The Snaptastic Room Divider is an attractive modular wall made up of an array of panels that are fit together with slotted connectors to make a large freestanding room divider. It can be expanded or reduced to fit the space it’s being used in.
It’s always tempting to put up a project and only show the ‘straight line’ from concept to result- Get these materials, do these steps and voilà a finshed project! I don’t know about you, but my path is usually a little more meandering. I thought I’d share the design process and some of the mess-ups on the way because it’s interesting.
I saw this picture of a cardboard room divider in a magazine a couple months ago and thought it was pretty cool. Originally I was thinking that I would make my divider out of cardboard too. I paged through a couple books on tiling and M.C. Escher for inspiration then moved on to Google to research various paper folding techniques.
I was looking for some sort of modular interlocking design. The paper folding patterns I found were very cool but a little too intense to imagine making in cardboard on a room sized scale. I scaled back my ambitions and started sketching some ideas.
Refine the Design
I made small cardboard models of the domino and star panels just to get a sense of what they would look like in 3D. After sitting with them for a couple days the star design won out.
I still needed to decide how many and what size the panels should be. I knew I wanted the overall divider to be taller than me and at least 6′ wide. I wanted an odd number of panels vertically and ended up with 40 panels.
I drew it up more accurately on the computer and liked how it was looking.
My plan was to laminate six layers of cardboard together for each panel. 40 panels x 6 layers = 240 pieces! That’s a heck of a lot of cardboard. Luckily there is almost always someone who has just moved to town and is looking to get rid of their moving boxes for free on craigslist. I snagged a batch to make my prototype pieces.
I cut enough pieces to lay out a 3 x 4 grid on the floor. This would let me see if the idea was headed in the right direction. I’d be able to tell if I liked the star pattern made by the negative space or if should reconsider the dominoes. After spending the evening cutting out cardboard pieces with my CNC machine I came to two conclusions:
First, there was no way I was going to have the time / patience to cut out 240 pieces.
Second, the recycled cardboard looked kind of crappy and the design was cool enough to deserve a better material.
1/4″ plywood perhaps?
Making a Connection
Now that I had a bunch of panels to play with it was time to figure out how to hold them together. I started with circles of cardboard, cutting slots in them to make connectors. Pretty quickly I settled on a zig zag pattern for the panels so that the room divider would be self standing. I messed around in cardboard with a few ideas for the connector shapes and then started drawing options out on the computer.
I decided on with an almond shape for the vertical connectors and a soft triangular shape for the horizontal connectors.
One Last Trip to the Drawing Board
As I was playing with the cardboard panels, trying different ways of putting them together, it was clear that they were too square. It was difficult to tell which was the vertical axis and which was the horizontal one. I squeezed them in the computer so that they became 13″ x 15″. I cut a couple samples out in ‘plywood’ (really mdf with a veneer on the outside). Much better…
Now it was just a matter of cutting everything out. Even though I had worked out the design and tested it on the CNC machine I’m always a little leery of this step. More than once my homemade machine has left me in the lurch when it comes to production runs. Sometimes the machine gets CNC Alzheimers. It kind of forgets where it is and then carries on merrily cutting out a messed up piece. Other times it has just crapped out on me. Once it even required a full brain transplant!
Things went relatively smoothly only taking 7 hours or so. Each panel took about 5 minutes to cut out. I spent the time waiting for each piece to finish by lightly sanding the edges of the previous one.
The next day was another six hours spent cutting out the connectors. They took a while to calibrate so that the slot sizes were perfect. The difference between too loose and too tight is just a couple hundredths of an inch. Even though I had tested to get the right size earlier in the week I ended up having to completely recalibrate them. Just part of the CNC magic.
Here’s the CNC in action:
All the pieces came out looking great and the tolerances for the pieces ended up just right. Snug enough to hold together firmly with no wobbliness but still able to be slid together by hand.
We brought the room divider over to a friend’s minimalist contemporary house to assemble it there and take some classy photos (it didn’t fit in our doublewide anyways 😉 ).
Here’s the divider coming to life:
All in all I’m really pleased with the project. It was fun to watch the design evolve and the finished product looks really sharp. It may even be marketable. I’m definitely going to explore more interlocking techniques as they really lend themselves to the strengths of the CNC.
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