Introduction: Building Machines From Paperclips

Picture of Building Machines From Paperclips

Several months ago I awoke one morning with an idea for a project. I had gone to bed thinking about a presentation I am going to make to a group of middle and high school technology teachers in a couple of months. I wanted to come up with a simple and inexpensive projects they could use to teach their students some aspect of technology and hopefully inspire their creativity. During the night I dreamed of making machines out of paperclips and this project was born. As for the cost of this project - the wood and paperclips cost me 37 cents.

I already had several projects I was working on at the time so I thought about the idea for a couple of months before I actually sat down with a box of paperclips and started trying to make a machine. During those months I figured out the design and process for making the machine parts and a way to assemble them. I found that I only needed a few items and tools to get started. I found the process to be easy. Paperclip machines are interesting to design and build, and fun to operate when finished. I think the sculptural form of these machines take on an artistic element as well.

For educators this project is a great way to teach students the physics of mechanical machines including cranks, levers, fulcrum points, rotary and linear motion all while stirring their curiosity and developing their mechanical aptitude. In PLTW: this could go under Modeling and Design as a miniature working model or as a machine prototype in manufacturing or structural systems. It could also go under the Power/Energy section. In STEM: it could go under nearly all of the categories. Many thanks to dauphin 1974 who shared a link to a project called FAT Friday at MIT. In that program groups and individuals build machines and then link them together in a row to create a chain reaction. I would think it would be pretty simple to come up with a way to do something similar with paperclip machines. That would allow a whole class of students to each build their own paperclip machine and then link them all together to create a chain reaction.

Here is a video of the paperclip machine I built.





Step 1: The Versatile Paperclip

Picture of The Versatile Paperclip

As a life-long Maker, I have always been one to tinker with all sorts of common objects. In meetings I am the guy who takes his ink pen apart and reassembles it over and over again. At dinner I tinker with my drinking straw and the wrapper it came in. One of my favorite things to tinker with are paperclips. I have always been fascinated by their ingenious yet simple form and function. I know they are just bent pieces of wire but they can also be much more than that. A quick search on Instructables shows that I am not alone in my fascination for making things with paperclips. People in the Instructables community have posted all sorts of paperclip projects. There are toy helicopters, earrings, a chandelier, various geometric shapes, lock picks, catapults and trebuchets all made from paperclips. This Instructable will be one more in that long list of things to do with paperclips.

Step 2: What You Will Need.

Picture of What You Will Need.

Here are the items you will need:

- A box of jumbo size paperclips (this size is made with 1.0 mm diameter wire).
- Two small pieces of hardwood. I purchased two hardwood flooring samples at a local building supply for 25 cents each.
- A pair of wire cutters and a pair of long nose pliers. I recommend the wide flat kind shown above. If you already have them, a regular
   pair of needle nose pliers with side cutters also work pretty good.
- A couple of 0.8, 1.0 and 1.2 mm drill bits. Harbor Freight has a set of 30 various miniture metric drill bits for just $3.99
- A rotary  tool with a cutoff disk to cut one of the drill bits.  
- A drill for drilling holes in the hardwood. Manual and electric drills both work fine.
- A small ruler and a pencil for measuring and marking drill holes

NOTE: Other gauge paperclips can be used. Smaller clips will be easier to bend, but your projects will need to be somewhat smaller because of the reduced wire length. Other size paperclips will also require different size drill bits.


Step 3: Making a Paperclip Bending Jig.

Picture of Making a Paperclip Bending Jig.

Use a rotary tool with a cut off  wheel to cut two pieces off of the shank end of a 1.2 mm drill bit. Cut one piece 10 mm long and the other 20 mm long. Smooth the ends of the pieces using the rotary tool.

Drill a 1.0 mm hole in one of the hardwood pieces. Drill this hole 8.0 mm deep so the 10 mm long piece of drill shank you cut off sicks out of the wood 2.0 mm when it is firmly pushed all the way into the hole.

Drill a second 1.0 mm hold to the same depth as close to 1.0 mm from the first hole as possible. The paperclip will need to fit snugly between the two pins. Firmly push the 20 mm long piece of drill shank as far into the hole as you can.

Step 4: Practice Bending Coils.

Picture of Practice Bending Coils.

Nearly every part you make is going to have one or more coils in it so you need to practice to get good at making them.

- Use the flat long nose pliers to completely straighten out a paperclip.

- Place the paperclip between the two drill shanks of the bending jig you made in the previous step.

- Carefully twist the paperclip around the longer of the two drill shanks while it is held in place by the shorter drill shank.

- Continue twisting the paperclip around the longer shank until you have 4 turns of wire around the shank.

- Carefully remove the coiled paperclip from the bending jig and check the coil. The coils should be tight and evenly spaced. If not    
   keep practicing until you get it right. 

The video below demonstrates how to do this.



Step 5: Make the Various Parts.

Picture of Make the Various Parts.

Here is the complete set of paperclip parts I made for this machine. The set includes a crank, 2 leg and four leg supports, connectors and levers of various shapes and lengths. There are an infinite number of other possible parts and modifications you can make. You imagination is the only limit. Experiment.  

The second picture below shows each part with its name.


Step 6: Make a Base on Which to Build Your Machine.

Picture of Make a Base on Which to Build Your Machine.

I used one board to make the bending jig and the other as a base on which to build. I did my design and testing on the back of a board and drilled holes on the finished side once I got it working well. The beautiful finish on the wood flooring sample makes a really nice base for the machine. 

I used an 0.8 mm bit to drill 10 mm deep holes in the wood for each of the supports. A little push with the pliers and the legs are very secure. I suppose you could also drill many holes in the board in a grid pattern like an electronic proto board. This would allow for easy changes and adjustments while testing your design. I decided to drill only the holes necessary for this machine because I think it looks nicer.

Step 7: Assemble the Machine As You Go.

Picture of Assemble the Machine As You Go.

Since the coils will not go around a bend in the wire you will need to plan ahead and assemble the pieces as you go, bending the wire after placing the coiled pieces where you want them. There is no set way to design a machine. I just made some parts and held them in place while turning the crank to see what they did and to make sure the machine would turn smoothly. If it worked well I drilled some holes and mounted the parts. If not I tried something different. My machine is pretty simple, but there is no reason why you could not build one three feet long or more with dozens of cranks, levers and pivots. Again, you need to experiment a little.

Step 8: Taking It Further.

Picture of Taking It Further.

I hope by this point you have thought of something to incorporate in your own paperclip machine. Go ahead and get started. When you finish,  come back and share your own Instructable with the community here.   

Maybe you will make up a bunch of parts and give them to a child to play with. It could entertain them for hours.

I hope someone can come up with a paperclip machine that actually does something useful besides just being entertaining. Perhaps a Rube Goldberg machine made from paperclips?

The possibilities could expand exponentially if you decided to build more complex parts by soldering paperclips together. That would allow you to make wheels, gears, chains and tracks. A Ferris wheel or small robot would be good projects to start with.

I cannot think of a more inexpensive or versatile way to build beautiful and fascinating machines that are also beautiful works of art. This is also a wonderful  way to teach a child about the mechanical of physics.  It is a great way to learn something yourself too. Have a great time building.   




Kies_1 (author)2016-07-04

How exactly would I go about turning the direction of the mechanism so that I get an axle 90 degree perpendicular to the original cranking action?

biochemtronics (author)Kies_12016-07-05

The easiest way I see to do that would be to take the up and down action of the original crank and use it to turn a second crank that is turned 90 degrees perpendicular to the original crank.

I gave it a shot and got it to work with a perpendicular crank. It did not work until I figured out that the two cranks had to be exactly alike. Also the length of the connecting link between the two is pretty critical.

Kies_1 (author)biochemtronics2016-07-05

That is the first thing I tried, and it presents a few problemsproblems. Firstly, the up and down motion becomes a kind of back and forth if you attach any kind of linking to it, secondly that would just push the service crank back and forth instead of rotate it, and the second crank physically gets in the way of the connecting link.

Kies_1 (author)2016-07-02

Id like to make something similar, except where the ending motion is a windmill instead of a piston.

perfectsleeper (author)2015-07-06


anca (author)2015-04-07

We've made this a couple of times in our Maker Meetup group - it's a lot of fun!

samjohn (author)2013-10-18


goyo81 (author)2013-08-24

I love this project, so I tried it with my 8th grade students last year. Many of them ended up exasperated, because they'd made their parts the wrong size and they didn't function together well. It might be helpful to take a picture of the parts laid out on graph paper so they can see the relative sizes. Thanks for the ingenious use of inexpensive materials!

pipejaramillo (author)2013-08-16

Thanks!!! Your video is now public...jejeje
Is a great video. congratulations.

argha halder (author)2013-07-11

coolest instructable.

Tgwizman (author)2013-06-11

This makes me want to walk to the nearest Walmart, buy a pack of paperclips and rubber bands, and make a working miniature bicycle.

angryrobot17 (author)2013-05-27


Ringer1633 (author)2013-02-23

This looks really great. i love having something to make.

wooohhhoooo9 (author)2012-05-11

can you help me with the assemblying? I did the parts already

I am sorry but it would be nearly impossible for me to provide detailed assembly instructions here for all of the possible parts configurations. Most of the parts have to be assembled as you make them. A perfect example is the hand crank and the leg stands it is mounted on. You can pre-make the leg stands, but It is simply impossible to get the crank onto the stands after you have bent it. You have to bend the crank as you mount it to the stands. You will just have to experiment with this on your own and figure out your own way of doing it. That is the fun of a project like this. Also, when you finish - it will be your's - and not a copy of someone else's.

wooohhhoooo9 (author)2012-05-12

oh and can you please name the parts on the completed sculpture picture because i can't figure out which part is which :)

triple-a (author)2012-04-25

wow that was awesome!!!

tzq33tdq (author)2012-04-10

one word... EPIC!!!!!! this is an awesome, ingenius machine!!! how did you figure it all out?!?!?! EPIC!!!!!

mr.frob (author)2012-03-27

Way cool! Now I know how to pass my time at the office!

erechtin (author)2012-02-28

We love this project and my daughter has created it for her science expo-can anyone please help us and list the different simple machine components that create the complex machine? I hope we did it right-we think there is a lever and pulley simple machine.
THANKS for this!

flamekiller (author)erechtin2012-03-24

I see levers and a wheel and axle (the crank).

Alex Mercer (author)erechtin2012-03-21

Use a motor (optional) and a hand drill. Color it and make it beautiful.

Great design, but a few things you could do with it.

1. You could build a machine to wind up a trebuchet, catapult, etc...

2. You could incorporate batteries into it and make it out of paperclips, batteries, and electical tape.

Those are just a couple ideas.

hrodriguez7 (author)2012-01-24

now ijust have to make one...

Alex Mercer (author)hrodriguez72012-03-21

Not 'have to', 'can'.

This is really cool :) Thank you for sharing!

amsiladi (author)2012-02-07

The soldering idea is interesting. however, I think you could avoid a lot of difficulty by finding a wire with a gauge similar to that of the paperclips you are using. Of course the drawback is that you wouldn't get to say that the machine is made of paperclips.

slithien (author)2012-02-01

would i be able to use a block of polystyrene instead of wood for the base?

biochemtronics (author)slithien2012-02-01

Any solid plastic block should work so long as it can hold the pieces firmly and the holes don't become enlarged during operation.

ben_k (author)2012-01-31

Great instructable! I made something similar this past summer, but out of forged steel:

Shiseiji (author)2012-01-30

I wish I had the imagination to think of things like this, but I am really grateful you share your ideas. Love it. I love automata period, and this can be done sitting in my chair while my significant other watches something I have zero interest in. What a perfect instructabe!


awoodcarver (author)2012-01-26

Very nice work .there use to be a mail order company that sold a wire bending jig for making fishing lures going to have to look and see if I still have it around here somewhere and see what I can make ...If I cant find it your instructions are so well written and shown that even I can follow them

Shiseiji (author)awoodcarver2012-01-30

Wire bending jig:,7070.html

Metal Forming Plier Set:,7068.html

Tice Co (author)2012-01-28
Great instructable! I really liked the fact that to do this project you don't have a lot of startup cost. The only things I had to buy were the paperclips, a plier and a drill bit (spend about 10 euro's). I had a go at it and this is the result:

I found it quite hard to create an original design. I hardly have any technical knowledge, so it was hard to think up new (usable) parts. I ended up copying most of your design. Would be nice to have a list of cranks, levers etc. with instructions on how to assemble them.
SevaKaptur (author)2012-01-28

Few times ego i had try make mechanic birb the same way. But you make better than me. Now i'll try again!!

Exocetid (author)2012-01-27

This is really good. I am an EE professor and I recognize a great STEM awareness building project when I see one. This could easily be done by middle schoolers.

I could see some refinements: pre-drilled bases and precut wire segments that have had sharp ends smoothed. Other than that, leave all the bending and shaping in.

For HS students, just a bag of clips and a board along with the tools ;-)

Go collegiate and add the soldering idea.

I see competitions!

...again, great idea and execution.

dauphin1974 (author)2012-01-26

Very cute idea. Have you heard about FAT Friday at MIT? ( They have people build small machines and then link them all in a row to create a chain reaction. I've been trying to think of something that would be like that - but was small enough and easy enough for a bunch of 5th graders or cub-scouts to make themselves. This inspires me. Good idea!

Thank you for a great idea. I hope you don't mind, but I put your suggestion and link into step one where hopefully more people can read it.

Sounds like a fine idea - keep up the good work. If I make anything I'll send you pix... :-)

thePhantomoftheOpera (author)2012-01-27

This is AWESOME. I mean it, this is the coolest thing I have seen yet. ;-) My thought was that you could conceivably add a little mannequin-type figure; so that it dances or does something when you turn the crank. Also, couldn't you conceivably use a rubber band(and a stopper to control the speed? I'm just dumb) to wind it up? *headshake* Sorry, it's 4:30 in the morning. Thank you so much for posting this! I agree with the other commenters; like I just told my wife, this is the clearest Instructable I've ever seen. The instructions and videos are SO easy to keep track of... FANTASTIC job.

nachiketa (author)2012-01-26

Fantastic ! It's really nice one.

Kyling Zhang (author)2012-01-26

nice machines!i 'd like to make one by my own. thanks for the sharing!

flyingiron (author)2012-01-26

In college in a power mechanics class our instructor used a similar problem for the design of cams. He gave us a board with a hole randomly placed and 2 x's on the top of the board and 2 on the side of the board. The object was to design a machine that by moving a lever between the two marks on the side would through levers make a wire that would move up and down to push cotton balls into the hole.

bytes2go (author)2012-01-26

If you think this is neat...
Google 'Arthur Ganson' and check out the kinetic wire sculptures he creates...
Tower of six gears is amazing wire piece

The Flower Lady (author)2012-01-26

You never cease to amaze me Mr. Biochemtronics! This project blends art and technology . Can't wait to see what you come up with next......your biggest fan.

raviolikid (author)2012-01-26

This is wonderful! Your directions are clear and the videos really helped me see what the machines were doing! I wonder if I could possibly do this with my elementary school arts and engineering club? I'll have to give it a shot myself and then see what I think.

Thanks for the time you put into making your informative 'ible!

sb4 (author)2012-01-26

Yeah, I like it! Very nice craftsmanship!

In third grade I spent ours making electric "buzzers" with simple classroom materials including paper clips. Insulated wire (that was the most exotic material) was wound around a nail for the electromagnet, and a bunch of paper clips for the buzzer arm and the make-and-break contact, powered by a D cell battery. Thumbtacks held it all down on a wood board. Can't remember if the nail was held down horizontally by some hammered "staples" possibly.

They rarely worked well in spite of my efforts, although occasionally I got a hopeful buzz. Maybe now I can revisit that and do a little better. I think I needed some inertial mass on the buzzer arm to give it some momentum, and maybe more wire on the electromagnet. I sure more batteries would have helped, but the challenge is to do it with a single D cell. I'd like to see a little buzzer competition arise.

nepperhanman (author)2012-01-26

A beautiful project and a nice piece of desk art. I could see a Jr. Achievement program making these and having a demand for the product.

One thought - to make it uber attractive to kids (ok, and to me too!) I think it needs to DO something . If there was a small bell at the top of the verticle shaft so that every turn would ring the bell ...

Great job. Thanks for sharing

lobo0x7 (author)2012-01-26

nice 'ible

all you people interested in wire machines (or mechanisms) must to check this out:


About This Instructable




Bio: After a career in industrial electronics I went back to college and now do DNA research.
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