Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Steampunk Webcam

Now that I've started this blog, if I hadn't started a project to write about right away, I might have burst. On the other hand, I didn't want to go off half-cocked either, so I opted for a rather simple project that could be completed quickly with what I had at hand: steampunkifying my webcam. At first, I didn't plan it as anything more than a glorified paintjob, I even doubted it would be worth writing about. Well, I don't doubt any more, for the simple reason that the project has outgrown that simple paintjob it was planned as. You will see. I have to apologize in advance for the partly bad quality of the pictures. My digital camera isn't what it never used to be…

The webcam started out it's life as a run-of-the-mill logitech quick-cam web I picked up at the local hardware store cheap. First step in steampunkifying was taking it apart.

Tinkerers' Tips Nº 1:
If you want to paint something, always take it apart. Painting anything as a whole without professional knowledge seldom bears good results, mostly it will look cheap and sloppy. Even professionals prefer to pick things apart, because all the masking takes tons and tons of time and has to be done very carefully to achieve satisfying results.

It was at this point that I decided to go a bit farther and also alter the status light of the webcam. I simply couldn't see that cheap, rectangular piece of clear plastic fit into a steampunk setting… What? Yeees, all right, all right, so I dropped the clear plastic piece and couldn't find it again, big deal, happens to everybody… It's not like I hadn't thought about altering it before I dropped it… Sheeesh!
First task however was locating all the screws. After some looking I found two of them under a rubber cap at the back of the cam, near the hinge.

Tinkerers' Tips Nº 2:
The fact that you can't see any more screws doesn't mean there aren't any. Always look under all stickers and rubber-caps before considering using force in the disasembly.

All these parts will eventually need painting. Note that I - not without a certain twinge in the heart - decided to leave the ball joint unpainted. There just is no way the paint will take the abuse of moving the camera head around. It would stick, grind, and rub off, eventually destroying not only the paintjob but the whole joint. I'm still thinking about solutions to that thorn in my side, perhaps a leather sheath over it, but for now I'm not committing myself. Next thing to do is the sanding of the surfaces. I am doing this nonwithstanding the fact that I'm using dedicated plastic paint. The thing is, the surfaces this paint is intended to stick to are intended to have paint stick to them, but the surface of the webcam housing definitely isn't. If you don't sand the surfaces, the paint still might stick to it, but it also might not. Still, I don't want to sugarcoat anything: If you do sand the surfaces, the paint still may or may not stick to them, but the chances are a lot better.

Tinkerers' Tips Nº 3:
Always sand surfaces you want to paint, no matter if the tin said "sticks without sanding" or whatever. If you sand a surface, your chances of it accepting paint without peeling and cracking are MUCH better.

Alas, before the painting part, the mere nothing of the status light had to be tackled. First order of business: close up the gap the old status light sat in. A former hobby of mine came to my aid here: from my time as a plastic model builder I still have tons of leftovers laying around. I cut a little piece out of one of them and filed it so it would fit right into the gap with a bit of overhang in all directions. Here you can see what it looked like after I glued it in:

After letting the glue set I filed it down to a snug fit and sanded it so it blended right in:

Tinkerers' Tips Nº 4:
When working plastic, the much vaunted dremel is a bad choice, it is way too coarse for that kind of work unless you REALLY know what you're doing. With a dremel, before you know it, you've taken off too much, or you slip and grind in the wrong place, or you heat up the material so badly it melts, or... I strongly recommend using your good old sandpaper and file, it takes more time, but you've got a much bigger margin for error and much less chance of destroying an irreplacable part, and the walls are gonna have way less dents resembling your face…

On an unrelated note, I learned that lesson the hard way. When I built the vacuum fluorescence display for my computer case (stay tuned for that story) I destroyed one of my irreplaceable bezels with a dremel out of sheer impatience. I simply drifted off course with the mill bit, and before I knew it, I had taken off more than I could afford.

Next came the new status light. I trawled the attics and sowing baskets of the whole family for some sequins or rhinestones or something, but nothing was to be found. Finally I stumbled upon an ancient glass button the shape of a rose that my grandmother had laying around in her button box. I also took some more buttons just in case, and also because it occured to me that replacing the snapshot button might be another idea. Here you can see them all together, one of them already glued to a bar of hot-glue for grinding:

The big clear that's stuck to the hot-glue bar I wanted to use on the snapshot button and the rose I would use as a status light. Since the snapshot button is kinda optional and not very visible on the back of the cam, I decided to start with this. I ground off the back for a flat fit, and polished it again to look halfway glassy. Then I trusted my glass-grinding skills enough to tackle the little rose.

Tinkerers' Tips Nº 5:
When grinding glass, no matter whether wet or dry, make sure you grind it slowly and with as little pressure as possible. When the disc spins too fast or you apply too much pressure, the glass will chip or even crack.

With the glass pieces done, I returned my attention to the actual case. A new hole for the light to shine out was in order. I decided to make the hole almost as big as the glass rose, to guarantee good lighting. A drill and a small file took care of that no problem at all.

I'll say it again: avoid the dremel for the fine work. It works fine for drilling holes, cutting and polishing brass, milling wood, metal and any number of other stuff including the coarse work on plastics, but when doing precision work with thermoplastics a handheld power tool like the dremel is not your best friend. Mind you, this is "do as I say" not "do as I do". I guess I'll never reliably muster the patience to NOT ruin a piece of work now and then.

That taken care of, I went on to paint the bloody things. I used Revell model paint and applied it with a brush, but I wasn't quite happy with the way it came out, so I decided to let it dry and apply another coat of paint the next day.

Trying the little glass rose on, I found it looked rather forlorn on that painted plastic case. To offset it, I fabricated a rim for it out of a brass button.

With that around, it isn't just going to look good, it is going to look fabulous. Also, rimming it in brass matches the victorian age style much better than just gluing it on – for starters because they didn't have that kind of glue back then.

The next day, I went on applying the aforementioned second coat of paint, but it still didn't look like brass, but like brass-metallic applied with a brush. I was almost ready to give up and go for a tin of spray paint, but I decided to try something else first. I let the paint sit for a couple of minutes, and then tapped the surface down with a brush wet with turpentine. By distorting the uppermost layer of paint that way, I not only got rid of the brush strokes, but also got what looked to become a quite nice looking antique brass finish. Here's a picture of the finished paintjob:

Ok, so it looks more like fake baroque stucco than brass, let's just assume they had that too in the victorian age, because I really didn't have the nerves to sand and spray the whole damn thing yet again, just to have it look marginally better afterwards.

Already on the home stretch, something went wrong yet: While I had the patient open, I figured I'd fix it so the led shone upwards instead of forwards. There's no way I could build a light conductor on short notice, so I thought it would be better to have the led point directly at the window. The basic idea was to heat the soldering tin and tilt the LED up so it would set rectangular to the pcb.

However, I must have made a mistake somewhere, because the LED came apart in my tweezers. Either it was a bad LED, or maybe it didn't like the hot air torch. Either way, it was a goner.
But alas, I wouldn't be the tinkerer I am if I didn't have replacements. I didn't have a 1206 LED, but the miniature leds I had proved to be a perfectly good replacement and easier to point in the right direction as well.

Note that I installed a yellow led in place of the green one. Normally that should be impossible for the difference in forward voltage (2.1 vs 3.0 volts) but when I had a green one in for tries, it merely glowed, and since a through-hole device has better thermal ratings than its surface mounted equivalent anyways, I decided to take the risk and hope it would stay within thermal limits while being brighter. The being-brighter part worked, and we'll see about the surviving part…
Next came putting the whole thing back together. This wasn't as easy as it sounds, since I had neglected taking pictures of the disassembly like I usually do, so trial and error was the topic of the day.
As you can see here, trial led to success before error became irrevocable:

If you look closely at the above picture, you'll notice I finally went with the black button after all. I quite like the way the project came out, and it definitely looks steampunky enough. It sure as hell can't compete with the grand masters of the trade, but for a first attempt, I must say, it's not half bad.

While I built this, I got tons of ideas for improvements, most of which couldn't be implemented on short notice because I didn't have the right materials. I'm already on the trawl for parts and pieces, so expect not to have seen the last of this webcam…

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