Copper Tape & Conductive Thread

One of my favorite parts of working in the Tinkering Studio is the challenge of hunting down all the quirky, weird, and sometimes hard-to-find materials we use for activities and prototyping. As Materials-Nerd-in-Chief I often try to find several different sources for materials since items from different vendors will have varying strengths and weaknesses. Two materials we frequently get questions about are copper tape and conductive thread. Here's a quick summary of a few types we've tried and their pros and cons.


Copper Tape

Copper tape is a material we discovered during Jie Qi's residence with us a few years ago. She introduced us to it for making paper circuits, although it has all sorts of other uses, including keeping snails off your potted plants! 

JVCC tapeJVCC Copper Tape from Amazon.com (link)
This is my favorite copper tape to order for two main reasons. As some background, we cut all our 1/4" copper tape in half down to 1/8" wide for use on the floor. We get twice as much from each roll and the thinner strands are easier to bend and curve when desiging circuits. I love this tape because, first, when you cut it in half the protective backing stays stuck on, and second, because the cut edge is less sharp than other brands of tape. The biggest downside of this tape is the price, but it's worth it for visitor safety. 


sparkfun tape Copper Tape - 5mm from Sparkfun.com (link)

This copper tape is a great value and works really well. My only downsides for it are the slightly sharper edges and that the protective backing comes off more easily (both happen only when cut lengthwise). Using a bone folder or popsicle stick to press down the copper tape solves the sharp edge issue.


slug tape Corry's Slug & Snail Tape from Amazon.com (link)

This tape is great because you can find it at your local hardware store. It's inexpensive and because it's thicker (about 1.5" wide) you can cut it into interesting shapes (although for us, that means a LOT of prep work to get it ready to use on the floor). 


Conductive Thread

We love using conductive thread for making sewn circuits. Most threads are made of either silver or stainless steel woven with other non-conductive fibers. Stainless steel is better for durability over time becasue it's more tarnish resistant and silver is generally better for higher conductivity and better thread texture.

lame lifesaverLamé Lifesaver (link)

This is my all-time favorite thread for making sewn circuits. It sews most like traditional threads, is durable, and is highly conductive. Even though it's silver, we haven't had any issues with tarnishing yet. Truly, the only downside of this thread is that the ordering interface is a little cumbersome. 


sparkfun thinConductive Thread (Thin) - 50' from Sparkfun.com (link)

This thread is a great place to start if you're curious about sewn circuits and are already ordering other materials from Sparkfun. Generally it sews nicely, but can get tangled into itself at times. It also has a slippery feel which can make it hard to knot.  It's very conductive and is a good value thread. 


sparkfun cone Conductive Thread - 60g (Stainless Steel) from Sparkfun.com (link)
I ordered this thread for the first time when we were looking for something that we could solder to. It's tricky and takes some practice but is totally possible with this thread (others just shriveled up and burned away). It's fairly thick thread and, as mentioned in Sparkfun's description, has a slightly 'hairy' texture. 


less emfSilver Plated Nylon Bulk from LessEMF.com (link)
This was the first conductive thread we purchased for the Tinkering Studio. It sews more like traditional thread and can be loaded into some sewing machines. We've had a lot of success with this thread over the past few years, but lately we've had some spools that were 'duds' and not conductive. This is probably because they were older rolls that got tarnished over time.


I love to share resources for finding materials and enabling people to start tinkering at home, in schools, or in informal learning environments. Have a question about a material? Let us know! We may not always have the answer, but we're happy to share what we do know. 


Parallel Switches and the California 3 Way

Last week I was reading the forums for our Coursera Fundamentals of Tinkering Class, and I found a post called "Parallel Switches" that caught my attention. The screen grab below describes the participant's experience using a breadboard to build a circuit that uses two switches to turn single motor on and off.

Screen Shot 2014-07-02 at 4.23.23 PM

This post immediately reminded me of a similar exploration we had in the Tinkering Studio a few months ago. Adam, one of our Exploratorium colleagues, was hanging out with us in the Learning Studio discussing circuit boards and he brought up the question of creating what he called a "hallway switch." The goal was to build a circuit that could turn off a single bulb using two switches. After messing around with some circuit boards (and a little help from wikipedia) we discovered a circuit configuration called the California Three Way. We were so delighted by how elegant the solution is for something you encounter everyday and that you could make it with circuit board parts, we had our illustrator in residence Iris Gottleib  draw it out for us. Her drawing is now hanging in the Tinkering Studio as an inspiring element to accompany circuit boards.



Paul Tatter's Suitcase

Last month I posted some photos of our suitcases packed full of materials for tinkering workshops in Holland, Russia, and Israel. I got a response from Paul Tatter with a photo of his luggage when he traveled to Costa Rica!


"I agree completely that people should fly with suitcases full of stuff to make and do. Here's what was in my suitcases when I flew to back to Costa Rica...and a change of underwear. Customs didn't blink, like this is what every tourist brings for a visit to a small country."


He also sent us this great photo from Costa Rica "tinkering" with rope tricks!

"The boys here have been trying to teach me how to be a Costa Rican cowboy and "floreo de lazo." Floreo comes from flower and it means flowering or blooming or flourishing, which is what they call cowboy rope tricks down here. They have horse parades in all the agricultural towns every year. One down the road has over 5,000 horses in it."


Musical Doorway at Helix!

A few months ago I posted an instructable about how to create a musical bench that runs on the arduino platform. This week I got an email from Lea about how her and the Helix crew took the idea and created a musical doorway for their museum. She sent a couple of videos of Amisha and Tricia goofing around with the exhibit and I wanted to pass them along.

Musical Doorway 1 from The Tinkering Studio on Vimeo.


Musical Doorway 2 from The Tinkering Studio on Vimeo.

Looks like fun and it's great to see this idea adapted to a new environment. I can't wait to head down to Los Altos and check it out for myself.


July 10th -- A day to celebrate Cause & Effect (Chain Reactions)

We're hosting an ASTC Community of Practice Hangout (CoP) about Chain Reactions!


In the US, we know and love Rube Golberg for his humorous illustrations like Professor Butts and the Self-Operating Napkin (above) – but a fondness for cause and effect (aka Chain Reactions) seems to be universal. It's a topic loaded with science and whimsy, with plenty of potential for making and tinkering in museums. In Germany they say "Was-passiert-dann-Maschine" (The What Happens Next Machine).

Next Thursday July 10th at 11PST 

We’ll be talking Chain Reactions -- sharing stories of things we’ve tried, along with ideas for what we might try next, related to this delightful topic. We'll be going international this time -- you’ll hear from museums around the globe, who are each putting their own spin on this playful idea. We hope you’ll join us!  

*A tidbit of trivia for tomorrow (in the States):
Rube Goldberg's birthday is July 4th -- so think of those fireworks as a celebration of independence and ingenuity!

Anyone is welcome to participate in this hangout - go to this URL to sign up and reserve your spot.  This one is guaranteed to make you laugh and should provide for a rich conversation that leaves you brimming with ideas.  For more general information about the ASTC Community of Practice dedicated to Making and Tinkering in Museums - look here.