Introduction: How to Make a Ball Bearing Rollercoaster

Picture of How to Make a Ball Bearing Rollercoaster

Scott had always wanted to make some sort of ball bearing rollercoaster and we thought we'd post up the results of his first testing and building sessions.

The idea was to make track for ball bearings (or similar) out of something that was fairly quick and easy to work.

Scott found that mains cable copper wire was perfect for this, go to the next step to see a list of ingredients for this project and get cracking.

It is assumed that you have access to a workbench / desk and that you can use tools like soldering iron, wire cutters and so on.

Step 1: Ingredients

Picture of Ingredients

A list of things you'll need for this project:

- Ball bearings (we used 5mm)

- Battery drill/screwdriver (ours is the cannibalised motor from an old one)

- Small drill bits (that match the diameter of the wire you will be using)

- Mains wire (we ended up getting a big roll but you can use the grey sort, often easy to get from skips or lying around. You'll want the stuff that is quite stiff, we found 2.5mm squared core to be best)

- Pliers / wire cutters

- Soldering iron + solder (we ended up modifying our soldering iron tip for best soldering)

- Small motor (ours is from and old zoom lens, you could maybe take apart an old CD drive to get the tray motor or similar - post up what you use)

- Spirit level/s

- Chipboard / ply board  (for jig and for mounting the rollercoaster)

- Matches (for jig)

- Glue (we used hot melt glue gun and some wood glue)

- Sharp knife (Stanley or similar)

Once you have this lot, you can get making!

Step 2: Straightening the Wire

Picture of Straightening the Wire

 To ensure you get a smooth rolling track you'll have to straighten the wire before you start making (especially if you've acquired old bits from skips / other sources)

To do this, first strip a length of wire (~50 - 100cm)

Next affix one end to something fairly solid (like a vice, or a piece of wood you can hold)

Attach the other end to your battery drill.

Tension the wire by pulling the two ends apart, and spin the drill slowly. Don't go mad here - you will be able to see when the wire has twists in it and has straightened out.

Step 3: Making a Jig

Picture of Making a Jig

 To ensure you can make consistently spaced track, a jig must be made.

To start, place a ball bearing on a piece of your board and cut two lengths (~10cm) of straightened wire.

Bring these pieces of wire together until they lift the ball bearing from the surface of the board. You might need to experiment a little here to get a good gauge (track spacing).

Next you will need to find something to stick on to the board to make your jig. We found match sticks to be a perfect size for the spacing of track so we got 3 match sticks and glued them to the board. You will need to ensure that the space between them is snug on the wire but not so tight that you can't move the wire up and down in the jig.

We started with standard length match sticks but soon found that we came across difficulties when trying to make more complex parts of track, like corners. We ended up chopping match sticks in half lengthways, this seemed to give us a workable solution.

Step 4: Track Making Basics

Picture of Track Making Basics

 Now you have a jig and plenty of straight wire you can start making some track.

It is best to start out with a few straights as prototypes before thinking about layout.

Place two straight sections of wire in the jig and cut some short 'sleepers' that you will need solder on to the tracks.

You will need to apply quite a lot of heat to this thick copper so we modified the end of our soldering iron for maximum heat transfer. 

You will need to make sure that you don't get any solder onto the surface of the tracks that will touch the ball bearing as it rolls. Again, practice here will help.

Once you have soldered your first track sleeper, slide the track up and solder your next sleeper on. Distances between each sleeper can be experimented with, a gap of ~5-8cm worked for us.

Once you have mastered the art of making track pieces, you can move on to corners and tricks!

Step 5: Corners and Tricks

Picture of Corners and Tricks

 This is where track making can get a little tricky and requires yet more trial, error and more trial.

Start off by having a think about track layout - remember you are relying on gravity to get the ball travelling around the track. You can get away with very slight gradients to get the ball moving slowly. You can include sharper drops for loops and jumps but bear in mind that this will get your ball to the bottom of your track much more quickly.

Increased ball speed also means that some corners may need to include side barriers to keep the ball on the track. These are the things that you will find whilst building your own track.

Start off by trying to make a corner piece. Make a section of straight track with a few sleepers, then take the track out of the jig and convince round into as smooth a curve as possible with your hands. Do one track rail at a time.

Once you have something that looks pretty much right, put the straight at the other end back into the jig and solder on your sleepers. You can then add sleepers to the corner section too, making sure that you keep the gauge of the track as consistent as possible.

Test your corner out and see if the ball bearing runs smoothly around it. Once you have done this, start thinking about other sections of track to make.

Remember that you can make your track modular to a certain extent: make corners, straights, loops and so on individually. You can then start to assemble the pieces into a rollercoaster.

Experiment with different track pieces and peculiarities - loops and screws are fun. We also made a small jump with a cage to catch the ball bearing, and a swinging bridge in an earlier prototype.

Step 6: Making Ball Lifters

Picture of Making Ball Lifters

Scott wanted to make a roller coaster that didn't end. Once the ball bearing reaches the bottom of your track (the board) he worked out a way of lifting them back up. By doing this you can add in more track or send the ball bearings back to the start of your existing track.

Use multiple ball lifters for increased track length.

Making the ball lifters took many many prototypes - and slightly different styles may work better for your ball bearings / making technique. See the picture of all of Scott's different attempts.

The idea here is to make a screw thread from wire wrapped around a central piece of wire, then put this 'threaded' assembly inside a cage that allows the thread to push the ball bearing upwards.

You will have to work out some way of holding the rotating centre - Scott wanted to make as much of the track as possible out of the copper wire but you could try using other bearings/parts if you wish.

We found that an angle of ~35-60 degrees works ok, vertical lifting is quite hard and puts more pressure on the thread and cage.

Experiment with different thicknesses of wire for the thread. It will take a few attempts to get a nice smooth thread.

Attaching the motor: start by making a copper sleeve/adapter out of a tightly coiled length. Once wrapped around the motor shaft it will allow for a good solder connection point to the rotating shaft of the ball lifter. 

Step 7: Experiment!

Picture of Experiment!

Here is a picture of one of the finished models. You can see that vertical support wires have been mounted into the chipboard: this is done by drilling small holes into it and pushing the wire in.

Once you have started to put different modular components together and mounted them onto a board you will find that things may need slight adjustment / fettling.

Use a spirit level to make sure that your board is level before adjusting your roller coaster - this allows you to make sure it will work once you've moved it somewhere else.

Any problems then post a comment and we will try our best to help you out.

Good luck,

The Jam Jar Collective 


hans.pistor (author)2014-12-08

How did you get the separate pieces of track to align with one another?

rjacobse (author)2012-12-03

Have you tried one with marbles instead of ball bearings?

boudreau-inventor2 (author)2011-09-13

What would you suggest using instead of the wire you used?

aessam1 (author)2011-09-12

Really amazing
i hope to make one when i have some free time

Emara (author)2011-09-12

Haha..Thats really cool

tzq33tdq (author)2011-04-12

this is AWESOME!!!

umarthebeast (author)2011-04-03

I was just wondering would it be better if I used 10 gauge copper wire instead from a website?

richardhtet98 (author)2011-03-19

hi! We are doing your project for physics and we saw that you used two motors. Do you have a different design that includes only one motor and please show us at different angles. we love your project the g mail is and we, cant solder copper.

Hi Richard,
thank you for your comment. We do have a new design using only one motor - we haven't quite yet put an instructable together for this but can share some images:

The new lifter works by forcing the ball bearings vertically up a 'cage' - rather than using the 'archimedes screw' type technique.

We can't get any more photographs yet as the sculpture is away on holiday but once we get it back I'll try to get some more pictures of the new ball lifter detail.

we would suggest that if you can't solder copper then this project may be a little too much of a challenge. Have you tried using flux and/or a more powerful soldering iron?

Good luck + let us know how you get on.

sfong (author)2010-04-15

Love this.  I decided to build one with my son.  The straighten wire technique is wonderful. 

I have tried to solder the wires, and have had no luck.  My soldering iron is electric.  Do I need to use a gas like butane?  Can you give more detail on your equipment and methods?

JamJarCollective (author)sfong2011-03-21

You could try using fluz to get the heat to transfer more effectively. We have had success with both gas + electric soldering irons. You may need to try a higher powered one (we now use a 40w electric iron) - although we have burned out a number of them through heavy use.

codongolev (author)sfong2010-09-22

I use butane. and like willstyles said, use solder. it helps a lot.

if you want to get a torch for cheap, dealextreme's a good website. their stuff's a little cheap (my ignition system broke and I have to use a lighter now), but the torches seem to work fine.

WillStyles (author)sfong2010-06-16

Have you tried using soldering paste on the joints? It really aids in the trasfer of heat from the gun to the copper.

porcupinemamma (author)2011-03-17

Amazing! So incredibly cool!!!!!! I'm following your Instructables. One zillion % !!!!

darthnoah1197 (author)2011-02-23

amazing, will someone tell me if there is any other method of joining the wires together besides soldering? maybe if i used hot glue and then scraped off any excess glue that might get in the way of the ball bearing?

snox (author)2010-07-06

I used some Neodymium magnet balls to make some nice tricks upside down and holding some unatural curves. pretty nice all inspired from this instructable

day-weed (author)2010-06-21

very very very very very welllll done! i gotta try this! gotta question though. how do you join two pieces of track (e.g. a loop and a straight track) together or is it one continuous wire?

iMakeItHappen (author)2010-06-14

would 1/8" (or really, any other diameter)soft copper wire work, i found it here......

iMakeItHappen (author)2010-06-14

would 1/8" (or really, any other diameter)soft copper wire work, i found it

iMakeItHappen (author)2010-06-14

to make a loop or jump, just make a straight piece of track, then find something round and stiff and the size of the required loop and bend the track around that. i used a can of beans and it worked perfectly. hope this helps!!

drats666 (author)2010-06-04

you could have added more wire, connecting the wrapped around wire of the shaft. this would give the ball a resting place as it sits for the ride, otherwise the ball may actually slide backwards. An alternative to the above is to have the rotating shaft with the above mentioned rests. and instead of the rails shown above, create a spiraling rail for the ball to ride along as it glides up the shaft. you can give these rails support by adding rails to them, idk it seems to add more of a endless roller coaster effect for me but hey its your project do whatever you feel comfortable.

kenexinator (author)2010-03-18

wait a second how big is the one you made????

It's around 175mm x 300mm  wide/long and 250mm high - not as big as some people expect from the video! See the 6v battery for some reference.


nolte919 (author)2010-03-12

Where do you get your ball bearings?

sfong (author)nolte9192010-05-03

I have found the ball bearings at places that sell ammo for sling shots.  Very cheap for bunches.

 The ball bearings were just some of the stuff we had lying around in our workshop space. Sorry we can't be any more specific - we've had them for ages... Try asking around in some hardware stores or motor spares places..

we used the balls out of our magnetstix set they worked well! as its only the stix that are magnetic the balls are just average sized ball bearings

Bowtie41 (author)nolte9192010-03-25

I usually get mine for free from the scrap piles at transmission shops or mechanics.Ask First,lol.If you want BIG bearings,try truck stops or machinery rebuilders.Most are happy to give them away,you usually just have to grind through the outer race.Hope this helps!

sfong (author)2010-04-11

I have tried to solder the wires, and have had no luck.  My soldering iron is electric.  Do I need to use a gas like butane?  Can you give more detail on your equipment and methods?

sfong (author)sfong2010-05-03

Thanks for the responses.  BTW:  I love the method for straightening the 12 gauge copper.  It works amazingly well.  It also seems to stiffen the copper.  I just used a vice to clamp one end in, then mounted the drill to the other end.

maxwelltub (author)sfong2010-04-26

There needs to be a lot of heat for this to work well, the author used a modified soldering iron to distribute the heat over the track spacer. Its possible that your soldering iron is too low of a wattage. Im just about finished with mine and i can tell you that a butane hobby torch and alligator clips is the way to go. Use a little soldering flux to paint the joint before you apply heat. It will help wick the solder in between the wires. It takes practice. i almost gave up on mine as being a lost cause but after i was able to walk away from it for little while i was able to finish it off and its looking really excellent. just finishing the ball lifter. Also i used a piece of shrink tubing to connect the rod to the motor, i found it easier for me then rapping the wire around the motors axial. stick with it.  

 Great tips, thanks for helping others out.

Also well done for sticking it out, always nice to have a few half done things lying about to be able to crack on with!

Nice idea for the shrink tube / motor connection. it would be cool to see some pictures of your ball run, post them up or send them over if you're up for it.

JamJarCollective (author)sfong2010-05-03

 HI there, a good hot iron is the key - 40w recommended for an electric type. The modified (filed down) tip makes quite a difference as there is more surface area of hot iron touching the copper. 

Also try to apply quite a bit of pressure with the soldering iron - pressing hard should help to transfer the heat.

As maxwelltub says flux can also help although we didn't use any - just flux cored solder.

Good luck and stick with it! Let us know how you get on.

brichins (author)2010-03-18

I have every intention of building one of these - "someday" when I have spare time...

I'd like to add a magnetic transfer mechanism that picks the ball off one track and sets it on another; probably use a rotating arm that goes just over the top of the ball at a stopped postition (or maybe in the middle of a track, so it's random) and then past a blockade that scrapes the ball off while it's above the other track. Any thoughts on that, or other mechanisms to add?

 Scott tried a magnetic lifter:

Using a motor with long rubber belt from an old computer printer with two very small neodymium magnets stuck onto the outside of the belt at halfway intervals.

One problem that had to be solved was a mechanism that prevented more than one ball bearing stopping in the pickup point. It was possible for the magnet to pick up multiple balls fouling the lifting.

Also when introducing magnets into the track we found that the ball bearings got slightly magnetised, affecting how they rolled on the track. That's the reason for the shaft lifters. 

Let us know how you get on if you try the magnets, you've got some cool ideas.

lkik (author)2010-03-31

how do you join your 2 bits of track together i cant seem to make smoove joints

JamJarCollective (author)lkik2010-05-03

Each track joint is made as a butt joint - the ends are offered up to each other and soldered.

First tip is to use side cutters with one flat edge - meaning a cutting side with no bevel to it. This gives you better flat ends to your track sections. When cutting like this, sometimes the copper won't cut perfectly. Try twisting the wire off just after cutting, rather than pulling apart to reduce the shearing.

Next, when joining two track sections:

Roughly solder one track side together with a quick solder join to hold it the two pieces together.

Next, line up the other track as perfectly as possible, using the other solder join as a lever / extra support to hold the second (and better) solder join.

Once you have a decent join, you can touch your soldering iron on the first temporary join and reposition, using the better join as a guide.

This technique should allow you to get usable solder joins. If you are struggling after a good few attempts you can try overlapping the track joins. This will be a bit easier to solder and you can always try the butt joins later. Soldering is rewarded by practice and patience :)

Good luck and let us know how you get on.

LankyDuke (author)2010-03-14

Can you provide any more info on the wire used? Does it have any markings on the outer sheath?

All the wire I've across is too weak, or multi-stranded.

I did a test to see if I could do this with a simple coat-hanger, but the solder wouldn't adhere to the metal :P

Junkyard John (author)LankyDuke2010-04-15

My local hardware store sells something called "grounding wire" which is relatively strong, the perfect guage, and solders very easily (copper)

NickH (author)LankyDuke2010-03-21

You can solder hanger wire with silver solder and flux, using a common soldering iron. Very easy and inexpensive.

 We have experimented with several different mains cables. We found that spinning the wire in the drill strengthens the wire - did you try that step?

The white cable pictured doesn't have any markings on the outer sheath.

dacker (author)JamJarCollective2010-03-18

If it's standard house wiring (in the US), it's called Romex cabling.  Inside the outer insulation is three or more individual wires -- two are insulated and the third is not.

It's probably 14-gauge wire, referred to as, 14/2 (two wires, plus a ground wire), intended for 15Amp circuits.  It could also be 12/2 for 20Amp circuits.  The smaller the number, the larger the individual wires.

Both are also available as 14/3 and12/3, which includes a third wire for application such as two switches for one light fixture.  It could be more cost effective to buy, say, 10' of 14/3 than 15' of 14/2.

However, since the individual wires (except the ground) are insulated and the insulation must be stripped-off before being used on this project, it may be far simpler to buy 12- or 14-gauge uninsulated wire on a roll or cut-to-length at your local big box home center or hardware store.

JamesRPatrick (author)LankyDuke2010-03-14

It's the kind used in wiring your house's electricity. Ask for some at the hardware store.

mitchblahman (author)2010-04-11

that's insanity
i dont know what else to say besides that it's frikkin AWESOME

LankyDuke (author)2010-03-23

A big thank you to all commenters on this page.

Firstly, JamJar, the only wire I had previously come across was <1mm, so not think enough to support it's weight. Thanks for looking for markings, though.

NickH, thanks for the silver solder idea. I didn't know that there was any other solder types available. I was only aware of the lead/tin alloys.

JamesR, you got me on the right track, but my local hardware store only had 1mm cored stuff. I bought 10m anyway to try and experiment with it.

And finally Dacker, my biggest problem was finding the correct search term. 14(12)/2 gave me a few hits on eBay, but now that I've seen the terms used in the industry I've found a few suppliers here in Australia.

karnold70 (author)2010-03-21

Putting a daub of resin on the spesific site of the solder joint would help the solder stay in place (not go onto the top of the rail) This is awesome, and I'm looking forward to working on it.

fenris (author)2010-03-19

far out

broaff (author)2010-03-19


har26 (author)2010-03-18

Wonderful gadget, but for the sake of accuracy I like'd to make the following comment regarding a common mistake.

A ball and a ball bearing are two different things. A ball bearing is an assembly consisting of 2 rings (an outer ring and an inner ring) with a row of balls in between. The balls run in grooves called races.

In other words, what is being called a ball bearing in the article should be called a ball.

About This Instructable




Bio: cups of tea and cake fuel a collaborative environment in which we make electronic things and tinker in our workshop. We started FriiSpray, an open ... More »
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