Toy Gondola

(also known as a Ski Lift)

I made a working Gondola (Ski Lift) for toys as a yard decoration.

I had the idea deep into Christmas season last year. I thought it would be easy to design some sort of ski lift as a yard decoration for Christmas.

It’s much easier to view the entire process using the original album. If you are more interested in setting pictures, then by all means check out the album!

For this post I want to expand more on some of the challenges I had and how I overcame them.

I broke down the project into smaller pieces, and arranged them by difficulty. Some of these things I could do in parallel, or switch between if I got tired of one part.

  1. the towers / base
  2. the motor
  3. chairs
  4. the roof

The towers

I knew if I was going to get anywhere, I had to have a good spot on which to work. I had to build a platform that would hold the two towers that were going to hold each end. I knew I wanted the thing to be about 10 feet apart, so I needed to build them that far apart too. This meant that I could build the entire thing in my garage – very convenient.

I came up with a good design for the towers based on my fence. It’s a picket fence with vertical slats that are about a 2×4 width apart from each other. The towers are 2 2×4 boards that fit between the slats on either end of the fence. I use bolts to hold them together to the fence. I built the base in my garage to be able to hold them.

The motor

The motor was, by far, the hardest thing for me to figure out. I have very little formal knowledge about motors and electronics. I’m more of a string-it-together hacker than a cad/design planner. The hardest thing was that there was no place I could go and buy this thing off the shelf. There are plenty of websites, but for someone new to this they tend to be overwhelming.

I wrote to some hobby websites, forums, maker groups and machine shops. I didn’t get far with any of them.

I started by taking apart things that I fought might work. Here are some things I tried:

  • motor from a breast pump (not powerful enough)
  • electric blender (idea was good, not powerful enough)
  • a blender (this is where I learned some types of motors do not work with dimmer switches)
  • I considered a couple of motors online, but they would have required a machine shop to make everything fit

I finally turned to craigslist and wrote to someone who was selling small motors. He put together a motor/control setup for me.

The motor works by friction. A wheel on the motor rubs against the gondola wheel and makes it turn. I made a custom mount out of wood to hold the motor, and used a nail to make a pivot-point. This way I can adjust how close the motor is to the wheel. I kept the connection solid using a turnbuckle. It allowed me to dial-in the friction and keep it there.

A good shot of the turnbuckle making sure the motor is making good contact with the wheel.

If I had to do this again, I should try a lot harder to get the chain to work. I had a hard time finding a sprocket that would fit my chain AND work with a motor. I still hold on to the notion that there was a magical fix out there.


I had high hopes of making very fancy chairs for the lift. I ended up going through many different versions.

My biggest issues:

  • Too heavy: heavy chairs would weight down the line and it would slip off the main wheels and fall on the ground
  • Too floppy: if the chair rocked around too much it might catch on something and jam the entire thing

I came up with a list of some basic rules:

  • The wheels on each tower have a lip, so the chair has to come in at a right angle so not to interfere with the lip
  • they had to be stable, i.e. little to no wobble
  • strong enough to hold a small toy
  • it had to be removable if possible – at some point I have to store this for next year!
  • it had to look legit

I used a lightweight wire that is almost the same as that used in clothes hangers. I tried the solve the lip and stability issues by angling the wire around the edge of the wheel. I also tried to keep the weight of the chair centered so that is below the line.

I added some dashes to the picture below to help you get an idea of what I’m talking about.

the Roof

The roof serves two purposes – keep the motor dry, and look good.

After considering a few different designs, I decided to go for something like a lodge. My neighbor had an idea to use ceder shingles that we glued onto a simple roof base that I had built. The effect looks neat, and everything stays dry since it’s using real shingles.

In hindsight

I put a lot of time into the motor. I am very happy that I found a solution, because for a short time it was starting to look like I wasn’t going to find a solution at all. However, I still am fighting the feeling that I can use the bike chain to drive the wheel. The friction model sometimes gets a little stuck, and the solution is to add a little more power. Which in my opinion makes the thing turn a little too fast.

I think incorporating the fence might have been a problem. I was afraid that the gondola might blend in together with the fence too easily. They are both brown and the towers do not sit too far above the fence. I’m still thinking that it might be better to just install 2 poles in the yard for the gondola and not use the fence at all.

the END

I had a lot of fun with this project. It was challenging and gave me something to do in my spare time. I’m already getting excited about what to do next!

Temporary Walls

Build a home office on the cheap

aka Temporary Walls

I built some temporary walls to create an office in my basement.

The Back story

I was renting a small office for contract work, and decided to move home to save some money. The only available space was our unfinished basement. It was too large to keep warm in the winter, so I came up with an idea of creating cheap walls to make a room.

A small office in the basement also had the advantage of creating 2 layers of separation with the house. It’s too easy for someone to accidentally open a door during an important meeting. It’s much harder to open the door to the basement, walk down the stairs, wander over to the corner office, and peak inside.

I started my research and came across this old article about creating temporary walls in a house. It started me in the right direction:

One of the walls


Step 1: the walls

The wall material is a cheap lightweight sound proofing material called Homasote. It’s a very lightweight highly-compressed paper-mache material. I found a bunch at my local used building materials store.

Step 2: measure your height

I measured the height of the basement ceiling and made each wall an inch shorter. I also made sure I could move them in, out, and around the basement without too much trouble.

Step 3: the frame

I built the frames using 2×2 wood boards. I constructed a simple frame around the edges and then screwed the Homasote sheet to the frame.

Putting it all together

I struggled for a while with how to hold the walls in place. I didn’t want them to fall over. In the article they used furniture levelers, but I found them a little pricey.

My solution was to build a couple walls at right angles. I then made sure any straight wall was attached to a right-angled wall. In places where a wall was a little wobbly, I wedged a piece of wood perpendicular between the ceiling and wall.

A right-angled wall. For this one I used hinges.

What about a door?

There was no way to create a proper door, but I came up with a good solution. I left a door-sized gap that would serve as the entrance, and hung 2 wool blankets on either side of the doorway. This made for a rather heavy blanket door that did not let in any drafts.


The basement wasn’t heated, so I used a strategy involving 2 electric heaters to keep warm:

  1. A radiator-style electric heater provided most of the base heat. I had it hooked up to an industrial timer that would turn on the heat a half hour before I started work.
  2. An electric fireplace heater that had a temperature control and remote. I used it to dial in the heat a little better, and as a bonus I had some fake flames to look at for some ambiance.

The office worked very well over the years. I even incorporated a portable air conditioner. Often times I would come up to grab a snack and my wife would remark that she didn’t even know I was home.

If you are looking for a cheap way to create some separation in a room, this could be a good solution for you.

Lego Solar System

I made a solar system out of Lego!

This post will be a little more detailed. You can see a nice summary album of the process on Imgur:

The final results
I got my inspiration from a mosaic displayed at the European Space Agency in Germany (Pacman Solar System).  It was made by the artist Invader (Invader) .  I borrowed heavily from his design and made some changes along the way.
I liked the 8-bit look of the tiles and had been thinking about starting a project using Lego, so it made a lot of sense.  


I started by making some mock-ups on paper of each planet. I originally thought I would use 4 Lego plates for each tile, but I quickly realized that would make it too large. I switched to using just one 1×1 plate per box.

Building & Learning

We tested our plans on one planet – Earth. I’m always on the lookout for things for my kids to do. It’s more important to be fun than a success. Fun means they might try it again.

I started out by getting a standard plate from Lego, which only came in 2 colors: tan and green.  I thought I would just cover everything outside of the planets in black pieces.  This idea was quickly dropped after I realized how much money I would have to spend on black background pieces.  After finishing the first planet (Earth), I found some black base plates on ebay.

Goodbye tan baseplate, hello black baseplate

After the first two were done, we got into a rhythm and pushed out the rest in quick order.  I wasn’t planning on making the sun, but I accidentally ordered too many baseplates and figured why not.

Keep an eye on Uranus’ rings


I mounted the plates to a 1/4 inch piece of wood that is 6 feet long.  I painted it black and attached each plate using liquid nails adhesive.

Extra Credit

I decided to try to add some additional fun themes to my solar system. I played around with making some things using my extra pieces, but I couldn’t get them to look quite right.

I was trying to find a way to make a convincing Starship Enterprise when it occurred to me that my strategy suggested two-dimensional thinking. That’s when I found lots of instructions and small sets on ebay – a TARDIS, X-wing, TIE Fighter, etc.

My first attempt, any guesses as to what some of these are?

Final Result

After I had pretty much finished, a friend pointed out that Uranus’ rings we situated more North-to-South. One advantage of using Lego is that you can change things fairly easily.

This project cost me about $300:

  • $200 – Legos
  • $60 – Baseplates
  • $30 – wood
  • $10 – glue, picture hangers, etc

I spent a lot of time on various Lego websites, but I almost always used ebay for my final purchases.  The people running little Lego shops on there are very organized and ship fast.  I made one order on Lego’s Pick-A-Brick website and I’m still waiting for those parts to arrive.