Finger touching a screen

Stylus Options for iPad and iPhone Users: Do It Yourself

Directly touching the screen is a very easy access method for most people, and has many accessibility benefits, but for others it’s brought new accessibility challenges.

This article is about custom and do-it-yourself options for styluses and pointers, including head pointers and mouth sticks.

Articles in this series:

The Need For Conductivity

Making your own stylus isn’t too hard, but there’s one principle you need to understand first:

iPhones and iPads and most other touch-screen devices these days have what’s called “capitative touch screens”. The details don’t matter but the effect is that you need to have a continuous path for electricity to flow from some part of the user’s body – usually the skin is used but inside the mouth is fine too.

Everything in this picture - thread, yarn, fabric, and cotton, are made of conductive substances.
Everything in this picture – thread, yarn, fabric, and cotton, are made of conductive substances.

The amount of electricity is so tiny that you’ll never feel it, that same electricity flows from your fingertip to the screen every time you use your phone or tablet, so there’s no danger of being zapped or shocked. You just need to make sure there’s a something conductive all the way between the skin and the tip of the pointer.

There are LOTS of options for making this conductive path. Wire is the most traditional thing for conductivity, but if that doesn’t suit your needs these are other options:

  • Aluminum foil. A piece from any regular roll of aluminium foil you’d buy in a supermarket will work just fine.
  • Conductive Tape, which is pretty much like foil but has adhesive on one side. Doesn’t matter what metal – copper, aluminium, anything else – and any width or thickness will do.
  • Conductive foam is especially good for making the tips of styluses because it will make good contact with the screen, if you aren’t using a commercial stylus tip.
  • Conductive sewing thread is effectively very thin soft wire, but because it’s very flexible and thin enough to be unobtrusive it can be useful in more situations.
  • Conductive fabric is what happens when you make fabric out of conductive thread, unsurprisingly.
  • Conductive pen or paint lets you just draw a path of conductivity, though I’m not sure how it would stand up to being rubbed by fingers.

If you have something that isn’t conductive but would take up water, like a Q-tip or marker tip, you can use a little water to make it conductive but this isn’t recommended. Firstly you don’t want to use too much and end up with drops of water on your screen or in your device’s innards, but also it will dry out fairly fast and stop working. As a last resort though, it is an option.

Using Pencil/Pen Grips

Because most styluses are pencil shaped, most pencil/pen grips will fit on a conductive stylus. Even quite advanced grip assistants devices like the Writing bird, Arthwriter, and Ultralite Finger Yokes usually leave some of the user’s skin touching the stylus and that’s all that’s needed for a conductive path.

If your pen or pencil grip aid doesn’t leave your user touching the stylus at all, you can use any one of the substances listed above to extend from the metal stylus to where the user’s skin is.

Building up a standard stylus

Another option is to build up a standard stylus to improve it’s grippability by adding width, handles, straps, attaching it to a head mount, etc.

Sugru – an air-drying polymer clay – is awesome for this, and you can use all the standard disability “tool-making” stuff like thermoplastic, velcro straps, physio-wrap, and so on. If the substance you’re using isn’t conductive and none of the user’s skin touches the actual stylus, just grab some of the conductive materials listed above and add some conduction – simple!

The possibilities are endless, but these are some examples of people building up standard styli:

MacGyver Your Own Bulb Grip Stylus
The fearless occupational therapists from OTs With Apps make this stylus by adapting a standard stylus with a bulb grip paint brush as a handle.

Custom Dove-shaped finger-wrap stylus holder
This stylus holder was originally designed by Family of Emilda and Robert Lopez. It can be made from heat-moundable thermoplastic by an occupational therapist. No instructions, just two photos, both of which I found on Pinterest:

Finger Nose Stylus
This stylus seems to have been designed as a semi-joke by Domonic Wilcox, but I have included it here because I know there are people who use the iPhone with their nose and this may provide ideas that will help someone.

Home-made head pointer
Description with photos and video by Colin Miller. Adds a commercial stylus to a standard head pointer with copper wire.

Hand Brace Stylus
Our own Paul Natsch used a stylus attached to his hand brace back in 2010 and describes how.

Turn A Pen Into A Stylus

If you have a pen which works well for you, adapting an old empty pen into a stylus might be the best option. These are some DIY instructions people have put together for

Adapting ErgoSof Pen Again into a Stylus
One user’s amusing adventures into adapting the Y-shaped super-ergonomic Pen Again.

The Y-shaped ErgoSof Pen Again is made of metal so it's perfect for adapting into a stylus.
The Y-shaped ErgoSof Pen Again is made of metal so it’s perfect for adapting into a stylus.

Make your own marker stylus
Using marker, foam, wire and tape.

Make your own iPad Stylus
This is another tutorial using pen, foam and wire but using a different technique.

DIY From Scratch

If you don’t have an existing device that works for the user, making a stylus from scratch might be the best idea. These are generally the most hit-and-miss to make because the tip – where the pointer touches the screen of your device – needs to have good conductivity and good contact with the screen.

In my own DIY-stylus adventures I’ve found that using at least the tip part of a commercial stylus is the easiest way to ensure your stylus tip will work well with the screen, but other people have been more adventurous (or desperate) than me and have ventured deep into the lands of DIY stylus making. Here are some of the instructions they’ve left:

An Adapted iPad Stylus
T-shape stylus made from chewy tubes, sponge, and braided copper wire.

Conductive mouthstick stylus
Our own Paul Natsch adapted a mouth stick for touch screen use back in 2010 and describes how he did it.

Smile Gear Stylus from PACE University 2012 Projects
Flexible fuzzy stylus made from conductive foam and fuzzy wire.

Adapted Stylus OC
This one includes several tutorials for styluses made from scratch using:

  • Q-tip and conductive foil
  • Conductive foam, conductive foil, and tommy tape
  • PVC pipe, lockline, conductive foil tape, conductive foam, and tommy tape

The last in that list is especially awesome – a flexible T-shaped stylus that will stand up to a lot of hard use and not damage your device’s screen if the user bashes at it.

How to Make a Head Stick Pointer for iPhone (PDF)
Complex procedure which includes making the tip of the pointer – very neat looking.

Custom Stylus Makers

But what if you’re not the DIY type, or you yourself are disabled and can’t buy or construct the stylus that you need?

First there are at least two people I found online whose websites say that they welcome custom requests:

iFaraday custom requests.

ShapeDad custom orders.

Another port of call would be your local occupational therapist. I have huge regard for occupational therapists, they’ve helped me in many many areas of my life and taught me a lot. If you don’t have an OT, now might be a great time to start looking.

If, for whatever reason, an occupational therapist isn’t an option, you could try finding somebody willing at a local HackerSpace, Men’s Shed, or organisations of retired engineers.

Articles in this series:

Best of luck with your stylus-construction adventures!

– Ricky

Some of the links in this article are affiliate links. This means that if you purchase the products that I've linked to I'll get a commission - a small percentage of the sale price. It won't cost you anything and it will help to support me and ATMac.

Pointing finger image ProtoplasmaKid, used under CC-BY-SA-3.0 license. Conductive substances image from Kobakant, used under Free Cultural Works definition.

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