Toys that made me a maker

Pipeworks wrench

Pipeworks wrench

I visited my parents at home this Thanksgiving in Hillsborough, NJ and rummaged around the house I grew up in. One of the things I found was a Pipeworks wrench from my childhood tinkering. Pipeworks was a wonderful system that used basic PVC pipes with special connectors to make 90º and 45º angles and seat to snap in. They were like LEGO furniture. I created a wheelbarrow and lemonade stand as in the instructions, but of course quickly moved on to my own designs. The last and best being a small cart I dragged around on my bike until it fell apart. Here’s a video of kid actors having fun with the set. Good times.

Of course, the Pipeworks were only one in a string of awesome toys that encouraged making. As any kid, I had LEGO (that is the proper collective noun apparently.) A true LEGO collection is measured in mass, and I still have about 40lbs of LEGO in my parent’s attic; the ABS plastic withstanding the seasonal temperature shift, but the forgotten batteries corroding the contacts of the battery box in my super-awesome death robot on wheels.

Construx helicopter

Construx helicopter

But every kid had LEGO. I also fondly remember the more obscure Construx. This set was like a smaller Pipeworks with beams that could be connected to make stuff. I had a set like the one pictured here with pulleys and wheels, and I kind of remember breaking those beams quite often with the wrong amount of torsion. It was very architectural though.

I had some K’nex too, another beam toy, but a bit more flexible and durable than Construx. K’nex came out in 1993, and by the time I got some, it was a bit too late for my tinkering age. I was sliding into the deep abyss of adolescence and the darkness of CompuServe image boards.

As a kindergartner I would also play with the lacquered wood blocks at Grandma and Grandpa’s house. Grandma had a special set of blocks that she kept high on the mantle away from kids hands. They were heavy stone and rounded from years of play; she played with them when she was a kid. It’s amazing that while researching this post, I found those same blocks: Anchor Blocks, or Anker-Steinbaukasten as they are known as in Germany where they are still made. They are quite expensive now too. Is this the best present for my pieces and nephews? Maybe they can share a set.



There was also a crazy toy called Zaks that I had a bag of. Zaks are equilateral triangles and squares that snap together at the edge. When completed, these polyhedral models look a bit like the STL mesh files I build today with the makerbot at Hive76. What made this set especially cool was that some pieces has a 4-stud LEGO pattern on them that allowed for easy attachement to LEGO models. I don’t know why I didn’t use this mind-blowing connection more in my models, but I remembered it just fine. Maybe I didn’t want to get my toys mixed up. I should have been building super intensive toys with Construx and the frame, Zaks, the moveable skin over a upper skeleton of K’nex with all the inner workings and details handled by LEGO attached to the top of a Pipeworks cart. Sigh. These are the regrets of a youth misspent. Today you can print out a Duplo block to Brio track adapter which to me seems like the greatest thing in the world. I wonder if I can print a Zaks-Construx adapter, or a new line of Pipeworks connectors with LEGO studs …

I got to get to work making stuff!

Tagged with:

2 Responses to “Toys that made me a maker”

  1. Sean McBeth says:

    Thanks for this wonderful post. Definitely brought back memories of the days of playing with LEGO, like the time I made a small printing press, or the trebuchet that nearly broke a window (honestly, I had no idea it would be that strong!)

    About two years ago, I ran across this really interesting construction method called Grid Beam, basically adult Construx or Pipeworks. Their website is hilariously 70s-ish It’s such an incredibly simple concept that I can’t imagine why it hasn’t picked up with DIYers more. I eventually bought a book on it, it’s floating around my apartment somewhere. The book goes into some tricks and best practices that are kind of neat.

  2. […] really enjoyed other Hiver76s’ stories of how they became makers, but I’m a little shy to share like that. […]

Leave a Reply members: it's easier to log in.