– Ben Martens



If you saw my OneNote page for project ideas, you’d find a multi-year section with ideas for some kind of custom LED installation. My goal was to have every LED be individually addressable so I could make color patterns.

A couple of months ago, I was watching the weekly “Maker Update” video which shows interest projects going on in the maker community and was turned on to this LED wall project by Tech Random. Price has always been a major breaking point for me in the past when I’ve researched this along with confusion about exactly what kind of power supply I need. This project looked good enough to follow so I gave it a shot. All the materials and instructions are in that link so if you’re interested in doing it yourself, I recommend you use that as your shopping list.

If you read the link to the project above, you’ll see all the steps that I followed, but basically it consisted of the following:

  • I 3D printed a bunch of grids where each cell was perfectly sized to the spacing of the specific LED strips that I bought. I had to adjust the provided STL files to fit into my smaller printer. I ended up making 4×4 grids because that fit easily on my printer and tiled nicely into my 36×16 panel size.
  • The four LED strips that I purchased got cut down into strips of 36 lights and laid across a piece of cardboard. In retrospect, I wish I would have glued down some aluminum foil and then put the lights on top. That would have increased reflectivity and provided a little fire protection.
  • Each strip has positive, negative, and data wires and I had to solder connections between each wire in a snake pattern across all 16 strips. That was almost 100 solder joints but thankfully they all worked.
  • I bought ESP8266 boards to be the drive the display. I had never worked with these before, but they were amazingly powerful for only a few bucks each. Their main feature is that they have a WiFi chip built in. One of those boards got hooked up to the start of the panel and I was able to make a light move through all the lights in the strip.
  • Those boards couldn’t provide enough power for the whole strip though, so I used a 5v power supply to inject power at three points along the panel. This resulted in even power distribution across the panel so the colors looked the same in each LED.
  • The grids got hot glued on top of the LED strips and then a layer of diffuser cloth was upholstered on as well.

The software for this was a challenge. The project page includes some programs for the ESP8266 boards as well as a custom version of LMCSHD. The original design is that LMCSHD does the calculations for displaying whatever you want onto a grid of any size. Then it sends individual pixel instructions over a COM port (USB) to an ESP8266 which sends it over WiFi to another ESP8266 which is connected to the panel. I got that to work ok, but as I was debugging some issues with frame rate, I realized that I could simplify things if I just made the LMCSHD program talk over WiFi directly to the ESP8266 on the panel. I forked my own copy and got it working.

So at this point, I have a panel sitting behind my desk that plugs in for power but communicates wirelessly with an app that I run on my desktop to feed data to it. The frame rate is good for my purpose, but it still feels a little clunky to get set up and occasionally, the panel stops updating. I think I’m going to work on a simplified console app that sends some pre-programmed patterns to the panel and that’s probably what I’ll use most often.

“Use most often.” What does that mean? I don’t know. I can see it being a fun gimmick on some video calls or maybe I’ll get around to making a second panel and putting both in my front window for Christmas decorations. But even if it doesn’t get used a ton, I’m glad I built it because it has been a fun learning experience and it’s one of those things that I can continue to tinker with.

New Poster Frame

After the success I had putting a new picture into an existing frame, I decided to try my luck again with the other big picture in our living room. This one was a little trickier to cut because there is no matte so the picture needs to be cut exactly to the right size. I printed this one at Walgreens again because they had another 50% off sale. That meant that a 24×36″ print was only $15.

The replacement went well and I think it looks great. The photo is an HDR shot from our vacation to Lake Cavanaugh a few months ago.


Microphone Light

arduinomiclightA few months ago, I bought new wireless microphones for church. They’re simple but they work well. The old ones were dying so it’s nice to have some that work well. The only downside is that the old ones had a nice flip switch on the top so you could tell by feeling the box whether the mic was on or off. These new mics have a button that you press once to turn on and another to turn off. Pastor turns his mic on and off throughout the service and it’s really easy to get mixed around with the on/off state.

After thinking about this for quite a while, I decided I could turn this into a project. There is a light on the mic receiver up in the balcony that goes on when his mic is on. I taped a light sensor on top of that and ran that to one of the analog input pins on an Arduino. If the light is off (meaning his mic is off), the Arduino sends a signal to a relay to let power flow to a light bulb. The bulb is red so if Pastor sees a red light, he knows his mic is off. I’ve only been testing it for a couple Sundays but so far, it works great!

This was the first time that I’ve ordered from but I was really impressed. Each product page has lots of examples and documentation to get you going. I also really liked their “Power Tail 2” product. It has all the relay stuff built into a short extension cord so you can skip all of those pieces. It’s way more expensive than doing it yourself, but “it just works.” And obviously I didn’t need an Arduino to do this simple logic, but again, it was easier.

This was a fun project to research and build. I love these Arduino projects, but I don’t have a lot projects on my list that require one.


When I bought the condo in 2006 as a bachelor, I decided I needed something for the walls that didn’t look like it was a college dorm. But I didn’t want to pay tons of money for actual artwork. Instead, I bought a couple posters from the internet and then took them in to get them custom framed. It seemed like a good compromise.

My mistake was going to a place that does SUPER nice frames instead of a craft store that does frames for normal people. I had no idea there was a difference and ended up paying probably three times more than I needed to. Oops.

One of them has a sunset skyline shot of Seattle and it looks pretty nice, but the other is just a generic abstract art piece. I thought it looked fine until I saw the same thing hanging in a cafeteria at work. Hmm…

This past weekend, I decided that I was going to take the frame apart and see if I could put one of my own pictures in there. Overpaying for a frame with a cheapo poster in it seemed silly, but having a beautiful frame for a photo I took myself? That feels more logical/
It turns out that a fancy professional framing job is still the same basic idea as other frames. I peeled off the construction paper covering the back of the frame. Then I opened up the insides and saw that the poster was attached to a piece of foam board and fit into an opening in the matte.

I needed a 24×24″ print to fit in there and that was a little more tricky than I though. Most places only go up to 20×30″. FedEx does bigger prints but they wanted ~$60. Walgreens also does bigger prints and they had a half price sale going on that brought the price of my 24×36″ print down to $15!

I used a straight edge and an exacto knife to trim the photo. I didn’t do anything too fancy to mount it in the frame. I just used a combination of scotch tape and packing tape to fix the print to the foam board. Then I put the frame back together and voila!

The hardest part was probably trying to find a picture that matched the matte well and also looked good with a square crop. The picture would have matched the room slightly better if it had a little red in it, but this still looks pretty good. The photo was taken on a camping trip in 2012 near Bay View State Park.


Front Yard Project Recap

It was a wild week, but 9 days was all it took to polish off the front yard. We had taken a break after finishing the back yard to recover and also because Tim was re-siding his house. Here’s a rough breakdown of the front yard project:

  • Dad and I started on Friday the 19th by digging a trench under the sidewalk. We picked up the tractor, truck and trailer. Then we used the tractor to fill up the trailer, make a run to dump it, and then scraped off some more sod.
  • On Saturday, Don, Logan and Tim joined in and we made huge progress. The trailer made non-stop runs all day long getting rid of the sod and the dirt that was being scraped off with the tractor. While that was happening, three dump trucks arrived with the new dirt that was replacing the old dirt.
  • By the end of Sunday, all of the old dirt was gone and the new dirt was pretty much in place. We also rented a trencher and in just two hours, we had trenches for irrigation. It might seem silly to trench through new dirt, but we still had a couple more inches to go under the new dirt and it was almost like digging in concrete.
  • Tim and I spent Monday through Thursday evenings out in the yard plumbing for irrigation. It was a wet, soggy mess as we got over 2 inches of rain. I bought a hand pump to help clear out the trenches but there were big sections of the yard that were just completely saturated.
  • We took Friday off in hopes of letting it dry out just a little more. All I did was pick up a few more yards of dirt and left it sitting in the trailer for later.
  • Saturday we started by spreading the remaining dirt to really level everything out. 2600 square feet of sod was delivered, and, with the help of two guys Tim knows, we had it almost all in by 2pm. We returned the tractor, spread one more truck load of dirt, finished off the sod, and then tested out the irrigation.
  • I spent Sunday by myself cleaning up the yard, washing the truck, returning tools, etc.

It’s incredible how much work got done in such a short amount of time. Here are some stats:

  • The front yard added up to 117 hours of labor (compared to 310 in the back yard.)
  • Each load from our house to the spot where we dumped the sod took about 75 minutes round trip
  • 14 trips with the dump trailer to remove the old sod, and there was 3-4 yards in each load
  • 53 yards of beautiful new “supreme mix” dirt added, including three 15-yard deliveries via dump truck
  • 500 miles on Don’s truck for this project
  • 10.6mpg average for the truck while we were making the runs to dump the old sod
  • 3.4 gallons of diesel used in the tractor over the many many hours that it was running

Because our scheduled was so compressed, I didn’t stop to take as many photos or do fancy timelapse videos. Thankfully Tyla and Mom snapped a bunch of photos and one of my security cameras caught some of the action.

THANK YOU once again to all of the friends and family that helped out! We had exactly the right amount of help to get this done. And a huge special thank you to Tim. Without you, this project would never have been attempted. We couldn’t have afforded to pay a contractor to do this, and I don’t know nearly enough to attempt something like this on my own. I loved learning about all this stuff and it was awesome to spend so much time out in the yard working with you. Thanks for putting up with all of my questions, my stress, and my mistakes!

Backyard Completed!

It has been a long road and this will be a long post, but Tim and I are finally done with the back yard. I got the two gates built, installed and stained and on Saturday at noon, I declared the project done. “Done” here means that all the big pieces are completed and the yard can be locked up again. There are still plenty of smaller items like making one final dump run, adding bark chips, etc but those aren’t as urgent and I’ll just work them into my normal home improvement projects. The front yard is still a mess too, but that will sit for a couple months until Tim is available again. The front yard should be a lot smaller project too. So with all those caveats, I’m done!

When I show people photos of the finished project, it’s kind of anti-climactic. They look at the before photo and wonder why we changed anything. So let me go back and list out the reasons why we weren’t thrilled with our old back yard:

  • Any time it rained, the yard was muddy. Drainage was horrible/non-existent and water would sit in the yard for days after a heavy rain. From roughly November through May the grassy area was pretty much unusable.
  • The cedar swing was nice but it took up a big chunk of our yard. We only used it once or twice for photos because it was a giant spider web. As I started tearing it down, I also learned that it was very rotten and probably would have caused some serious injury before too much longer.
  • The fence was rotten and falling over. I had propped it up with some extra supports but those weren’t enough to hold it anymore.
  • The pine trees (arbor vitae) along the fence were getting close to the end of their life and were starting to brown. The thundercloud plum in the corner was disaster. Please don’t ever plant one of these trees.
  • Most of the bushes in the back yard were not pruned well by the previous owner and were overgrown.
  • The “retaining wall” appeared to be constructed with old concrete from the patio that was there before the new one was put in. It was about two feet high and I can’t tell you how many times it crumbled underneath me. We would have constantly been pulling Elijah back from it as he toddled around (if he could even make it there in the mud.)

So yes, on the surface it looked ok, but as we got more familiar with the yard, we knew it’s time had come. Now we have a beautiful new yard!

[UPDATE: These links are broken now, but I’ll leave the text] I made a Photosynth of the back yard in it’s current state. If you forgot what it looked like before, you can check out this previous Photosynth. Honestly I do like the way the old yard looked like it had been lived in and wasn’t brand new. This new one has so much more space though and it will grow in like the old one did (but without getting out of control!)

It should come as no surprise that I was collecting a lot of data about this project as we went. Here are some facts:

  • Major features completed: French drains, irrigation, retaining wall, and fence
  • Square feet of grass before: 475. Square feet of grass after: 1175
  • Number of retaining wall blocks: 441
  • Linear feet of fence: 152
  • Gates: 2
  • Posts: 21
  • Cedar fence panels: 332
  • Gallons of stain: 13.5
  • Nails: 2200
  • Yards of dirt added: 34
  • Home Depot Transactions: 32
  • Project calendar duration: 44 days
  • Actual days spent working: 41 days (only 3 days with no progress!)
  • Days affected by rain: 1
  • Estimated savings by doing it ourselves1: 58%
  • Total Hours spent: 310

1 This calculation was done using a standard contractor markup for materials and then assuming that professional labor would work 30% faster than we did (except for Tim.)

Here are a couple charts breaking down the cost by feature of the yard and then another one showing how much time each helper put into the yard. Thank you everyone! The cumulative hours chart shows that we kept the rapid pace up for the whole project. I don’t think we could have done it quicker without taking more vacation or hiring more help. Nearly every available hour was spent working on the yard.

And finally, here are some photos, starting with before:



And finally, here’s a complete list of all the timelapses I made along the way.

This is the last you’ll see of the yard updates for a couple months until we start on the front yard. Until then you’ll find me in the back yard admiring our work with meat on the grill and a beer in my hand.

Links to previous updates 1, 2 , 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7

UPDATE: The front yard is done now too!

Custom Photo Latch Toy

Elijah loves playing with anything that has a latch or a knob. We also want to teach him about his relatives. I decided to combine the two into a homemade toy.

I started with a piece of 1” thick, 12” wide common board. I cut two pieces about a foot long. Out of the top one, I cut out four holes that would match the pictures. I thought I’d use the scroll saw that Tim lent me, but I had to cut a pretty big hole to start the blade and I wasn’t very good with the scroll saw. I decided to go with a jig saw instead but that still required big holes in the corners to start the saw. It wasn’t ideal but it worked.

I laminated the photos (as you can see there are quite a few bubbles in the lamination which was another mistake) and then I glued the two boards together with the photos in between. I used the table saw to trim up the four sides of the glue together boards, routered the edges with a roundover bit and then sanded it all down. Everything got two coats of polyurethane and then I attached the hinges and latches. Voila!

As with just about every project I do, there are so many things I could do better the second time around, but Elijah loves it as it is.

Homemade Baby Gate Part 2

After the success of the first baby gate, it was time to start the second one. Construction was almost identical to the first except for two improvements. First, I cut all the frame pieces just a bit too long. After everything was glued together, I used the jigsaw to trim them flush and then sanded. That fixed a problem I had the first time where some of the boards ended up being ~1/8” too short after it was glued up and I had to do a lot of sanding to get things to sort of look right. The second process improvement was really sanding down the ends of the dowel rods so they sat freely in the holes. This made it easier to glue the whole thing together without getting lots of forces trying to twist the gate. Getting 17 rods to line up without that sanding work would have been nearly impossible.

I’m happy with the way this second gate turned out. We decided to mount this one flush with the carpet for added stability and to reduce the strain on the mounting points. It drags on the carpet when you open and close but I think it’s a net win. The only downside is that it looks slightly different from the first gate which was mounted off the ground but oh well.

I didn’t plan this, but when you open both gates, they come together PERFECTLY with about 1/4” between them. We could, in theory, add another latch and have the two doors connect together to wall off a smaller part of the room and leave the walkway free. I don’t think we’ll do that, at least at first, because it’s not very stable.

The final total for both gates was just over $100 which is about 50-70% of what we would have spent to buy pre-made gates. I like the look of these and it was a fun project so I’m happy we did it this way.

Homemade Baby Gate

Tyla and I have been thinking about building a “baby jail” for Elijah. The idea is that it’s a blocked off area with toys in it where there isn’t anything terribly awful for him to hurt himself. He can play in there safely while we turn our backs for a couple minutes here and there. Since our dining room isn’t in use, we decided to block off the two entries there and just use the whole room.

The doorway to the kitchen is a normal size and there are plenty of gate options for that in the $50-60 range. The other entry to that room is 7 feet long and there isn’t much available to fit that well. I did find a couple options that were about $120-140, but I didn’t love them. So instead of spending close to $200 on baby gates, I decided to build them myself!

I built the smaller one first. It’s pictured below. I based it loosely on this plan from diynetwork. The frame is made up of 1×4 mixed whitewood (super cheap) boards glued together to make a 2×4. Dowel rods are spaced to create no more than 4” gaps. By choosing my measurements carefully, I was able to not have much waste wood and this whole gate only cost $32 including the hinges and latch. I sanded the whole gate quite thoroughly with the random orbital sander that I picked up for my last project, and then I covered it all with two coats of oil-based polyurethane. Yes, that’s safe for kids to suck on once it cures.

I think the longer gate will cost about $70 when I’m done. It’s not a huge savings but we end up with something that exactly fits our needs and looks pretty good.

So I’m saving money right? Well… sort of. I quickly realized that drilling ~60 perfectly perpendicular 1/2” deep 7/8” diameter holes for the dowel rods was going to be a tedious task with a normal drill. So I bought a brand new drill press to help. Ha! In fairness, I tried to buy a couple used ones on Craigslist and failed. The drill press worked wonderfully and will come in handy for lots of future projects.

P.S. We did NOT choose the paint colors for that room! Once it’s done being a baby jail, it’s on my list of rooms to redo. I’m thinking that we’ll have wainscoting along the bottom and then choose a better color for the top. The previous owners had almost the whole house coated in a hundred shades of yellow.

Custom Closet Storage

We have a closet underneath our stairs that opens out into the kitchen and family room area. That’s where a lot of our cleaning supplies get stored along with extra trash bags, paper towels, etc. We’ve always wanted to have that be a little more organized so I embarked on a small project to build some shelves and cabinets.

I started by designing the project with Google Sketchup. I’m really liking that tool and hope to use it more. It’s a great way to visualize the design decisions and then also to take measurements of the various pieces that need to be cut. The entire project was built out of 1/2” MDF with a little bit of 1/4” MDF for some facing. I cut everything to size first and painted it before I assembled it. I’ve never painted/stained a project BEFORE putting all the pieces together but it sure made painting a lot easier. I’ll probably try that again, but I won’t do it for a project like this where everything needs to fit precisely into a pre-defined space. As I started installing it, I realized that the closet wasn’t square so I ended up with some goofy looking gaps and pieces that didn’t fit quite right. The pictures below show it loaded up with our supplies and honestly you can’t see most of the issues. I do need to cover up the screw holes around the door (this would have been a good use for a finish nailer) but that should be pretty quick.

I got to use some new tools in this project. The table saw was a huge help as I was able to make big, repeatable cuts very quickly. I don’t miss crawling around on the floor, clamping a straight edge onto the big sheet and then using the circular saw to make each cut. I also made good use of a self-leveling laser that I got for Christmas. It made it super easy to attach the closet support pieces to the wall and get everything at the same height.

All in all I’m happy with how quickly this project came together (7 days from first cut to final install). If I can’t learn to live with the gaps then I’ll either rebuild part of it or add some trim, but something tells me that probably won’t happen. I learned a lot from this project and will probably put the skills to use again in one of our upstairs storage closets.