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Nervous Squirrel

Nervous Squirrel: knob twiddling, taxidermy & trumpets

Imagine doing the job you dreamt about when you were 8 years old. Now imagine it being everything you dreamed it would be: its novelty never wearing off, every day being different.

Dave Cranmer is one lucky man. In his workshop in East London he designs and builds all kinds of remarkable, bizarre and beautiful machines – an orrery composed of 1970s calculators, a badger-based theremin, a shocking pink metallic musical pig, a rack of gently bobbing gnomes and a synthesiser propelled by pedal power being just a few.

Almost all have music or sound at their heart, and include a fine menagerie of animals. Dave's creations incorporate owls and kestrels, pigs and badgers, some expertly stuffed – and not just with electronics. He even works under the name ‘Nervous Squirrel' – chosen for his website “because it wouldn't be too descriptive, so that it could stay neutral as my interests changed over time. Thank goodness I wasn't making knitted egg cosies at the time!”, Dave says.

It might be easy to think Cranmer a great British eccentric, but such a label fails to do justice to the technical expertise and the huge range of skills he has developed over his career: machining, metalwork, welding, carpentry, electronics, robotics, working in fibreglass and pneumatics, programming, graphic design, CAD/CNC, stepper motors and lasers. He would prefer to be known as a mechanical sculptor and freelance engineer. It really does not matter, because he is brilliant at what he does.

Pig Southern Comfort

So who exactly commissions musical stepladders or pyramid synths? Some of Dave's work is for a workshop that provides special effects for film and TV, while others are projects for commercial clients, marketing and advertising agencies. For example, last year he made a dispensing machine for Southern Comfort involving drums, trumpets, LEDs, a high grade pumping system, copper piping and an Arduino microcontroller. The result was a unique piece of alcoholic engineering that irreverently captured the spirit of the beverage's New Orleans roots.

Under ‘just for fun' can be put around 20% of Dave's creations, like the ‘Rave Kestrel' and the metallic musical pig, which have gained legendary status as party pieces among Dave's friends. He also collaborates on musical installations with visual artists such as the Super Furry Animals' designer Pete Fowler.

May contain nuts ... and bolts, and toggle switches

“My background is in product design and engineering, although I have always enjoyed making things”, Dave tells us. “I was lucky enough to have plenty of Lego as a kid, and also used to go to car boot sales to buy radios and things to take apart. I am inspired by learning about new materials, tools and manufacturing techniques, and also the fun of making things to entertain people.”

Each Nervous Squirrel invention features intricate circuitry, audio visual components, gears, motors, fasteners and fixings. They are also all finished to an incredibly high standard, so it is not surprising Dave has a huge requirement for products from Rapid. “The main reason for buying from Rapid is the price, particularly buying parts in bulk. For example, stereo switching audio jacks work out incredibly cheap if I buy over 100”, says Dave. “I try and keep a good stock of everything I commonly use, and replenish in plenty of time before running out of parts. This is often a good way of building up an order so as to take advantage of free delivery over £30, which usually arrives the next day. Repeatability of orders is useful, and so I often design with parts stocked by Rapid in mind.”

Photo of toy piano Gnome Machine

In recent years Dave has been getting to grips with new prototyping and microcontroller hardware, and he is excited by the role ‘the internet of things' could play in his work in the future. But you sense there will always be an analogue spirit to what he does. With such an array of toggle switches, controls, buttons and sockets, there is something about Dave's inventions that appeal to the knob twiddler in all of us; the urge to turn it up to 11, create strange new sounds and celebrate ‘the art of noise'.