A vacuum pen is used to pick up tiny little things such as beads, small shells or sometimes electronic components depending on their size. They aren't very useful for picking up larger things like coins or larger computer chips, but are great for things so tiny they are hard to even pick up with your fingers, especially if it's something you are worried about crushing. They sell manual press pumps for around $10 that can do this but if you want a little more oomph in your suction ability, an electric vacuum pen can be the the way to go. Unfortunately those can be much more expensive starting at $50 to $80.
My goal while making this was to do it for as little money as possible, so I will try to lead you on how to do that too. This one was under $20 in total parts, and half of it was stuff I already happened to have around the house.
Step 1: Parts and Tools.
This vacuum pen was made with some easy to find parts. The main component is the aquarium air pump. This walkthrough is specifically for the Aqua Culture duel pump for 20-60 gallon tanks and the Whisper 100 which we will cover after (jump to page 16 if you want to start on the Whisper 100.), which is rated for 100 gallons and has a little more power, but also cost a little more. It will depend what you want to do. Walmart has the best price for the Aqua Culture I've seen for around $10, but if that's not your thing, ebay is probably the next best place to work for price. The Whisper 100 seems to go for just a little over $20.
Keep in mind before you start, the more gallons the pump is rated for, the more suction it would have. This is a $11 pump rated for 60 gallons at most. The Whisper goes up to 100 gallons and would give you slightly more suction, but that pump is around $20. They also make pumps for ponds and larger tanks for around $40 and up, but I have no idea what kind of pumps they use in those at this point in time and if you can flip a gasket as easily. At this time I also don't know if hooking multiple smaller pumps would get you better suction or not.
I'd say the Aqua Culture is good for smaller things like beading and small electronics like resistors. But if you want to pick up larger items, I'd look at the Whisper 100 and some suction cups to go with it, which are discussed near the end.
1 Aqua Culture duel air pump.
1 Standard airline tubing. At least 3 feet or longer.
1 Airline T-Valve
1 Air Flow Control Valve
1 Alligator Clip
1 Inflation Needle
2 Small Screws
1 Pen with rubber grip.
1 Pen that fits comfortably in your hand.
Tools and Supplies:
Philips Screw Driver
Drill and Saw or a Dremel Tool
Toothpicks (for applying the epoxy)
Step 2: Remove the Cover
First we will focus on the air pump. We need it to suck in air, not pump it out. We can easily reverse the valve in this pump.
I got this pump for about $11 new. You could probably do slightly better on ebay getting a used one, but sometimes we just want things now.
First start by turning the pump over and removing the four screws in the base.
Step 3: Remove the Screw Holding in the Pump.
The part on the right is the air pump. The part on the left is a motor. When the motor is on it oscillates the magnates back and forth, vibrating the diaphragms to suck in air.
We are going to focus on just the pump. To make the adjustment we need to remove the pump from the case. Do this by removing the screw holding it in.
Step 4: Remove Valve Cover.
When you pull out the pump pull it straight up. There is a grey cover over both the valves that will come with it. Remove the cover and set it off to the side.
Step 5: Gently Pry Back the Diaphram.
The black rubber diaphragm is currently fit snugly over the blue plastic circle, which is the gasket cover. Gently pry the black rubber off the gasket cover. Once off the whole thing will fold back like a door on the metal arm it is attached to. Be careful to not rip the rubber but it should be fairly easy to remove.
Note how everything is oriented. You will need to remember how that blue gasket cover is positioned when you reassemble the parts. I look at the part that looks like a little arrow facing up.
We will have to do this for both sides, so note all these steps for the other side as well. On the other side it's as if everything is rotated 180 degrees so on the opposite side the arrow on the gasket cover faces down. You can do both sides at the same time or first one then the other. Whichever you find easiest.
Step 6: Remove the Screw Holding on the Gasket Cover.
Remove the screw in the center of the gasket cover to remove the piece so we can get to the gasket.
Step 7: Gently Pry Out the Gasket
We are going to gently pry out the gasket here. Notice that it's attached to a little white notch at the bottom when pulling it out.
To reverse the air flow we need to flip this gasket around 180 degrees. To do this we will need to punch a hole in the opposite end for that white peg to go through.
Step 8: Punch a Hole Through the Gasket.
We need to rotate this gasket upside down from where it was before, 180 degrees. Use something sharp to poke a hole for the peg to go into. I used a mechanical pencil tip.
I recommend measuring before poking a hole to be as precise as possible. You can also remove the gaskets from both sides at the same time and lay them over each other and use the existing hole to mark where the new hole will go in the other with a ball point pen. Just make sure it's centered. It has some lines in it which can throw off visually where the center looks to be so measure your marking to make sure it's equidistant to both sides.
Placing the gasket over some cardboard can help ensure you don't stab yourself or scratch up the table you are working on.
Step 9: Replace the Gasket Rotated 180 Degrees.
Place the gasket back over the peg but this time rotated 180 degrees and using your new hole you poked. Don't worry about the old hole, it won't be an issue.
Again make sure to do this for both sides.
Step 10: Replace the Gasket Cover.
Replace the blue gasket cover. Fit it over the peg and then twist it until it seems like it's snugly in place. Then replace the screw and tighten it back in.
Step 11: Fit the Diaphragms Back Over the Gasket Cover
Gently fit the diaphragms backs over the blue gasket covers. Gently press around the edges until they are on evenly all around and you can't see the ridge of the lip.
Step 12: Replace the Grey Valve Cover
Put back on the grey valve cover before putting the pump back in the case.
Step 13: Place the Pump Back in the Case.
Place the pump back into the case.
This can be a little tricky because you have to guide the grey valve cover back into it's slot on the case while keeping the magnets from getting stuck to the motor.
Step 14: Replace the Pump Screw.
Once the pump is back in the case, replace it's screw and tighten it back in.
Step 15: Replace Screws on Cover
Finally put the cover back on and replace the four screws you initially took out.
And that should be it for the pump. What was once an air pump should now be a vacuum.
Plug it back in and try it out at this point. Place your finder over each valve and see if you feel air being sucked in or not. It will be light but you should be able to notice it.
If you don't feel suction coming from both of the valves, dissemble the pump again and make sure you put the gasket and the gasket cover on in the right orientation and tightened the screws enough. You should feel suction come from each of the valves when assembled properly.
Step 16: Whisper 100
We will just skim over this.
It's mostly the same processes. In the Whisper 100, the gasket and gasket cover all all one piece and easier to flip.
Remove the cover with the screws on the bottom like before.
Step 17: Whisper Inside
Simply remove the diagram like before and this time the arm can be moved out of the way by simply sliding the base of the arm up.
Step 18: Flip the Valve
Slide the white gasket piece straight up then and flip it over 180 degrees and put it back in. It sticks a little the first time you slide it out, so give it some pressure and careful to not bend back your nail when it finally goes. Make sure you remember to flip the other side after doing this one or only one side will be change to a vacuum.
Step 19: Put the Diaphragms Back On
Slide the diaphragm swing arms back into their sleeve. The magnet may pull it some towards the motor, but no harm if it touches in the process. But it shouldn't be touching when it's back into place.
Alternatively, you could put the diaphragm back onto the white valve before you put them back into place and slide them both back into their sleeves at the same time.
Step 20: Put the Lid Back On
When putting the lid back on there is a front and a back to it. Look at the two circular notches at one end of the cover. Those go over the diaphragm arms.
Put the lid back on and screw it back together.
Step 21: The Pen.
This is the vacuum pen I made.
It's made using some pens I had around, a airflow control valve at the rear, an inflation needle at the tip and an alligator clip with some rubber glued onto it for the release valve.
The airflow valve in the rear is optional, but I like being able to adjust how much suction there is.
Step 22: Layout of Parts.
These are the parts before assembled so you can start to see what goes where.
For this we will need:
The pens I won't get too specific here. It all depends on what your preference is. And even if I did have a specific one in mind, it seems like every time I find pens I like they stop selling them anyway. I might suggest plastic as it's easier to work with than metal. For my tastes I used a thicker pen with a rubber grip because I found it easier to hold, but you can use whatever feels best for you. I used a clicker ball point pen. This allowed me to take out the clicker at the end to insert the airflow valve rather than cutting off the end, but that would work too. Also, you will need a pen where the nose cone screws off. A ball point pen that is uni-body would be a lot harder to work with but is probably doable. But this walk through will focus on a pen with a nose cone.
The valve and inflation needle you should be able to get for about a $1 each. You can get some alligator clips for $1-$4. If you get the airflow tube at the hardware store, the kind they sell off a spool by the foot, you can get what you need for about $1. The pens you could buy but I find there's plenty of places where you can get a free pen. Plenty of places use them for promotion in gift bags, or for the taking at doctor's offices or the vet, or the bank. So you can buy some but in my case all the pens I used were free.
Step 23: Disassemble the Pen.
First, take apart your pen. We will need the nose cap to screw off like this ones does. Take out the contents of the pen. We won't need the actually writing part or the springs or anything. We just need the body of the pen and the nose cone.
Step 24: How to Insert the Needle.
The inflation needle is just like any needle you would use to inflate a basketball or football. We only will need the needle part so you can cut off the other end.
Here you can see how far the tip is sticking out. I used the original open end because it was slightly smaller and rounded than the other end I had cut open.
Step 25: Spacing of the Needle.
Most inflation needles have a hole on the side as well to make sure they can inflate the ball I don't want that going past the tip of the nose cone. I actually want it sealed up. I've seen some needles that don't have that hole and if you could find one of those that would be best. But we can still work with this. I have some play between the nose cone and the needle that I want to tighten up. So on my pen I wrapped around one layer of electrical tape to cover up the hole and to get a snug fit in the nose cone. before gluing it in. Or if you don't care about having an ever so slightly larger opening at the end of your pen, use your cut end out the tip.
Step 26: Cutting the Inflation Needle.
Cut the Inflation Needle here. Use either a hack saw or a Dremel tool. Try not to crush the needle while doing this.
Step 27: Drill in the Release Valve Hole.
Using a small drill bit, drill a hole around the middle of the nose cone. The hole should be slightly bigger than the tip of the needle. We only want it going through a single side, not both.
You want the hole low enough so we don't drill through the threading of the inside of the nose cone but not so low that when we glue in the needle the hole gets plugged up with glue.
This hole will act as a release valve for the vacuum. Usually it's plugged and the suction will come out of the tip of the pen. But when we open this valve the suction will be reduced via this hole and the tip will loose it's suction.
Step 28: Gluing in the Needle.
When gluing in the needle try not to get any glue on the threading of the nose cone as we want it to be able to screw back on.
Slide the needle back and forth a little to make sure you get a good seal with the glue.
I found sticking the tip of the needle through the bottom of an upside down paper plate or cup is a good way to hold the needle and then set the nose cone upright over it to let the needle dry in place.
Step 29: THe Alligator Clip.
While the tip is drying lets work on our valve cover clip.
First off we need to cut the bottom lip off of the alligator clip so the top can sit against the nose cone when we attach it to the pen.
I recommend using a Dremel tool for this while pinching open the clip. If you don't pinch it open the pressure from the upper clip will start to buckle the lower clip making it harder to cut.
Step 30: Flatten the Back End.
In my case my alligator clips aren't flat on the bottom end. I need to flatten mine so I can drill a second hole into it to attach it to the pen. I just bent the ends flat with a pair of pliers.
Step 31: Drill a Second Hole in the Alligator Clip.
Drill a second hole in the bottom of the alligator clip. I don't recommend holding it like this when doing it but instead drilling over a sturdy wood surface.
Step 32: Drill the Pen.
Next we need to drill screw holes in the pen. Place the alligator clip on the edge of the pen. Where you cut the bottom lip off of the alligator clip should line up with the edge of the pen, where the nose cone will butt up against it.
Once you have it lined up either drill through the holes of the clip or mark the holes with a ball point pen and then drill through.
Step 33: Spare Pen Grip.
Next where going to get another pen with a rubber grip on it. Preferably one about the same size of the pen we are turning into our vacuum pen
Cut a swatch out of the pen grip about as long as your alligator clip and wider than it. On mine I had to cut a couple extra swatches to pad the clip so that the rubber flap sat flush on the nose cone when the clip was closed.
Step 34: Assembled Release Valve.
Here is the valve assembled.
Use the two small screws to attach the alligator clip to the pen. I used to epoxy with the screw to ensure a good seal.
I used epoxy to glue on the rubber padding to the clip as well. There is probably a better glue out there to use but at the moment, I'm not aware of it. I had to put a good coating on there to keep it attached.
In the second image you can see the valve open and the hole it's covering. The scraping marks are from me sanding the top to make sure the surface was still flush. After drilling the hole the edges were a little rough.
Step 35: Airflow Control Valve.
On the other end of the pen the Airflow Control Valve just goes in the end of the pen. In my case it had a lot of play so I needed something that would fill in the gaps. Luckily for me I had another ball point pen that fit snugly inside my first pen and the air flow valve fit snugly into it. So I just cut off a section and then glued and stuck them together. Depending on the pen you use and the air flow valve, you will have to figure out what will work for you. If nothing else, enough tape and glue can always fill the gap.
Also, on a side note, I cut off the shirt clip the pen had on it to get it out of my way using the Dremel tool.
Step 36: Air Hose.
Take your air hose and cut off a couple pieces about 5" each. If one is just slightly longer than the other that would be best.
Step 37: T-Valve
Connect the two pieces of hose to the pump and then connect the other end to the T-Valve.
Step 38: Put It All Together.
Finally connect the rest of the air hose to your T-valve and the end of the airflow control valve of your pen.
And you are ready to go now! You've got a working vacuum pen!
Lets plug it in and try it out!
Step 39: What It Can and Can't Do.
So to recap on what this thing can do, here's an example of what it can and can't pick up.
When it comes to the Aqua Culture pump on it's own, rated for 40-60 gallons, the stuff in the upper right of the image, it probably wouldn't be able to lift. But the stuff in the lower left it has no problem with.
But if you want it for beading or maybe things like small resistors and LEDs, this should do the job. and for less than half the price of a commercial electric vacuum pen.
Step 40: But What About With Suction Cups?
After initially finishing this project, I ordered some suction cups for a vacuum pen. Well, they came and they make the pen work even better!
I got these on ebay looking for vacuum pen suction cups. These were just under $4 for 6 of them, and you could pick between the sizes of 10mm, 5mm, and 3mm suction cups. Prices and selection will vary depending where you find them though.
Step 41: Aqua Culture With Suction Cup
The Aqua Culture ended up working better with the suction cup. Where before it couldn't pick up a penny or some of the heavier objects, it could with the suctions cup on.
It could pick up a penny easily.
It could pick up the nickel but it would take a couple tries before it would stick.
It couldn't budge the quarter.
It needs a good flat surface. The round pen nose cone from before it couldn't get a good grip on.
It was able to drop them no problem when the release valve was opened.
Step 42: Whisper 100
The Whisper 100 with the suction cup also couldn't previously pick up coins. But with the 5mm suction cup on the end, it had no problem with any of them. Again, you still need a flat surface, and it couldn't pick up objects with too round of a surface still. But picking up and releasing the coins was a breeze.
Step 43: Can It Suck Up Solder?
A lot of people have asked if it can suck up solder.
I made a test pen and using the Whisper 100 pump tried to vacuum up some hot solder. While it was able to suck up most of it, most of it got stuck in the nose cone and it slightly melted the nose cone in the processes. I wasn't able to get the solder out of the either so, the pen got gummed up after one use, which doesn't seem very practical.
Maybe if you hooked a couple pumps together you would have enough suction but even then I'm not sure. And really, if you are going to go invest that much already into making this, you might as well go buy something that's already built for doing that. There's some options out there that are comparable to this build cost already.
Anyway, that about covers everything I have to say on it. I hope everybody found this informative and helpful!