Warning, this guide may lead to domestic unrest, disinterest in the real world, and supreme joy.
The first time the Gremlin saw pictures of a home made cockpit, he immediately filed it into his mental drawer of cool stuff he would never do. It seemed impractical, expensive, and unnecessary.
That was then.
He’s since built his own cockpit, and fallen in love with the unparalleled immersion it provides. Stepping into the “pit” feels like the world’s coolest Disneyland ride that happens to be in my house. This guide is designed to help you conceptualize, design and build a sim pit of your very own.
The Gremlin’s Dual Purpose Racing/Cockpit
Why build a cockpit?
There’s plenty of downsides. It’s a lot of work. It takes up space. The “significant other acceptance factor” is… low. So why bother?
Because the last few years have seen the emergence of several games and simulation experiences that can transport you to other worlds. Paired with a good VR headset, video games can transport us to other universes, or the edges of our own. And once you’ve been inside these games, it’s a huge letdown to discover that you can’t feel the vibration of your space ship’s engines. You instinctively reach for the big switch that will deploy your landing gear, only to find the dinky plastic button on your joystick. You’re in the home stretch of the race of your life, only to find that the racing pedals on your carpet have shifted, reminding you that you’re in your underwear in your living room, not in a real Lamborghini.
Simply put, a cockpit or “sim pit” is a way to push immersion to the next level. It gives you a dedicated surface (or surfaces) on which to mount controllers, bass shakers, and custom switch panels that add functionality to your favorite game or sim. It pushes your immersion to the brink, to the point where you can truly lose yourself in an exciting world.
Looking to buy or upgrade to a better joystick? Take a look at the Gremlin’s HOTAS guide.
What Does a Sim Pit Look Like?
A big misconception about sim pits is that they must be large hulking boxes that take up tons of space and look ungainly. That’s certainly true of many of them (the Gremlin’s own cockpit is still a work in progress, and makes no effort to blend in with decor). In reality though, a sim pit can be any physical structure or setup that improves your virtual immersion.
DIY sim pits come in two categories.
The Storable pit.
The first category isn’t a pit at all. Rather, it’s any kind of frame (usually wood) which allows you to mount all of your controllers together, and provides space for custom switches. When in VR, it gives the impression that your joystick and throttle, or racing wheel and shifter are all part of the same physical object, rather than bits of plastic sliding around on a desk.
This is also a great solution if you’re stuck trying to use a joystick or racing wheel on a sofa.
This is a storable pit the Gremlin originally constructed to allow for more comfortable use of a joystick and throttle while sitting on a couch. The shape of the frame allows both controllers to sit at a comfortable and ergonomic height, and avoids the weight of the controllers resting on your legs for long hours of flight time.
Later, custom switches and buttons were wired together and programmed to allow for a more immersive (and functional) control panel.
The Full Size Pit
This is the real deal. To truly check off all the boxes of a sim pit, you need a box or frame that you can physically sit inside of. This allows you to install a bass shaker that will rattle your control surfaces and feet instead of just your chair (for more info on bass shakers, check out the Gremlin’s Shaker Guide). For those currently using swivel desk chairs, a full pit also allows you to avoid the awkwardness of your chair sliding or twisting as you push on your joystick or rudder pedals.
Importantly, a real pit also gives you a dedicated pre-set space for your hobby. As you upgrade from a basic joystick to a twist-free hotas, you’re going to find yourself wanting rudder pedals and more dedicated controls. Even with the portable pit setup, it’s still an annoyance to have to unpack and pack-up your system each time you sit down to fly or race. The Gremlin’s pit is also multi-functional, allowing for his racing and flying equipment to be stored/mounted in the same space (the wheel folds down on hinges and locks into place when in use). In this sense, it’s actually somewhat space efficient!
Building the Pit
Building a sim pit is a commitment in time, money and materials, and like any DIY project, it pays to plan ahead. Your space, your sims of choice, and your budget are going to be unique, so you want to begin with a little planning.
Start with a checklist. Go through the game or games you’ll be playing in the pit. What control hardware do you need for the best experience? For Elite Dangerous, the Gremlin needed a good throttle, a good hotas, space for rudder pedals, and some dedicated controls for specific functions.
Early Concept for Control Layout
Any good DIY sim pit is also going to be sized for a specific space. Find a location where it can rest undisturbed. If the pit’s in a garage, closet, or anywhere that doesn’t already have a computer, make sure you consider where the PC will be stored, as you’ll want it close by for convenient power up and wiring connections.
Once you’ve figured out your basic requirements, it pays to physically test out your design and ideas. The Gremlin highly recommends building a storable pit, even if it’s only a stepping stone to the real deal. This will allow you to figure out all important ergonomics. How far apart should your joystick and throttle be, or your wheel and shifter? What about keyboard and mouse placement?
If you’re wiring up your own custom switch panels, the Gremlin suggests building a temporary box (or a few small ones) with groupings of the actual switches and buttons you intend to use. Wire them together and actually play the game using your new switches. In use, you’ll likely find that some of these controls might be more useful mapped to different functions. You may also find that you need to simplify how many controls you have. For more info on how to build, program and wire up your controls, skip down to the “building a control panel” section.
A note on external controls and VR:
Building external controls is a very different proposition for VR users. Not being able to physically see where controls are, you need spacial and textural cues that will make controls distinctive and easy to reach for when you’re essentially blind. As a general rule, avoid rows of identical switches or buttons, and place controls in areas that are easy to feel your way to from the reference points of your primary controls (like your joystick).
You’ll note on the Gremlin’s sim-pit that external controls are grouped into three areas (left wall behind throttle, left side above throttle, and right wall below joystick). Use of different sizes and shapes of buttons makes it immediately obvious which is which, entirely by feel.
Now’s also a good time to figure out what you want to use for seating. You’ll want something that can be permanently installed in a fixed position. The Gremlin opted for a replacement seat for a jeep. Automobile seating is a great option, as it’s meant to be bolted down, and is designed to be comfortable for long journeys.
This seat is a great inexpensive option:
Once you’ve prototyped and determined spacial relationships and groupings of controls, it’s time to draw out a builders plan of your cockpit.
Start with measurements of the available space. If you’ve build a stowable pit, set it on your lap in a chair, and take some measurements of the minimum size of your cockpit. Minimum length is the measurement from the back of your chair, to the tips of your toes. Width is more flexible, but factor in the size of your hips and the width of any chair you might be considering installing.
Your plan should also factor in wiring requirements. The Gremlin’s plans allow for hollow areas between the framing, which made it easy to run external switch and joystick wiring discreetly around the cockpit.
A good diagram should be detailed enough to allow you to draw up a complete list of materials needed for assembly. If you’re new to designing furniture, don’t forget to factor in the physical dimensions of you framing itself (i.e. the nominal thickness of a 2×4, which is actually 1-1/2″ by 3-1/2″). It may be easier to follow the Gremlin’s example, and draw a series of simplified diagrams with actual dimensions.
If your cockpit will be living inside your house, it’s also CRITICAL to consider the width of your doorways when designing the width of your frame. The Gremlin made a bit of a woopsie by failing to factor in the additional thickness of the finished plywood on the frame. As a result, all the plywood sides of his cockpit had to be removed in order for the pit to complete its journey inside after construction.
Also, don’t forget a door or opening for easy entry!
If you’ve diagramed well, the actual build shouldn’t be too difficult, even for novice DIYers. You’ll want to start with the frame itself.
The Gremlin’s Organized Work Space
Cut all of your 2×4’s to length, and affix them together. The Gremlin recommends using wood glue and screws for the frame. A joining jig system like a Kreg-Jig makes it quick and easy to connect all the joints together with recessed screws, and they’re incredibly useful for other DIY projects as well. The kreg wood screws also sink much more easily into thick wood than the cheap wood screws typically available at your home depot (Seriously, even when pre-drilling pilot holes, the heads on these screws strip by the dozen).
It’s also worth buying some really big clamps. You’ll want a minimum of four. To keep joints square, the gremlin used a kreg-jig to prep the pieces, then added some glue, clamped together the surfaces, and screwed them together. The pressure of the clamps will stop the 2x4s from shifting as they’re secured together.
When you’re done, you should have a completed frame that’s ready for plywood.
Finishing the Frame
The next step is to give your cockpit some solid surfaces. Start with the floor. Cut a thick piece of plywood to size, so it lays across your supporting joists. I recommend 3/4″ as a minimum, as this is going to be supporting your weight and your chair. If you don’t have a table saw you can have your plywood panels cut for you at Lowes or Home Depot. They typically won’t charge for the first couple of cuts. Alternatively, use a circular saw and a long strait edge clamp like this. Secure your floor to the joists with screws and wood glue.
Build the walls of the cockpit the same way. You can and should use a thinner plywood (1/2″ is strong enough to support mounted controls, but much cheaper than 3/4″). Start by cutting and screwing in the inside panels. Personally, the Gremlin did NOT glue these panels, as they may need to be replaced someday to make way for mounting new equipment, and they’re naturally braced well by the frame.
Finally, cut and test install the outer panels. These will need to be removed once in a while to access wiring, so you might be better off drilling holes and using bolts to secure these.
Optionally, cut and install some 1×4 lumber to create a “railing” to top off your walls.
If you’re going with a design like the Gremlin’s, your resulting structure should look something like this:
Outfitting your cockpit
Now comes the fun part. Start with your seating. If you’re using an automobile seat, you’ll need to build a platform for it to sit on. The Gremlin simply build a 2×4 table topped with thick plywood. The Seat was then bolted to the table. Pro tip, don’t glue those table legs either. You may find yourself wanting to get them shorter (or replace them with longer 2x4s) to adjust the height of your chair.
Once you’re ready, place the completed chair assembly in the cockpit. Take a seat, and feel out where your controllers should go. On the Gremlin’s cockpit, the throttle placement was limited by the “doorway” opening on the left side, so the throttle ended up simply as close as possible to the chair.
Using as few screws as possible, test install your joystick and throttle (or wheel and shifter) into place. You’ll probably need to move them around a bit, until you find the perfect spot where your hands rest comfortably on the controls from a seated position. For joystick users, pull and push the joystick in every direction, and ensure that it’s at the right height and distance so that it never feels awkwardly placed during actual operation.
Once you’ve got placement down, mark the position of your chairs feet. Mount the chair into place by driving screws through the floor and into the legs.
Then mount your controls to your preference. Make sure you adequately support your controllers. Installing small boxes for your external switches underneath the controllers is both space efficient, and allows a convenient way to give the controllers a sturdy support. Pay particular care to supporting joysticks, as their natural movement puts heavy stress in a lot of different directions.
Next, install the bass shaker of your choice. For the Gremlin’s pit, under seat placement actually balanced out the reverberation across surfaces. The initial placement under the floor caused excessive rumble through the pedals.
Bass Shaker Installed under chair mounting platform
The final step in making your sim pit functional is to install and wire in your custom control panels
How to Program and Wire Custom Switches
Building a custom control panel (or panels) can seem daunting, but it’s surprisingly straightforward.
(Thanks to MattRHale, who’s guide was instrumental in the Gremlin’s first panel attempts).
These boards are extremely simple. All of your switches and buttons are soldered to a very small computer, which is then programmed to send keyboard inputs whenever you activate buttons on your control panel.
Right side landing gear and cargo scoop switches
Assuming you’ve already designed your control panels in terms of button/switch quantity and placement, the process breaks down into five steps.
1. Install switches and buttons into panel
2. Solder input and ground wires to switches and buttons.
2. Solder other end of wires to input terminals on your controller board
3. Program the controller board to send keyboard inputs when your controls are activated
5. In your favorite game or sim, map said keyboard inputs to whichever commands you want.
Tools & Materials
From a programming standpoint, this project is dead simple, and there are plenty of control boards capable of imitating keyboard commands. The Gremlin found that a Teensy 3.2 board is simple to use and program, inexpensive, and very flexible, with 23 inputs available.
You’ll also need some hookup wire. A bundle like this includes a swath of different colors so you can color code your connections.
Finally, you’ll need your buttons and switches. This comes down to personal preference. If you happen to live near a Frys or Microcenter, it’s easiest to pick these out in person.
Some tips for picking your buttons and switches:
-Pay attention to the “throw” of your buttons and switches. An SPST switch will only register an input when it’s flipped one way. Buy SPDT switches, then you have the flexibility to decide if you want the switch to send a different signal when it’s flipped up VS down, etc. You can always use an SPDT switch as if it were an SPST by simply not connecting one side of the switch.
-Always use momentary buttons. Any button you select should bounce back when pressed.
If you’re getting lost in the whole switch throw/polarity issue, check out this great primer on Sparkfun.
For tools, you’ll need a good quality soldering station. Cheapo soldering irons are okay for connecting the switches, but to avoid damaging the small components on the teensy board, you need a fine tipped iron with a proper temperature control. The Gremlin uses a Haiko FX888D.
You’ll also need a decent pair of wire strippers.
Don’t forget to buy solder!
Assembling the panel
Start by mounting your switches into place. If you’ve used 1/2 plywood, you’ll it’s too thick a surface to mount smalls switches through. Instead, cut a few large holes through the plywood in the area you want to mount your switches. Attach a rectangular piece of much thinner piece of plywood (less than 1/4″) and mount your switches and buttons on that.
Open View of Switch wiring and Mounting
Note, in most cases, it’s easier to solder your parts when they aren’t yet mounted. HOWEVER, some buttons MUST be installed first, because their locking washer is on the back of the button.
Safety note: Keep flammible objects away from your work area. Only work with plenty of ventilation as soldering fumes are toxic. Mind the tip of that iron. It’s easy to burn yourself!
Start by soldering wires to the terminals on your buttons/switches. Run the wires through your sim pit walls to a central location where you’ll be mounting your teensy board.
For SPDT switches, you’ll be soldering an input wire to either side of the switch, and a ground wire to the remaining terminal (check labeling for your particular switch!)
Finally, solder the other end of the wires to the input terminals on the board (the ones marked 1,2,3,4 etc.)
Connect the ground wires from all of your individual buttons and switches to the ground terminal on the teensy board. There’s lots of ways to merge the wires together. The Gremlin just twisted all the stripped wire ends together, then soldered them all in a big bundle to a single wire that ran back to the ground terminal.
View of Wiring with Exterior Panel Removed
If you’re new to soldering, check out this video on through-hole soldering for a quick primer. Rule of thumb is, make sure your iron tip is freshly tinned.
Mounted Board. The Green ground wire connects to the bundle of grounds off screen
Programming the board
With everything connected, it’s time to program your teensy board. Start by connecting the board to your computer with a micro-usb cable.
There’s lots of good primers on programming Arduino & Arduino compatible boards, so there’s no need to rehash them here. The above link also specifies the exact syntax you need to use for each individual keyboard signal, so if you’re having issues, reference that.
If, like the Gremlin, you’re not much of a programmer, the easiest way to get your board working is to modify an existing program for keyboard input. Look for the syntax where the specific key press is mentioned in the code, and simply substitute the key you’d like your button to use.
Using more buttons than the Gremlin did? You can copy and paste the text strings of the last button in the list, then change them to match the pin number and key press you’re adding. See the highlights in the below images for the areas you’ll need to duplicate and modify.
Here’s the Gremlin’s .ino file.
To use this file, you’ll need to take a few additional steps.
First, you have to install the Bounce.h library into Arduino. To do this, go to Tools>Manage Libraries. Search for Bounce2, and click install.
You’ll also have to tell Arduino what board you’re using by going to Tools>Board>Teensy3.2
You’ll also need to specify your keyboard type as usb. That’s under Tools>USB Type.
Once you’ve written (or modified) a program, you need to upload it to the teensy board. With Teensy Loader installed, press the verify button in Arduino. Assuming there’s no errors in your code, that should complete without error. Then press the upload button to load teensy Loader.
Finally, press the push button on your Teensy Board to upload the program!
To finish, head into your favorite sim, and map the various keys you’ve programmed to the functions that you want them to perform in game.
That’s all folks! Thanks for reading, as always. If you found this information useful, please consider using this site’s product links. Your purchases may earn ByteGremlin a small commission, and it doesn’t cost you a dime.
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