cleaning brass parts - smiley face

Practical project step 2 – design and preparation

After deciding to design and build an analogue version of a digital data dashboard, I wrote a project brief and did some initial research into dashboards, materials and Steampunk imagery (as described in my previous post about getting started). Now all I had to do was figure out how to build it!

Deciding the best approach

Initially, I had thought about repurposing an existing dashboard, maybe from an old car. Another option was to use old industrial gauges – take them apart to add digital components and adjust the dial, then mount them on a board of some kind. I considered buying an old gauge via eBay, pulling it apart, adjusting the face and adding electronics inside, or going to an auto wrecker to get some car dashboard gauges. However it seemed a pity to wreck old items that have some practical or financial value.

I decided it would be more versatile (and much cheaper) to make my own from a mixture of found objects, laser cut parts and other odds and ends. This would also be more in the spirit of the Steampunk style.

The design process

Rather than sketch out a detailed design and go looking for parts to make that design, I decided to look for a few key parts and design around that. This would be more achievable and would support my aim of using sustainably sourced materials.

The main part of the dashboard would be the gauges, so I started there. Researching images of vintage dashboards and Steampunk gauges produced lots of examples, as shown below. You can even buy Steampunk gauge stickers to create your own mock-up gauges! However as a graphic designer, I knew I could create my own dial graphics to suit the exact gauge size and data type, so I focused on getting some parts I could use to build one or more gauges.

How can I build a realistic-looking gauge?

I decided a visit to Reverse Garbage Brisbane might be a good place to start, and it was. I found some brass objects that looked exactly like old gauge surrounds, but were in fact old lamp bases. They had room inside to put a dial and electronics, and cost just 95 cents to buy (both of them!).

A bit of metal polish and the rust was gone – the brass bases looked a bit happier…!

I also bought a few other bits’n’pieces at Reverse Garbage: some clear acrylic (for the dial faces), some black acrylic (for the dial pointers), some springs (for decoration!) and some odd bits of card, metal-effect wrap, fur and leather (you never know, might come in handy!). Also a ruler made of circuit board (because I liked it). Total was $10.80.

photo of recycled objects from reverse garbage
My haul from Reverse Garbage, total $10.80

Another place to look was Spotlight, who sell a vast range of craft supplies. I found a whole Steampunk section, and bought a few trinkets – some small gear cogs and jewellery – as well as a couple of bronze/brass metallic paints. I wasn’t sure if the paints would be suitable for painting the dashboard box (or parts of it) but I thought it was worth getting them anyway (they cost $6.49 each). The gears were quite expensive considering they are only small ($9.99 and $6.99) so my total spend at Spotlight on project-related supplies was just under $30. However I did also buy some Steampunk jewellery while I was there!

Picture of steampunk cogs and paint
Metallic paints and Steampunk cogs from the Spotlight store

Other materials needed

I have spent a total of $40 on project supplies now, so am still well within my budget of $100. I will also need to buy some plywood to make a box to mount the dials onto, and some simple electronics to control the dials.

Designing the box

Now that I had some parts for gauges (and other bits) I could visualise some possibilities for what my dashboard could look like, and what size it would need to be to fit the gauges. I did some sketches, visualising the object as a ‘data monitor’ with a friendly face. I also worked out approximate proportions, and other details like corner radius and dimensions of the front, top and back panels.

Sketches for the data monitor

By tracing around and measuring the gauges, I calculated the dimensions for the dial faces that would be slotted inside the gauge, and the size of hole that would be needed on the front panel of the box. To do this I had to determine the best way to mount the gauges onto the box, and decided a simple wood screw inside the gauge would do the job, as I could access the inside of the gauge from the front. This meant drilling a couple of holes in the gauge, which my partner kindly did.

sketch of gauges
Dimensions of the gauges

Designing the dials and pointers

This was a fun part for me, as a graphic designer. I downloaded some vector files of Steampunk gauge designs as reference, and drew up some designs inspired by these, making sure the size would fit in the gauge (the two were slightly different sizes, 129mm and 125mm diameters).

I used some vintage paper texture as background, and designed a different scale for each dial. The first one was a negative/positive dial (like an ammeter) with the dial in the centre, and the second one was a zero to 100 dial (for example to measure percentage results) with the dial rotating from the bottom of the circle.

gauge dial designs
Designs for the gauge dials

I printed out the dials and tested the fit in the gauges. Perfect! This enabled us to drill a hole in the second gauge to allow for the pointer mounting. The next step was to start prototyping the design by creating artwork for the box, laser cutting it in cardboard and looking at any resulting issues with the design.

Next >> Step 3: Initial prototyping

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Step 1: Getting started
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