Hack Hitchin

Making a Hackspace, part 9: Hacky New Year

January 9th, 2019

Progress continues apace at our new building on Bancroft. Previously, we were painting, and had made door frames and bought kitchen bits and toilet bits.


Firstly, we finished the painting, which was preventing us doing a lot of other things. The office/kitchen/toilet walls and ceiling are now fully painted a fetching shade of “goodness, it’s bright in here”. This meant we could move on to several other things which were waiting for the painting to finish.


As the Apollo 8 astronauts said just over 50 years ago, “Let there be light! And there was light.”

A lot of light. There are 14 LED panels, each putting out 3800 lumens. Or, to put it another way, if we used old-style bulbs, it would be over 3 kilowatts of power just in lighting. Since we’re using LEDs, the retina-scorching can be had for about half a kilowatt.

In case of power failure, there are also four emergency lights. Two in the office, one in the toilet and one to signpost the exit.

Very bright lights


With great power comes great responsibility, and we decided that part of that responsibility was to have a lot of sockets. There are 54 general purpose sockets, including ones for things like the kettle, and 6 which are on their own switch, dedicated to the laser cutter. The first person who daisy-chains a multiway extension lead will be made to stand barefoot on the plug until they’re sorry.

Lots of sockets.


The windows were fitted a few months back. They’ve now been finished off with windowsills and sealed on the inside. One of the front windows is currently displaying a fetching “Hitchin Hackspace” LED sign.


Matters are afoot underfoot, with the original vintage tiles (or concrete, depending on which bit of the floor you’re standing on) having been covered by carpet tiles in the office. Meanwhile, in the kitchen and toilet, we have vinyl flooring, in case of spillage. In the kitchen, obviously. Eww.

Flooring. Lovely.

Tea making

Things are progressing rapidly in the fluid-intake department, with kitchen units built and in place, water pipes and water heater fitted and the fusebox all neatly boxed in. The worktop and sink are in place, but not quite screwed down and connected up. After that comes the all-important kettle and fridge, and the vital business of producing tea can commence.

Mostly completed tea area, with space for a fridge.


Meanwhile, at the other end of the tea-drinking business, we have started the process of fitting a toilet. It being 20182019, it’s not sufficient to throw any old bog into the room, and rightly so; we’ve got a “Doc M” disabled toilet with suitable toilet, sink, anti-scald tap, grab rails, emergency alarm and so on. The toilet now sports a wheelchair-friendly wide door with the right sort of lock.

At the moment, we’ve got the rails, sink and alarm fitted. Toilet and pipework is next. And we need to put some privacy film over the toilet window, for obvious reasons.

Toilet in position (still to be fixed and plumbed) along with some, but not all, of the grab handles. And some stuff which is in the way.

The handles should be able to support the weight of a person. And they do.

Meanwhile, in the workshop

So far, we’ve concentrating on getting the office side up, as it gives us the ability to start using the building for things we already do. However, there’s a whole half (or seven sixteenths, to be needlessly more accurate) of the building to be built as a workshop. At the moment, it’s also acting as a handy dumping ground storage area while we work in the office side.

To help speed things along a bit, we used some of the grant money we’ve received previously to engage a local builder to carry out some work in the space. He fitted the windowsills and toilet door, as well as doing some much-needed repair on the roof structure caused by some damaged tiles. In the workshop side, he built up the dirty workshop wall to ceiling height (as with the toilet on the office side, this was originally a disabled cubicle), and fitted a door to it. There are also doors between the office and workshop to keep noise, dust and so on where it’s supposed to be.

The new central doors, seen from the office side.

Dirty workshop walls built and plastered, and some new doors.

What’s next…?

We’ll very soon be at the point where we can start using the building, so it’s likely that we will. There is still much to do, though, including fitting the air conditioning to keep the place nice and warm/cool as appropriate, and adding ventilation for the laser cutter, while the workshop side needs a good clear out, a lick of paint, a new ceiling, some lighting, power, etc.

We’ve also just a very exciting offer of some furniture to fill the place, so in about a month’s time, the place should really look the part.

Next month will hopefully see us using the new building full-time. In the meantime, if you’d like to know more, pop down to Ransom’s Rec on a Monday evening and say hello.


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Pi Wars week 5: The Canyons of Mars

October 29th, 2018

The new maze course has been revealed for Pi Wars:

The actual course being revealed is a little of a surprise, as the challenge description initially said the design would be a surprise, encouraging either a generic approach (like wall following) or a ‘maze solving’ strategy. Now the actual course is known, a more specific and optimised solution will probably be faster and more reliable.

Last year we looked at different approaches to the course, to see which might give the fastest or safest route. This year we’re expecting to have a better handle on where we are on the course (using the encoders and IMU, as well as distance sensors), so that may open up some faster and more sophisticated lines. We thought it was worthwhile to sketch the options out and see how the theoretical times compare, to see how worthwhile it might be to do the development.

First up we have the simplest planned route, one that’s relatively easy to program using only information from two or three distance sensors and is fairly safe: the straight, centre line course, turning on the spot in the corners:

This is the strategy we started with last year (see test video here: https://youtu.be/EV7YIHr5feg?t=518) Like in previous years, we’ve also developed a simple model of how fast we expect our robot to accelerate:




Previously this approach has been fairly accurate at predicting times in the straightline speed challenge, so we’re fairly confident in using it to estimate performance for the maze.

Using this model, we can combine the acceleration profile and the distance of each straight line segment of the approach above and estimate the transit times. Adding on a time to turn 90 degrees at each corner (we’re assuming 0.1 seconds, as that’s about what Piradigm needed to turn 90) gives a predicted total time of 5.3 seconds to complete the maze. If you’d attended previous Pi wars, you may think this was a ridiculous prediction, as most competitors took  20-30 seconds. This was mainly because they take a very tentative approach to the maze. Last year in practice Piradigm could fairly repeatably achieve 10second times whilst not running “full throttle”: (https://youtu.be/EV7YIHr5feg?t=541) and we did achieve one ~6 second time, so its certainly possible.

Can we do any better than the straight line route though? As you may have seen in the video linked above, a slight variation is to do smooth turns for the corners instead of stopping and turning on the spot:


Last year we found this to be much faster and no more risky. Predicted time: 4.3 seconds, a handy saving. This is assuming each corner is taken at 1.6m/s, which is at approximately the limit of traction of the tyres. Hopefully the IMU will allow us to stably and repeatably skid a little in the corners, otherwise we’d have to go a little slower to retain control.

So that’s good, but can we do any better? It still doesn’t look much like a ‘racing line’ as you’d see in motor sport. If we know where we are on the course at all times, can we corner faster? or tighter?  We can approximate something like a racing line by increasing the turn radius (but keeping it a constant radius) and clipping the apexes on key corners:

(note this isn’t a true racing line, usually drivers won’t drive at a constant radius through all corners, it will be a different parabola-like shape with a late apex, starting accelerating before finishing the corner.)

With the larger radius turns, we think they could be taken at more like 2.3m/s, and the distance travelled is a fair bit shorter than the second course, so the predicted time plummets to 3.2 seconds!

That is a nice target number but in reality we wouldn’t plan a route taking us so close to the sides, we’re unlikely to be perfectly positioned and hitting a wall can disorientate the robot and end the run. How much longer would it take if we take a racing line with a safety margin? say 75mm clearance?

The ‘safer’ racing line is ~0.3m longer and the slightly tighter corners mean going a little slower at 2m/s, but the predicted time is still only 3.6 seconds.

That’s all great, but the above predictions were assuming no downforce. As we discussed in our week 3 update, we’re intending to fit a vortex downforce generator. So how much faster can we go with that?

For the ‘safer’ racing line we’re predicting a 3.1 second time, and the faster, riskier line a bonkers 2.6 seconds.


Some crazy numbers, lets hope the software and electronics can give us the control needed to get the hardware to deliver the times its capable of.

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Pi Wars week 4: schematics

October 23rd, 2018

Not much progress to show again this week. We’ve again been researching and trying to get our heads around Kalman filters, and have been learning a new software package to design our chassis/pcb.

In every one of our previous Pi Wars entries, we’ve had issues with loose wires causing erratic behaviour at some point. We’ve often wondered if having a pcb made to eliminate  much of the wiring would be easier and more reliable. So this year we’re going to try to have as few cables and connectors as possible and mount most components directly to a pcb.

We’ve designed a few small pcbs in the past, but we’ve never been happy with the pcb design software. This week we’ve been learning Diptrace, and now have the beginnings of a schematic to show for it:

We still need to add some components, like the drive motor controllers and connectors for components that won’t be mounted directly to the pcb (like the IMU, batteries, motors etc), then we can move onto routing the actual pcb design

In other news, the cheap encoders have arrived, but we’ve not had chance to test them yet.






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Pi Wars week 3: Vortex generator

October 16th, 2018

Pi Wars has many challenges where fast acceleration and cornering are important for the fastest times. Certainly last year Piradigm, whilst it wasn’t the most powerful robot, when running well it was still traction limited in the Minimal Maze and Over The Rainbow Challenges. This year the Straight-ish Line speed test may also require good cornering and the Pi Noon challenge always favours good drivers (or code!) even more if the chassis has good handling. We’re hopeful that our software and hardware this year will be capable enough that extra traction would increase performance. To that end, we’ve started testing a novel ‘vortex generator’ style of generating downforce:

Before we explain the weird design,  some background:

Formula one cars corner much faster than normal cars due to their aerodynamics: as they move along,  they use wings to deflect the air upwards, pushing them into the ground, increasing grip without increasing weight. This works great if you have the power and speed to do that. unfortunately most Pi Wars challenges are completed at less than 5mph, so the wings would need to be huge to have any effect.

In another, more closely related analogy, Micromouse robots need to accelerate and corner quickly to solve their mazes in the fastest time. As designs have developed, the winning teams in this competition now all use fans to generate downforce. The mice have a flexible skirt under their chassis, much like hovercraft have, but these are arranged so the fan sucks the air out, creating a low pressure even when the mouse isn’t moving, sucking the robots to the ground. This works well since their course is very flat and smooth, so the skirt has almost no leaks. Check out their incredible performance in this video from a competition this year:

Inspired by those, and the small toys that can run on ceilings, I first included a downforce generator in one of my projects in my entry for power tool drag racing:

This design was a little different to the above mechanisms, it used a vortex suction generator, which is a vaned, high speed spinning bowl that spins the air rather than sucking it, to generate the required low pressure with lower power consumption and less reliance on a good seal with the ground. The theory is that because the air is spinning, there must be a pressure gradient to keep the air going in a circle. Since the outside of the bowl is at atmospheric pressure, the centre must be at a much lower pressure, sucking the bowl down.

For Pi Wars we’re hoping to use a similar design but on a smaller scale, and only if the rest of the system is fast enough to benefit from it. So far we have 3d printed the above CAD:

And done some spin up tests in a test rig:

In this test, we held the rotor above a metal toolbox, that was supported by some scales. We were hoping to both test if the rotor could survive the very high speeds required and,  if it did, what level of downforce we could generate (measured by the lift or reduction in weight of the toolbox). For the test we were stood well back, with a full face shield on in case the worst happened.

From the test video, you can see it was a successful test: the rotor survived spinning up to ~14000rpm and generated over 900grams of downforce, despite having over 5mm of ground clearance! For comparison, from the latest CAD model we have of the overall robot design, we’re expecting the all up weight to be about 800grams. Which means we should be able to corner at up to 2g, if we have sufficient control.


On the software side, we’ve been further researching kalman filters and how we might be able to fuse encoder data with the data from the IMU to give us the best possible positional information, and we’ve also had a few more components arrive:

multiplexer, ToF sensors, IMU


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Making a Hackspace, part 8: insert excuse here

October 9th, 2018

Hello again. Long time no update.

Boarded and ready to paint

In some senses, there hasn’t been much to report. For the last few months, the inside of the building didn’t look much different to how it looked before. We’ve been plasterboarding and jointing and building partition walls, but it’s been a lot of incremental improvements, which paled in comparison to the last update where we literally changed the way the whole building looks.

But then we painted the place, and it looks glorious! We’re currently between coats, so the first coat is mostly up, and it looks brilliant. But it needs a second coat before we move on to fitting out.


More painting

Painted walls and ceiling

Mostly painted walls and ceiling

The toilet is now properly enclosed, with a doorframe into the loo room, and a wall above it. There is wiring in place for the disabled emergency alarm. After it’s painted, we’ll be putting down some floor and fitting it out.

The gap between the office side and workshop side has been shrunk down to double-door size by the addition of a central doorway between the two halves of the building, which has a doorframe and wall above it.

We’ve been on a bit of a shopping spree, and once the painting is done, we have a load of stuff to fit, including a full complement of lighting, the tea-making area (cupboards, worktop, sink, etc), electrics (sockets, trunking), the toilet (sink, toilet, door, accessible handrails…), and air conditioning to keep the place warm in winter and cold in summer.

In other news, we have an official address which can recieve post. We had the address assigned some time ago, but we couldn’t make it “live” without a working letterbox and a number on the building. We now have both of those things. Feel free to pop a few quid in an envelope and send it to us; we can make good use of it.

We have a working postal address. So, naturally, this happened.

In the meantime, as soon as the paint is dry there are a dozen things we can be getting on with all at once, so expect further updates soon. And if you’d like to help out, pop down to Ransoms Rec Pavillion on a Monday evening and say hello.

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Pi wars week 2: encoders and magnetometers

October 8th, 2018

It’s been a productive week for the Tauradigm team, we’ve tested a prototype projectile launcher, researched sensors for odometry, mapped out the system architecture, evaluated a magnetometer board and order some of the key components.


Projectile Launcher

First the projectile launcher. Since the concept design (posted last week) is quite similar to Hitchin’s old skittles ball flinger, I thought it was worthwhile to just use that for a test, to check it was feasible to use with the soft juggling balls. I 3d printed a holder to mount the flywheels closer together, so they’d grip the balls:

modified ball flinger and juggling ball. notice the scuff marks on the ball from the tyres

The result is just about ok. It could do with the balls having a bit more energy, so they fly rather than bounce towards the targets. I’m not sure if its because the flywheel tyres are soft, as well as the balls, so they’e not getting much grip, or because the flywheels are too far apart, or because there’s not enough energy stored in the flywheels.

Still, a promising result and worth further development, since the balls knocked over the books and there’s no way the elastic bands from last year would have managed that.


Odometry sensors

Odometry is the fancy word for sensors that tell you how far you’ve traveled. The classic example is wheel (or shaft) encoders where markers on the wheels or motors are counted, to allow the travel distance to be estimated (its an estimate as the wheels may slip).  There are now also optical flow based sensors, where a series of images are taken, key reference points identified in each frame, and the travel distance worked out from there. This can eliminate the wheel slip error, but introduces other potential errors such as when when the camera to ground distance varies, the perceived speed changes.

As mentioned previously, we ideally want an encoder that doesn’t interfere with our magentometer (no long range magnetic fields), is fast (better than 100Hz), precise (better than 1mm resolution when used on a 50mm wheel, so more than 100counts per rev) and isn’t sensitive to dirt, contamination and sunlight.

Shaft encoders are split into a few variants:


Optical flow

optical flow solutions fit into two categories: general purpose cameras with specialist software analysis, and dedicated hardware based solutions, often based on optical mice. The mouse chips tend to be cheaper and faster.

so lots of options available, none ideal. We’re going to start with the cheapest and see what we learn.


System Architecture

For most challenges, we’re aiming to use map based navigation, and rely on ‘external’ sensors as little as possible (after the issues with light interference last year). To do this we’re planning to have a microcontroller very rapidly reading simple sensors like the IMU (including the magnetometer) and encoders to keeps track of where it thinks it has traveled and adjust the motors accordingly, aiming for  a given waypoint, whilst keeping the pi up to date with what its doing and where it thinks it is.

The Pi will keep track of the location on a representative map, use key features to update the perceived location on the map and give the microcontroller new waypoints to head for. Localisation (figuring out where we are on the map) and route planning will be separate modules. See this page: https://atsushisakai.github.io/PythonRobotics/ for a collection of algorithms written in python that achieve this, along with animations representing each one’s approach. Our Pi will use ToF sensors and image processing to detect obstacles and use them as inputs for correcting the perceived location.


Magnetometer Evaluation

Since we already had a gy-271 magnetometer (HCM5883L breakout board), we thought it was worth doing a few tests to see if the magnetic field of the motors would interfere with the results.

The HCM5883L is a 3axis magnetometer, so doesn’t know its orientation to gravity or its turn rate like an accelerometer or gyroscope does, but by measuring the local magnetic field the results can be used to calculate the current orientation.

We first did a bench top test with a single motor and the board. we found that at about 150mm distance, the motors could cause a +/-2degree heading error. At 100mm it was +/-20degrees and at 50mm it caused more than 45degrees error. A few people on twitter suggested using materials with a high magnetic permeability as shielding for  the motors.  We managed to borrow some flexible magnetic keeper material (like Giron?), so we tried that:

Interestingly, in most orientations this gave no improvement, and in some orientations it was worse than no shielding. We think the material may have been concentrating the motors magnetic field into a better magnetic shape or directing more towards the magnetometer, or maybe the earths field was also affected by the material. We couldn’t entirely engulf the motor as we need the power wires to exit one end and the gearbox output shaft to exit the other. If anyone can suggest a more suitable material or arrangement, please let us know in the comments. Good magnetic shielding materials seem to be very specialist and expensive, and will likely add more weight than a plastic sensor tower, so for now we’re going with that.

Here you can see we’ve mounted a wooden stick to the front of our Tiny test chassis. Since the explorer phat doesn’t have pass through headers, we initially used a PiFace solderless expansion shim to breakout the GPIO pins, but we found some of the pins weren’t getting a connection, so had to revert to using jumpers to wire everything up (explorer phat floating in the air on wires, instead of sitting on the pi). After a bit of calibration, we got the Tiny to drive towards North fairly successfully:

From this test, its clear we need other sensors to help us figure out how far off course each little deviation takes us, so we don’t just turn back to the correct heading (parallel to the original path but offset), but we can turn back onto the desired path. We also need to find a better calibration routine, the few libraries we found still left some errors, North was ok but South was closer to South by South East. Here’s an example of one of the early calibration test results:

This is after some scaling and conversion, so the units are a little meaningless, but it shows the magnetic field strength in X and Y as the sensor was rotated. Since the earth’s field is constant, this should result in all the points being an equal distance from the origin, clearly this is offset to the right and downwards. The scaling looks ok as both axis vary by the same amount. After we changed the offsets we got much better results.


Parts are arriving

We’ve started ordering the parts we’re confident we will need, like a Pi, Pi camera and motor controllers:

So lots of progress. Hopefully next week we’ll evaluate a few more sensors and develop the Tiny test bed further.

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Pi wars 2019 – it begins!

September 30th, 2018

First the big news: Hitchin’s A and B teams both got in to Pi Wars 2019!

Before the excitement fades, the feeling of worry sets in, how much work have we just committed to? Can we get it done on time this year? Better get cracking!

Mixed progress has been made on Tauradigm this week.  We’ve fleshed out the CAD design a little more, estimating what components we need for all the challenges, and checking how they’ll fit:

initial layout

Pi 3b+ in the centre, batteries either side, motor controllers behind them, with a Teensy at the rear (to quickly track the encoders and IMU). The field of view of the distance sensors (mounted on the underside of the main board) are represented by the cones pointing outwards. The grey sketched rectangles represent the IMU (gyro, accelerometer and magnetometer, for figuring out the robots orientation and movement) and a multiplexer, so we can speak to multiple sensors easily.

At this point it was looking fine.

rear encoder

We’d even included a model of the encoders we were planning to use. It was at this point we realised a couple of issues. Firstly, the motors we’d been hoarding (high speed, high power 12mm motors, bought really cheap off ebay in a pack of ten) didn’t have rear motor shafts, so those encoders wouldn’t fit. Secondly, would the encoder magnet interfere with our magnetometer? Come to think of it, would the magnets in the motors interfere? Some quick research suggested they would, many people have had issues with getting magnetometers to work reliably. it looks like we might have to move the IMU as far from the motors as possible. like on the top of a small tower! Ok, if that’s what we need to do…



pi noon setup

Next was a quick mock up of the Pi Noon arrangement, with the camera angled up to see the pin and opponents balloons (an issue we had last year where the balloon disappeared from view just at the critical moment!) and you can see the tower for the IMU. We’ve also added the 5v regulator and the barrel jack for running from a power supply. Looking ok. but space is getting tight and we still need to sort out a solution for the encoders.

ball flinger attachment


Next was a drawing of the firing mechanism for space invaders (target shooting). This design is based closely on Hitchin’s previous ball launcher (for skittles, http://hackhitchin.org.uk/finalstraight/) but this time firing soft juggling balls. There’s been some discussion with the pi wars organisers about whether a speed or energy limit might apply, so this might need to be revised as it requires quite a lot of energy to work properly, even though the speed isn’t that high (probably slower than a nerf dart). We’re also considering vacuum cannons 🙂

Drawing up the launcher highlighted an issue with the camera and IMU mount we had for pi noon above, so that’s going to need a rethink.


For the encoders, it looks like we could go magnetic or optical on the output shaft, or optical mouse sensors looking at the floor. The magentic sensor is probably the most reliable but has a very low resolution and might interfere more with the magnetometer, the optical sensor may be a little big and may be sensitive to dirt, and the mouse sensors are sensitive to distance from the ground (and might need to be too close to be practical).

magnetic encoder on the output shaft


We’re planning a separate post on sensor selection, as it can be challenging and confusing.


That’s it for this week. hopefully we can soon start ordering parts to test.


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Pi Wars 2019 – The entries are in

September 24th, 2018

Its that time of year again, where Hitchin Hackspace get slowly obsessed with Pi powered robots, in the build up to Pi Wars. Hitchin have again applied with two entries, this is post will be focused on the entry for Tauradigm, another fully autonomous entry and successor to last years Piradigm entry.

Key bits from the application form:

Team/Robot name: Tauradigm
Team category: Advanced or Professional
Team details: Mark Mellors: Professional Mechanical Engineer, lead on the mechanical and electrical side of the robot. Previously did majority of work (across all disciplines) on last year’s (disastrous/’ambitious’) Piradigm.
Rob Berwick: Professional Computerman, lead on the software side. Previously an adviser and supporter on Piradigm
Both Mark and Rob have also contributed to all of Hitchin Hackspaces Piwars entries, from main team members in ‘16 to occasional advisers in ‘18.
Proposed robot details: Fully autonomous in all challenges, obviously
4 wheel drive, lego/custom wheels tyres as default configuration
Custom chassis using unusual materials/construction techniques 🙂
Stylish, lightweight, UFO themed bodywork
Home made pcbs for power and signal distribution
Arrays of various sensors, including: internal (encoders and inertial measurement), proximity (distance sensors, reflective) and vision (pi camera), possibly supported by offboard sensors (beacons, ‘eye in the sky’)
Separated architectural units
Fast IMU/encoder feedback with continuous location estimation, much like actual spacecraft (so build a virtual map then use that for navigation, with occasional corrections when known markers are detected)
Advanced route planning algorithms
Automated hardware self testAttachments for challenges
Space invaders will have a much more powerful soft projectile system with vision based auto aiming supported by encoders and distance sensors
Spirit of Curiosity may use one or two homing beacons or visual markers
Navigate by the Stars and Blast Off may use a rocket (jet, no flames or pyrotechnics!) propulsion module
The Hubble Telescope Nebula Challenge and Pi Noon: The Right Stuff will use vision again, supported by distance sensors and encoders (plus be more tolerant of changing lighting conditions this time!)
The Apollo 13 Obstacle Course will be attempted autonomously without on course markers this year, using a range of sensors
Why do you want to enter Pi Wars?: Retribution! To show that full autonomous is possible! But also, as before, to inspire, share and stretch ourselves.
Which challenges are you expecting to take part in?: Remote-controlled challenges, Autonomous challenges, Blogging (before the event)
Any more information: Piradigm would like to attend as an exhibitor this year

The entry only went in last week (sorry Mike and Tim for leaving it late!) yet we’ve already realised we might need to make some changes to the robot design.

Initial draft CAD rendering:

Render of Tauradigm

Render of Tauradigm

Fingers crossed we get accepted!

We should find out in the next week

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Making a Hackspace, part 7: coming out of our shell

June 15th, 2018

It’s been a busy couple of months. At the moment, our main focus is on getting the “office” side of the building up and running. This includes the toilet and tea-making area, as well as a general area for sitting down and doing the sort of stuff we do once a week at Ransom’s Rec. Once that’s out of the way, we’ll be moving on to the workshop.


Having previously completed the ceiling in the office side, we’ve turned our attention to the walls. Because of the enormous difficulty we encountered in trying to remove the old tiles, we’ve just overboarded the lot. This is now about 95% complete, with just a few bits left. We’ve also started on jointing the boards (wall and ceiling) to make a nice smooth surface. Or so the theory goes. Maybe in practice we’ll have to hang some strategically-placed artwork over the joins.


Plasterboard on walls

More plasterboard

More plasterboard on the walls


For the last year or so, the only way in and out of the building has been to unlock one of the half-height doors in the hoarding and duck under. But now, we’ve fitted both the main door, and the fire escape door. Finally, we can walk into the building like people, not an early-human/monkey hybrid. The main door has a window so we can see who’s knocking, and opens inwards. The fire door opens outwards for emergency egress purposes, so we’ll need to be very careful about pedestrians when opening it, especially on occasions when the building is not on fire.


Door, with the awful hoarding still in place behind it


Probably the second biggest or most obvious change we’ve made to the building is to replace the windows. The old windows, apart from being mostly broken, were a mixture of single-glazed wired glass, plastic and fibreglass. They let very little light in, and were not at all transparent. The new windows are double-glazed and the difference they’ve made is incredible.

For security, all the windows are made of laminated glass.

The old windows

The old windows

Old windows being removed

Old windows being removed

New side windows

New side windows

Office side, with new windows

Office side, with new windows

Workshop side, with new windows

Workshop side, with new windows

Leaving Stealth Mode

Up until now, we’ve mostly been operating in secret behind the hoarding that covers the front building. We’ve not exactly been hiding; we’re often approached by people who are interested in what we’re doing as we enter or leave the building, or work on the outside of it, but we have maintained the mural over the front.

We have now removed the mural elements (they are stored safely while we try and find a new home for them), and taken the boards down which covered the doors and the windows. It’s now very obvious that something is afoot in the old toilet block, but we’ve been pleasantly surprised by the overwhelmingly positive comments we’ve received from passers-by about what we’re doing.

In fact, as far as I know, the only negative reaction is from someone who was disappointed to learn we weren’t opening a coffee shop.


The front of the building with the hoarding removed from the doors and windows

What’s next?

  • The last few bits of plasterboard need to go up, including a bit of stud wall to divide the toilet from the rest of the office
  • Joint and paint the walls and ceiling
  • Put the lights up
  • Put power sockets in
  • Fit the tea area
  • Buy and fit the toilet
  • Buy and fit air conditioning
  • Lay some floor
  • Build a door between the office and the workshop
  • Move in and start using the building

So, there’s still enough to keep us busy for some time, but there’s a definite sense that we have at least reached the end of the beginning of the build.

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Making a Hackspace, part 6: Work in Progress

April 10th, 2018

Hello! It’s been a while, hasn’t it? This isn’t because we’ve not been doing anything, but because we’re in the middle of lots of things and nothing is quite done yet.


Last time, we were knocking down walls and getting rid of waste. Since then, we’ve also knocked down half of the ceiling. But, we have also done quite a bit of building and fixing up, on one side of the building at least.

Using the divide between “office” and “workshop”, we’re currently focussing on getting the office side up and running. Once we do this, we can move into the building permanently, using it for the same sort of things that we currently do over at Ransom’s Rec (light crafts, laser cutting, electronics, drinking tea). We’ll then switch attention towards completing the workshop side, which should be a lot faster.


Starting at ground level, the floor has received some much needed attention. Where the walls were removed, this left gaps in the floor that we needed to fill, some of which were quite deep. There are also the sewer connections for toilets which had been removed, and drains for toilets and sinks that we’d taken out. And, as the urinals were below floor level, removing them left two deep, long gaps in the floor.

While taking out the unused toilet connectors, a brief moment of excitement occured when we realised the original connections to the drains had lead seals. But a quick scrap price check soon dashed our dreams of riches, as it turns out lead is only valuable if you have the sort of quantities you can pinch from an old roof.

As we started clearing out the holes where the walls and urinals had been before filling them, we noticed that some of them seemed a little damp. As a precaution, we laid a liquid damp-proof course down before screeding over the top.

With all the holes filled in (on the office side, at least), the floor is now reasonably level, albeit not terribly attractive: it’s a mish-mash of concrete, cement, tile and self-levelling floor compound, so we’ll eventually put a nice floor covering over it.

Urinal trough filled in and brought up to floor level

Because one of the walls we removed was between the office and workshop sides, which are at different heights, we had to build a step where the wall used to be. A ramp will eventually be placed here for access.

Step step step step steppy steppy step step

Step between floors where a wall was removed


The main thing we need to do to the walls, other than make them look nicer than they do at the moment, is to build up the disabled toilet cubicles on both sides so they meet the ceiling. In the workshop side, the cubicle is a “dirty workshop” where anti-socially noisy, smelly or noxious activities can be carried out, so some way of containing the sounds and smells is needed. The office side cubicle will be used as a toilet, so the requirements are broadly the same.

For the office side, we have started extending the long wall to the ceiling with bricks left over from demolishing the main walls. Once this is completed, a stud wall will be built over the doorway, and a door fitted.


We knocked down the old ceiling, which was made of metal mesh and plaster. This is mostly because it was starting to fall down by itself. The original plan was to overboard it, covering up the damages/missing areas (such as where walls had been removed) but it quickly became clear that given the state of it, ripping it down and putting up a new one was going to be much easier.

As well as taking down the ceiling, we also had to build one, with a nice big loft hatch, in the void where the cistern room used to be. This has been done with new joists.

The old ceiling joists are quite uneven in places, particularly around the old loft hatch. In order to make putting up the ceiling easier, we have fitted battens to the joists, packing them (or trimming them, in a couple of places) to give a more level end result.

The plasterboarding is almost finished (except for a couple of bits near the loft hatch).

Old ceiling taken down

Plaster dust all over the floor

Battening in place ready for new plasterboard

The (nearly) finished new ceiling


Continuing our upward journey, just above the new ceiling is the new wiring for the new lights which will be fitted. The original plan was to use some donated light fittings, along with possible re-using some of the old lights. However, we found some lovely, bright and very inexpensive LED panel lights from CPC. Fitting the new wiring from below while the ceiling was down was considerably simpler than fitting it from the loft.

The original lighting circuits have been removed from the office side and loft, and now only supply lighting to the workshop side (until they are also replaced).

In order to keep everyone safe in the event of a power cut, we’ve also installed emergency lighting.


Unfortunately, since we took over the building, we have discovered there are several leaks in the roof. One of these was especially serious and caused considerable damage to some roof timber above the workshop.

On the office side, a leak was noticed when it started dripping on the floor after we’d removed the ceiling. All over the outside of the building, we could see missing and damaged tiles, though fortunately they hadn’t been serious enough to cause more leaks.

Using some salvaged roof tiles, we have replaced most of the missing and broken tiles, though a few more remain to be done. Following the advice of a roof repair company, we have been able to remove the rotten timber, and stabilise the remainder. When the workshop ceiling is removed, we’ll be able to complete the repair of the roof.

Roof repairs in progress

Repairing the roof

What’s next?

The next steps in completing the office side of the building are

  • Ceiling – fitting the last couple of bits of the ceiling, jointing and painting it, and putting the lights up
  • External doors – we have external doors (a main door and a fire escape); they need to be fitted
  • Walls – the walls are generally sound but unattractive, being about three-quarters tile and the remainder painted and quite grimy. In order to get rid of the “public toilet” vibe, we’re going to overboard the walls
  • Tea area – sink, worktop, cupboard for the tea and biscuits, and a kettle. We also need to box in the electricity meter/fusebox.
  • Toilet – the logical counterpoint to having somewhere to make and drink tea
  • Internal doors – at the very least, we need a door on the toilet. Additionally, doors to separate the office and workshop, and the workshop and dirty workshop are much desired.
  • Windows – the current windows are in a poor state, so we’ve started exploring the cost of getting them replaced
  • Electricity – the lights are already wired in, but the next thing we’ll need is sockets. Lots of sockets.

Join us

If you’re interested in helping, or even just like the sound of what we do generally and want to get involved, pop down to Ransoms Rec Pavillion on a Monday evening and say hello. We have tea, and probably biscuits.

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