Ben Krasnow has built his share of odd contraptions, including a liquid nitrogen generator made from an air conditioner, and the “thirst extinguisher,” a commercial-grade fire extinguisher that cools, carbonates, and dispenses his homemade beer. Now, for no other reason than wanting a real challenge, the 28-year-old engineer picked the toughest DIY project he could imagine: a homemade scanning electron microscope, or SEM. “I wanted to see if it was possible,” he says.
Lance Greathouse does not follow football. It wasn’t until last fall, at an Arizona Cardinals game, that the Phoenix dental-laser repairman, who harbors a severe DIY robot-building habit, was introduced to the art of tailgating. There, he spotted cars packed with grills, plasma screens, refrigerators and more. “But I never saw anything that was all-in-one,” he recalls.
The first time retired computer engineer Jack Clemens tried to build a scale model of the USS Macon, a helium-filled naval airship lost in bad weather in 1935, his cat jumped on the prototype from a high shelf and ruined the hull. Clemens finished a second version in 2008 but totaled it during an unexpectedly windy test flight. Finally, in April, Clemens completed version number 3, a 20-foot-long radio-controlled replica accurate down to practically every detail, from the airbag to the propellers.
Chris McIntosh’s first recliner was not your standard La-Z-Boy—it was electric-powered and capable of going 15 mph. After finishing it a year and a half ago, he used it to pull a doughnut on his high school’s front lawn, circle the gym during a pep rally, and rule the street near his home in Orinda, California. Now a freshman at the University of Southern California, McIntosh spent his youth building ad-hoc vehicles (he once made a mini hovercraft out of a leaf blower), so when the chair’s paltry electric motor burned out, he decided it was time for a monster makeover.
One day late last year, Bill Rulien decided he’d had enough of people boasting about how they had modified their golf carts with hotrod paint jobs or monster-truck tires. “I thought, I’m gonna build something that will say, ‘Well, top this.’ ”
Why would a man construct a dining-room table that can cruise down a racetrack at 130 miles an hour and shoot flames into the air? Sheer competitiveness. A record for the world’s fastest furniture existed—92 mph on a sofa—and Perry Watkins wanted to beat it.
Barry Lee was sitting at his desk one day when his boss at British retailer Toolstation stopped by with a new assignment. He had heard about a drag-racing series for vehicles propelled by power tools, and he wanted to win. “You’re the man to do it,” he told Lee, an IT support manager. Three years, countless man-hours and several versions later, Lee finished Bolt Lightning, a disc-cutter-powered dragster with one speed: fast.
Alaskan Judy Foster had long been asking her husband, Fred Keller, to restore her late father’s old fishing truck, but he always refused. “All that work, and you’d still only have a ’76 Mazda pickup,” he said. In August 2009, he came to her with a different idea: Let’s transform it into a large-scale, highway-legal replica of a Radio Flyer wagon. She gave the concept the nod.
A veteran designer of Lego robots (he built one that plays Connect Four), Indiana programmer Steve Hassenplug was looking for something still grander. When he watched the first Harry Potter movie with his kids—the one with the magic chessboard and eight-foot-high knights—he knew he had found it. The massive “Monsterchess” set he created from more than 100,000 Lego pieces, however, required plenty of wizardry of its own.
The first time Marc DeVidts attended Dragon*Con, a sci-fi convention sometimes known as Nerdi Gras, he felt distinctly underdressed amid all the aliens and space travelers. He decided to outdo them the next time with a project tailor-made for the event’s late-night, darkened dance floors: an LED-laced, iPhone-controlled, all-white suit that flashes light patterns in time with the music. Travolta, meet Tron.
In 1894, American inventor Simon Lake designed the Argonaut Jr., a wheeled vehicle that would drive along the seafloor, the only way to reliably navigate underwater at the time. The unusual concept has inspired sub aficionados ever since. Among its fans are Doug and Kay Jackson, married DIYers from Tulsa, Oklahoma, who in June built a watertight replica from lumber, lead and enough marine epoxy to overflow a bathtub.
Fire enthusiasts have long used propane “poofers" to shoot huge fireballs for oddball art projects and theatrical special effects. As someone who has always been, as my grandfather puts it, “interested in exothermic reactions,” I’ve seen and built my share of them, too. But this time around, I decided to try a new approach that incorporates some striking visual elements as well as a bit of science.
Four years ago, engineer Tony Nijhuis was visiting an aviation museum in Duxford, England, when he spotted his next project: the iconic World War II–era Boeing B-29 Superfortress. Nijhuis has been building electric models since he was a boy, but he had been thinking about doing something bigger. Much bigger. The result is a replica that— with a 20-foot wingspan, period decals, and loudspeakers that blare sounds of the real engine—boasts nearly everything but the bombs.
Anthony Le, 25, has been a fan of Iron Man since he was a kid, but when he heard that the comic-book superhero was hitting the big screen in 2008, he was inspired to build his own Iron Man suit. That version was more of a costume, but his new one, finished just in time for the movie’s sequel, edges much closer to the real thing. With its dent-proof exterior, motorized faceplate and spinning mock Gatling gun, his take on the movie’s War Machine suit could easily frighten a supervillain.
Randy Grubb couldn’t get it off his mind. For years he had been driving past an old logger’s place near his home in rural Oregon, and one of the long-haul trucks in the man’s yard kept catching his attention. In late 2008, Grubb finally stopped for a closer look, and the toothless, cigar-chomping trucker let him rev the engine. He was sold, but he had a big change in mind: He was going to transform it into a hot rod.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.