Introduction: How to Build Working Gears From Junkmail and Cardstock

Picture of How to Build Working Gears From Junkmail and Cardstock

This step by step tutorial will show you how to print, cut out, fold, and construct a gear to get you started building your own papercraft mechanical devices. There is still some small problems with the design, but I'm trying to balance ease of construction with functionality.

You will need:

1. A Laser Cutter or X-Acto Knife.
2. A T-Pin, Straight Pin, or Push Pin at least 5/8" in depth, (regular pushpins are too short and map pins bend too easily).
3. Stiff paper, Brochures and Junkmail like Restaurant Menus are a good choice as long as they fit into whatever printer you're using.
4. A half hour of time and Patience, this is very much like miniature model building.

Step 1: Choose Your Size

Picture of Choose Your Size

There is a small, medium, large and extra large gear your can choose from for now.

I'm including 3 different file types to get people started. A zip file containing the parts in an EPS format for laser cutting, a copy of each one as a PNG file, and an illustrator template file (by popular request, I've also just added an archive with the files as SVGs, Inkscape away!). Remember that when you use the template file, all the objects are located in the symbol library, along with prefabs to help make your own constructions.

If you are going to cut it out with the laser cutter, skip to step 5.

I've found that the larger the gear, the less slippage you will have in the system overall, but it will take more time to construct a larger part. Here are your choices:

1. Small Gear
1/2 piece of paper
Teeth - 8
Inner Diameter - 60mm

2. Medium Gear
1 piece of paper
Teeth - 10
Inner Diameter - 75mm

3. Large Gear
1 piece of paper
Teeth - 12
Inner Diameter - 105mm

3. Extra Large Gear
2 pieces of paper
Teeth - 15
Inner Diameter - 330mm

Step 2: Print the Gear

Picture of Print the Gear

Once you've selected and opened the gear you would like to get started with, print the file out on a stiff stock of paper and optionally tape it to your cutting surface.

Use junk mail or restaurant menus, anything lying around that is stiffer than normal computer paper and can fit in your printer.

Step 3: Score Folds

Picture of Score Folds

For any dotted lines on the image, I highly suggest scoring these with a ballpoint pen or any semi-blunt object you have lying around. After a little practice, I've been able to use the back of my X-Acto Knife to score my folds. This will make it much easier to construct the gear once you're done cutting.

Step 4: Make All the Cuts

Picture of Make All the Cuts

Using the Exacto-Knife (with a decently sharp blade), cut any solid lines inside the gear first, then cut everything out of the cardstock. On the inside, make sure you pop out any of the inner tabs as they will be hard to get to after you start putting everything together.

You should now have both sides of the gear cut out, now lets get to construction!

Step 5: Connect the Caps

Picture of Connect the Caps

Fold the center tabs inward on the bottom piece and push them through the groove you cut on the top piece. Make sure that all the tabs are pointing straight up through the top piece and that the printed side is facing out for both caps.

Step 6: Fold in Teeth

Picture of Fold in Teeth

Fold all the remaining scores on both sides. Push the tabs at the bottom through the top slots.
Make sure that the tab is on the inside, they should be held in place by the right angle they create, and the designed to also add structural support.

Step 7: Poke Holes

Picture of Poke Holes

Use a thumbtack to poke a hole at the center pivots on either side. This is to ensure that the gear doesn't go off kilter when it begins to turn.

Repeat the steps and test it out on your wall surface or corkboard. These gears can stack on each other, so if you have a pin which is long enough, try making multi dimensional mechanical devices.


IceDani (author)2011-04-12

Thanks a lot for the how-to! I managed to make one myself, it's pretty easy, even though i had a bit of a problem with folding the teeth. What else can i use instead of the thumbtack? I don't have one of these :(

Travpena (author)2010-06-16

where is the PNG files?

bisforbee (author)Travpena2010-08-04

On this step (Step 1), if you click on the thumbnails of the gears (five of them), the image will be in the bigger preview above the thumbnails. Click on the italicized i on the top left of the bigger preview, click on "Original Size" in the left menu, and you should be able to save the png file that way.

Travpena (author)2010-07-02

where is the PNG files? (not a double post its been a mouth and no ones got back to me)

abarat (author)2010-03-09

Thank you!
I have a question for you, is it possible to use these deigns to make about 100 gears that all move at once? 

Riblets (author)abarat2010-03-11

 for many gears, you need something with involutes. Paper gears wouldn't be the best for that situation.

dungeon runner (author)2010-03-06

Awesome! Now to build a paper Curta!

Supermiakimiak (author)2009-10-29

this is absolutly perfect for my time project in which i gotta make a geared foliot clock

magic_snjor (author)2009-10-23

 This perfect, I'm working on a chair sculpture and  was stuck on the gears, Thanks sooo much this is amazing  

MrL33TPenguin (author)2009-09-07

You could always use a long enough rivet in place of the thumbtack.

jayteerox (author)2009-04-05

man u really bite ur nails...

xilefakamot (author)jayteerox2009-08-23

I thought you were talking about your avatar then...

Riblets (author)jayteerox2009-04-06

better than smoking :D but I agree, i need to cut it out.

mickzimmerman (author)2009-04-20

I saw these bad boys in action they are great

Iridium7 (author)2009-04-18

mine keeps on printing to the side of the paper and get cut off and disoreintated, can you please help?

Iridium7 (author)2009-03-05

for exto cutting what file do I download and what software do I need?

Riblets (author)Iridium72009-03-05

The PNGs should work, but so will the ESP files (which if you're on a mac, opens as a PDF)

Iridium7 (author)Riblets2009-03-06

It doesn't work on my computer. it asking me for a program but I don't know what program It needs.

Riblets (author)Iridium72009-03-20

Use inkscape for a free solution, or illustrator if you have it. The SVG files should work in either program:

srilyk (author)2009-03-07

That's pretty awesome! It makes me want to build some sort of paper clock :D

vbanaszak (author)2009-03-06

This is awesome! Thanks for making it available and for all of your hard work to make it available in so many formats. I can't wait to give it a go.

DukeJoke (author)2009-03-05

Nickelplate (author)2009-03-05

Great! I have access to a laser cutter but never knew what to do with it...

Edgar (author)2009-03-05


For the design problem;

Get here:
Ando look for the Interactive Gear Template Generator

Nickelplate (author)Edgar2009-03-05

Oh awesome, I am so excited that page exists!

heybobby! (author)2009-03-04

OH YEAH!!!!!

Southpole (author)2009-03-03

cool, and you actually get them running smoothly? i tried to construct planetary gears as found in an automatic transmission from paper gears a while back, but the thing never ran smoothly, immediately jammed crumpling the gears

Riblets (author)Southpole2009-03-03

A little distance between gears is an enormous help. I put around 1 to 2 mm distance between the gears so that they don't lock up.

SoapyHollow (author)2009-03-02

wow. Now I *really* want a laser cutter.

mycroftxxx (author)2009-03-01

One possible simple method of reinforcement for the gears would be styrofoam. Printing and cutting out an extra piece of cardstock to act as a stencil for a given gear would be fairly easy with a hot wire foam cutter like The overall design and construction method might be a little different, but it shouldn't be that difficult.

Pazzerz (author)mycroftxxx2009-03-02

You could just use the spray insulation in a can to fill the interior and trim the excess after it expands and hardens.

Dr_Acula (author)2009-03-01

Great Instructable!

Check out for involute gears that will run smoothly. Click on the "two gears" checkbox. Change the number of teeth if you like. Then print it out on a piece of paper. I've built small cardboard gears and also wooden gears using these templates from 10cm in diameter right up to 1.2 metres in diameter.

randofo (author)2009-03-01

Very cool. I look forward to attempting to make complex paper gear mechanisms.

du (author)2009-03-01

A zip file containing the parts in an EPS format for laser cutting, a copy of each one as a PNG file, and an illustrator template file. Maybe I'm slow, but I only see the EPS files and a ".ait" file (that Inkscape doesn't recognize). No PNGs or .ai files.

Riblets (author)du2009-03-01

Oh, well the ait file is an illustrator template file, not an illustrator file :/ let me see if I can get an inkscape specific filetype ... the less cost the better.

PKTraceur (author)2009-03-01

Can we get this on windows? It seems to only be on Mac OS. Perhaps an Inkscape or the GIMP files, please? Perhaps a PDF? -RoAr

agis68 (author)2009-03-01

Excellent idea and project... I never knew that u could make a whole tool by that kind of gears (like the site I am amazed for what u done. Now some improvements...I wonder if you could use aluminium to have more hardening results... Here in Greece in modelist stores u can find a paper which is made by wo layers. One layer is aluminium and the other side is paper...(i dont know how its name is but iam sure where to find it in Athens)Maybe this is the perfect paper for that kind of job...I will try

DIYDragon (author)2009-03-01

If you painted some of these up nice they might make cool wall art! : ) Nifty project.

Zorink (author)2009-02-28

If you have A LOT of free time you can make an working clock!

thepelton (author)2009-02-27

I agree with Jeff-o. I have been wondering how I can make gears using my laser, and maybe I can adapt this I'ble to the job. Can you make more sizes please?

Riblets (author)thepelton2009-02-27

Making your own is relatively easy assuming you have illustrator. All the parts are split up into tongues, grooves, posts, and lintels in the symbol library of the illustrator template. What I usually do is take one of the smaller prefabs and move them away from the center by 4mm. For instance, the 30 side prefab is 70.5mm from the center on either end, to make a 32 side prefab, I just need to change the top part to 74.5mm and the bottom to -74.5mm. After that it's just a simple 360/32 copy rotation in the transform menu (command/alt D to repeat). Eventually I'll post an instructable on how to make your own parts.

thepelton (author)Riblets2009-02-28

I hope to see it soon.

11010010110 (author)2009-02-28

you probably can reinforce the paper gear a bit and cover it from inside with something water proof then use the paper gear as a shape and cast into it some filler (concrete etc) to make hard gear

Riblets (author)2009-02-27

One of the big issues I'd like suggestions about is around functionality. If you put more than 5-6 gears togeather, they tend to lock up, but of course I can't design with involutes as it would be incredibly hard to construct. Any suggestions or modifications to the design would be extremely welcome (I've gone through about 50 revisions myself).

allindsay (author)Riblets2009-02-28

Try tapering the teeth, like a trapezoid, /_\ like this. That is how I make my wooden gears

Riblets (author)allindsay2009-02-28

hmmm, not a bad idea, I'll test that out. any idea what the tapering angle should be around?

allindsay (author)Riblets2009-02-28

Its more of a ratio than an angle. The ratio is 3:2 or 2:1 base of tooth to the outside of the tooth.

dave spencer (author)2009-02-28

A while back I was playing with paper gears. If I had access to a laser cutter, this is how I would do it. It would allow involute gears. Trust me that an exacto knife is not the way to go here.

Riblets (author)dave spencer2009-02-28

Yeah thats a really nice gear design, when we were first thinking about this project, accessibility was our priority. A design that has involutes, and can be created with household materials in less than an hour by hand, thats the accessibility factor. A laser cutter should only make cutting faster. Think of all the people who don't have a laser cutter but lots of time on their hands (cough art students)?

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