Make a PodBox Single-Purpose Podcast Player

The single-purpose “PodBox” Podcast Player

Build a Rasberry Pi speaker box that plays the latest episode of your favorite podcast

I’ve worked in the technology industry for more than two decades, and back when I got into it everyone was talking about “convergence.” It was a decade before the iPhone, but companies were hard at work looking to discover the perfect combination of features and functionality in a single hardware device.

After some fits and stops, here we are 20 years later and the quest for convergence has been conquered. Today, everything fits into a “phone.” The iPhone and Android unleashed a massive universe of apps that transformed a hunk of glass and metal into anything and everything you want it to be. Point it at the sky to identify the aircraft flying overhead with augmented reality (FlightRadar24). Hail a taxi cab on the fly at your exact location and pay the driver without your wallet(Uber/Lift). Take a photo (Camera) and share it with friends, family, and strangers (facebook, instagram, twitter). Unlock your front door before you arrive home (August locks), or spy on your babysitter (Nest). Deposit a check into your savings account with a photo (Wells Fargo), and order and pay for your Latte before you arrive at Starbucks.

Our phones have become so converged we can’t leave home without them!

The future is singular! 

With all this access to everything on demand in a single device, I predict that humans will eventually reject this all-you-can-eat buffet of information and evolve toward a more singular and focused future. 

Which leads to my latest woodworking project and invention: The PodBox! It’s an elegant little speaker box featuring a handmade Kumiko panel, that subscribes to a single podcast. My prototype tunes in every day to Marketplace with Kai Ryssdal. Plug it in and connect to WiFi, and the box will download the latest episode. Press a button to play it. That’s it!

The Hardware

I built a handmade wooden box a few years ago and recently repurposed it to feature a small Kumiko panel in the lid. It’s a traditional style of Japanese woodworking, and it’s recently become popularized thanks to a kit available from my woodworking hero and friend Michael Pekovich.

Inside my handmade wooden Kumiko box is a small, affordable computer that is simple to program, called a Rasberry Pi. A handful of companies make hardware based on Rasberry Pi in different configurations and for different purposes. I purchased the Rasberry Pi Zero W from a company called Ardafruit.

The Zero W costs about $10 and is one of the most advanced Pi devices. It has built-in WiFi so you can connect to the internet. And it includes a few inputs and parts necessary to turn it into a Podcast player: A micro SD card runs the player program and stores the latest episode audio from the Podcast feed; a mini HDMI port connects to a monitor or HD TV when you’re setting it up the first time; two micro USB ports (for a 5v power supply and USB accessories like a keyboard and mouse), and 512MB of on-board RAM for running processes on the single-core 1 GHz processor chip.

I also purchased an audio amplifier chip and a small speaker that attaches to the Rasberry Pi, as well as a button to click when you’re ready for playback.

The Software and Operating System

To create the internal brains for the Podbox, I enlisted my friend Jimmy who like me tinkers in many hobbies, skills, and interests. Jimmy is a pro-hobby vegetable gardener, sourdough bread baker, DJ, and electronics engineer, and Python programer.

He wrote a simple script in Python that looks up the RSS feed of the Marketplace podcast. Finds the latest episode. Compares it to the episode currently saved on the PodBox (if there is one). And then downloads the audio file if it’s different. Once downloaded, the Python code sniffs for the button to get pressed, and when it does begins audio playback.

Plug and play!

The program runs on top of an open-source operating system called Raspbian, which is the official operating system for all models of the Raspberry Pi and handles all the stuff you’d expect from a computer, like booting it up and connecting to speakers, right out of the box.

And pleasurable to look at between episodes.

Custom Wood iPad Case: An Exercise in Design

Ever since Apple released the first iPad two years ago I’ve been eager to build a custom wooden iPad case for it.

If it were up to me everything in life would be encased or decorated in wood. With my recently acquired vacuum-veneer press I’ve been able to test that theory on skateboards and mousepads. This latest project, however, has been a real design challenge. The contours of the iPad and the perimeter of buttons and outlets have made this an especially difficult project to design and construct.

This latest prototype  – the second of more to come in this design-build process – is a big leap toward success but still a work in progress. It’s made from tiger maple and decorative veneers and is lined with leather. As a protective layer it works great to keep the iPad safe during transit. The wood case is extremely durable and it’s no more than 1/8-in. thick, which means it’s ultralight. The skin-tight fit also allows me to carry it in any orientation without the iPad slipping out.

But there are some improvements still to come. While the iPad case fits the contour of the tablet like a glove, it’s more like an “iPad sleeve” than an “iPad case.” To use the tablet, you have to remove it completely and then find a place to store the case. Not to mention, most iPad cases provide some sort of stand to prop up the device or hold it comfortably while in use. Those are the features I’m hoping to design into the next prototype.

The iPad fits snuggly inside the contoured case.

To remove the iPad from the case, a crescent cutout on the flat side of the iPad case provides a spot to grip and pull the tablet.

For the next prototype, my goal is to fully encase the iPad and make a hinged cover that can be folded back to reveal the working surface of the tablet and prop it up for display. Wish me luck.

UPDATE: A company in Holland has apparently cracked this nut already with the artfully designed Miniot iPad case, I just discovered with a Google search. It’s clear these guys use computer-operated machining tools to manufacture the precision parts. This would be near impossible to match by hand, but impressive nonetheless.

The Checkerboard Experience

The stretch of boardwalk that extends from Venice Beach, Calif., to nearby Santa Monica is one of the most epic places in the world to hop on a longboard skateboard and take off for a ride. The paved winding path takes you past beach bums and chiseled bodes, burnouts and family beach goers, all the while with the Pacific Ocean crashing to the West.

That scene, which I play over again in my head during my deepest day dreams, was the inspiration for this pair of checkerboard longboards that recently emerged from the Weekndr shop. One of them is headed that way in just a few days to meet its new owner.

Bergerboard No. 056
“Venice Bound
This 7-ply hardwood maple longboard is decorated with a classic checkerboard pattern in Birds-Eye Maple and Tiger Maple, flanked by redish-brown Sapele. It measures 44-in. long and 9-1/2 in. wide. The popsicle-stick shape has a kick in the front and tail, and the width of the board is concave for improved footing. The top of the board is covered in grip tape with a checker diamond in the center.

Bergerboard No. 057
This 7-ply hardwood maple longboard is decorated with a checkerboard pattern in European Beech and Sapele. The checkers deconstruct at on end of the board, a design detail that covered a flaw in the board, hence its name “Patch.” The checker pattern is flanked by tiger maple. The popsicle-stick shaped board measures 44-in. long and 9-1/2 in. wide and has a kick in the front and tail. The width of the board is concave for improved footing. The top of the board is covered in grip tape with a checker diamond in the center.

Bergerboard No. 055 – Ebony and Ivory

Bergerboard No. 055
“Ebony and Ivory
This 7-ply hardwood maple longboard is decorated with Ebony Macassar, Tiger Maple, and Sapele veneer, and measures 44-in. long and 9-1/2 in. wide.

The popsicle-stick shaped has a kick in the front and tail, and the width of the board is concave for improved footing. It is the first skateboard output from my recently acquired veneer press, and is one of five  that will emerge from this latest batch of South Pasadena made Bergerboards.


Take a closer look in this slideshow

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Adventures of the garage-shop veneer press

Sometimes is a breeding ground for grifters and over-priced used products, but every now and then an amazing opportunity comes along. That was the case last weekend when I searched the For Sale section on the hunt for a vacuum veneer press.

There isn’t much to a vacuum veneer press, but a good one with high-quality parts and features can costs a lot of money. It’s comprised of a motorized pump that attaches to a thick plastic bag with a hose.  Turn on the pump and its sucks the air from the bag. Whatever’s inside – typically layers of wood ready for lamination – compresses as the pump pulls all the air from the bag. In woodworking this tool is most-often used to adhere decorative veneer to curved or flat surfaces with glue. The sealed bag holds the veneer tight to the surface of your substrate as the glue dries.

Vacu Press

Craigslist score: VacuPress Hi-Flo vacuum veneer press with rolling table.

The custom made vacuum veneer press table shown here with two skateboard forms inside.

Before I drove off with my new tools I talked with the shop owner for nearly an hour. He gave me a tour of the 30,000-square-foot cabinet shop where he spent the better part of his life creating magnificent furniture and interiors. At one time, he said, there were 40 people working there. He told me about his first big job – a billionaire’s media room in Aspen – which he charged $1.3 million to complete. I heard a story of back in 1974 when he invented the first-ever automated TV-lift; that’s the thing that makes a TV rise and retract from a media cabinet. He charged $500 for it, but it cost him $7,000 to engineer and build. Didn’t matter though because it got him bigger and better jobs and allowed him to acquire more and more tools, like the one I was buying.

The kit that I purchased was the smallest of nine vacuum veneer press kits he was selling off. And those were just a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of dollars in equipment that would soon be plugged in at someone else’s shop.

It was hard to miss the sadness in the owner’s eyes as he said goodbye to his lifetime of work. But as I talked with him that morning and told him about what I planned to use it for – making decorative skateboards and mousepads with highly figured veneer and marquetry –  I could tell he was a small bit satisfied that at least this tool would live through another interesting adventure.

This weekend I get started putting it to good use with a colorful batch of veneer I recently acquired. Have a look at some of the patterns I assembled for my next batch of projects.



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