Inventing a Drone to Retrieve My Mail?

This article has been reprinted with permissions from the author, Stan Nickel, and from its original publication source, The February 2016, MennoNet Magazine of  The First Mennonite Church of Richmond Virginia (

How I Spend My Retirement

by Stan Nickel

Boredom. Or, the terror of boredom.  I’m not sure which.  I think this is the reason my brain became so active in the twilight of my life. Other than that, I have no idea why my brain keeps speeding up instead of slowing down like it should.

I’m just a normal person. My wife thinks differently. She says that I am a lazy person, and everything I do is an attempt to give myself a more leisurely life. I usually invent things so I don’t have to work so hard. Or, at all, if I can help it.

In any case, I’ve gotten things pretty much under control and find myself facing the possibility of boredom.  Boredom is a much worse fate than that of unpleasant tasks. Of the two, I still prefer boredom, though. Laziness wins. Then again, fun is better than boredom. Hence this article.

What fun things do I do to avoid boredom and unpleasant tasks?  Facebook, woodshop, and electronics.  In random order.

Facebook: Let’s take a look at Facebook first.  There are so many issues in the world, and people keep posting all of these graphics (Facebook calls them photos) about every topic under the sun. I am passionate about my opinions of all of them. Especially politics and the error of the ways of Republicans. I spend many nights thinking and having a lot of humorous thoughts about how so many people can be so wrong. Of course, those nocturnal musings become the feedstock for my nasty comments on Facebook.

Eventually, I realized that I was offending a lot of people, so I did a mass “unfriending” and eliminated more than half of my Facebook friends.  I did not eliminate everyone to whom I could be offensive, but I cut down that population immensely. Now, I feel better about my rantings, and I offend only a few here and there.

Woodshop: One of the worst mistakes of my early retirement years was to “downsize” and that included selling my $900 cabinet saw. I didn’t think I wanted to spend much time doing woodwork, so I sold the saw on Craigslist. Since then, I missed the saw a lot. Every time I wanted to rip a board straight or crosscut a board squarely, I had to use my hand circular saw. It never gave the result I wanted and was a bear to set up.


The last straw was this summer when I realized that I had a lot of wood scraps and thought that I should make a sort of “crazy quilt” porch chair out of them.  One thing led to another, and I made a chair, table, and a footstool for my porch; and then I made another footstool for a friend. These projects in, summary, were actually the second to last straw. I had to do all of my cutting with that circular saw by hand. No fun.


The very last straw was when I got into the train whistle making binge. I made about ten four-barrel train whistles and gave them away to various kids at church and elsewhere. Again, I had no way to make a nice, square cut on those whistles.


OK, so what to do? I looked and “Googled” and “Binged” and found a way to turn the circular saw into a mounted table saw. I spent some time on that project and came up with a very nice homemade fence, the guide that you use on a table saw to rip (cut the long way) boards. I had no way to simply crosscut the board off squarely, though. There was no miter gauge nor any way I could see to make an accurate one.

Harbor Freight saved the day. They put their “industrial 10-inch 13 amp” table saw on sale for a mere $99 plus tax.  Marked down from $169.99. What a deal! I bought it and took it home. The reviews were terrible, and sure enough, the reviews were pretty much correct. But, that saw is much better than anything else available to me, so I decided to make a table to put it on. Out of wood–scrap wood–what else? I used that saw to make a table for it to stand on. It has wheels to make it easy to move. Now I can cut wood more-or-less square again. I’m happy with that.

I don’t like rusty tools. That means I need to cover them with something. My Vietnamese neighbor lady is a seamstress and sewed me a very nice denim cloth cover for my drill press many years ago. She has since become busy making a living in her nail shop and has no time to make a cover for my table saw. I asked my wife to get me two yards of denim on sale and I made a cover myself. Yep. I sewed the whole thing. It’s a bit baggy by about 2 inches, but it does the job. The sewing is top-notch, if I do say so myself.

One needed to cover dusty and dirty tools with something to keep the dust and dirt out. Right? That took care of that.

Electronics: I’ve always been interested in electronics and even took a home study course in basic electronics about 25 years ago. While engaged in my battle against boredom, I discovered microcontrollers of the Arduino persuasion. I learned how to program them to do things and became fascinated with one of the little brothers of the Arduino Uno; the ATTiny85. It’s just a tiny thing measuring about a 1/2″ by 3/8″. It only has two output ports that can do digital things like blink LEDs (light emitting diodes), turn solenoids on and/or off, and low voltage digital doodads. And, it has three input ports that allow for input of temperature, humidity, light and anything else that can provide an electrical, analog signal.

Well, after doing a bunch of tutorials in Arduino disciplines, I settled on two really simple ideas.  One was to make a mailbox signal system. What this does is to blink a very bright white or clear LED whenever the mailman opens the mailbox door. To add a little sophistication to it, I make it blink Morse code instead of just on-off nonsense. The message right now is: “Mail is here”. With very little trouble, I could have it read the temperature at the mailbox and have it signal the current temperature at the mailbox by Morse code. I haven’t done that yet, but am thinking about it.

My wife has an electric toothbrush that hesitates at 30 seconds for three times and then stops altogether for a few seconds at two minutes to complete the dentist-recommended tooth brushing cycle. My electric toothbrush is not that sophisticated, so I have to count the thirty seconds or watch the second hand of a clock.

Well (again), I knew there was a better way, so I used my vast knowledge of micro controllers to do that job for me. Now, I have a bunch of toothbrush timers that do the timing job. One in each bathroom. And, a spare. When I switch a timer on, a red light blinks five times to allow me to get ready and put toothpaste on the brush. And then the fun starts. A green light blinks for 20 times to signal thirty seconds. A red light blinks once to signal that it is time to switch sides or top or bottom.  And, the cycle repeats a total of four times to cover the whole mouth and the two minute requisite brushing time. I switch it off and anticipate with great joy my next tooth brushing event.

My current project is an electronic one as well. This time, thanks to Jim Lehman, a friend from First Mennonite Church of Richmond, VA, I am working on a mailbox signal system that does not use any batteries but rather stores solar energy from a PV (photovoltaic) panel in ultra-capacitors (or super capacitors). While writing this article, I have been testing twin ultra-capacitors that I charged on Monday and that are operating a microcontroller and two LEDs.  So far, this setup has operated over 48 hours nonstop. What this means is that I can charge the ultra capacitors with my solar cells and expect them to run for days even if there is no sunshine. My, my.

A possible upcoming project is to buy a drone and program it to fetch the mail from a mailbox that I need to design for the purpose. I just got my drone certificate from the FAA, so I can legally fly a hobby drone–just enough of a drone for this purpose.

One other project I’d like to do is to teach kids how to do so many of the skills I’ve learned. So far, I’ve reached out to several of our kids at church, but have had only one family show an interest.  Most of the families seem to have other more important priorities like schoolwork, sports, Legos, video games, etc.

On January 30th, I held a Nickel Hobby Fair for a family with four children from our church.  We viewed several of my projects, had a snack, and then had a soldering lesson with homework—practicing various solder joints.  I’m hoping to continue mentoring the three middle school age kids over the coming weeks and maybe months.  We may do other things like computer programming, measuring the height of one of my tall trees using geometry and a helium balloon, and maybe a little drone-flying practice.

Eventually, I will return to yet another fun activity–reading. I have always enjoyed reading, but lately, I just haven’t had the time. Eventually, I’ll do reading again, or maybe some canning?


For more exciting information about projects I have done in my retirement, please see:, my YouTube Train Whistle Demo: and my Nickel Hobby Fair YouTube video:

You can also write to Stan at this Blog, or at his email,


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