Category Archives: design

Making a Gemstone & Glass Prism Kaleidoscope

Like many kids born in the USSR, my sister Polina and I loved our toy kaleidoscopes we had growing up. To our surprise, they were never as popular in the U.S., although there is now a growing interest among the aficionados.

After much searching, Polina was able to get herself this artisan kaleidoscope. That thing is really tiny and the stained glass beads are fused to two wheels – meaning the patterns repeat themselves; it’s not an infinite set of combinations which could never be repeated that was part of the charm of the `scopes Polina and I had grown up with:Polina's old artisanal kaleidoscope

I got this kaleidoscope on eBay. Its shape and size are similar to the Russian ones. It is made by Corning, a high end glass manufacturer. To my surprise and dismay, it turned out to be far inferior to the Soviet toy kaleidoscopes. Instead of the silvered glass mirrors (yes, as a kid, I took my toy `scope apart – obviously) there was a folded sheet of sort-of-polished metal, and the pieces of colored glass were painted on one side (with the paint flaking off) instead of being real stained glass.Corning kaleidoscope mounted on a camera

On the internet I’ve found out that indeed, Russian and Italian kaleidoscopes are among the best. Well, I’m Russian, so I decided to make a proper kaleidoscope for my sister’s birthday.

Opulence… I haz it!

Have you ever heard of a kaleidoscope that had not mere stained glass, but actual gemstones? Neither have I, so I was going to make one.
Kaleidoscope Gemstones
Clockwise from the top, I got the following stones for the kaleidoscope:

  • Ruby, heart cut (2 sizes)
  • Amethyst, trillion cut
  • Sapphire, marquise cut (2 sizes)
  • Sapphire, baguette cut
  • Emerald, marquise cut

The main optical component is the glass prism (or three narrow mirrors arranged in the same way). I wanted to make a full-size kaleidoscope, so the prism had to be a monster size. When it arrived, I was dismayed that its two triangular faces were matte. You wouldn’t be able to see any gemstones through them.

Large glass prism
I was out of time and budget to order a different prism from China, and a crystal restoration shop wanted $120 per face to polish the two faces. Fortunately, I had polishing disks in Poconos.

The problem with hand-polishing is the surface wants to take on a rounded shape – it is actually pretty hard to keep it flat.

Fortunately, I ended up with only a little bit of roundness around the edges, well within the void size that the optical cement would be able to fill.

The optical cement I got, Dymax OP-4-20632, is able to cure in a strong sunlight, but it cures much better in a UV light. Here, I am taking advantage of the latter, emitting from the monster black light lamp Polina got for the party in Poconos:

Dymax OP-4-20632 is curing in UV light, bonding a triangular prism face to a round filter.

My idea was to bond both faces of the prism to 52mm clear photographic filters, whose metal rings perfectly fit the copper pipe I got for the main housing, thus centering the prism inside.

Here are some of the miscellaneous parts and tools used in the assembly:

Kaleidoscope Components

This is the main housing, a piece of 2″ DWV copper pipe (outer diameter 2.125”, wall thickness 0.042”):

Uncoated copper pipe housing

If you’re stuck on a deserted island and need to blacken a copper pipe, you can use hard-boiled eggs. Rub the yolks on the copper, wrap it air-tightly (you will know why), and after a while it will blacken.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work perfectly, so I had to fall back on spray paint. Oh, and cleaning the dried rotten egg yolk stuck to the outside AND inside of the copper pipe is hard.

This took five minutes. There’s a lesson in there somewhere:
Copper Casing Sprayed with Black Paint

Rebecca from The Engraving Place in Brooklyn is holding up the casing she has just finished engraving for me:
Engraver is holding up the casing she has engraved.

The casing (upper left) goes over the Prism Assembly and is capped by the capsule with the gemstones on the one end and a +2 close-up lens and step-down cover on the other.
Casing, Prism Assembly with Capsule, and Close-up Lens Cap

The close-up lens helps focusing the eyesight on the view without eyestrain.

Another view of the same components:Casing, Prism Assembly with Capsule, and Cap with MagnifierHaving previewed the kaleidoscope action, I’ve shattered an empty bottle of red wine and added a few pieces of olive-colored glass from it to the capsule to help space out and shuffle the gemstones.

Pro tip: always have a bottle of red wine on hand when making kaleidoscopes.

The larger ruby was too deep to fit in the capsule, so I decided to grind down its base somewhat, encouraged by how well my effort polishing the glass prism ends had turned out. Not so fast! It took me (and dad, whom I eventually asked to help out with this) a half day of sanding, using frightening grits of sandpaper on a belt sander, to do it! I suspected ruby would be harder than glass, but I could never imagine it would be harder this many times over. Still, managed to do it. You can make out the large red stone’s now-flat backside on this photo.

The kaleidoscope is assembled and duly entered into the database of my work:Assembled KaleidoscopeHaving reviewed the kaleidoscope action, I’ve shattered an empty bottle of white wine and added a few pieces of clear glass from it to the capsule for a more balanced and refined view.

Pro tip: always have a bottle of white wine on hand when making kaleidoscopes.

The view from the other end.Kaleidoscope Viewed From The OcularGift inscription for my sister:Gift Inscription on KaleidoscopeThe capsule is able to rotate vs. the main body of the kaleidoscope, as I’m using a rotating mechanism from a 52mm polarizing filter.

Polina’s first look through:
Polina's First Look Through

What it looks like (the view is infinite – this picture is constrained by the camera’s angle of view):

Kaleidoscope Pattern

Due to the prism having rounded corners for safe handling, you can see the three transluscent pillars raising from the view. Otherwise, thanks to the fairly high grade prism surface, it is very difficult to tell the direct view from its reflections – which is one of the metrics of a decent `scope.

Lizard seems happy with her new toy. Happy Birthday, sister!
Polina is Happy with Her Kaleidoscope

Here’s a very nice view Polina sent me:

Polina's Kaleidoscope Pattern Capture

I like the interlocking red and yellow rings and blue triangles with emerald tips. A part of the charm is, you can now spin this kaleidoscope more times than there are atoms in the observable universe, and you’ll never get the same view again.

See this kaleidoscope in action:

Design of Everyday and Extraordinary Things

What little sense of industrial design I have, has been seeded in me during my undergrad years at Voenmeh in Leningrad, Soviet Union (now St. Petersburg, Russia).

Soviet veteran is still grateful to his T34 which has sheltered him throughout WWII
Soviet veteran is still grateful to his T34 which has sheltered him throughout WWII

Soviet military/aerospace design philosophy’s core aim was to keep its user alive, through simplicity of use and maintenance, and maximum performance at a given cost. Visually, it boils down to plainness taken to such an extreme it can be called nudity or coarse honesty:

  • If something is designed to come apart, do not hide the seams or fasteners.
  • Conversely, do not draw fake seams or lines.
  • A straight line is better than a curve; a consistent curve is better than a combination of different curves.
  • Usage made obvious through shape and placement is better than a textual or graphical label.
  • Do not make materials pretend to be other materials, or take on an unnatural for them role.
  • If it works well and is cheap to make but appears ugly, so be it – it’ll grow on its users over time.

This often runs awry of the Western design sensibility where things are beautified and embellished with originality to move merch and bolster the designer’s profile. But can stark Russki design be domesticated and have its place in everyday or extraordinary things?

Jony Ive and Marc Newson, famous designers behind iconic Apple products among other innovations, have brought their talents to bear to give a truly unique (limited edition of one) design treatment to the Leica M series digital rangefinder camera. The camera will join 40 other unique items to be auctioned off at Sotheby’s in New York on November 23rd 2013. The camera’s sale is estimated to raise $500-750K for The Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Needless to say, Jony Ive and Marc Newson have done an incredible job that represents the very best of Western design. The top picture is the back of this camera as designed by Jony and Marc.RED One-off Leica My Redesign

This bottom picture represents my Russki attempt. Specific comments:

А: Given there is no functional separation between the top and the display, we eliminate the “false” frame line. The “honest” line at the bottom stays, as functionally the bottom on Leica M is removable.
Б: The flat area to the left of the display appears to be solely a printing surface for the labels. It kicks the design off-balance, making the camera look heavy on the left. An ugly compromise on what is supposed to be a product of few compromises, certainly from the design perspective.
В: …Which brings us to the question: Do we even need those buttons labeled? We photogs know our cameras and can operate them by touch without looking. None of these buttons’ functions are destructive on a first press (even delete would generally ask for a confirmation), and press-and-hold can easily be made to display the legend for these buttons on the rear monitor. The front buttons have no labels, the zoom buttons have no labels. We want to be clean and consistent. Everything screams “eliminate the labels”.
Г: Premium products don’t need loud branding. Small and tasteful is the way to go.
Д: Speaking of superfluous labels, “INFO” is almost comically so. Everything is information, so by saying “INFO” it is not giving us any info. On the same note, everyone knows how 4-way switches operate, we do not need a tiny arrow (or dot!) reminding us that left is left, right is right, top is top, bottom is bottom. Eliminate.
Е: This appears to be an activity LED. If so, illuminate the gap around the “INFO” button instead, and eliminate the separate LED “hole feature”.

I have no doubt the camera will sell fine as-is, and hope it brings in a lot of money for The Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

Nov 23 update: the camera has sold for an amazing $1.805 million!