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Charlie's Workshop

Necessity leads the mother of an inventor to create an idea lab

I've always had a soft spot for inventors, probably because of my childhood longing for the gadgets on The Jetsons. So when my son Charlie, now 9, showed an early interest in anything that blinked, buzzed, or beeped, I indulged him. He started as a toddler, flipping switches and pushing buttons; by age 6 he'd progressed to creating his own masterpieces. Robot suits made from big cardboard boxes? Sure. A device that could supposedly make ice cream out of vegetables? Sounds like something I could use.

But his inventions were taking over the house. Half-finished time machines littered the family room, and mini spaceships covered the kitchen table. If I tried to recycle a soda bottle, Charlie swooped in to rescue it: "I need that for my submarine!" Then it would join the other junk — cartons, bubble wrap, newspaper — piling up in his room. We were just seven cats shy of a visit from the health inspector.

So we moved. Okay, Charlie's inventions weren't the only reason, but when we found a house with a basement room so full of duct work it couldn't be finished, we knew we'd found the place for all those works in progress. Eureka! Charlie's invention lab was born.

His favorite part of having a workshop? "I can keep it messy." (We tidied up for this photo shoot. I told him we might be getting a visit from the Patent and Trademark Office.)

Wall of Fame
We use pegboard hooks ($6 for a pack of 32, hardwarestore.com) to display some of Charlie's inventions. But they tend to have short life spans — they fall apart or get reused in new projects. So we also take pictures of his favorites, put them in inexpensive clear box frames ($5 for the 8 1/2-by-11 size, dickblick.com), and hang them on the pegboard to create a "Wall of Fame."

See, Saw
A workbench serves as the carpentry center, where we hang tools and keep wood scraps (which you can usually get for free at home improvement stores). Charlie uses a hammer and saw to create swords and (purely decorative) airplanes. When Charlie was 8, my husband Stan taught him how to use the hammer and saw safely, but we have our limits: no power tools. Charlie is disappointed but philosophical. "I want to use the power saw because it would be easier and quicker to saw things, and" — he throws in for my benefit — "much neater too. But you won't let me because I might cut off my finger."

Pegged for Greatness
Stan attached 2-by-4-inch boards to our concrete walls with construction adhesive and masonry nails as framing for the pegboard (about $14 for a 4-by-8- foot section at building supply stores). Then he hammered the pegboard onto the frames and we gave it two coats of Benjamin Moore latex paint in Fresh Cut Grass.

Hooked on Supplies
To organize small items (colored pencils, paint, glue, aluminum foil, bits of packing foam), we hung plastic bins (from $3, hookstore.com) that hook right into the pegboard. Larger supplies (sponges, a glue gun, foam shapes) go in rolling plastic drawers or stacking bins ($7 each, containerstore.com).

Sign of the Times
Charlie reuses materials and runs a green shop ("We Recycle" sign, $16, www.safetysign.com).

Electrical Impulses
Lights, buzzers, and motors (from around $1 each, at electronics stores or scientificsonline.com) are sorted into organizer jars (15 for $12, billynorman.com). I supervise Charlie to make sure he's liberal with the insulating electrical tape (in all kinds of colors, $1 a roll at tapebrothers.com). When he was younger he was satisfied with giving his inventions an electronic look by gluing on keys from old computer keyboards and knobs from appliances.

The Junkyard
A three-section laundry sorter ($27, target.com) holds cardboard tubes, old electronics, and PVC pipes. Charlie highly recommends PVC: "The pipes fit the connectors exactly, and there are different kinds of connectors. If you need a connector with two connections and don't have one, you can use a connector with three holes and put a cap on one. That's pretty flexible."

Design Center
Charlie hatches ideas on a chalkboard/bulletin board. (You can find similar combination boards from $41 at usmarkerboard.com.)

Supply Corner
Art stuff goes in stacking drawers with detachable wheels (Umbra Juxta drawers, $40, and casters, $10, containerstore.com).

Drafting Table
Charlie's is the Pavillon model (from $118, suppliesnet.com) with a SitStar stool ($170, draftingtables.com).

Charlie's wish list

  • Plastic bottles
  • More motors and batteries
  • Velcro
  • Balsa wood for lighter airplanes
  • More colors of spray paint ("Because it makes inventions look better.")
  • A power saw (Yeah, right.)

About the Author: Jody Mace wrote about Charlie's earliest days as a gadget guru in Wondertime's April/May 2007 issue ("Pushing Buttons"). She hopes one of his big ideas will be the family's bread and butter some day. If he doesn't blow up something important first.

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