Updated March 2017
Originally posted on November 3, 2014 on https://paperstatic.com/tinkering-and-prototyping-materials/
There are a few different modes of building that I’ve observed: tinkering, prototyping, and making. These modes are flexible and overlapping, but have different intentions, benefits, and challenges.
Tinkering is experimentation; often open-ended, without an end goal. You may reach one, but pure tinkering doesn’t have explicit intention to begin with. Wherever it ends, it always involves splashing around in a pool of uncertainty.
Prototyping lives between tinkering and intentional making. You often have an end goal, at least a whisper of one, but you’re working out how to make it happen by experimenting with different options on a small scale.
Making is usually more intentional. Sometimes it has explicit, pre-planned steps, sometimes you wing it, but it definitely has an end goal (of course, if you’re an accomplished tinkerer, the end goal may change), and there is generally some finished product that comes out of it.
When you get to the making stage, you may want to use fancier materials, something more lasting than is needed for tinkering and prototyping. One of the beauties of the tinkering and prototyping phases is that your materials needs are very flexible. The best tinkering materials are easily accessible, inexpensive or recycled, and multifunctional. The lists below are hardly exhaustive, but they contain suggestions of well-tested materials and tools that can serve multiple purposes.
Consumables (Need to be restocked)
Bamboo Skewers/Popsicle Sticks, etc.
So useful. So so useful. With a pair of snips and a hot glue gun, you can make more shapes than you can shake a stick at.
Cheap/free and versatile. Depending on the type and how you build with it, you can make something in cardboard that will be sturdy, or flexible. Cardboard can act as both a door and a hinge. A piece of moderately flexible cardboard folded up can make a decent approximation of a spring.
Don’t throw out your paper towel and toilet paper rolls! Instead save them to be used in easily cut and folded cardboard creations.
Cleaned out plastic containers from yogurt, dips, pickles, etc are great bases for all kinds of projects, not to mention great for holding other items.
Bottle Caps and Corks
I’ve seen these turn into all sorts of things, and you most likely will be able to scavenge plenty from your daily life.
You can get a piece of hard material and cut it with power tools until you get the shape you want, or you can take shrink plastic (just about any thin plastic with the #6 recycling symbol will work), cut it with normal scissors, and toss it in the oven to get a quick, hard piece of plastic in whatever shape you like. It’s not 100 percent precise (some plastics shrink more consistently than others), but this is tinkering/prototyping; it’s not meant to be. Shrink plastic will get you close enough for a lot of tinkering and rough prototyping.
These are a good stand-in for springs or any tightened cord. Also can be quite handy when you want a soft connection that has a little give.
Both thin and fat (boba) straws. Thin straws can be easily expandable sticks, bendable connectors, and can help create axles for hinges and wheels. Fat ones are also good for self-straightening bendy joints.
Yarn, cord, rope, twine, thread. All useful in different situations.
Let’s not limit ourselves, stock multiple colors. Construction paper is great for decoration, and cardstock is particularly useful for structural elements. Cutting pictures, pattern/color swatches, and words from old magazines is a great reuse opportunity, and wrapping paper is a good source for larger sheets.
Scraps of fabric are great for both decoration and functional uses (such as hinges). Recycle old clothing that’s stained or torn, or get fabric samples from your local creative reuse warehouse. Fabric can be used in bags, costumes, furniture for toys (or people), or just a splash of color without the mess of paint.
Little (or big) shapes of metal/wood/plastic/what-have-you that don’t have a related purpose. I always find it exciting to bring items that I have no ideas for whatsoever to an event with kids, because they will think of a use for them that will surprise me.
I’ll list a hot glue gun under tools, but the hot glue itself can be a material. It’s great for making quick little shapes, it diffuses light from LEDs nicely, and pressing a skewer into a piece of glue stick can make it easier to attach light loads to something that doesn’t have much surface area.
As with hot glue, it can be a material as well as a method of attachment. Doubled over duct tape makes a good tab or hinge. If you’re slick about it, you can fashion a functioning pulley belt from gaffer tape.
Another attacher/material. They provide a good resistant but bendy connection.
Brass fasteners can be used for easily-changeable connections, as well as pivoting joints.
Twist Ties, Pipe Cleaners, and Other Wire
Wire of all sorts can be used as a connector, or to sculpt all manner of malleable shapes.
If they don’t already wear glasses, a pair of child-sized goggles are important for safety. It’s critical that they fit well, or your young tinkerer will keep taking them off and they’ll be useless.
Trying to cut things with crummy scissors is a pain and a half, and will cause unneeded frustration. You might also consider having separate pairs for coarse vs fine materials, the same way every sewing aficionado has dedicated fabric scissors that ARE NOT used for anything else.
Cutting cardboard with regular scissors is doable, but difficult, and there are alternatives. You can use pumpkin carving tools, a dedicated cardboard cutting tool like this one (which we LOVE at reDiscover Center) or even an electric cardboard cutter. I generally recommend against utility knives for cutting cardboard when there are other options, as they can slip easily and cause injuries.
This is the most effective choice for wires, skewers and popsicle sticks, and anything that needs more of a chop than scissors can handle without shortening their lifespan.
You never know when you’ll need a better grip, to crimp wires, to bend something stiff, or to keep your hands away from something hot.
Various Glues, including a Dual-temp Hot Glue Gun
The dual-temp aspect is relevant. Low temp settings are good for a glob of hot glue that holds its shape when joining objects, the high temp settings are good for making stronger bonds, but also make the glue drippy. If you have a child who is prone to glue gun burns, you can get a pair of child-sized gloves for them. Talk to your children about glue gun safety. https://paperstatic.com/the-first-rule-of-glue-guns/
Decoration is important, and permanent markers that will draw and stay on anything always make my list.
For shrink plastic. Not for food. Don’t mix your crafting and food preparation or you may be ingesting unhealthy chemicals. You can also use a heat tool like those used for embossing.
Power Drill and Bit Set
There isn’t much by way of power tools on this list, and it’s a more luxury item than most other things here, but I adore my power drills, and always have one within arm’s reach, in case I need to make a quick, clean hole in wood, plastic, or cardboard.
This is hardly a full list, but it is good for starters. Leave a comment below if you have suggestions that you’ve found useful.