The iPad Charcoal Stylus

Yesterday I went from enthusiasm to disappointment in a few minutes when I hacked together an iPad stylus to use for scribbling sketchnotes. The damned thing just reacted too slow to be useful.

Not long after publishing that post, I went back through the DIY video, trying to figure out what I’d done wrong. Towards the beginning (around 0:45), he says “it’s a good idea to make sure the foam you’re using is indeed conductive.” So I snipped off a chunk of foam, and tried drawing with it.

And it worked just as good as my finger.

Holding that little strip of foam, I realised I’d made myself an iPad Charcoal Stylus. I’d automatically gripped it as I’d learned to hold a piece of charcoal way back in art school (ahhhh, those were the days), as seen below.

So if you want the simplest iPad stylus the world’s ever seen, you’ll need:

  • Some conductive foam (found at an electronics store if you’re not a nerd and don’t have any lying around)

Then follow these complicated instructions:

  1. Cut a strip of conductive foam that’s as long as you want and as wide as the thickness of your foam (a square in cross-section).
  2. Snip the corners off of one end so it’s more or less rounded.
  3. Download Sketchbook Pro, sync your iPad and start drawing!

The foam’s quite rigid stuff, so it doesn’t flop around and is easy to hold. The charcoal grip is best suited to pretty rough drawing, but I’ll be experimenting with longer styluses better suited to a typical pen grip. My first results with the iPad Charcoal Stylus are still pretty rough, but I’m now confident that has more to do with learning & getting the most out of the software, and not a half-functional stylus.

Getting better...

So thanks to the wonders of conductive foam I’ll be snipping myself a few more charcoals and sketchnoting TEDx Sydney tomorrow on the iPad! I just hope the conference coffee’s worth drinking.


  1. Wendy W says:

    Haha, I agree with @mrpatto’s comment – you are the modern MacGyver! 😀

  2. Matt Balara says:

    Considering how easy this was, I actually feel kind stoopid for going through the far more complicated stylus building exercise yesterday and not thinking of this earlier.

  3. Wendy W says:

    Ah, it was a good exercise at any rate. Be sure to draw your impressions of the quality of the coffee at the event 😉

  4. Matt Balara says:

    Gawd. Looking at those photos I realise that I’m looong overdue for a manicure.

  5. Martin says:

    Love the idea. Will pull some foam from my camera case and try.
    WARNING. For those of you that may look at pictures and not actually read the post – Don’t go grabbing a piece of charcoal and go hacking into the screen of your iPad! You’ll probably be laughed at when you go into Apple and tell them your screen is a little blurry in places. You’ll most probably end up on multiple blogs for your efforts too.

    • Matt Balara says:

      Martin: I’m pretty sure not any old foam will work. Most foam isn’t conductive, and it’s the conduction of the electricity in your finger that makes this work. Conductive foam is the dense black foam that chips are embedded in when you buy them, and does this, but the foam from your camera case isn’t likely to. If you don’t buy chips very often, you can go down to an electronics store and buy a chunk. Enjoy!

  6. Greg says:

    Well I’m happy I found your DYI stylus how to. I am the nerd that happened to have some conductive foam laying about. it works great I used a small piece on the end of a metal pen and it works like a champ. Good how to

  1. […] getting a stylus for my iPad for a few weeks and since I’m not as adventurous as some in building my own, I was struggling with my options. I asked around but didn’t receive any strong […]