Jack in the Box


My wife and I just recently had our second son. His name is Jack. I made him a bassinet to sleep in, and this is an article about the process and method.

I warn you now - this project doesn't involve any electronics or software of any kind. I know that makes it a bit boring, and I realize there are a myriad ways to bring digital awesomeness to such a scenario - moisure detection, controlled motion, music or white noise, notifications, camera integration - but it just isn't happening at this point. Someday. The infamous someday.

I call it a bassinet so you'll know what I'm talking about, but we actually call it a Jack in the Box - get it? Jack... in the box. Yeah, I know.

First, a little back story.

We had an army of grandmas (two actually) lined up to help the first few weeks of his life, because as we learned with our first son, being a parent of a newborn can be quite difficult.

Well, Grandma #1 had a little family emergency back home and had to cut her trip short and fly home. Then Grandma #2 had a change of plans and was not able to fly out at all. That left my wife and I alone to battle the days. And more significantly... the nights.

We consoled ourselves with the fact that this has been done a thousand times in the past and with each other we're double the man power that a single parent has and even they can make this happen. Our three year old sleeps 12 hours a night like a champ and is at an easy and even helpful stage, so that's helpful.

Anyway. Enough about our baby woes though. We feel like we're over the hardest part now, and the light at the end of the tunnel is getting brighter every day. There are fewer of those nights where I am up and down every two hours like a Navy Seal in training. Fewer days that require nearly illegal doses of caffeine.

Somewhere in the whole process, we decided we wanted to reduce the size of the sleeper that we use in our room. We have a Pack-n-Play, and it was taking up too much space in our little bedroom. My wife exercised her amazing online research and shopping skills, but came up short on an ideal solution, so she said "Can you just make one?" My answer is to that, out of principle, is usually yes... even if it's a stretch.

She gave me a 33" x 15" mattress to work with. I had plenty of midnight hours for step 1 - brainstorming designs. I ended up deciding to employ the laser cutter at the Maker Garage where I work at Microsoft. It turned out to be kind of a fun project, so I'll share the process and the final product here.

My only raw material was some 7 1/2" x 1/2" x 3' poplar wood from Home Depot. I was out $35 overall, which isn't necessarily a savings over what we were finding online, but this design had the advantage of being custom and chemical free and entirely fun.

The laser cutter I use has a bed size of 24" x 18". The 33" mattress was obviously going to demand something longer, so I had to get creative and design it in two pieces and stitch it together. This ended up working quite nicely.

I'll show you the final product first so you can envisage the whole thing...

Now, here are the designs I made in CorelDRAW to bring that to life. The laser cutter will translate the red lines as cuts and the black as rasterized etching, so we should end up with a piece cut out that has some personalized, burnt-in images with Jack's name, the date, and the attribution to daddy.

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CorelDRAW is a 2D illustration program much like InkScape or Adobe Illustrator. Although it worked great for this project, I don't consider this type of program ideal for projects like this. Rather, working in 3D would have had some big advantages, such as...

  • A 3D software package allows the designer to visualize the final product without having to use much imagination. With a 2D package, you constantly have to be rendering in your mind.
  • A 3D software package allows you to avoid making cascading adjustments to the size of elements as you're going through the design process. If I want to change one component, the other interacting components are right there as well and depending on your software can even react automatically to changes saving time and allowing you to easily "try on" different designs.
  • With your project designed in 3D, you'll be able to export or render whatever 2D views or sketches you want, so you'll be able to render one version for a 3D printer, another for a laser cutter, etc.

I'm coming up to speed on using Autodesk Fusion 360, and if I had this project to do over again, I would use that. Fusion 360 allows you to export faces as 2D drawings ready to send to a laser cutter.

</aside>

Here's how it looks when the pieces are all cut out...

So you can see that the corner joints are tabs as are the midway joints. I have also cut small 1/2" square holes in the corners and at two points along the length of the box to allow me to insert some braces. These braces add strength and support a piece of hard board that will form the bed of the unit.

One of the fun things about using a laser cutter is snapping everything together afterword and seeing it fit perfectly every time.

I did not use any metal fasteners in the assembly of this. It is entirely held together with the shape of the components and some basic wood glue.

Here's the main structure assembled...

And then with the hard board installed to support the mattress...

And finally with the mattress fitting snuggly (which is important for babies)...

And here's how the etching turned out...

Overall, I'm happy with the result, but I by no means consider it a perfect work. Here are some of the things I learned...

  • I should have done a better job of testing the properties of the laser cutter to get to just the right settings. You set the speed and the power of the cuts, and I thought it was best to just turn it up to be sure it was cutting all the way through 1/2" of wood. If the power is up too much, the speed is down too low, or both, then it will cut through the wood, but will leave unnecessarily high levels of soot behind on the cut edges. If you power is too low, the speed is too high, or both then it won't cut all the way through the wood and you'll have to use a blade or chisel of some kind to free your design from the raw material - a time consuming endeavor that often times results in broken edges too.
  • Laser cutters leave burnt edges. If you get those settings right, the edge is dark brown and sort of carmelized - arguably an acceptible finish in most circumstances, though not for a sleeping baby. If edges need to be cleaned, there will be some work involved. Sandpaper clogs quickly. I finally discovered that for accessible edges, a small hand plane works great. For interior edges inaccessible to the plane, a broad cutting bit on a Dremel followed by a sanding bit work fine but amount to quite a bit of work - perhaps an hour of Dremel time for this entire project.
  • I should have rounded the inner corners more to allow for easier Dremeling
  • I should have created square holes and braces to mechanically hold the two halves of the unit together. As it is, the two halves are only bonded with glue and I believe it is the weakest point of the project.

We're happy to have this fun little project done and serving its purpose. And Jack seems to like it, so that's what matters.

Drop me a comment and let me know what you think of this project, and if it sparked any ideas or questions. Happy making!


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