Introduction: Bell Tetrahedral Kite

Picture of Bell Tetrahedral Kite

Alexander Graham Bell used tetrahedral kites in the early 1900s to disprove the theory that size detrimentally effected a flying machine's ability to get off the ground. This Instructable will show you how to make your own tetrahedral kite using bendable drinking straws and Tyvek. It's similar in its design to other kites shown here, but this kite uses less material and is guaranteed to get off the ground in very little wind.

The kite shown in this Instructable was awarded 2nd place in the 2009 Fly NY kite competition in NYC. Not too shabby for a first attempt at kite design! Visit Haptic Lab for more information about the project.

Step 1: Ingredients

Picture of Ingredients

You will need the following items:

1. bendable drinking straws (a pack of 200 works great)
2. craft or floral wire cut into 3" lengths
3. small pliers for bending and cutting ties
4. transparent tape
5. sail material: about 2 yards of tyvek, tissue paper, or mylar
6. craft glue
7. thin wood dowels (4 or 5 total)

This project shouldn't cost you more than $10.

Step 2: Straw Triangles

Picture of Straw Triangles

A tetrahedron is the simplest Platonic solid: a triangle with 4 faces. To build the individual tetrahedral cells that make up the kite, start with three straws. Flatten the long end of each straw and insert it into the short end of another straw. Make a triangle.

Step 3: Making Wings

Picture of Making Wings

Unlike other drinking straw "tetras", this kite only needs two straw-triangles per cell. By using less material, your kite will fly better and at lower wind speeds. To make a cell, simply tape two straw-triangles together. Angle the wings slightly as shown, but don't worry about making an exact 105-degree angle: the bend in the corners will flex for you.

Step 4: Making Connections

Picture of Making Connections

Make the bottom of the kite first. Connect several tetra cells together by twisting 3" bits of wire. Clip the twisted ends off; you'll get poked later on if you don't. Keep connecting, making a larger triangle out of the small cells. I recommend using 3 or 4 rows as shown.

Step 5: Kite Skeleton

Picture of Kite Skeleton

Now that you've made several larger cell groups of 6 or 9 cells each, start making connections 3-dimensionally. The joints at the bottom will have 4- and 8- point connections; keep using the wire to secure the cells together. A wide kite built of at least 4 rows will fly best; if the kite is too narrow, it tends to get a little crazy in the air...

Step 6: Making Sails

Picture of Making Sails

Use Tyvek (mailing envelopes work great), tissue paper, mylar, or any lightweight sheet material to make the sails. Start with a sheet roughly 20" x 30" in size. Fold in half four times. Make a template out of poster board or a cereal box, and position it on the folded sail material at the closed outer corner, matching a perfect right angle. Cut the material on the 3 angled sides. Unfolded, you will have 8 individual sails. Make as many sails as you need- Tyvek is dirt-cheap.

Step 7: Attaching Sails

Picture of Attaching Sails

Using a tiny bit of craft glue (Sobo, Elmer's, etc) secure the sails to each cell, folding the material around the bottom taped edge. Though a bit counter-intuitive, the kite flies with the sails oriented like a flock of "V"s. Trim any access sail material for a good, tight fit.

Step 8: Tying the Bridle

Picture of Tying the Bridle

Basically, tie your nylon line at points 1/3 the way down on the "bottom" edge or widest section of the kite ("bottom" is the taped edge of the tetrahedral cells). You'll have a bundle of lines- tie them off at a point roughly 1.5 times the width of your kite, making sure there is no slack in the lines. From this tie-off or bridle point, attach the main flying line. Use a figure-8 knot for tying: it's easy and much stronger than a square knot.

Step 9: Flight Test

Picture of Flight Test

Your kite should take off in about 10mph winds. It's helpful to have a friend for getting it off the ground- stand about 30-50 feet away from one another, with the kite facing the wind. Once the sails catch the wind, the kite should soar straight up in the air very quickly. It will level off depending on the angle of how you attached the lines.

The kite is collapsible, which makes it a great urban traveler. Right before flying however, attach a few thin wood dowels across the top-most cells with wire- being careful to keep the sails spread into equal widths. The rigidity of the wood along the top is critical: without cross-bracing, your kite will fold up like an accordion and crash to the ground as fast as it went up into the air.


cjenkins-deyoung made it! (author)2015-07-10

Did you only put dowels across the top or are they on the bottom as well?

adeptzero (author)2013-10-31

i made one by following your instructions on how to do it but i used different materials.. instead of straws, i used broomsticks tied together to make a triangle so it's not collapsible and i only made four triangles.. i spent like less than a dollar not including the kite string.. very cheap but the straw is easier to do..

flag1aa (author)adeptzero2014-05-10

What are broomsticks? I have searched google and have not found a reasonable answer.

Thank you

EmilyJ7 (author)flag1aa2015-03-12

I think hes most likely means he used the straw from a broom

adeptzero (author)flag1aa2014-10-01

articice (author)2010-04-18

why do girls like kites so much?? :^) :)

Zaino23 (author)articice2014-11-04

I am pondering the same question! This is one of the coolest things I've seen in a long time.

jeffconnelly (author)articice2010-04-18

 Who doesn't like kites so much?

mibz man (author)jeffconnelly2010-08-09

the kite won't care the gender of the person flying it

dombeef (author)mibz man2010-08-09

It might care about the age though, a four year old might drool on it

mibz man (author)dombeef2010-08-10

i can't think of a 4 year old who flys kites. and if it was up in the air the 4 year old wouldn't b able 2 drool on it.

dombeef (author)mibz man2010-08-11

If the 4 year old is carying it to the park maybe

mibz man (author)dombeef2010-09-10

u got me there

dombeef (author)mibz man2010-09-11


bucklipe (author)2009-05-30

One of the pictures I'm looking for is the middle picture on the last step. That shows the edge view from one axis. If we could get the 2 other axis views that would help. Also is the optimum "wing angle" 105 degrees? I found some wing fabric in the paint department of Wal Mart. It is a two layer drop cloth. It is paper on one side with a thin plastic bonded to it. The paper side will facilitate gluing. The plastic side will shed the air smoothly. It is 4X10 feet and costs $3.77. Not bad...

badideasrus (author)bucklipe2014-04-02

sounds good, but it also sounds heavy. i made mine out of a fireblanket from the camping department. the shiny metal blankets. it's actualy a polyester plastic, and paper thin. but it's also sturdy, and hotglue sticks to it like crazy

badideasrus (author)2014-04-02

mrraaaaa! nuuuuu! someone else did it first! dang you pinkdolphi! daaang you! :P

i am literaly building mine right now, out of mylar. lol. yours looks really good though

pinkdolphi made it! (author)2014-04-01

shiny mylar! Great instructions, thanks :)

buckaru (author)2010-08-06

ingredient? =materials

Juananz (author)2010-04-18

Definitely: shoving a 3D environment into pictures won't help at all in understanding the design, specially if you only upload one of the finished thing. I remark it would be useful if you uploaded many more pictures from the previous step and this one...

BoondockSaint (author)Juananz2010-06-17

It's not that difficult of a design. If you're actually making this, lay your first flat of half pyramids out in a triangle form. If you have a base of four half pyramids then ultimately you will need 10 half pyramids to complete the triangle. After wiring these together at the vertices that are adjacent to one another, you should end up with a "sheet" of half pyramids. Create one more of these "sheets" the same size. Once you have done that, lay one sheet on top of the other such that the upper vertices of the bottom sheet (the ones that are pointing up) are touching the bottom vertices (the ones that are flat or horizontal). You should end up with a top sheet that is slightly staggered to the left or right, but forms a level bottom with the other sheet. Wire the vertices at which the two sheets touch. Repeat as desired. Or, you could just hold your first "sheet" up to the computer screen and orient it to be the same as the photograph... "I remark" that anyone with a bit of spatial awareness and a passing mark in Geometry should be able to figure it out.

BoondockSaint (author)2010-06-17

I'm not sure if shops and groceries over in Europe use plastic bags for their goods (I've heard paper is the standard), but plastic bags make great sail material as well.

kh0annguyen (author)2010-05-22

I love your design and am trying to make this kite but I agree with everyone else that these instructions/diagrams make it impossible to follow. Please upload more pics if you can.

jgeekw (author)2010-04-19

Would only tying two "legs" of nylon line to the outside of each end, then tying those two "legs" to two separate handles allow for aerial acrobatics?

emilyfis (author)jgeekw2010-04-19

Nope, this won't work as a stunt kite. (The sails have to have a constant angle to the wind if the kite is going to stay in the air)

geoper2 (author)2010-04-19

wow nice kite !! great project thanks

kevinhannan (author)2010-04-19

 What a super-cool project!

thanks for sharing!

cchamlin (author)2009-05-21

The word you want here is "tetrahedron", "tetrahedral" is its adjective form. And it's a pyramid with 4 triangular faces. A triangle is a 2-d area, while a pyramid is 3-d solid. sorry to nitpick, but when you're featured, you gotta get this stuff right.

emilyfis (author)cchamlin2009-05-21

tetrahedral (modifer) kite (noun)...

jeffconnelly (author)emilyfis2010-04-18

 Sorry, cchamlin, but she's right :-)

jaredshearer (author)emilyfis2010-04-18

 Boom.  Go, Emily.

emilyfis (author)2010-04-18

hi cavalaxis- i don't have this particular kite around anymore (it sold at a charity auction)... in the next few months i will be teaching a kite-making class, so I can add photos then. in the meantime- i suggest just trying to make the kite! it really is easy once you start (i'm a hands-on learner myself). best,

cavalaxis (author)2010-04-18

Maybe a pic with red lines drawn over the top of the 3D formation, to help illustrate how to do the 4 & 8 point connection?

I'd really like to try this project for our camping trip this summer, but this step has got me all confused.

MY (author)2010-04-18

Very nice instructable.  Clear, concise, and fun.   Thank you for taking the time to post!

Juananz (author)2010-04-18

I don't get a thing about these pictures. Please upload more detailed ones.

bucklipe (author)2009-08-19

Does it seem that this Instructable is dead? Everyone has moved on...

emilyfis (author)bucklipe2009-08-21

Hey there bucklipe... I can post some more pics for you if you'd find them helpful... though it sounds like you've got it figured out. the structure of the kite is quite simple once you start assembling.

bucklipe (author)emilyfis2009-08-30

Looking forward to the three axis photos...

emilyfis (author)bucklipe2009-08-31

easy there, tiger. here's pics from another tetrahedral I finished for a boutique in Soho- it shows every angle. if you need further diagrams, check out this site: it's a great resource.

good luck!

bucklipe (author)emilyfis2009-08-31

I didn't want to be a pest about it, but I'm going to visit the grand kids in NC. I have all the 'wings' made for a bigger kite than I tried before (somewhat of a pyramid shape and unstable) and I need to see the structure for the one you put together. Could I get a picture straight through the side please? I'm pretty sure I've got it but a picture would be fabulous for anyone just building one. Thanks for the help...

emilyfis (author)bucklipe2009-08-31

Here's a few pics of just the skeleton... the kite is collapsed in the side view.

bucklipe (author)emilyfis2009-08-31

Thank you very bunches, you are sweet to update the post for me. My grandkids will be impressed, I'm sure. I'll show them where I got the idea...

bucklipe (author)emilyfis2009-08-22

I have put together a kite. It is somewhat unstable. Pictures from the X, Y and Z axis would help get the structure down pat. With the picture through the three sides we could see the layout. The picture on the last page with the kite laying on the sidewalk gets the view through one side. I've tried to interpret the views that are off angle but the repeating nature of the straws make it tough to get it. Thanks in advance for the pictures.

bucklipe (author)2009-07-18

I agree, we need more pictures that illustrate the structure. The pictures need to be from the top, and two other sides. It would also be good to have some description that says something like: The largest layer is made up of a grid that is 6 X 10. The next layer is 5 X 9, etc. When you have 4(?) layers you have enough...

bucklipe (author)2009-06-23

I used a low temperature hot glue gun to attach the sails. At first I used a high temp glue gun but liquid napalm oozing out and getting on your finger will deter your enthusiasm for kite assembly...

bucklipe (author)2009-06-23

Please note that the template size depends on the type and size of bendy straws that are used. The two longest sides of the template go on the two folded sides of the material being used (Tyvek, etc.)

kndclark (author)2009-06-02

There's not enough detail here. Three dimensions allow for too many choices and the comment 4 and 8 point connections isn't helping. If you could clarify this step it would be very helpful.

bucklipe (author)2009-05-26

For those of us that are challenged in the department of spatial visualization could you post a side view that shows the stack of cells? This way we could see that you had say 4 cells on the table with 5 cells above them with 6 above them etc. Another from the front looking through the cells so we could see the cell structure clearly. Using both pictures would let us see that there were 16 wings in contact with the table with 25 above it and 36 above it. Or what ever the count is. It is a bit tough to catch the geometry with the current pictures. Thanks...

kmpres (author)2009-05-16

It looks like you're flying near Coney Island, is this so? Very nice kite! And simple to make! I'm sure you know that Bell and the Wright Bros were in direct competition in 1903 to make the first heavier than air flying machine. Obviously Bell lost, but his kites were revolutionary. Fascinating design (and history). Thanks for making a simplified version for us landlubbers. By the way, where do you get tyvek without raiding every post office in town? Home Depot probably sells it as a moisture barrier for buildings but it would come in long rolls. There are no Home Depots where I live, alas.

emilyfis (author)kmpres2009-05-16

Use "Tyvek® Soft Structure Type 1443R": it's just like fabric, not a rigid waterproof membrane! You can buy in bulk from Material Concepts or buy smaller yardage from Into the Wind- a great kite hobby site:. If you're broke like me, you'll just use mailing envelopes...

About This Instructable




Bio: Emily Fischer is a Brooklyn-based architect and designer. Since moving to New York City a few years ago, her efforts have been invested in developing ... More »
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