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Swedish automata Makers

A visit to Per Helldorff

One day a video of an automaton made by Per Helldorff popped up on one of my Internet feeds. As Per explained when we eventually managed a visit, a previous visitor to his „mekaniske Kabinett“ made a video of his three-armed cup and ball trickster and quietly posted it onto YouTube ( This went viral and, last time I looked, it had been viewed 1.3 million times. To his amazement, Per was then contacted by a Japanese TV network for permission to broadcast the video across Japan. He just wondered “how on earth did that happen?“

Per and his wife Anna live on a quiet crossroads in a tiny hamlet in the Swedish countryside. One room serves as the exhibition space and another as a small shop. Anna‘s nettle soup is legendary as one Swedish visitor told me – „we come here just for the soup“. We didn‘t come for the soup but to see Per‘s creations.

Per started by explaining his inspiration, showing us this historic wool skein counting machine. A woollen thread is wound onto the four arms as a handle is cranked. When the handle has been cranked a set number of times a wooden hammer hits the frame to signal that the required count has been reached. A royal Swedish edict from long ago specified severe punishment for anyone selling skeins of wool with less than the specified number of loops.

Looking closely at this old mechanism, two of the shafts have been carved to produce what Per called a „two-toothed cog“. This is a very pragmatic solution to slowly drive the large cogs. Using an „ordinary“ cog, a minimum of about 9 teeth is required to avoid the mechanism jamming. This traditional solution means that you can merrily work the crank on some of Per‘s automata and things happen at a considered, controlled pace.

Per‘s applause machine, or „a visit to the theatre“, is very popular as you can see in this video ( from one of the occasional courses that Per organises. Barry Falkner made his own version too (

Per explaining one of his automata based on the Geneva mechanism

Working together with Anna, Per explored the Geneva mechanism ( Anna painted the pictures while Per worked on the mechanism.

Anna and Per Helldorff at the entrance to Per’s mekaniske kabinett
Part of the exhibition

Per has worked with wood since he left school. He didn‘t receive any training, he just learned it all by doing it himself. Now of course he’s a skilled craftsman. When an injury restricted what he could manage, that was when he moved towards automata making. His sense of humour and creativity really distinguish his work. He doesn’t do drawings so, when someone orders an existing automaton, patience is required while he copies the original in his workshop.

Part of the workshop

The English part of Per and Anna‘s website –

I mentioned that I knew of no other automata makers in Sweden and Per asked if I knew of Tomas Skimutis. I hadn‘t heard of him so another visit was now on the cards.

A visit to Tomas Skimutis

Tomas Skimutis decided to build his own gallery. Was he a master carpenter? Well no, he wasn‘t he worked in graphic design.

Over the entrance to Tomas Skimutis‘ gallery

Things were a bit chaotic inside as preparations were in full swing for a summer exhibition.

Tomas demonstrating one of his works

Still Tomas was happy to show us around. His projects are very varied including small pieces of furniture, occasionally including electrical/electronic bits and pieces, here and there with a handle to turn.

This bird-helicopter combination was a lot of fun. Tomas pushed a button to make it descend slowly down from the rafters. There is a crank to turn the helicopter blades, but you have to detach the lifting wires to allow the rotor to spin.

Opening the bird‘s chest reveals more secrets, such as the two small bottles of Swedish liquor stored inside. Not constrained by any rules or specifications, Tomas just added whatever he felt like and who can argue with that!

Another piece shows a contestant in a dancing competition twirling in front of a judge. This is hand-cranked but includes music from some sort of electronic player and some flashing lights to show the score.

This detail from a much larger piece shows a man up in the attic listening to wax cylinder recordings. Pushing a button starts both the music and the movement of the man‘s arm as he cranks away.

As we had simply rolled up unannounced, although we saw quite a bit, a lot of things were not yet on display. Tomas promised that there would be lots more when his exhibition opens this summer 2024. If you can‘t make it, take a peek at the videos on this page and get ready to be amazed.



Horatio the Singing Hippo

One day I woke up with an old song rattling around my brain with a merry chorus of “mud, mud, glorious mud…”. When I looked it up on Youtube I was reminded that it was actually called The Hippopotamus Song ( So of course I had to make a hippo. A hippo that might sing too.

The Design Brief

This is a very simple project which is mostly a carving job with the minor addition of a moving mouth.


Before starting to carve I made a maquette in plastercine. The first thing that I noticed was that a large head is heavy and the whole thing tips forwards if the front legs are too far back. It’s always handy to discover things like that before investing a lot of work in carving. I have also decided that grey plastercine is very dull and I will choose something more cheerful next time I go shopping for plastercine.

I carved the hippo in one piece, about 6 cm long, and only then cut the lower jaw out. This makes sure that the jaw will close nicely.

To be able to make space for the mechanism, I then cut the poor hippo in half.

Inside the hippo, I had to make space for a spring and space for the lever to move. The axle on which the lever turns is simply a piece of brass rod. The lever is glued to the lower jaw.

With the lever in place you can see that I also made space for the teeth as the lower jaw comes up. You press the protruding part of the lever up to open the jaw. When you release the lever, the spring pushes the lever down to close the jaw. Once I was certain that everything moved easily, I glued the two halves together and got my paintbrushes out.


The mechanism here is very simple and could be used to make all sorts of four-legged animals talk. As the operating lever is hidden underneath the body it’s not immediately obvious that anything moves. This adds to the surprise as you pick the figure up and demonstrate it to your latest visitor.


Youtube link


The Shleep Machine

Long, long ago, as a 10 year old boy in in the sanatorium in Davos, Switzerland, my pals and I used to sing Brahm’s lullaby (Wiegenelied) every night before the lights were turned out and we were then supposed to sleep. Imagine my delight when, many years later, I found a music box that played this tune. I have never had problems sleeping, but I had learned the centuries old idea that counting sheep is supposed to help you to nod off. Put these two parts together and I had the basics for an automaton, for a Shleep Machine.

The Sheep

Carving woolly sheep seemed like a lot of work to me, so I improvised by using a scroll saw to cut some cloud shapes out of plywood. Glue three clouds together with 3 mm dowel for legs, add an egg for a head with a leather shoelace for ears and a sheep is born.

The Mechanism

I used some old Meccano gears that I found in my junk box to join the external crank to the vertical axle in the centre. Turning the crank makes the axle rotate. I inserted the music box mechanism between the crank and the gears to play Brahms’ music as the sheep go round and round.

View from above with sheepdog removed

I attached a wooden disc to the vertical axle with five slots cut into the disc – one for each sheep. Bent brass rod then forms a very simple hinge for the connecting arm to each sheep. Each connecting arm passes freely through a small wooden egg which serves as a wheel. As the centre axle turns, the wheels keep the sheep high enough so that their feet don’t drag on the surface. As each sheep approaches the gate, there is a bump in the path of the wooden egg, which makes the sheep jump up and over the gate.

How the sheep jump over the gate

The Sheepdog

Sheep are often looked after by a sheepdog. In this case the sheep are extraordinarily well-behaved, always going round and round precisely the same circle. This is very boring for the poor dog, who is left with nothing better to do than to chase his own tail. This is not connected to the main mechanism, so you have to give the red and white ball a twirl to start the action.


No one has yet fallen asleep while using this, so I guess that it makes it a failure. As a ten year old boy the song was usually successful in getting me to drop off. I suppose the nurse turning the lights off helped too. Maybe I’ll try that next time someone has a go with my Shleep Machine.

The Video


The Images

The Cuckoo’s Lodger

One winter’s day I decided to try something based on a cuckoo clock. I didn’t really want to make a clock, the interesting bit for me is the door which opens to let a cuckoo briefly appear and sing their song. The doors are usually very small to leave room for the clockwork mechanism. Without the clock, I could make the doors bigger, perhaps offering space for someone bigger than a cuckoo. A cuckoo appearing when the doors are opened is what everyone expects, so of course I couldn’t have that and I went through a range of options until I finally settled on a lion.

Why a lion? Well in 2013 the amazing Carlos Zapata built a beautiful automaton called “Nero The Lion” which you can admire in this video ( On his website ( Carlos explains that, In the 1920s, a lion was on the loose in Birmingham (UK) for 3 days until it was recaptured using a football net from Aston Villa, my local football club as I was growing up. His automaton provides a dramatic reconstruction of the event and provided me with some inspiration.

The tableau shown when my doors open is much simpler. There is one surprise as the doors open and that’s it. The rest is up to your imagination. Maybe the bossy lion has taken over the cuckoo’s home? Perhaps the cuckoo is considering whether to lay its egg in this luxury home? Maybe this illustrates the long-lost Aesop’s fable of why cuckoos no longer build nests, choosing instead to cheekily leave their eggs in other birds’ nests, haunted by the memory of finding a lion in their home in the trees? Or maybe it just shows what might happen when a cuckoo returns after popping out to fetch a pint of milk?

The Movement

I decided on a downward pull to move the carriage forwards while opening the doors. A long spring is to close the doors – I just had to find somewhere to put such a long spring.


Parts for the house

The walls of the house have guides for the carriage.

Carriage with its spring

A hole is drilled for almost the full length of the carriage to take a long spring. One end of the spring is fixed with a piece of dowel at the round end of the carriage. The other end of the spring passes through the hole in the back wall to be attached to the house. At the left and right sides of the carriage you can see the protruding dowels which run in the guides. The brass rods are responsible for pushing the doors open as the carriage moves forwards.

Lever mechanism

Pulling the cord down turns the lever around its hinge which pushes the carriage forwards. As the rod moves along an arc around the hinge, a slot is needed in the carriage to allow for the (unwanted) up and down movement while pushing the carriage forwards.

Assembled mechanism

The hinges for the doors are simply made up of brass pins passing through two pieces of wood. The pieces of wood do rub together, adding friction to the movement. This turned out to be of no consequence as pulling the cord downwards generates plenty of force and the friction is not noticeable.

The Tree

Parts for the stand

To be able to pull downwards and thus open the doors, some space is needed underneath the house, so I made a stand suggesting a tree.

Carving the Figures

Making a plastercine model first makes sure that the size is right. Otherwise, as the figures don’t have moving parts, it is then just a carving job.


The moving carriage seems quite thick. Maybe it would have been better to use gravity (e.g. a lead weight) to pull a slimmer carriage back into the house. On the other hand, having lead weights hanging around doesn’t look so good either.

I did consider making the cuckoo nod as the doors open – as in some conventional cuckoo clocks. I decided against the additional complexity. Perching it on the door seemed just fine to me, as the door opens, the bird swings around with it.

When I showed this to my young tester, she delighted in removing the lion and replacing it with a long succession of other lodgers. The principle remained the same – the surprise of seeing who is inside as you pull the cord and the doors open.


Download –


Link to video

The Musical Mermaid

My idea for this small seductress started life as someone chatting away on a mobile phone until she eventually metamorphosed into a musical mermaid. Along the way she lost her body, gained a tail and took on an unhealthy pallor. My first idea remains – of having the largest mouth possible, simply operated by a lever. Two additional levers permit her to wave enticingly as she sings her siren song to lure unwary sailors into sea wreck and ruin. Although we can’t see what she is wearing beneath the waves, a stylish starfish keeps her hair in check and some fishy earrings show her status as queen of the surf.

For a change, there is no handle to crank to make a fixed sequence of events happen. Instead there are three levers and it is entirely up to the user to decide what happens in which order. The challenge is to think of a suitable song, sing it yourself and, as you sing it, to manipulate the levers for best effect. I was encouraged by recently spotting Puppets in Prague talking about table-top puppets. While my figure is not as sophisticated as Mirek Trejtnar’s, real mermaids do not actually have any legs, so I felt it was legitimate to hide all of the complicated bits out of sight under the water. Not that it is complicated, it is quite simple really and it did not take too long at all to make. Maybe there are ideas here which you could use in your next project?

Making the Head

Uncut head with the neck in place

As wooden eggs are egg-shaped, it helps a lot if you first carefully drill a hole in the base and then glue a piece of dowel in it. As dowel has straight edges, the 10 mm diameter dowel shows the orientation of the 50 mm long egg much more clearly. The dowel is much easier than the egg to clamp firmly in a vice, thus holding everything steady while drilling and sawing.

However, before cutting the egg diagonally to make a mouth, I drilled a 6 mm hole through the dowel and into the egg. This hole will then take the pusher rod which opens and closes the mouth. Also before cutting, I drilled two 2 mm holes horizontally through the egg. One to take the brass rod which hinges the two parts of the head together and the other to take a brass rod which hinges the pusher rod that come up through the dowel.

Disassembled head showing the hinge allowing the mouth to open
The assembled hinge for the two parts of the head

The jaw is held quite still by the neck dowel. Making the mouth the full width of the head and moving the upper head instead of the jaw means that the movement is accentuated and everything is more dramatic, larger than life.

The pusher rod ready to be connected

The pusher rod is attached to the upper part of the head via a simple hinge. The horizontal rod passes through the loop in the end of the pusher rod, thus making a connection which can both push up and pull down. The pusher rod passes through a generous hole in the dowel so that, as the head rises and tilts back, taking the loop with it, there is enough play to prevent the pusher rod from jamming.

The pusher rod connected

Making the Base

Top and bottom of the base plus the mermaid’s shoulders

A 10 cm diameter base seemed about right and a chunky piece of dowel serves well as shoulders with a 10 mm hole for the neck.

Top part of base

To allow the nymph’s arms to rise up out of the water, 4 mm slots provide plenty of space for the arms made of 2 mm plywood. The ugly slots are largely hidden by gluing waves right in front of them.

Arms cut from 2 mm plywood

The arms hinge on 2 mm brass rods and, once assembled, they need a bit of fine tuning to make sure that the levers apply force in the right direction i.e. upwards but also slightly outwards.

Miscellaneous parts

In the miscellaneous parts photo you can see three levers: one to push the right arm up, one with a slot to open the mouth and one to push the left arm up.

Head with rod to push mouth open

A small wooden sphere glued to the rod allows the slotted lever to push up and open the mouth.

Second ball on rod to retain connection to lever

Once fully assembled, a second small wooden ball prevents the rod from slipping out of the slot.

Lever raising an arm

The levers to raise the arms are a bit simpler, they just push on the elbow and rely on gravity to pull the arm down.


Our mermaid started off with pearl earrings. At first, that seemed quite maritime chique, but wasn’t very interesting once I had painted things. Replacing pearls with fish made her much more mermaidy, even permitting some colour coordination with the starfish.

While generally enthusiastic, my first eight year-old tester complained that the mermaid’s hair was too short. Mermaids are usually shown with long, flowing locks. I’m afraid that my mermaid has opted for a more sensible, modern, easy-care cut.


Video link


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His Mousy Voice

The Idea

First ideas

One fine autumn day, idly contemplating how fast technological development makes things redundant, I first thought that it would be entertaining to see if my smallest friends would recognise a record player. Then I thought about “cool cats” listening to jazz music. Finally, I was tidying up in the workshop and I found these two cones, which reminded me that record players didn’t always include amplifiers but were once wound up with a crank, driven by clockwork and just used a horn to make the sound louder.

Two cones from the craft shop around the corner – one hollow, one not

I thought that he second cone wasn’t the right shape for a dog’s head (as in the logo for His Master’s Voice), but it does serve very nicely as the nose for a mouse, so I was now ready to start making.

Making the Mouse

The mouse’s head with its pivot

I glued a hemisphere to the flat end of the cone to make it more head-shaped. A small wooden ball on the pointy end turns into a mousey nose, just waiting to be painted pink. A piece of 10 mm dowel provides the pivot, to allow the head to move up and down in time to the music. The hollow carved into the head makes space for the pivot as well as for a tongue, hinged on a second piece of 2 mm diameter brass rod.

The mouse’s body

I drilled a 10 mm hole through a wooden egg to accommodate the pivot dowel, which also serves to fix the body to the base

The mouse ready to assemble

Right next to the 10 mm dowel, I drilled a 3 mm hole to take a 2 mm diameter brass rod which will push the head up. To prevent the rod from snagging in the head, I glued a small wooden ball onto the end with 2-component epoxy resin. To make the mouse’s tongue I used tin snips (sturdy metalworking scissors) to cut a piece of brass foil.

Making the Horn

The horn

The horn came more or less ready-made from the craft shop. I just added a ball to fix it to the dowel which holds it next to the turntable. To allow the horn to be pointed in any direction it is not glued directly to the base, just to the two wooden discs which keep it in place while allowing free rotation.

Making the Base

Top view of base showing the drive shaft

The base is a box, open at the front and at the back, with two pillars to support the drive shaft. The drive shaft has a crank to move the horizontal bar left and right.It also has a small wheel to friction drive the turntable mechanism.

View of the fully assembled drive shaft

The side view helps to understand how the drive shaft works. Turning the handle at the left rotates the drive shaft which drives the turntable mechanism via the small wheel. The crank mechanism moves the horizontal bar to the left and to the right.

The pusher mechanism to lift the head

As the wooden horizontal bar moves left and right, the slope at the right-hand end pushes the brass rod up to lift the mouse’s head and then allows it to come down, followed by the head.

The turntable mechanism and the mouse’s head pusher

You can see that the turntable mechanism is just two discs connected by a 5 mm diameter dowel. The dowel turns in a hole in the bottom of the base, thus keeping the dowel vertical and the discs horizontal.

The mechanism to push the mouse’s head up is a piece of brass rod, its bent end moving within a slot. As the horizontal bar moves to the right in the slot, it acts like a wedge, pushing the rod upwards.

First Reactions

My five-year-old friend wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. When I tried explaining a little she asked “why can’t I hear any music?” Which I suppose makes it an automata destined for folk of a certain age who have enough tunes in their head to make it up as they go along. Maybe Al Jolson singing something from the scratchy sounding wind-up gramophone period or, in my case, “My baby just cares for me”, which has a good rhythm to nod along too.


I’ve left a lot off in this piece. The mouse has neither hands nor feet. The horn has no visible connection to the the record on the turntable. There is no audible music. Imagination is required. The mechanisms are pretty simple, but enough to tell a small story and maybe raise a nostalgic smile from those old enough to remember. I hope you like it.


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The Disagreeing Barn Owl

The Disagreeing Barn Owl

My small friend’s birthday was due and I thought it about time to make her a simple automaton of her own. There is an owl on her school rucksack so I decided to make an owl for her desk. Owls are famous for being able to turn their heads through a wide range, which meant that I didn’t have to think too long about the required movement. I found a couple of nice examples on the Internet, two from Carlos Zapata (one older and one newer and one from Paul Spooner ( This owl is not disagreeing with anything in particular, it’s just keeping its eyes peeled for any juicy mice in the vicinity.

Design Constraints

Intended for an eight-year-old, it has to be safe, robust and easy to operate. That’s why I rejected brass rods in favour of chunky wooden dowel. It is also why I broke a habit and didn’t put a red ball on the end of the crank handle, just painting it red instead.

Making the Owl

Plasticine maquette

After making a model owl in plasticine, for the body I chose a suitably sized piece of limewood and marked the outline onto two sides. As the owl’s body leans forward, the cut between the head and the body has to be tilted so that it will be horizontal when the body is held in its tilted position by the legs.

Marking for for scrollsaw cuts

A scroll saw will cut out the basic shape.

After first scrollsaw cuts

As you can see, the first set of cuts remove the side markings, so you have to redraw them on the surfaces which are now curved.

Marking replaced for second scrollsaw cuts

For the shaft which turns the head, It is a good idea to drill the holes while two faces of the body are still parallel to one another, that means before making the second set of cuts along the markings which you had to redraw on the curved surfaces.

Roughly carved owl

When carving, the bottom of the head and the top the body must be cut to a circle with the same radius so that, as the head is turned, nothing protrudes outside of the body.

Owl with its drive wheel and shaft

An 8 mm diameter dowel is fixed to the head and passes freely through 8.5 mm holes in the body and the top of the base box to the drive wheel fixed to the bottom of the dowel. A couple of chunky steel washers increase the weight, pushing the drive wheel more firmly down onto the two cams.

Making the camshaft

The camshaft and two cams

I used 8 mm dowel for the camshaft and the handle to crank it. The two cams mounted onto the shaft are identical, taking turns to move the drive wheel via friction. Either one or the other of them is always in contact with the drive wheel so that the owl’s head stays more or less at a constant height, just rotating – first one way and then the other. A small piece of 3 mm dowel pins each cam onto the camshaft.

Assembled camshaft

To keep it simple, I placed the cams close to the side of the base, just separated from the walls by nylon washers, ensuring ease of movement.

Fully assembled base

Looking at the base, you can see that the cams rub against the outer edge of the drive wheel. The transmission ratio here is about 1 to 1 so that the owl’s head turns by about 180° before it changes direction. If the cams were positioned closer to the centre, it would be possible for the head to turn by more than 180°. Owls can apparently turn their heads through 270 degrees, but I was happy with about half a turn, limited by a 3 mm dowel pin inserted into the outer edge of the drive wheel. When this pin touches either side of the base, it prevents further rotation.

Making the Handle

Parts for the crank handle

In the past, I have put a ball on the end of the handle and arranged for it to slip freely when rotated. This time I thought “forget the ball” and make the handle itself slip freely. Both ideas mean that you do not have to let the handle slip through your fingers as you turn it. It’s a small thing but it does make things a bit easier to use.

Filing a smooth groove without a lathe

I don’t have a lathe, so I used my hand-held battery-powered drill to rotate the 8 mm diameter handle and a small round file to add a groove near to the end. A piece of 3 mm dowel inserted into the crank prevents the handle from being pulled out, while allowing it to turn freely.

Thoughts on Friction

Relying on friction between the cams and the drive wheel means that no toothed cogwheels are required. It also means that small hands can grab the owl’s head and turn it without any damage occurring. The drawback is that friction also occurs everywhere that a moving part is in contact with a still part such as where the dowel linking the drive wheel to the owl’s head passes through the base and through the owl’s body. These points are essentially the bearings needed to keep the dowel properly aligned. If the bearings are too loose, the dowel and thus the drive wheel will tilt and not turn so easily. If the bearings are too tight, the dowel will be stiff and may not turn when required.

My pragmatic approach is to start with tight holes for bearings, enlarging them as required when tests show that the movement is too stiff. For instance, for my 8 mm diameter dowel I first drilled 8.5 mm holes for the bearings, enlarging one of them to 9 mm after trying out the mechanism. Increasing the weight via washers increases the friction where it is wanted, between the cams and the drive wheel.


Youtube link


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The Keen Kissers

Wait for it

Some while ago, a small automata scrolled up into my Instagram feed where three figures in a circle are kissed in turn by a promiscuous character turning in an endless circle. Magnetised lips ensured a lingering encounter every time. This reminded me that I had a plan to make a kissing automaton, perhaps along the lines of Peter Markey (e.g., or maybe as offered in kit form by Timberkits (e.g. They each have their charms, but in the end I decided to go for bust and borrow all of the best ideas and roll them all up into one. The resulting couple are demonstrably keen kissers and what a pleasant hobby to have!

So What was the Plan?

I decided that it was only fair on the equality front to have both heads rotating to face one another and to have both sets of lips extending, to meet in the middle in a tender peck. With heads turning through 90 degrees, it seemed easiest to pass the instruction to kiss up inside the neck. Maybe brass rods would have been better, but I chose to risk using some cord to move the lips in and out. The risk is abrasion. If the cord rubs on a rough corner, it may well break after a period of time. Time will tell.

Making the heads

60 mm long wooden egg held in a vice, ready to cut in half

A couple of 60 mm long wooden eggs from my local craft store were nicely head-shaped. First I drilled an 11 mm hole to take the 10 mm dowel serving as the neck. Cutting the egg in half, reduces the hole down to provide a snug fit for the dowel.

Egg halved and marked for hollowing out

The halves have to be hollowed out, so I first marked them and then used a drill to do most of the work.

Hollowing out a beechwood egg

Beechwood eggs are pretty hard, so it is worthwhile using a drill to remove most of the material, leaving just a bit of cleaning up to be done manually.

Adding a slot for “lip-stick”

A 10 mm square section stick serves to hold the lips, sliding in a slot cut in the sides of the egg. The odd pattern left by the brad point drill bit which I used is not visible from the outside so it is of no consequence.

Parts to move the lips

A brass rod serves as a pivot for the actuator shown below it. Two pieces of cord are attached to the left and right side of the actuator. Pulling on them moves the actuator clockwise or counter-clockwise which results in the “lip-stick” being moved to the left or to the right.

Lip mechanism with cords attached

The 10 mm dowel used for the neck has a hole drilled down the middle and has been carefully smoothed to avoid the cord catching or wearing too quickly.

Brass guide for cords

A small piece of brass rod helps to prevent the cords from rubbing on the lip-stick.

The base

The base

The base is open to show off the mechanism. At each end there are 10.5 mm holes to take the 10 mm crankshaft. Drilling a 10.5 mm hole through a 50 mm diameter ball and then cutting it in half produces two nice, minimalistic bodies. These allow the necks to turn freely while keeping them pretty straight.

Base with top removed

3 mm dowel pins hold the base together, allowing me to frequently take it to pieces whilst experimenting and adjusting the cams. Only when I was sure that everything worked OK did I fetch the glue bottle. The four pins in the middle are stops to limit the rotation of the heads to 90 degrees.

Top with wheels to turn the heads

Each 50 mm diameter wheel, which turns its neck and thus its head, has a protruding 3 mm pin which bumps up against the stops, preventing further rotation. After drilling the hole up inside the 10 mm diameter dowel used for the neck, I used a countersink to chamfer the edges where the cord comes out to try and reduce the abrasion.


Three cams for each head

Each head needs three cams: one to turn the head clockwise, one to turn the head counter-clockwise and a small one to move the lips. The large cams were originally 50 mm diameter discs with half of the circumference cut back in each case. When fixed on the camshaft, these take turns to move the wheel connected to the head. I had to experiment to work out the right shape for the small cam.

Cams in the open base

To be able to adjust the cams and then fix them in just the right position, I drilled a 3 mm hole from the outside of each cam down into the 10 mm hole in its centre. After sliding it onto the camshaft, when I was happy with the position, I then drilled along that hole and into the camshaft. Inserting a piece of 3 mm dowel locks the cam onto the shaft. Any excess dowel is easily cut off and sanded smooth.


Camshaft without cams

The camshaft is a piece of 10 mm dowel with a crank on the end allowing the user to turn it.

Freely rotating knob

The ball used for the knob has two holes drilled in it. A 10.5 mm hole to take the spindle and a 3 mm hole to take a piece of dowel. The spindle has a groove towards one end, added with a file. With the spindle inserted into the large hole, pushing the dowel in locks the spindle in place while allowing it to turn freely. This means that you can turn the crank to your heart’s content without having to release the ball or let it slip though your fingers. It may take a couple of goes to get this right.

The Yanker

The yanker

To move the lip-stick a “yanker” is required. This is a lever which is mounted onto the base. A spring pushes the lever upwards and the small cam on the camshaft pushes it downwards. I used a bit of brass rod for the bearing, bent at one end to make it easier to remove and insert whilst adjusting things. When the adjustments were done, I just cut the ends off flush with the wood.

One cord from the lip-stick is attached to it so that when the cam pushes the lever down, it yanks the cord which moves the lip-stick into its kissing position. A lead fishing weight is attached to the other cord which pulls the lip-stick back to its starting position. I tried a spring but didn’t like the feel. Gravity is a very predictable and steady pull. What would we do without it?


I carved some over-large lips to glue to the end of the lip-stick. They are painted bright red to attract the viewer’s attention. This makes the man in my little scenario seem a touch androgynous so I tried to give him a male looking T-shirt and cap. I adorned the woman with a stylishly angled hat and matching blouse. As I made the heads & bodies in the same way, it was entertaining to think about what sort of clothing and colours signal maleness and femaleness in 2023.


This was a fun project to make, even if adjusting it to work smoothly took quite a while.

The mechanism to move the lips could be used to move a nose too. How about a Pinocchio automaton? Or how about an Eskimo kiss automaton, where two Eskimos turn and rub rub noses? Or how about …?

I left the skin areas unpainted as the beechwood eggs had an attractive appearance and vaguely match my winter skin colour.

I was surprised to discover that turning the crank counter-clockwise (CCW) does not quite reverse the order of the movements. In optimising the cams for clockwise (CW) cranking, I have obviously de-optimised it for CCW. Children seem to have no preference for CW or CCW. Fortunately adults generally go for CW and as this will be a present for two adults it ought to be OK.



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The Flying Teacups

The Flying Teacups

What’s the idea?

Ever since I visited Probošt’s Christmas Crib in the Czech Republic a few years ago and saw the model wooden conveyor belt ( exhibited there, I wanted to have a go at making my own version. I decided to cheat a bit and avoid the complexity and size of making a completely wooden chain. The top of my version is completely solid, with an uninterrupted smooth surface for figures to glide along, propelled by an invisible, magical force. This magical force also gives the figures a spin as they move around. We all know about flying saucers hovering in the sky and these are their earthbound counterparts – Flying Teacups, which have a cosy hole in the top for plug-in figures to nestle in.

The magical bit

Neodymium magnet

The magic comes from small neodymium alloy magnets. These are widely available and have a really strong magnetic field. Mucking about with a couple to see what their limits are, I found that, even when separated by a sheet of plywood, they are still very strongly attracted to one another. I was also happy when I found that when turning one of them through 90° (from horizontal to vertical) they maintained the attraction with a twist. The twist was that when I dragged the vertical one along beneath my sheet of plywood it not only pulled its horizontal mate along on top of the sheet, it also made it rotate. Magic!

The Chain

To drive the figures endlessly round and round, I needed a chain, like a bicycle chain, to be driven by a cog. Here is my finished chain –

The magic drive chain

The chain is made of some strong polyester cord and pieces of dowel.

Dowel pieces for the chain

First I cut 24 pieces of 20 mm diameter dowel to the same size, about 15 mm high. Then I drilled a hole to take the polyester cord. To be able to properly glue the cord, I then cut the dowel in half. This means that I could apply glue along the drilled hole to fix the cord. The cord outside of the dowel remains free from glue and stays flexible.

A magical piece of dowel with a magnet

In every third piece I also drilled a 10 mm diameter hole for a magnet.

Gluing the dowel onto the cord

While the glue dried, I used a small clamp to press the pieces together. The spacing of the recesses in the cogs defines how long the free piece of cord needs to be.

The Cogs

Two cogs

The cogs are cut from two pieces of 8 mm plywood glued together for a total thickness of 16 mm. The 10 cutouts are 20 mm arcs into which the pieces of dowel fit. Here, the chain is not transmitting force to second cog to make it turn anything. This means that the second cog could have been just a smooth disc instead. The useful force is transmitted via the magnets embedded in the chain.

The Pinwheel Gears

Pinwheel gears

Two pinwheel gears are needed. The large, 32 pin, gear is glued to the back of one of the cogs. The small, 12 pin, gear is mounted vertically and is turned by the external crank handle.

The crank turns the small pinwheel gear

The Three Oval Pieces

The 8 mm base and the 3 mm top

The three oval pieces all have the same outer shape.

The middle oval

The middle oval has a round hole cut in it which allows the large pinwheel to turn easily.

Top view of middle oval without cogs and chain

An axle is required for each cog. The right-hand one is fixed and provides a bearing for the large pinwheel gear and its attached cog. The left-hand one is moveable to allow the chain tension to be adjusted.

Top view of the assembled middle oval

There are 6 dowel spacers to hold the top oval, leaving just enough space for the chain to move easily while preventing the magic dowel pieces from twisting when pulled upwards by a magnet in the base of a teacup.

Bottom view of assembled middle oval

In the bottom view, on the right you can see the large pinwheel gear which is glued to the right-hand cog. Turning the gear turns the cog which moves the chain. On the left you can see the adjustable axle for the left-and cog.

The adjustable axle

Sliding the adjustable axle to the left increases the tension in the chain. This is handy for the initial set-up as well as later on to correct for any stretching of the chain.

Fully assembled apart from the base

A piece of chunky 40 mm diameter dowel serves to join the top assembly to the base together with the crank assembly at the right-hand end. Now you can see how the small pinwheel gear engages with its larger brother. With no teacups in place everything moves quite freely. Each teacup added increases the friction, but the gear ratio of 12 to 32 keeps the force needed to turn the crank down to a sensible level.

The Teacups

A teacup waiting for its handle

The teacups are made from 40 mm diameter balls cut in half. In the top there is a 17.5 mm hole to plug in a figure. In the bottom a 10 mm hole holds a neodymium alloy magnet. The teacup’s handle is made of 3 mm plywood.

A painted teacup

Add some nice vertical stripes to emphasise the spinning motion and a teacup is ready.

I chose not to paint the main structure for practical reasons. Even though the magnets have a smooth surface, dragging the teacups around the surface will inevitably result in abrasion. Scratching off a painted surface would not look good. If the marks left on the bare wood bother me in future, I can always sand them off.

The Figures

A plug-in bee

I have a collection of plug-in figures from previous projects, all with a standardised base to plug in to a 17.5 mm diameter hole, thus fitting nicely into the teacups. It’s quite handy being able to reuse “characters” like this. You can then mix and match as you like.


I had originally planned to use a small music mechanism.

Music ready for installation

When I tried it, I didn’t like the music and it seemed a bit superfluous. So I simply left it off, leaving a small, now unused, cog behind the small pinwheel gear. That’s life isn’t it? You start off with a certain idea and in the end, less is more.


The finished item looks quite simple and clean. Placing teacups and plugging in a collection of animals gives it more character. If you turn the crank handle very quickly a teacup can be thrown out of its magnetic connection and cause a traffic pile-up. That is a plus point to me as it makes it more interesting to use. Also, getting the speed just right can cause some teacups to resonate and spin at an amazing speed which is fun too. Sometimes figures just stare straight ahead, waiting for some impulse to start spinning. It’s nice and chaotic.

It works surprisingly well and I can think of loads of other ideas which could use a similar mechanism. For a lark, I turned the entire thing up on end and I could successfully transport teacups vertically up and down. There is an old English nursery rhyme called Hickory Dickory Dock and from that I can imagine making a mouse run up and down a clock. Processions of figures often appear in old public clocks, coming out of one door and disappearing through another. And so on.

Instead of using polyester cord, I could have used tape instead. Tape as wide as the dowel pieces’ height might resist twisting more and be better for other projects.

If spin is not needed then turning the magnets in the chain through 90° to be parallel to their counterpieces in the cups would stop the rotation.



A Short-Sighted Snake

A Short-Sighted Snake

Snakes are not everyone’s favourite. Still I think it is unkind to exclude them from the wonderful world of automata. My snake has a sort of cobra pose, head swaying in the air to some invisible piper’s tune. As a very friendly snake it has no fangs and instead has bright pink, kissable lips. A very colourful body adds to its appeal and as a short-sighted girl, a pair of spectacles add a vulnerable touch hopefully calming the nerves of even the most worried visitor.

The Technical Brief

This is a fairly simple construction. Turning the handle rotates the camshaft which moves one end of the the rod connected to the snake’s head along a circular path, making the head attached to the other end of the rod do something similar. Making the central horizontal part of the bearing as wide as possible automatically constrains the camshaft so that it stays in position. No extra parts are needed to prevent the shaft from slipping to the left or to the right as the handle is turned.



The snake itself is a sequence of wooden beads threaded onto a piece of waxed string. A small wooden egg serves as the head, with a hole drilled to glue it to the connecting rod for the camshaft.

Partial assembly

I again used 3 mm dowel to pin the parts together before gluing. This makes both the fine adjustment and the painting easier.

Almost fully assembled

With such a wide bearing, the connecting rod up to the snake’s head might slip off centre and jam. I found that making the hole through which the rod passes large enough allowed things to rattle around and avoid any jamming.


Threading beads onto a string results in a very flexible assembly. It is so flexible that it moves where gravity pulls it. It was only by using a rod, that at least the snake’s head can be directed to follow a particular path. I wondered whether the idea would be good for an elephant’s trunk, but I was flummoxed by the complexity of making the trunk curl, especially when trying to make something small.

I had also considered adding a small orange to the scene as something that a short-sighted snake might use to tempt us (mistaking it for an apple). I sensibly abandoned this idea as requiring too much explanation.

Rob Ives offers a kit for a very similar snake automaton, only his is made of card (


Images to download

The Animals’ Seesaw

The Animals’ Seesaw
Animals in Orbit

In the Sep-Oct issue 2022 of Automata Magazine we showed you Animals in Orbit. As the number of animals has increased over time here in Berlin, this has caused a queue of visitors all waiting for their turn up in orbit.

So, instead of them just joining the lengthening queue to go into orbit, I thought that I would keep them amused by making a seesaw. Yet another way to bring movement to what are otherwise fairly static characters.

New Animals

Amongst other interesting new visitors, this friendly bee flew in one day out of my wife’s bonnet and decided to stay.

The bee

This curious animal is a rare specimen of the teapoticus nervosus, commonly known as the nervous teapot. Lifting its red knob raises the lid to let light right in, often dazzling the poor creature.

The nervous teapot

So what’s the brief?

For a change, I thought that I would avoid using a box as the base and instead I went for a flat base whilst still opting to turn a small handle to create the up and down motion. To keep the seesaw low, this meant putting the crank mechanism off to the side, with a long linkage to push and pull the short lever between the supports for the seesaw.


Side view of moving parts
Top view of moving parts

The plug-in “seats” for the animals are the same as for Animals in Orbit, just with a different paint job. A wild black and white spiral pattern draws attention to how the movement is produced.

The important bit

The important bit is the “crankshaft” which transforms the rotary motion from turning the red-headed lever into a to-and-fro movement for the stripey connecting linkage.

The partially assembled base

Here you can see that I used 3 mm dowel pins and corresponding holes to locate the four sidepieces. Using pins like this means that I can put it together and take it to pieces as often as needed to ensure that the movement is correct. It also means that flashy paintwork is easier to do before parts are permanently glued in place, sometimes getting in the way of masterful brushstrokes!

Fully assembled and ready for the first passengers


Ultimately it is the passengers who bring this to life. With no one having fun it is a dull spectacle. It looks best when the animals look at one another, just as in real life, perhaps goading one another to seesaw even higher or even faster. The mechanism is pretty simple and, as usual, the bright red knob shows you what to turn to bring things to life. For small friends who come to visit, Animals in Orbit has become quite a favourite and now, together with this seesaw, the possible permutations and combinations of which figure goes where seem to be endless, and no one has to get bored standing in the queue with nothing to do.

Images to Download


The Berlin Dragonfly

The Berlin Dragonfly

Why a Dragonfly?

Insects don’t get much of a look-in on the automata front. Most of them have an annoying number of extraordinarily thin legs and aren’t generally as cuddly as cats and dogs, or even Koala bears. I feel this is rather an injustice, so I thought that it’s about time for an automata dedicated to that queen of the insect world, a dragonfly. They are quite showy creatures, glistening in marvellous colours while zooming decoratively around country ponds. I can manage showy, as I have lots of paint in the cupboard, but I decided against zooming about, settling instead for some vigorous flapping of its wings instead. Insects also have quite large eyes but they don’t go in for pupils and irises, preferring complicated compound eyes.

The Initial Design

A selection of ready-made wooden balls and eggs served as the body for my dragonfly meaning that there was no need for carving. Some thin plywood could serve as wings and brass rods for legs. The tricky part is the cam to control the flapping of the wings. If I had used a round cam mounted off-centre, for each turn of the crank the wings would go up and down once. After some experimentation, I chose to triple the number of movements by using a cam with three “peaks”. For each turn of the crank, the wings now rise and fall three times, resulting in a satisfactory flapping movement while turning the crank at a reasonable speed. As usual, you will see that the final result doesn’t quite match the initial design.


The dragonfly body and wings

A piece of 3 mm dowel holds the 5 pieces together which make up the dragonfly’s body. In total, t’s about 10 cm long. I cut the wings from 2 mm plywood.

Each wing needs two hinges. The first is to attach the wing to the body and is made of 6 mm dowel with a 2 mm hole drilled along its centre. This allows a piece of 1.5 mm brass rod to turn very easily. The second hinge is needed to attach the rod which pushes the wing up. Here, I used a 10 mm ball which was ready-drilled with a 2 mm hole. After sanding a flat on one side of the ball it can be glued to the underside of the wing. The closer together these two hinges are, the more the upward push from the cam is magnified, increasing the amount of flap.

Six legs

Cutting some small (18 mm) wooden eggs in two with an 8 mm hemisphere on top makes some nice shoes, bent brass rods serving as robust, insecty legs.

Brass support with pusher

I used a 7 mm brass tube to attach the dragonfly’s body to the base. A 5 mm dowel pusher can easily slide inside this. At the top end 2 mm plywood pieces protrude through carefully cleaned slots cut in both sides of the tube. Friction must be kept to a minimum to make sure that the wings do not stick at the top of their movement. Brass rods then link the wings to the pusher.

The mechanism from the cam follower to the wings

I used a 20 mm hemisphere as the cam follower on the bottom of the pusher rod.

The crank which turns the cam inside the base
The cam with three “peaks”


Side view of the painted dragonfly

With the follower now resting on the cam our dragonfly is ready to go. A smart hat complements her trendy shoes and huge eyes let her see where she is going. Nature doesn’t equip dragonflies with pupils in their eyes but I sort of hinted at the multi-facetted structure by using a dotty pattern, and if the centre dot is black, well that’s a bit of artistic licence. Everything else could be quite true to nature!

The Video

The Berlin Dragonfly

An unusually warm winter has encouraged a rarely seen species to leave its secret lair next to the pond – the Berlin Dragonfly!



Here are the images compressed for download.

The Fish School of Ballet

The Fish School of Ballet

The Idea

The way that groups of fish move together has always interested me (flocks of birds too, but that is another story). Occasionally I see underwater nature TV programmes which show how a school of fish move like synchronised swimmers or a group of ballet dancers moving together across a stage. I found one definition of a “school” as a shoal of fish swimming in the same direction to then suddenly all change direction at the same time. My question was – how do they do that? Is it telepathy? Is there a sergeant-major fish who yells “about turn!” So I thought why don’t you make yourself a school of fish and see how you can make it “school”, or dance yourself.


Before making anything, I always have a look around hyperspace, to see how others approach the same challenge. It’s boring to simply copy someone else’s work, but seeing what approach they take and how the finished item works out is always an education and often an inspiration. Entering “fish automata” into a search machine, I found quite a few matches. Two impressed me in particular: one with just a nice single fish by Carlos Zapata ( and another quite complex one with a big school of fish by Matt Smith (


Trying to keep things as simple as possible, I thought maybe I could use a cam to make the fish wiggle. I then decided to let the operator choose in which direction the fish should swim instead of automating a fixed routine of direction changes. Simply turn the crank one way to swim left and turn the crank the other way for the fish to swim right. The operator of the automaton then becomes the choreographer for our fish ballet school.


I used the Graphic app on my computer to produce scale drawings. This took up most of the time as I kept modifying things as I noticed where bits might bump together, or where gravity might pull parts in the wrong direction. It is hard to follow drawings which you didn’t draw yourself, but together with the photos they should make some sense.

Front view of base

For the drawings I used a different colour for each moving part.
– The yellow part is the crankshaft which is turned by the operator.
– The red, green and blue parts each carry two fish at the top (not shown).
– The brown part (the wiggler) holds the stops which limit the movement of the red, green and blue discs.
– The grey parts are fixed and don’t move.
As the camshaft is turned, the three yellow wheels drive the red, green and blue discs, turning them until they encounter the stops on the wiggler.

Top view of parts of base

The top view follows the same colour scheme but doesn’t show the crankshaft or the box. The grey circles represent wooden hemispheres which act as lengthened bearings for the brass rods, which each hold two fish. I thought these looked like upside down octopus so, to reinforce the effect, I added a 3 mm thick set of arms to each one, which accounts for the odd, grey star shapes. The six small brown circles in the wiggler show the 3 mm dowels which protrude downwards to act as stops, limiting the rotation of each coloured disc.

Side view of base

The side view shows the yellow cam responsible for wiggling the fish, four times per rotation. The brown part is hinged at the bottom and a free-running wheel ensures smooth movement as the cam turns. Imagine the cam pushing the wheel and thus tilting the brown part outwards, towards the front of the base. This moves the stops towards the front. The low points on the cam allow the stops to move back towards the rear, encouraged by a spring (not shown).

The fishy, yellow part to the right is part of the external crank which the operator turns.


One of the advantages of producing drawings is that you can print out and then cut out templates, which speeds up things in the workshop.

Some parts and their templates

Base – top

This is what the underside of the top looks like.

Three octopus to guide the fish

The purpose of the hemispheres is to lengthen the bearings (holes) in which the long brass rods sit. The rods must turn easily in the bearings but should stay vertical. Longer bearings keep the rods straighter whilst still allowing them to turn freely.

Brass rods to hold the fish

Three brass rods to mount the fish

Here are the large discs responsible for turning the fish with pieces of dowel protruding from the edge which restrict the amount of turn, when they hit the stops on the wiggler. The long brass rods are carefully fixed, vertically, into the discs using two-component epoxide adhesive.

The camshaft

The camshaft

The camshaft has two identical cams at each end and, between them, there are three drive wheels, each driving one of the discs on the end of a brass rod.

The wiggler

The hinged carrier for six stops

This strange looking thing holds the stops to restrict the rotation of the large discs. It is hinged near the bottom of the base and the spring pulls it against the two identical cams. As the cams turn they move this gently forwards and backwards. The slight movement of the stops causes the large discs to move a little, which in turn make the fish wiggle a little. It is the wiggler.

The assembled mechanism

The partially assembled base

When assembled, the stops on the wiggler are positioned so that they can catch the protruding dowels in the edges of the large discs. For each disc there are two stops. One restricts clockwise movement, the other counterclockwise movement.

The fish

Six fish

I carved the fish from lime wood and added fins made of 3 mm plywood. After cutting each fish into four pieces, I used a fretsaw to cut a slot upwards in each piece, making space for a piece of flexible tape. Some careful gluing later and the fish wiggle in quite a fishy way. Two fish are mounted onto each brass rod using two component epoxy resin adhesive.

The painted base

The base before fixing the spring

Some underwater vegetation builds on the aquatic atmosphere, as does carving the supports to hinge the wiggler as clams. My clams have eyes which makes them a species as yet unknown to science. As the spring is not fixed here, gravity pulls the wiggler away from its intended working position.

Final assembly & reflections

Final assembly

For this project, with an eye on future repairs, I chose to not glue the box together. Instead I used 3 mm dowel to pin the parts together while doing the fine tuning and painting. Once painted, I used brass screws to more permanently hold things together. Making things of wood is great, but wood does react to the moisture levels in the air. This has occasionally caused some of my fully glued creations to jam up, and repair then means having to destroy certain parts and then remake and repaint them.

Leaving the box without a front or back wall leaves the mechanism clearly visible for the many curious.

This looks quite complex, but there is not much to it with just a few moving parts. I now even suspect that one cam would probably have been enough to move the wiggler, making it even simpler.

When my seven-year-old quality control expert tried it out, she played happily with it for quite a long time. It is not really child-proof as the temptation to grab a brightly coloured fish and move it yourself is almost irresistible for small hands. The 2 mm diameter brass rods are fine for adults, but children would need something much more substantial. The fish are also not terribly robust. We will see what time shows. Other makers have used wire rings to join the fish segments together. Maybe that would be a bit sturdier.



Here are the images compressed for download.

Undulating Octopus

Undulating Octopus

The Idea

I am currently making a fish automaton, which will appear in a separate article, and I was considering what sort of fish swim around in the sea and what shape and colour they are. A lot of fish have much the same shape, you know, sort of fishy looking, long and sleek with fins and tails. Two exceptions swam into my mind, the first was a seahorse and the second was an octopus. I am sure that I will sometime have fun trying to make a seahorse automaton, but I couldn’t resist pushing the fish to one side and knocking up a simple octopus.

Fish pushed to one side for an octopus

The Octopus

An octopus

It doesn’t take long to make an octopus as they only have a head and eight arms. I used a wooden egg for the head, sawing the pointy end off to make a flat surface. In this flat surface I then drilled eight holes into which I glued eight pieces of string. Each octopus arm is then made up of 9 wooden beads which I found ready drilled and painted in a hobby shop. I suppose they were intended for children to make a necklace or a wrist band with a bit of elasticated thread. To make a friendly impression, my octopus has a nose and an external mouth with a slightly puzzled expression. I apologise in advance to any biologists who have a better understanding than I do of what is essential for an octopus in its life down in the ocean depths.

The Mechanism

As my octopus has eight dangly arms, the simplest movement is to spin it around so that the arms flail outwards. I decided to add a bit of up and down movement to produce some sort of undulation and make the movement what seems to me to be more octopus-like.

The small box to contain the mechanism

A small, open box is enough to contain the mechanism driven by a crank.

Two wooden discs

We need two wooden discs, one mounted horizontally and the other vertically. You can see that the shaft for the larger disc is mounted off-centre on a 2 mm brass rod. This eccentricity is what is required to produce the up and down movement.

The basic mechanism

For each turn of the horizontal shaft its eccentric disc turns once and so pushes the smaller disc up once and allows it to fall down once. The eccentric disc is thus acting as a cam. It could have a more complicated shape to, for example, increase the number of up and down movements per turn. This quite simple mechanism gives us just what we need to make the octopus both spin and move up and down, producing the undulating effect we are after.

The finished octopus base

In the finished item you can see that a couple of plastic washers keep the eccentric disc turning smoothly. I have also painted some very small fish around the circumference of the smaller, driven disc. It would be a bad idea to paint the eccentric disc as the abrasion as it drives the other disc would rub the paint off.


Youtube link


Wooden Weather

Wooden Weather

We have had a lot of weather recently and here is a little more. At least with this version, you won’t get wet feet.


A present for Kim

The other day, a young friend of mine gave me a present, a beautiful picture of a rainbow. This made me wonder whether anyone had tried to make a wooden weather automata. A quick search found one match ( “Wooden Automata Rain Machine” made by Ian McKay.

Image from the Old Chapel Gallery

This suggested using a crankshaft to make the raindrops move up and down and I thought, “I’ll go for that” but, along the way, I decided to embellish the design with a rainbow, a sun, a cloud and ultimately a small bird.


A rainbow is a simple geometric exercise and I chose to have 6 colours. As a boy I learned Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain to name the sequence of seven colours in the rainbow, red, orange, yellow, green, indigo and violet. I have never understood the difference between indigo and violet, so I decided to drop indigo leaving just six colours.

A rainbow

The cloud was fun. Cotton wool is often used to suggest clouds but I have a good collection of wooden balls.

Selection of small wooden balls

So, with some sanding and gluing, I could make a cartoonish sort of cloud which was just right.

Making a wooden cloud

After a bit of painting, I used some 4 mm dowel to glue the cloud firmly to the rainbow. This meant that I could hold the cloud in a fixed attitude and could drill four parallel holes for the raindrops.

Drilling the cloud to let the raindrops fall

I then drilled matching holes in the base, as well as a hole up through the rainbow for the 4 mm dowel which holds the sun up in the sky.

Brass raindrop rods

For the movement, I used a piece of brass rod and bent it using pliers, sliding on some drilled 4 mm dowel pieces as bearings before adding the next bend. The four bearings are roughly at 0°, 90°, 180° and 270° so that each raindrop seems to move out of phase with the others.

The crankshaft

You can see that the crankshaft also turns a wheel at the left. This wheel will friction drive the hemisphere attached to the bottom of the dowel holding the sun.

The linkages on the crankshaft

After adding bearings made of drilled pieces of dowel to the bottom of the raindrop rods, I attached linkage rods to the crankshaft before fitting it all together and fixing the ends into the bearings by adding a final bend.

The finished drive assembly

To stop the bearings from slipping out of their respective brass loops, I then added a drop of two-component epoxy resin glue to the outside of each bearing.

Mistake 1 – Moving Holes

When I did my trial assembly I found that I had made the linkage rods too short and the mechanism jammed. Once I recognised the problem, I had to move the holes in the right hand side and in the internal partition down 10 mm. To move a hole, you fill the old hole with a suitably thin piece of dowel (first making the hole bigger if necessary) and then drill a new hole.

Mistake 2 – Cloud Too Thin

Once everything moved smoothly, I found that the rod for the right hand raindrops kept falling out of the cloud. When I made it longer, it then poked out of the top of the cloud on the up stroke. I thought about inflating that end of the cloud by the addition of a new ball, but then decided to add a small bird, calmly flying high up, towards the sun, thus keeping its feet nice and dry.

A serendipitous bird

This was then a case of serendipity and not a mistake at all! Isn’t it fun just making things up as you go along!

The Video

Wooden Weather video


The Images

The Unexpected Visitors

The Unexpected Visitors

Our princess had just been to the hairdressers which was so tiring that she settled down in a comfy chair in the garden and drifted off into a deep sleep. Meanwhile a sudden gust of wind in the treetops blew a new family out of the branches of a tree to drift down onto the lawn, tipping everyone out on the way. Well that new hairdo looked just right so it took no time at all to move everyone into this luxurious new abode. 

And the moral of this story is – be careful where you nod off when you’ve just had your hair done!

What was the idea?

I was sketching a few figures in an idle attempt to move away from my usual style when my wife piped up and said that’s good.

The initial sketch

As all dutiful husbands do, I agreed with her and knocked up a maquette in plastercine.

The plastercine maquette

Some things changed a bit along the way. Now there are only 3 birds and the girl is now wearing stylish glasses. I took some photos and scaled the size of the printout to match the size of my piece of wood. Cutting out the figures from the printout allowed me to mark up my wood to prepare for cutting and carving.

The movement

I decided to make the birds move up and down as the handle is turned. This is the reverse of what goes on in an internal combustion engine for example. Instead of pistons moving up and down to cause some rotation, in this case the rotary movement causes the birds to move up and down, excited by the prospect of ma or pa bird returning with a juicy worm in their beak.

The unfortunate hostess for this pretty scene can do no more than wait patiently for calm to return, maybe tying a knot in her hanky to remind herself not to fall asleep again in the garden during the nesting season.


After marking up the wood, the first thing to do is to drill three holes for the birds to move in while things are still square enough for precision. The birds bodies are basically 10 mm diameter dowel so the holes are 11 mm to allow easy movement up and down.

Three bird holes

Then the larger pieces of waste can be removed by sawing. Carving is much harder work than sawing so the more that you can remove like this the better.

Carved hair ring / nest

It’s handy to refer to the plastercine maquette every now and again while carving and after a few days things will take on the required shape.

The required shape

The base

The base is a box with a crankshaft.

Most parts for the base
The crankshaft with bearings to connect three birds

The crankshaft has three bearings at approximately 0 degrees, 120 degrees and 240 degrees. If you look from the end along the main shaft, you will see the three bearings (made from a piece of drilled dowel) evenly spaced around the shaft. I just bent a piece of 1.6 mm brass rod with a pair of pliers until it looked about right, fitting the wooden bearings as I went along. Once the rod is bent the bearings cannot be slid on, or off, which is just what we want; three reliable places to connect the birds with no risk of parts slipping out of place and jamming. The internal partitions are there to keep the crankshaft in place so that it can’t slip to the left or right..

Partially assembled base

The birds

Three birds waiting to be connected

The birds have to be painted before assembly in cheerful, birdy colours.

Slots cut in bottom end of birds

After positioning the birds with their cheeky beaks all pointing outwards, they have to be marked so that slots can be cut to fit a brass rod with a loop at the end into each slot. A pin pushed through the eye of each loop holds it in place. This arrangement prevents the birds from twisting around and poking one another with their beaks.

Birds with their connecting rods

Note that to align the connecting rods to the wooden bearings on the crankshaft, I had to add a sideways offset to the yellow and green birds’ rods.

Connecting rods attached to crankshaft bearings

After checking for easy movement, I used epoxy resin to glue the connecting rods to the wooden bearings on the crankshaft.


I was amazed to find that with my hand-bent “crankshaft” the movement was very smooth, with little effort required. It is a very compact solution too. I didn’t carve the birds as they are comparatively small and the bright colours certainly catch your attention once they start moving about. Carving the main 12 cm tall figure took quite a bit of work, but I think it was worth it.

The video


Downloadable Images

Animals in Orbit

What was the idea?

There is a range of small wooden figures widely offered for sale for young families with each figure sitting on a standardised piece of 17 mm diameter dowel. There is then a matching range of bases with 17.5 mm diameter holes into which the figures can be plugged. Apart from the plugging and unplugging, this is a very static affair so I decided to add some movement and open up a whole new world, to boldly go where no turkey has gone before. I also find that the commercially available, mass-produced figures are a bit too simple, restricted as they are by the low price that parents are traditionally willing to pay for them. I like to take a few hours to carve each small figure which presumably makes them commercially unviable, but hey, I make things for fun, not money.

The movement

Round base with the crank mechanism

A 15 cm plywood disc serves as the base. It has four supports for the lid and a central bearing which allows the vertical spindle to turn freely. Turning the crank rotates the drive wheel on which a disc rests which is attached to the vertical spindle. Friction means that when the drive wheel is turned, it causes the disc to turn, rotating the vertical spindle.

This very simple mechanism is extended by the addition of two wooden cogs. One is glued to the cranked shaft and the other is fixed to a small music box mechanism. This arrangement means that when the handle is cranked the wheel turns and the cogs also turn to produce a merry tune. The music box mechanism uses a ratchet to drive its music drum. Turned the “wrong” way, the ratchet simply clicks harmlessly now and then and no music is produced.

The vertical spindle

The vertical spindle is glued to a disc which is friction-driven round and round. The spindle passes freely through the middle of another 15 cm disc above which both a 67 mm hemisphere and sphere are fixed. The hemisphere is used to fix the arms holding the figures and, with a lick of paint, the sphere looks like our planet Earth.

Five arms

The five arms are made of 8 mm dowel attached to 40 mm hemispheres with a 17.5 mm hole drilled in the centre. Stretch your imagination a little and these could be flying saucers.

The Animals

A peacock
A squirrel
A cat
A polka-dot horse
A snail (with moustache)
A zebra

The Video

Animals in Orbit – video



This is a fairly simple carousel with music. The ability to change the passengers makes it more interactive, especially for kids who like to put their own slant on things. I can carve as many figures as I feel like as they can always form an orderly queue to wait for their turn for a ride. Apart from the five flying saucers there is also one prime position right on top of the world.

Downloadable Images


Terry’s a twirler
An accomplished swirler
A polished curler
Magic with the ball
He never lets it fall
At all…

Terry the Twirler

What was the brief and how did it change?

I started out with the idea of a dog chasing its tail on a small base. Having made a base with a crank to spin the turntable on the top, I then decided that the dog was a bit boring and that something more interesting was required.

The poor dog, endlessly chasing its tail

A few pencil sketches later and I settled on a figure doing some sort of Victorian dance, with its arms diagonal making a more interesting movement as the turntable rotates.

A drawing, the wire & plastercine maquette, and the carved figure

Adding long rabbits ears emphasised the movement and a ball precariously perched on the top hand looks as if it might fly away at any moment. I’m not sure exactly what the result is but it was fun to make.


Parts for the base

The parts for the base are mostly made of 3 mm plywood. The finished base is 55 wide x 55 deep x 43 mm high. The 15 mm diameter drive wheel and the 23 mm diameter turntable are made of 8 mm plywood. Using thick wood for the drive wheel increases the surface area in contact with the turntable thus providing more reliable operation.

Assembling the base 1

The dowel serving as the axle for the turntable rotates freely in a bearing glued to the bottom of the base. A wider piece of dowel is glued to the axle to prevent it from being completely removed.

Assembling the base 2

When these two pieces are glued together, the turntable can turn but cannot fall out.

Assembling the base 3

The crank is made from a piece of bent brass rod and this is glued to the drive wheel using 2-component epoxy resin adhesive.

Assembling the base 4

When the drive wheel is fitted, it lifts the turntable so that it no longer rests on the top piece of plywood but sits snugly on the drive wheel.

Assembling the base 5

After checking that everything moves OK, the final side piece and the top can be glued in place. Two wooden spheres are fitted to the crank handle. The large ball turns freely while the small one is glued in place to prevent the large ball from falling off.

After carving and painting the figure, it can then be pinned onto the turntable with short pieces of 3 mm dowel and glued in place.

Final Reflections

Recently aiming to make smaller pieces, I was pleased that it’s possible to make a comparatively small base with a reliable, crank-operated turntable. Although music boxes often feature a ballerina turning on tip-toe, I feel that just turning a figure without it “doing” anything else means that the figure has to be more interesting.

Twirler Video


Link to video


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Visit to the Musée des Automates, La Rochelle, France

In 2021, I visited La Rochelle, an attractive seaside town on the Bay of Biscay in France. After a delicious lunch in one of the waterside restaurants, I popped into the Musée des Automates & Modèles Réduits (Museum of Automata and Scale Models – to take a look at their collection.

This museum opened to the public in 1984, with more than 30 years of work by the museum’s original creator, Michel Gaillard, to build up this collection. In addition to some prestigious antique pieces (for example made by Jouets et Automates Français (JAF), or Decamps …), there are some large animated displays. There are apparently more than 300 moving figures: mostly antique, with some animated window displays and historical scenes. I thought that I would share just a few impressions of what’s on offer.

Here is part of a reconstruction of the “Montmartre” district of Paris, which is used as a setting for some of the automata from the first part of the 20th century.

Montmartre street scene
A butcher’s shop

One of the shop windows shows a French butcher’s shop, with an automaton which I guess was used for advertising in the days before television took over the job. It reminded me of a modern work by Paul Spooner “Little Reinhold’s Wonderful Sausage Machine”.

“Groom de service” 1923

It’s fun to speculate what this piece “Groom de service” made by JAF in 1923 was used for. I imagined it on the counter of a bar serving plates of salted snacks to keep the customers thirsty.

Le Jouer de Bonneteau

Of course there was a magician.

The caption reads “Vauconson réalisant son célèbre automate canard. Réalisation Laurent 13 mouvements”

This work made me wonder a bit. It’s an automaton showing an automaton-maker at work. Its title loosely translates as “Vauconson making his famous mechanical duck. I took a quick peek in Wikipedia to find an article in French about a digesting or defecating automaton duck, created by Jacques de Vaucanson around 1734.

More detail of what Vaucoson was working on

Here is a link to an automated translation of the French Wikipedia article for those interested in defecating ducks.

A classic automaton showing a clown balancing on a ladder, made in 1895

This clown balancing on a ladder together with a pig balancing a ladder on its nose, was made in 1895 by another famous automatist called Leopold Lambert. Follow this link for a short biography.

It was an interesting visit for me even though I know nothing about antique automata. The entrance fee also includes a visit to the adjacent museum which has a collection of model ships and a model railway setup.

The museum is within walking distance of La Rochelle town centre at 12-14 rue de la Désirée, 17000 La Rochelle

Other Automata Museums in France

If you search for “musée des automates”, you will find several matches in France.

I will certainly be popping in to see what they have to offer, the next time that I am in the vicinity.


Download the images from here

How do rabbits brush their teeth?

What was the plan?

I recently watched a friend brush her daughter’s teeth before putting her to bed and I wondered how rabbits set about this mundane task. I mean they have very visible teeth which they must be quite proud of and they can’t pop around to the shops to buy a toothbrush. I have never asked a rabbit, but I am guessing that they might use a bit of brushwood as they live a healthy outdoor life.

The rabbit

Two wooden eggs basically make up the rabbit’s body and its head. 3 mm plywood serves to make the teeth and ears. A piece of 5 mm dowel joins the rabbit’s head to its body.

A through hole, drilled sideways through the body, loosely accommodates a piece of 4 mm dowel to which the rabbit’s right arm will be attached. A slot cut in the rabbit’s back allows a brass lever to be inserted into the dowel to rotate it a little.

The angle of the arm to the body is important if our brushwood brush is to move correctly in front of the teeth so, before doing any carving, I checked that the angles were correct with a very rough arm.

Once the angles are OK, it’s safe to cut the arm roughly to shape before starting to carve.

The base is a simple rectangular block with a through hole from front to back for the crank to turn easily and a hole for some dowel to attach the rabbit to its base.

Once the rabbit was largely assembled I glued a piece of brass rod into the horizontal dowel to move the rabbit’s right arm up and down. Another piece of brass rod passes through the base and I bent this into a crank. When the crank is at the top of its movement, the arm is down, when the crank is at the bottom of its movement, the arm is up. A certain amount of experimentation is needed to get the crank dimensions just right.

If you look closely, you can see that I soldered a small washer onto the crank to keep the vertical linkage on the horizontal part of the crank and to prevent it from slipping down towards the base. A wooden ball glued in place prevents the linkage from slipping off backwards, away from the base. When painted white this suggests a bobtail for our rabbit.

The front part of the crank has two balls, a small one which is glued in place to retain the larger, free-turning ball. Grabbing this larger ball allows you to rotate the crank endlessly, without having to let go. The rabbit’s left arm doesn’t move and is glued in place, covering up the end of the hole containing the horizontal dowel. The toothbrush is a piece of dowel with two token leaves attached. This rabbit has long, rabbity feet but its legs are left to your imagination as an unnecessary complication.

Final thoughts

The finished bunny is quite small, about 13 cm high and its mechanism is extremely easy to operate. Some of my larger creations can be quite stiff to use, especially for children. It was fairly quick to make apart from the carving. I enjoy taking my time when carving, making hands with fingers and thumbs always takes a while (my rabbit has fairly human hands). With no explanation, adults find it hard to understand what is going on here. I considered writing the title “How do rabbits brush their teeth” on the side for English-speaking adults but have decided against it. Mysteries are an interesting part of life.




The Pink Elephant

The Idea

I was poking around a museum shop in Denmark and I came across a splendid elephant designed by Kay Bojesen and made of oak. There are images of this classic product on the Rosendahl web site. I thought that it would be fun to have a go at making my own elephant with some interesting movement. My elephant would have to be able to pick things up with its trunk and of course it would have to be able to fly. I did think about Dumbo-style ears but on consideration I thought that was a bit far fetched. How can an elephant possibly fly by flapping its ears? Instead of that, my elephant has a very modern howdah strapped to its back which contains the mechanism to drive a high efficiency helicopter-like propeller. As usual, there is a crank protruding from the back of the howdah to get things moving.

Technical Requirements

The trunk should be rigid, operated by unkindly pulling our poor elephant’s tail. To help her to pick things up a magnet is required in the end of her trunk. The propellor should be friction driven to make it less likely that over enthusiastic admirers can break parts such as a pin wheel. This friction drive should work even if the elephant is up side down. We don’t want to risk a dangerous power loss during aerobatic manoeuvres.

Making the Elephant

The head is made from a wooden ball and the body from a wooden egg. Cutting a slice off of each part makes them fit nicely together.

Head and body

A hole drilled through the head is as wide as the elephant’s trunk allows a string to pass through. A slim brass rod serves as a hinge for the trunk.

The trunk is carved from a piece of lime wood with a suitably drilled hole for the brass hinge rod.

The trunk hinged in the head

The string emerges from the top of the trunk and another brass rod, near the bottom of the opening, makes sure that tugging the string results in a downward pull to make the trunk lift up.

The string to pull the elephant’s trunk up

A hole drilled straight through the elephant’s body allows the string to come out where the elephant’s tail will be.

Now we have to carve a pair of tusks and make a hat from a wooden cone which sits at a jaunty angle.

Use a template to cut two ears from 3 mm plywood, adding a slim strip of the same material to strengthen the simple glued bond to the head.

Two ears

Now we have to carve four legs, two longer ones at the front and the shorter ones at the back.

Four carved legs
The elephant without her howdah

Adjusting the legs to fit against a slightly tilted egg shape was a bit tricky. Trial and error got me there in the end.


Sanding tools

I don’t have a sanding machine as I find the “tools” in the picture do the job for me. The larger tools have a velcro pad to hold suitable sanding papers which you can either use free hand or they can be clamped in a vice. The smaller ones are pieces of fairly rigid foam with pieces of sandpaper glued to the surface. Available in a variety of grades, these are great for smoothing elephant legs.

Making the howdah

Usually howdahs were put on elephants so that wealthy princes could ride around in style or in older, more disreputable, times go tiger hunting from a safe height. My howdah contains the mechanism to allow our pink elephant to fly around.

Howdah parts ready for assembly

In the picture you can see three parts. The left hand part is the basic box with a small magnet glued in the bottom centre. The right hand part completes the box and carries a plywood wheel which is turned by a crank outside of the box. The centre part drops into the top of the box so that its wheel rests on the edge of the wheel which is turned by the crank.

Howdah partially assembled

Note that the vertical dowel which will turn the “helicopter blades” also has a magnet on its lower end. This is attracted to the other magnet and has the effect of pulling the horizontal wheel down onto the vertical wheel which is turned by the crank. Without this gravity would do a similar job, but only when the elephant is standing on a horizontal surface. Turn the elephant upside down and gravity would pull the wheels apart. The magnets also result in a stronger force than gravity provides, so there is a more reliable connection between the two wheels, while still permitting slip if a child try to turn things directly.

Howdah fully assembled

A strip of 3 mm ply above the horizontal wheel keeps the vertical dowel nicely perpendicular to the howdah, which now has some decorative sides added.

Finishing Touches

Finished pink elephant

I carved a small banana and added a few steel tacks to it so that the magnet in the elephant’s trunk can pick it up. Some tape from my wife’s sewing box served as the belt to apparently hold the howdah on the elephant’s back. Some 3 mm dowels and a spot of glue do the actual work of holding it in place. The tail is made of a couple of wooden beads. I painted a mask on its face remembering a joke that my father told me a long time ago about an elephant who robbed a jewellery shop and the red toenails must come from a childhood joke about elephants hiding in cherry trees. I was interested to read that elephants have a differing number of toenails on their front and rear feet. My helicopter blades look rather like a flower, so I added a few leaves to the horizontal wheel in the base to make it more realistic.



In Dogged Pursuit

What was the plan?

The other day I came across a picture of a vintage Fisher Price Snoopy Sniffer toy dog to pull along. Fuzzy childhood memories surfaced of having once seen one of these in action, with its doleful eyes and slightly frantic leg movement. Of course I couldn’t resist having a go at producing my own version, with a handle to crank so that I could admire it in one place on a convenient table, instead of having to scamper around with my nose to the floor risking a hay fever attack from low-level dust mites.

I had always thought of this as a bloodhound, probably used every day by Sherlock Holmes pursuing his Victorian Villains through the wild English countryside. A deer-stalker hat was thus indispensable! As far as a Victorian Villain was concerned, I thought I would take a minimalist approach and just show his boots. Maybe Sherlock is after the invisible man, who unfortunately has to wear sensible boots to carry out his villainous deeds?

To keep Sherlock’s Snooper Sniffing dog in one place, its wheels run along a rotating, slightly irregular cam, to make the movement uneven and so more interesting. As this cam turns, a pin protruding from its face drives a rod backwards and forwards to which a boot is attached. A realistic walking movement would see the boots not just move forwards and backwards, but also up and down. I’m afraid that my minimalist, invisible villain rather drags his feet and doesn’t lift them at all. I made the boots free swinging and, if you scrunch your eyes almost closed, you can imagine that it could actually be someone walking.

The dog’s design

A super sensitive nose close to the ground and an expressive tail are vital accoutrements for our canine sleuth. On a more practical level, its paws have to be moved in a circular motion via the wheel inside the dog’s body. As the paws move, the leg attached to the paw flexes and the elbow moves up and down, moving in an arc relative to the shoulder pivot. I drew the highest position in red and the lowest in blue. This was helpful to check that the front and rear legs don’t collide. When I was satisfied with that, it was then easy to dismantle the drawing to show the parts.

Printed out on some stiffish card, these can be cut out as templates.

Use the templates to mark some plywood, drill the holes and cut the pieces. One tail, four paws and two of everything else.

Most parts are in 3 mm plywood. The wheels are 6 mm plywood, so the two halves have to be kept 8 mm apart by a spacer which has the same shape as the top section of the sides. This also leaves space for the tail to swing around a bit.

One side of dog with 8 mm spacer, two wheels and a tail.

With judicious use of 3 mm dowel and some 6 mm hemispheres to cap the ends, the assembled dog looks something like this.

The base

My original design for the base shows two identical cogs, each with 20 teeth. I used to produce and print their design, I glued them onto some 10 mm plywood and cut them out. But why, did I need cogs at all? As the slotted mechanism to move the boots, slides back and forth in front of the cam, it is not possible to simply extend the cam’s centre axle and fit a crank handle to its end. My solution to this problem is to use two cogs to effectively move the drive axis outside of the cam.

This is easier to understand from a picture taken from above the mechanism.

Here you can see 5 pillars made from 12 mm dowel. There is one pillar at each corner and one towards the centre. This centre pillar holds the short axle which joins the cam to the left-hand cog. As the crank is turned, it turns the right-hand cog which in turn drives the left-hand cog, making the cam rotate.

Just showing the cam and cog on an axle through the central pillar

The left-hand cog also has a pin in its outer face to drive the second slide

As the cog is turned, its pin then moves the slide backwards and forwards, thus moving the boot.

The hinge

So far there is no connection between the dog and the base so we need a hinge.

Hinge with two degrees of rotation

A piece of 4 mm dowel is fixed to part of the dog’s body where the moving legs can’t bump into it. This dowel can turn around axis B allowing the dog to tilt gently forward and back as the irregular cam turns. To make sure that both wheels stay in contact with the cam, rotation around axis A allows the dogs whole body to move gently up and down. This all means that the dog’s movement is more lively and interesting as it tracks the profile of the rotating cam. I chose not to restrict the rotation around axis A which means that the dog can swing wildly if you pick up the finished thing too impetuously. This may be a problem with children, but I’m sure adults will be more cautious. My dog did tend to loose contact with its rear wheel so I added a weight inside the body, above the rear wheel which fixed that problem nicely.


I didn’t intend to make it suitable for left-handed use, but that’s how it turned out. With the boots at the left-hand side you naturally want to hold the base with your right hand and then turn the crank with your left hand. I thought about putting the crank on the other side to make it right-handed, but then you would be looking at the side with the hinge and I preferred to avoid that.

Lucky lefties! But hey why ever not? When I build something for the first time I find that I can never think of everything in advance. My brain starts to hurt. After my day’s ration of decisions has been used up, I just wait with interest to see how things turn out.

Video – In Dogged Pursuit



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Schlossgut Schwante 2021

The Magic Yogic Flying Hat

My yoga practitioner rather likes to wear a star-studded top hat while doing the daily exercises. As the hat kept falling off while doing the traditional cross-legged leaps, it seemed more useful to drop the hopping about and to concentrate solely on levitating the headgear. This requires years of practice and only the most experienced can master this extremely advanced technique. The very best practitioners eventually achieve a state of wisdom manifested by an owl appearing beneath their topper. A red owl shows a counter-clockwise attitude to life whereas a green owl definitely reveals a clockwise sense of being. Just turn the handle and be amazed at what you can discover about yourself.

The Technical Brief

The mechanism is simply based on a very eccentric cam and a drive wheel on the same horizontal axis. These both friction-drive wheels attached to two coaxial vertical shafts, one hollow one not. The eccentric cam doesn’t just rotate its wheel, but lifts it up and down by 5 cm (the size of the owls). Its wheel is attached to the hat via a wooden dowel which turns loosely inside a brass tube. The other driven wheel is connected to the brass tube which passes freely through the figure and its other end is attached to the owls. This wheel must only turn through 180 degrees to show the correct coloured owl. As the biggest drive wheel is quite large, a largish base is needed to accommodate it. Making up more than one half of the whole assembly my feeling is that it then needs to be interesting in itself. To this end I chose a round base, a very open structure so that you can see everything that goes on, and I cut decorative holes in the drive wheel and cam.

The Sun Cam

The “sun” cam is mounted on the axis which is turned by the crank. It has to provide an up and down movement of 5 cm. I chose X to be 3 cm and Y to be 8 cm which gives the required difference of 5 cm. To add to the slightly mystic flavour of the piece I cut a sun pattern. The sun does go up and down after all and with a bit of yellow paint it does look quite sunny. Note that I didn’t paint the outside circumference of the cam as it rubs against the wheel which it drives and the abrasion would quickly wear the colour away.

The Star and Moon Wheel

The “star and moon” wheel to turn the owls around has to have a larger radius Z=9 than the cam’s largest radius Y=8. This is to allow space for the wheels which are friction-driven. As this is a nighttime pattern, I painted it dark blue which is a nice contrast to the “sun” cam.

The Wheel which turns the Owls

This wheel is glued to a brass tube. The other end of the tube is attached to the owls. To prevent this wheel from being turned by more than 180 degrees, I have inserted two pieces of 3 mm dowel which bump up against a piece of dowel which protrudes down beneath the top of the base.

The 180 degree stop

Once the stop is reached, although the “sun” cam continues to turn, it now just slips on the wheel, until the crank is turned in the other direction which will then result in a reverse 180 degree turn.

The Wise Owls

This strange looking beast is a 5 cm tall owl, or rather 2 owls back-to-back. This is why it has 4 eyes and two beaks. The hole drilled vertically through it is a snug fit on the brass tube. Turning the crank clockwise turns the green owl to the front. Turning it counter-clockwise rotates it by 180 degrees to bring the red owl to the fore.

Front view of the owls

The Figure

The figure has no moving parts, it is just a support for the owls and its hat with a vertical hole all of the way through which allows the brass tube to turn freely. I went for simple crossed arms and legs, which is my version of the correct pose for yogic flying. The figure is as short-sighted as I am, so of course it needs a pair of spectacles. The top ring serves as a nest for the owls.

The Hat

I needed thin walls for the hat, so that the owls have space to do their turns. An old plastic tube was just the right size, if a bit of a nuisance to paint, but I managed to find some suitable black gloss paint for a starry night. This also turned out to be so lightweight, that it would go nicely up but would then hesitate about coming down. A lead weight right at the top fixed that while leaving space for the owls.

The Drive Shaft for the Hat

The thin part of the shaft runs inside the brass tube and is attached to the top of the hat after passing through the owls. The thicker part rests loosely in a hole drilled in some 25 mm dowel which is fixed to the bottom part of the base. It was OK to paint the outer circumference of the driven discs as they don’t touch anything. Using a strong pattern makes the movement very clear.

Hat down
Hat levitated


The base is quite large owing to the need for a simple cam to produce 5 cm of vertical movement. I toyed with the idea of using a lever to multiply the cam’s movement, but without the rotation it would then not have been possible to magically change between red and green owls. There is probably a more complex solution which would do what is required in less space, but everyone wants to see how the mechanism works anyway, so having everything out in the open and brightly coloured makes it all a part of the show.



Downloadable Images in a ZIP file

A Happy Cyclist

A Happy Cyclist
Peter Markey’s Cyclist

The other day I came across a video of Peter Markey’s wonderful “Cyclist” (see and I liked the movement. Not only does the small figure pedal madly like a child on a tricycle, but the road goes up and down, making the bicycle tilt forwards and backwards. “I’ll have a go at that,” I thought and mentally added a small change to the figure’s head to allow it to also swing about, adding quite a bit more movement.


Instead of setting off straight into the workshop, I thought for a change that I would try drawing my design in some detail and in doing so make it easy to print out templates which I could trace around on sheets of plywood ready for cutting.

I used a drawing application called Graphic for Mac. This has layers, so that I could draw each part on a separate layer, rather like layers of plywood. It’s not expensive 3D software, so I couldn’t do a full design at my desk, but I could check out basic things such as checking that the knees do not bump into the handlebars while pedalling.

The layered design of A Happy Cyclist

I chose to use a landscape with 3 green hills. The front and back hills are fixed and provide a framework to hold the axle for the crank as well as a tilting support for the bicycle. The middle hill isn’t really a hill at all but a rotating cam with ups and downs to make the ride more interesting. A rolling landscape.

Cause and action are reversed here. Turning the crank moves the road, which turns the wheels, which make the feet move. The viewer however gets the impression that the figure’s legs are pumping making the wheels turn etc.

Cutting spokes is an unnecessary complication. I thought it would be quite OK to leave the wheels solid and just paint the spokes, following Peter Markey’s example.

To make the head swing free, it is made up of two parts which are joined at the top by a piece of brass rod. Trial and error tells you where to drill the pivot holes and small wooden hemispheres on each side serve both as a flower in the girl’s hair as well as increasing the surface area to which the brass rod is glued thus making a stronger joint.

Head with a minimalist flower covering the end of the brass rod


Parts cut out using card templates

Having drawn all of the shapes with a computer it was easy to to print out the individual shapes on some card, which I then cut out with scissors to make a set of templates. My bowsaw made short work of cutting out the bike from 3 mm plywood and the wheels and hills from 6 mm plywood. The centre part of the body determines the spacing between the two halves of the bicycle frame, so it has to be a little thicker than the wheels to allow them to rotate freely. The joints are made with 3 mm dowel.

Painted parts

It was only sensible to paint the parts as far as possible before assembling the figure and her bike.

The left leg and “pedal”

The joints in the legs use 3 mm dowel. To ensure free movement, the hole in the moving part is 3.5 mm and a small wooden hemisphere on the end of the dowel prevents everything from falling to pieces when the pace picks up.

The partially assembled cyclist

Once I had provisionally assembled the cyclist and had checked that she pedals nicely when rolled along the workbench it was time to consider how to attach the bike to the landscape.

Side view

As the shape of the cam on which the wheels run is not a regular circle, the bike has to be able to tilt forwards and back when cycling downhill and uphill to maintain contact with the road. A piece of dowel glued to the base of the bike can rotate in a hole drilled in the rear hill. A certain amount of up and down movement is also needed to keep the wheels on the road. I had thought of making a fairly complex pivot to allow this, but it turned out to be unnecessary. The play between the dowel and the hole in the rear hill was enough to keep everything moving.

Final Touches

Turn over a new leaf

The lever that you use to wind an automata into movement is often boring, so on a whim I went for a leaf shape, as everything was so pleasantly green. You can play with the words here as in “Turn over a new leaf and go for a ride on your bike”. It amuses me, even if most of my German friends look completely blank. I usually make the part that you grab hold of red as a signal – “start here”.

Also something is required to keep the front and rear hills parallel to one another and I started with a boring rectangle. Imagining myself cycling through the hills of sunny Italy I thought let’s have a tunnel instead. Italians are master tunnel builders, which is handy given how many hills they’ve got.

Tunnel entrance to let the trains through

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Hair-Raising Girl

Hair-raising girl

Have you ever thought how you can make hair move? Inspired, as so often, by an image from the Internet, I wondered first of all how to make triangles hanging from the circumference of a head stand up. It seemed pretty complex to me and I wasn’t sure that the result would be worth the effort. Then I noticed that I still had a few bases for thumb push puppets lying around so I decided to stretch the concept a little of what hair looks like.

The Requirements

This is fundamentally a fairly simple project and the idea is that when you pick the figure up and press its base the hair should move. A standard thumb push puppet has one spring in the base and four strings attached to a disc on the bottom of the spring. Having only four strands of hair seemed a bit thin to me so I went for eight instead.

There is however a reason why four is the standard number and I guess that it has to do with keeping the tension about the same for all of the strings, when no one is pushing the base up. The spring permits the disc in the base to tilt in any direction, thus compensating for some of the differences in tension at four points on the circumference. Having eight points around the circumference might bring the points too close together for tilting to effectively correct for differences in tension. My quick fix for this is only use four points but, instead of fixing each string to the point, I arranged for a smooth anchor bar around which each string can slide thus allowing both ends of each piece of string to be used up on the figure’s head. If the friction is low, the tension at the two ends will be very similar. This results in eight ends to play with and the tilting of the disc can compensate for slight differences in tension as usual.


Recycled base with 8 new holes and 4 old, unused ones

The base needs eight holes for the four pieces of string. The figure’s dress will cover the four old, unused holes.

Disc with spring, brass ring and four strings

I modified the original disc which fits into the base by cutting four notches and gluing a piece of bent brass rod on top with epoxy resin adhesive. This arrangement leaves plenty of space for each string to slide easily.

Drilling slanted holes in the head

The head is a 40 mm diameter beechwood ball predrilled with an 8 mm through hole. Slid onto a slanted piece of 8 mm dowel this can be rotated to drill eight holes which are suitably spaced for hair at the top, but which are slanted so as to come together at the neck hole.

Body parts and base

The figure’s body is a beechwood cone with the tip cut off and a through hole, widened at the bottom with carving tools. The strings come out of the holes in the base, pass through the conical body, out of the neck hole and into the head, where each string has its own hole from the neck up onto the top of the head.

Painted parts ready for assembly

Before the final assembly, the parts have to be painted.

Compressing the spring for assembly

I used masking tape and a block of round wood to press and hold the disc up, compressing the spring a little and holding it in place while the strings are threaded up through the figure.

Strings threaded through the body and head

I used kite-flying string as it is both flexible and strong. Patience is required while threading, but using long strings helps. Five small brown balls go on each string and the last one to go on is then glued in place after closing the hole with a tiny piece of dowel which also jams the string as it is pushed in. It’s important to tension of all eight strands of “hair” about the same, so that they all stand up when the spring is released. If one string is less tense than the others, two strands of hair will flop down and spoil the effect. It took me three goes and much gnashing of teeth to get this right.

Hair finished and equally tensioned

I almost added arms to the conical body but decided they would just make it harder to hold and operate, so I painted them instead.

For the video I borrowed the story from a well-known English nursery rhyme.

Little Miss Muffet
Sat on a tuffet,
Eating her curds and whey;
There came a big spider,
Who sat down beside her
And frightened Miss Muffet away.

I have no idea what a tuffet is. In my case it’s obviously blue, whatever it is. In retrospect my thumb puppet could have been a cranked automaton where a spider appearing causes her hair to stand on end. Some other day perhaps.

Photo archive

The Bizarre Belle of the Ball

The Bizarre Belle of the Ball

Some while ago I enjoyed a video produced by an Italian artist Giuseppe Ragazzini ( and I thought it would be fun to make my own real world, wooden version which doesn’t need an internet connection. Then a friend gave me some doll’s eyes, the sort of eyes which close when a doll is put to sleep. That was enough to finally get me started on the Bizarre Belle of the Ball.


I chose to have 8 sets of eyes mounted on one disc, 8 noses on a second disc and 8 mouths on a third disc which is enough for 512 distinct faces so that our belle can go to 512 balls and never have to look the same twice.

To frame each face and concentrate the viewer’s attention on it, it seemed best to use our bizarre belle’s arms. Whenever her eyes are correctly aligned, both arms should come up. To make it a more convincing gesture, she should hold a mirror in one hand to admire the finished effect and a comb in the other to tidy her non existent hair. One turn of each control knob should rotate the disc through exactly one eighth of a turn.


The smallest 3 mm plywood disc is attached to a solid 6 mm axle. This axle runs inside a thicker hollow axle for the middle-sized disc. The largest diameter disc turns around both with several spacers joining the disc to its cog while leaving room for the doll’s eyes.

three discs to mount the eyes, noses and mouths

If that sounds complicated, here is a section through the middle. This means you are looking at these discs from the side

section through the middle (not to scale)
The “eyes” disc connected via spacers to its large cog

To make the 3 discs turn, you then need 3 large cogs behind them.

Three large cogs

Small cogs will drive the big ones, so the number of teeth is important to set the speed of rotation of each disc. With 8 noses etc., the number of teeth on the big cogs must be 8 times the number of teeth on the small cogs, so that one turn of the control by the user moves from one nose to the next. I chose 7 teeth for the small cogs which then means 56 teeth for the big cogs. I find that cogs with small numbers of teeth can jam easily and 7 is actually quite close to the limit.

To shape the cogs I used Matthias’ splendid online gear template generator To save time and work here, I first pinned three sheets of 6 mm plywood together, glued the template on top and then cut the three large cogs at once with my scroll saw.

Body and legs

body front (left) and back (right) and four legs

To hold the rotating discs and cogs some sort of frame is required. A dress with a wavy frill at the bottom and a round upper body seemed about right. Two legs would be a bit unstable, so my bizarre belle has four legs. The front part also has to take the mechanism to lift the arms up. Some elegant carved shoes are, of course, needed to equip our belle for the ball.

The front part of the body with the lifting mechanism for the arms

The hole between the legs takes an axle fitted with an eccentric cam. As the axle is turned the cam presses the vertical actuator down, which pulls the arms up. The loose round part at the top is the lid to keep all of the parts in place and it also has a hole in the middle which serves as the bearing for the axle for the rotating assembly.

The rear part of the body with 6 small cogs to drive the large cogs

The rear part of the body carries 6 small cogs, 2 for each large cog. They are each set at the correct height to drive their own large cog and hence the corresponding disc with noses (left) eyes (centre) and mouths (right). Each knob on the front of the figure turns an axle which turns one of the small cogs. The reason for the second, identical cog is to provide enough space for the hats on the largest dic to move unimpeded. As the two cogs are identical there is no change to the transmission ratio and one turn of the knob will still move its disc through one eighth of a turn.

Unpainted partial assembly

Putting the parts together after carving eight noses, our bizarre belle starts to take shape. I was surprised to see that, when near horizontal, the doll’s eyes close and open one at a time, as if they are winking at me. Only having four sets of doll’s eyes, I improvised eyes for the other four faces.

Lessons learned

I had originally planned to use three cranks in front of the dress to turn the parts, which would have meant putting the figure on a heavy base. I find that on the up-stroke when turning a crank, models tend to skitter around unless they are heavy enough or have a non-slip coating underneath. By changing to spherical knobs, which you have to twist to operate, the upward force disappears and with it the need for a base. Magic!

The video

It is easiest to understand the mechanisms when you can see them in action so here is our belle of the ball deciding how to look for her next ball.


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Seddiner See Rundweg

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Zwei liebe Rosen in Lieberose.