back into the hole left in the test material. I didn’t bother test cutting the other materials.

Finding a 5×4 vector jigsaw puzzle template for the production run was more difficult. I found plenty of .jpg images, but converting them to vectors for cutting exceeded my Inkscape skills. I ended up buying a collection of 13 templates in .svg format on ETSY for $2.50.

For the production run, I printed an 8×10 image and glued it to the mat board. In Inkscape, I opened the 5×4 puzzle template and sized it to 7.5″x9.5″ — slightly smaller than the image. I colored the interior lines blue and the outline red. The plan was to cut the blue first and the red last. This way, the pieces would stay together until the outer perimeter cut through. I added a second layer to the bottom of the layer stack, imported the original .jpg that I had printed and resized it to 8×10. With the two layers superimposed, I made whatever subtle changes were necessary to ensure the best placement of pieces within the boundaries of the photo. Once satisfied, I turned the background/photo layer off and sent it to the laser.

Surprisingly, the settings from the test cuts failed on the production run and I ended up using speed 30% and 3 passes. Once cut, I took each piece out of the laser one at a time, stripped the blue tape and reassembled the puzzle to ensure all pieces fit nicely.

When stripping the tape, there’s always the risk of pulling up the photo as you scrape along the edge of the piece trying to get a foothold to pull. By keeping the width of the tape small, you can ensure that the center of the piece with have two strips of tape overlapping each other.

It’s far easier to scrape at that seam to get started. Once the first one strip of tape is removed, it’s easy to start the second by scraping across the flat, center surface of the puzzle piece instead of along the edge of the piece.

Here is the final result.

I did eventually test cut the other materials. The 1/16″ basswood was sturdy, but a little thin. The acrylic was beefy thick, but light and strong.

Here are the details of the mat board purchased from Michael’s:

Can I get a hand here?


I’m a new maker. It started simply enough – Raspberry Pi Zero W, DHT22 temp sensor, SD card, power supply. But it was not long before my appetite for new projects and more components grew. I bought LEDs, resistors, jumpers, DIP switches, camera, heat shrink, POTs, PIR, servos, steppers, … ENOUGH! I had a monkey on my back. But, what to do?

I eventually got to a point that the project I was building required soldering. Let me think — I’ll need one hand for the left wire, one hand for the right wire, one hand for the iron, one hand for the solder. A quick inventory of appendages led me to conclude that I needed an extra hand (or two).

Amazon to the rescue.

Now you’re talking. Clearly, I gotta have at least one of these. Right? Well, maybe not! I had just been in our laundry room and noticed we still had a box of wooden clothes pins. They’re kinda like the alligator clips on the Helping Hands. Surely they could be used to hold onto stuff.

But I couldn’t just lay the pins on the workbench. So I rummaged for a bit longer and found a discarded hinge from an old door. When opened to its fullest, the plate stands at a 50 degree angle. A little hot glue and I had all the helping hands I needed — for next to nothing.

How about that! I made, not bought, something to help me make something else.

Here’s the bottom line. Do I need a Helping Hands? No, not right now. Am I going to buy one? HECK YEAH — that thing is awesome looking.

Norton White Tile Principal Component Method

This method builds on the Norton White Tile Method (NWT) which fundamentally has been based on using Titanium Dioxide (TiO2) in white paint products to create indelible markings on the surface of tiles. The principal component method removes the need for a paint product and provides a method to directly apply TiO2 to the tile for engraving.

The benefits to this method are once the TiO2 has been applied, the tile can be immediately put under the laser, there are significantly fewer fumes, and no harsh solvents required to clean the residual TiO2 from the surface of the tile.

Materials Required: Powdered TiO2, ethanol, kitchen scale, airbrush, air tight containers that will not be degraded by ethanol.

Preparation Method

The primary ratio that was used was a 1:3.5, TiO2 to ethanol solution. This ratio was chosen based on the suggestion in this thread: https://www.researchgate.net/post/I-have-TiO2-powder-and-want-to-dissolve-it-Which-solvent-can-play-the-role

I found that adding an additional splash or two of ethanol helped reduce the clogging and splattering with the airbrush.

To initially mix the the TiO2 and ethanol I poured them both into a wide mouth mason jar and used a pestle to crush any clumps while stirring the solution. The resulting solution should have an opaque white hue with no visible granules and a very low viscosity.

To prepare the tile for the application of the TiO2 solution I wiped the tile off with a dry cloth.


Once the solution has been mixed it is ready for application to the tile with the airbrush. If you have stored extra solution after using some, give the container a good shake before use to make sure that any sediment is fully dissolved in the solution.

I used this airbrush and applied three full hoppers of of the TiO2 solution to the tile using the lowest pressure setting on my compressor (15psi). *This should be done in a well ventilated area (See note at bottom about TiO2 toxicity)*. due to the high evaporation rate of ethanol, when using the airbrush it dries almost immediately after landing on the tile. For spraying the tile I held the airbrush ~6-8 inches (15-20cm) from the surface of the tile moving in sweeping or concentric motions being sure to cover the edges thoroughly. Be sure to take steps to reduce splatters, as an unfortunately placed splatter can ruin an engraving if you are unlucky. Cleaning the nozzle regularly, running lower psi, and thinning the solution with more ethanol should help reduced splatters. In addition to those steps also make sure dried bits and flakes are for the most part removed from the solution, as they will clog the airbrush. After the airbrush has developed a somewhat substantial crust of dried TiO2 it should be rinsed out, because as mentioned just above the bits and pieces tend to clog the airbrush. I have found that keeping a paper towel or rag on hand, and while taking short breaks from spraying, simply wiping the nozzle of the airbrush significantly helps to reduce splattering. Also being cognizant and wiping away any dripping from the hopper before it drips off the airbrush.

Once the tile is coated it will have a noticeable matte look to it and there may be some small visible granulation’s on the surface of the tile. This is expected and ok. The ethanol should be entirely evaporated leaving only a very fine powder coating of TiO2 on the surface of the tile. The TiO2 should have a decent hold on the surface of the tile and not blow off without some considerable effort. I have found that blowing off the tile using the airbrush on the lowest air pressure setting, while the hopper is empty helps to further reduce the granulation on the tile. There should be no loose powder on the surface of the tile. The powder does wipe off very easily however and the tile should be handled carefully by the edges as a slight brush has the ability to take the coating off.

Laser Engraving

There are few to no differences in the actual engraving of the NWT principal component method, and the NWT traditional method. Be sure your drag chain does not brush the surface of the tile during engraving as it will take the powder coating off and likely ruin the engraving. I found that my settings for the NWT traditional method worked well with the principal component method. Running an Ortur “15w” (~4.5w) LM2 at 750mm/min 80% power I was able to get very good results. *Note vaporizing TiO2 with a laser may produce “Hazardous decomposition products:Carbon oxides (CO, CO2)” https://beta-static.fishersci.com/content/dam/fishersci/en_US/documents/programs/education/regulatory-documents/sds/chemicals/chemicals-t/S25818.pdf and you will want to have your ventilation system running like you would while running the NWT traditional method.*

This tile was ran with two hopper fulls and was the first to produce results comparable to spray paint. The image was chosen as its a finely detailed vector and allowed me to see how consistent the application was over the whole tile.

While the results with two hopper fulls were good, I found that three is more consistent and produces just a bit darker fuller black.

Limited raster engraving has been attempted and the results showed promise and will be the next stage of serious testing now that a solid consistent method has been developed.

Once the engraving is finished the tile can be taken to the sink and rinsed off under the tap with some light rubbing by hand or cloth. This should remove all of the excess TiO2 leaving you with a finished work piece. If the back of the tile gets wet it should be left to air dry as it is a porous surface and will absorb some water.

Attempted Application Methods

Several methods of applying TiO2 were attempted before the airbrush was decided upon as the better method. Most of them worked to a varying degree but had strong enough drawbacks to make them less than ideal.

Attempted Application Method #1: Paint Brush

This was the first method I tried, when the coating was right the results were quite good, but getting it consistent over the entire tile proved difficult. The image below is of a tile where the TiO2 solution was brushed on, and the odd gradients can be pretty clearly seen. Also the blacks are not as dark as I would have likely them to be.

Attempted Application Method #2: Pouring

In order to get an even layer over the whole tile I tried taping the edges and pouring the solution onto the surface of the tile. This produced an ok result, however it tended to promote granulation. Which then led to a final result having a sort of fuzzy and unfocused look to them. In addition to the fuzzy look the areas of solid black there tended to be a “salt and pepper” effect where the larger granules seem to prevent the laser from hitting the surface of the tile. I attempted double poring as I hypothesized that it might not have been a thick enough layer to cover the surface of the tile adequately. This was wrong as it actually made the entire image worse .

This tile was ran with a second application of the pouring method, clearly it did not turn out to the same quality as many of the other tiles.

Attempted Application Method #3: Hand Spray Bottle

This method tended to produce more consistent results than the paint brush and a less fuzzy result from the pouring, but it did not eliminate the fuzzy or salt and pepper effects entirely.

Whats Next?

Since the release of the original version of this method I have received some really great input from the laser community at large and I will continue to update and refine the method as further experimentation happens. Some of the things that are currently on the forefront of the docket are trying to figure out good alternative application methods. Particularly using paint rollers, and spin coating. A member of the LightBurn forum identified this article with provides great in depth information on spin coating TiO2 onto ceramic wall tile. https://www.worldscientific.com/doi/pdf/10.1142/S2010194513009951

I have also begun the process of testing raster engraving and will be providing updates as I start to get some consistent results one way or the other.

TiO2 Toxicity

It has been historically accepted that TiO2 when inhaled is carcinogenic, some information was brought to my attention on the LightBurn forums that tends to contradict this notion. “The epidemiological investigations evaluated the mortality statistics at 11 European and 4 US TiO2 manufacturing plants. They concluded that there was no suggestion of any carcinogenic effect associated with workplace exposure to TiO2.” https://academic.oup.com/annweh/article/49/6/461/176940

While there may not be strong evidence at the moment that TiO2 is explicitly carcinogenic, that does not mean it is healthy to breathe. Any micro particulate is not good for the lungs, especially one that is riding on pure or nearly pure ethanol. Therefore I would still strongly suggest treating it like any other chemical or mineral spray and taking steps to reduce the exposure to the inhaled particulates created while working with this method.