Build A Robot In Your Basement

November 16, 2008

My five-year-old is going to a birthday costume party next weekend. In a weird coincidence, he and I have been working on a robot suit in the workshop for the past week or so. He wanted Iron Man’s first armour, so we’ve been making it. Now he has a reason to wear it. That photo shows it in progress; I’ll post a full-on shot once he’s geared up next weekend for the party.

Here are the ten secrets to building the perfect robot suit, whether for you or for a smaller person.

  1. Don’t use large amounts of tinfoil. It won’t look good. It wrinkles and crinkles, and looks like tinfoil. Go buy a couple of cans of silver Tremclad, or metallic Krylon, or my favourite, bumper touchup paint. It sprays on easily, looks like real metal, and dries quickly.
  2. Use cardboard boxes. Trying to use real metal or plastic for the body won’t work as well. If you spray cardboard with the above-mentioned paints, you get a real metallic look.
  3. Use a glue gun, duct tape and electrician’s tape. Don’t mess around with staples or white glue. A hot glue gun is key to making this work.
  4. Scrounge around for junk electronics in your home. This costume you see up there has the dead hard drive from my old laptop glued on the front, along with a blank CD and the front of a headlamp from my bicycle light. An old TV antenna is waiting to be attached to the back. Old calculators, keyboards, loose wires, telephone keypads, whatever … if you want to get inventive, flashlights and digital readouts running on batteries are a nice touch.
  5. Bulk up the suit with whatever else you can find. The back of this costume has a jet pack made out of the plastic packaging from a Lego Bionicle, with the caps from two cans of bug spray underneath as jets, all sprayed silver.
  6. The head should be another cardboard box with a lot of air vents, and some clear plastic gels for the eyes. For this costume, I needed my son’s face to be kept free, so I sprayed a plastic army helmet from the dollar store silver and glued the taillight from my bike, which blinks red in a KITT/Cylon pattern, on top.
  7. The secret ingredient: dryer ducts. I bought a 10-foot length of silver foil dryer duct at Wal-Mart for eight bucks, and after cutting two 14-inch lengths for the arms, I have enough left over for a couple of other suits.
  8. For kids, don’t try to do legs. My boy will wear a grey turtleneck and grey track pants, and that’s good enough. For adults, use some more of the dryer duct (if it fits), or cut smaller boxes to fit over your thighs, shins and over top of your boots for a clunky Bender look.
  9. Spray an old pair of rubber boots with the paint. It won’t stay on all day, but they will look cool.
  10. The perfect touch: an old vacuum hose, sprayed silver or black, running from the front of the torso to the back, or from the torso to the headpiece.

Ultimately, with kids or with adults, the suit has to be light, cheap (because it won’t survive more than a few days) and easy to move around in. Plus you have to make sure it can be worn into the bathroom, if you know what I’m saying.

Building a robot is extremely satisfying, especially when it’s done with crap you already had lying around.



  1. You are the coolest dad in the world.

  2. No, Barack Obama is the coolest dad in the world, because of the whole puppy thing, and also because he is taking his girls to the White House. I’m just doing my best. But thanks!

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