Friday, July 16, 2010

Seven For The Dwarf Lords, In Their Halls Of Stone: On Cryptex Construction

So my first project of the remainder of my summer is to build a cryptex, as detailed in Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code.

I've always loved to build things. As I've said before, my grandpa was a contractor, and I suppose somethings trickle down. I love the process, the work, and the sublime satisfaction once I can stand back and admire my handiwork. My family has never been well off, and I've always hated spending money on things I didn't think were absolutely necessary, particularly on myself. No class ring, no grad party. I opted for a free trip to New York over Prom partly for that reason. As such, if I've ever wanted anything, I've settled on making it myself, to varying degrees of success. I've gotten much better over the years, and I'm hoping this cryptex will show that. And besides, building things is a good work out. My body aches in all the right places, and my hand is covered in blisters, making it very difficult to do many things. But it's an excuse to spend the day outside, and much better than sitting around the house watching Seinfeld.

I take an unconventional approach to construction. I've never been one to take lessons, and really hate being told what to do. I much prefer figuring things out myself. As such, most of my carpentry, masonry, and metalworking education has resulted from pure curiosity. I'll dig a tool out of my grandpa's tool closet, and spend an hour figuring out what it does, and how to use it. My latest discovery was a pipe cutter, which I'll get to in a moment.

Part of this unconventional approach is a lack of blueprints or any discernible plan. I should plan things out, and it would probably make my life easier, but I usually get too excited to sit down and write things out. I much rather dive into cutting and sanding with a general blueprint in my head.

On Thursday, I went to City Mill to get supplies. All in all, this project's going to cost me around $8 in raw materials, which is not bad at all. Without a definitive plan in hand, I walked around City Mill carrying an assortment of pipes and fittings, seeing what would work well for my cryptex. I love walking around hardware stores. There's just so many parts and pieces I build an entire project around. It's like Lego's for grown ups, but more organized than the gigantor plastic bin I kept mine in. I still, however, get strange looks as I wander. I'm not the normal patron of hardware stores, which are usually filled with grizzled contractors, plumbers, and ruffians. I'm rather fresh faced and stick out rather sorely.

The basic design of this cryptex is similar to a bike chain lock:

A central drum which contains the guarded material. This is held in place by a series of rotating drums which block a set of pins from sliding out. Pretty simple in design. My design calls for a 7-character alpha-numeric combination.

The first task was to make sure the Central Drum could slide easily into the Main Body. These parts were to be made out of PVC, which don't have a problem sticking and can be sanded down pretty easily, making them ideal.

A note about PVC. The dust particles are carcinogenic. One should look up this sort of information before they start sanding and inhale huge plumes of the stuff. I eventually got a mask on, if that makes it any better. If I get cancer, let's blame it on this, rather than all the other stupid things I've done in lab (dimethyl chloride burns a little when you spill it on yourself).

Getting the two pipes to fit was a bit of a struggle. I wanted a snug fit, so I got two pipes that almost fit, figuring it would be pretty simple to sand down. What I didn't fully thing through, is that I had only hand tools, making is very difficult to sand 1/32" uniformly from the surface of the Central Drum.

The first thing I tried was to make a makeshift lathe type thing. This did not work and taught me it's very important to have eye protection. Then I tried to construct a sort of table router:

This did not work. It did not work at all. It just left me covered in a thick layer of PVC particles. the components kept shifting around and made the pipe very uneven in a rather obscene manner. I had to throw it away. I finally decided to bite the bullet and just sand it down by hand. Three hours later, I had a pipe that could fit into another pipe. Whoot. I added the channel in the Main Body for the pins, and called it a night.

Friday I cut the Rotating Tumblers. Seven of them, hence the LOTR quote in the title. And they look pretty epic. And they're heavy as hell, which should make for a nice weight in the finished product.

There are many ways to cut a huge pipe into smaller rings. A lot of people use a band saw with a diamond bit blade, or some other powered means. Me? I like hand tools. There's something about the tactile interaction of man, tool and raw material that gets to me. Very visceral.

Let me introduce you to my friend, the pipe cutter:

It doesn't so much cut the pipe (by removing material, as a saw would) as insinuate itself between the metal, via your hand and a dull little wheel. You clamp this thing on the pipe, and spin it around a couple million times, tightening the bolt little by little as you go. This is the reason why I'm in pain as I try to type this. Many unsightly blisters. But I'm loving every moment of it.

Another 3 hours later, and I have 9 nicely shaped rings (two for the endcaps). I finished off by sanding down the rough edges of the rings to make them line up flush against each other. For this I got fed up with hand tools and busted out my Dremel, an electric rotary tool.

All the parts are cut, now it's just a matter of assembling and installing the locking mechanisms, which shouldn't take more than a day. Here's what I've got so far:

Some lessons learned from this project thus far:
-Wood and flesh are not that dissimilar, and saws, drills, sanding disks, and power tools will not make a distinction.
-The same thing goes for metal and pipe cutters.
-Eye protection is important.
-As are face masks.
-Sun strokes are nothing to mess around with.
-Cat's don't like loud noises, and will freak out.
-When cats freak out, their claws come out and grab hold of anything soft and fleshy.
-Sanding requires a lot of repetitive stroking movements that make me a little self conscious.
-Headphone wires are very thin and should be treated with care.
-Duct tape and paper towels are much better than Band-Aids.
-Make sure you know which way the metal sparks are going to fly before you turn on the power grinder.
-If you scream like a little girl over metal sparks flying at your face, the neighbors will peek over the fence.

Yes, my workshop is a mess, but I like it that way.


  1. I wonder, do you enjoy doing sudokus and crosswords and other similar puzzles?

    You seem like quite a handy person. I'm sure you'll be fixing everything around the house yourself.

  2. I do like puzzles. I love crosswords, and sudoku to a lesser extent. But what I really like are physical puzzles. I like the tangibility. Though I must say Rubix cubes are little above me.

    Being handy and useful is my ploy to attract women. Or at least appearing to.

  3. I enjoy doing Sudokus, but they've lost their appeal for me because there's just a set of techniques you need to use to solve them and after doing so many, I can pretty much solve any level of Sudoku. I like crosswords more now because they're more challenging and there's more variation (at least right now, though I've heard once you do a lot, you'll start seeing the same clues over and over). However, I'm very bad at crosswords right now - a combination of inexperience and ignorance - so they can be very frustrating at times.

    Yes! Physical puzzles are awesome. I love those puzzles where you have to untangle linked chains or something. I derive pleasure from solving Rubik's Cubes from turning them quickly and solving them fast. Anything involving speed and times is addicting. Once you learn how to solve a Rubik's Cube, getting fast is just a matter of learning lots of move sequences, practice, and doing solve after solve after solve.

    I think you would enjoy blindfolded cubing. There's much more mental stimulation there than the muscle memory involved in speedsolving with your eyes open.

    Haha. Has this been effective?