Introduction: Toilet Paper Engine

Picture of Toilet Paper Engine
Simple, easy to make, and fun, this model engine is made from cheap easy-to-find materials. It runs on compressed air supplied by your lungs as you blow the piston down and then suck it back up!  It demonstrates principles of motion and engine operation, and allows students to learn the main parts of any engine:  Crankcase, Crankshaft, Connecting Rod, Piston, Cylinder, and Flywheels.

I can't take credit for "inventing" this cool project but I've adapted this to make it a lot easier to build, and it can be done very quickly.  This is an activity I do with my 7th and 8th grade students in a Small Engines Repair class, but it could be used for many other activities like drafting, measuring, studying the laws of motion, or even a history project, as it closely remembers an old hit and miss engine. 

Content Learning Objective:

By building a Toilet Paper Engine, students will understand the basic principles of operation in an Internal Combustion Engine.

Language Learning Objective:

By building a Toilet Paper Engine, students will identify engine parts using their correct names; i.e.- a ping pong ball is not a ping pong ball, it is a Piston.

Please find included below an Instructions Booklet .pdf, a Template .pdf, and a Measurements Worksheet .pdf.  Also included is a Google Sketchup model of the completed engine




Other Resources:

I have had a few people ask about other resources relating to engines that could be used when teaching, so here are a few!

http://www.animatedengines.com/  Excellent website that shows cutaway animations of just about every type of engine you could imagine!

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four-stroke_engine  Wikipedia's take- a couple of great animations, TONS of information, and lots of other links to more websites.

http://www.animatedpiston.com/Home.htm  A couple of animations of different motorcycle engines- neat because you can hide different parts of the engine while the animation is running.

 

Step 1: Gather Materials and Tools

Picture of Gather Materials and Tools

Lets start by getting everything we need together.

Tools Needed:

Hot Glue Gun
Scissors
Wire Cutters
Pliers
Ruler
Pencil
Drill or Drill press and Drill bit

Supplies:

Approx. 2 sq feet of cardboard  
Toilet paper roll or paper towel roll cut in half
8" of wire (a wire hanger would be perfect)
Piece of wood dowel ( just over 4" long and about 3/8" dia)
Ping Pong Ball
2 used or worthless cd's
Duct tape (you never know, right?)
Glue sticks for the hot glue gun
Small piece of sandpaper or file

Additional items that come in handy (especially if building with large groups):

Trace-able templates for the cardboard parts made in step 2. 
Several crankshaft bending templates
Instructions book
Pre-cut and drilled dowels for the connecting rods.

COST:  I estimate each engine has roughly $1.00 worth of materials.  The only things I had to buy was the Ping Pong ball (40 cents), the dowel ($1.00 was enough to make at least 6), and the wire (large role cost me $4.00).  I had sandpaper, tape, hot glue sticks, and everything else laying around.

Step 2: Cut Out "Crankcase" Parts

Picture of Cut Out "Crankcase" Parts

Plug your hot glue gun in, your going to need it in a minute!

Cut out the 4 main parts:  Base, Spacer Plate, Cylinder Support, and Crank Support.  Use the measurements found Picture 1 below.  Also refer to Picture 4 to see what they look like before they are folded. These pieces are all cut out of the same thickness corrugated cardboard.  You may want to label them, as the Cylinder Support and Crank Support are close in size and can be mistaken for the wrong part.

     *TIP- If doing this activity with a large group, make sure everyone writes their names on every single piece!  Things tend to get set down and then forgotten or picked up on accident by someone else.

Glue the main parts together:  Mark on the Base the mounting location (measurements shown in Picture 2) for the Cylinder support and Crank Support.  Mark on the Cylinder Support and Crank support the bend lines as seen in the last picture (measurements again found in Picture 2).  Score the lines and fold the parts.  Glue them to the base as shown in Picture 2.  Insert the spacer plate.  It is important to get it far enough down that the connecting rod doesn't hit it, but far enough up that it strengthens the supports.

     *TIP- If doing this activity with a large group, making templates of these four parts first can speed up the process, but its good practice with the ruler if you don't!

Attach the "bearings":  Cut out two squares of cardboard.  Size doesn't really matter on these but they should be at least 1" square.  Glue them to the outsides of the Crank Support as shown in Picture 3.  They should be as close to centered as possible and the same distance from the top- later we use these to line up the holes for the crankshaft.

Step 3: Build and Assemble Engine Internals

Picture of Build and Assemble Engine Internals

Now for the bits that move!

Connecting rod:  Cut the dowel so it is 4.25  inches long.  Drill a hole near one end that is slightly larger than the diameter of your wire.

Crankshaft:  Make a pattern on a piece of paper using the measurements shown in Picture 2.  Starting from one side and working towards the other, make the first two bends.  BEFORE you make the third bend, slide the connecting rod on as shown in Picture 1 and Picture 6!  The bends need to be as sharp and as square as possible otherwise the connecting rod can slip over to the side and seize the engine.  Finish making the bends and trim the wire down if needed.

     *TIP-  For the engine to work well, the crankshaft should be as perfect as possible.  Spend time making sure the bends are all square and that the two ends of the crank line up when you are finished.

Piston:  Once the rod is on the crank, glue the Piston (ping pong ball) to the end of the rod as shown in Picture 1.  Get it as centered as possible on the rod, but it doesn't have to be perfect.

Flywheels:  Cut out 4 more squares of cardboard, roughly 1"x1".  Glue one square over the hole of a CD on each side as shown in Picture 3.

Step 4: Put It All Together!

Picture of Put It All Together!

Lets get it all in one piece.

Using your ruler, mark an X on the crank bearings as shown in Picture 1.  Poke a hole all the way through the Bearing and Crank Support, then repeat on the other side.  CAUTION-  Don't poke your fingers...  Insert the crankshaft as shown.

Cylinder:  set the Toilet Paper roll on top of the Cylinder support but DO NOT GLUE IT YET!  Spin the Crankshaft over a few times and make sure the Connecting Rod DOES NOT contact the Cylinder at the top or bottom.  If it does, slide the cylinder away from the Crankshaft until there is no contact and glue it down.  PLEASE NOTE that there should be some room between the piston and the cylinder- you do NOT need a perfect seal.  You want as tight a seal as you can get but still have the ping pong ball slide with zero friction.

     *TIP- At this point, I like to demonstrate to my students the purpose of the Flywheels.  Try spinning the engine and see how many revolutions it will make before stopping.  Install the Flywheels, and try again.  Big difference!  Newton really knew his stuff!

Flywheels:  Mark as closely as possible the center of the cd's on the cardboard that was glued to them.  Punch holes in them with the crankshaft or an extra piece of wire.  CAUTION-  Don't poke your fingers...  Using the sandpaper, rough up the ends of the crankshaft to help the glue stick.  Install the Flywheels on the Crankshaft as shown in Picture 3, keeping them as far away from the bearings as possible but with at least 1/4" between the end of the Crank and the Flywheel for glue, and glue them on.

     *TIP- I have found that putting glue on the end of the Crankshaft and then sliding the Flywheel on helps tremendously to hold them still.  You will need to glue both the outside and inside, as this is a weak point on the engine- the Flywheels tend to break free of the crankshaft.  Epoxy would probably work better here than hot glue, but if you are thorough, it will be fine.

Ready to try it out?

Step 5: Testing, Troubleshooting, and Running the Engine

Picture of Testing, Troubleshooting, and Running the Engine

Fire it up!

The engine should spin freely.  If it feels stiff or catches in spots, identify the location and see what you can do to fix it.  For common issues, see the troubleshooting list below.

Set the engine with the Piston near the front of the engine, away from the Crankshaft.  It CAN NOT be all the way to the front, it needs to be just off of Top Dead Center.  Put the Cylinder to your mouth and blow!  It takes some practice to get the timing down, because when the Piston gets to the bottom (far end) of the cylinder, you have to suck it back up and then start over.   See how fast you can make it spin, and see how slow you can make it spin. 

TROUBLESHOOTING: There are some common problems to watch out for.  See the last 3 pictures below for more info.

1.  Connecting rod hits the cylinder and stops the engine- Either move the cylinder away from the crankshaft of cut notches in the cylinder to prevent the rod from hitting.
2.  Rod falls off the side of the crankshaft- make tighter bends on the crankshaft or drill a smaller hole in the connecting rod.  Also make sure that the crankshaft is straight and installed as level as possible in the crank supports.
3.  Flywheels not attached-  hot glue is not the best for this application, and the flywheels can come loose.  Make sure to sand the crankshaft where it gets glued and spread the hot glue up the crankshaft a ways in front of and behind the flywheel.  Take care to keep it off the bearings though!
4. Engine hard to spin-  Check the ping pong ball in the cylinder- some toilet paper rolls can be too tight.  The easiest way to fix this is by getting a different roll, but you can also slit the roll lengthwise, spread it out a little, and then cover it with Duct Tape (told ya it would come in handy!).  Also check that the glue holding the flywheels on is not rubbing on the crank bearings and that the connecting rod isn't binding up.
5.  Engine spins freely but no matter how hard you blow the piston doesn't move fast or at all-  the toilet paper roll can be to big.  The easiest way to fix this is by getting a different roll, but you can also slit the roll lengthwise, overlap the edgest a little, and then cover it with Duct Tape (again, told ya it would come in handy!).


So there you go.  I've been toying with a few ideas on valves to make it a "blow" only- more steam locomotive engine style.  There are lots of different possibilities for this depending on your age group, supplies you have at hand, and the amount of time you spend on it.  Good luck, and have fun!

Hope you enjoyed my first ever instructable! Please let me know if you have any questions or suggestions.

Step 6: Variations

Picture of Variations

"Ride on toy dude" asked about the possibility of making multi-cyclindered engines, so I tried it out.  Here is an opposed "boxer" style engine you might find on a BMW motorcycle, or similar to a Volkswagen or Subaru motor but this one is only a two cylinder.  I built it with the same patterns, just flipped them around and extended the spacer plate and base.  The crankshaft is pretty straight forward- you could use the original crankshaft and just put two connecting rods on it but I chose to make it a "boxer", with both pistons going out at the same time.  I had to off-set the cylinders a little to account for the double connecting rods and the fact that they aren't centered on the crank, but other than that it was pretty straight forward.  Check out the pics, vid to come soon!


Step 7: Variations 2

Picture of Variations 2

Knocked out a new version today- The V4!  It would be very easy to add a few cylinders to this and make it a V6 or V8 as well.  I will eventually get around to posting more details but for now here's the quick version...

I took 2 cylinders and glued them together and repeated the process for the other side.  Built a base to help strengthen each bank and give me something flat to glue to.  That was the easy part.

The hard part was coming up with the cylinder supports that would keep the cylinder banks the right distance apart from each other and at the right angle.  I came up with a simple reversible plate that is glued to the side of one bank and then hooks underneath the other bank.  The plate is identical for the front and rear, just one is flipped over.  Took some measuring, but was quite simple with a ruler and a Combination Square to mark the 45 degree angles.

Next step was to figure out the crankshaft.  The first attempt looked good, but didn't work to well.  I attempted to make it like the crank on the Boxer engine, but it put the connecting rods and pistons out of line with the cylinders- it was just too fat. So I remade it and had two connecting rods share one crank journal, and that gave me a lot of flexibility in lining them up with the cylinders.

Assembly was a bit tricky- had to stick one end of the crank in, figure out which two pistons went in the first bank (took me about 3 tries to finally get it right), then put the other two pistons in the other bank of cylinders, and wiggle the crank through the other side.  Then it was a simple matter of lining the sides up and gluing them, then gluing it to the base.

I only wanted one flywheel like you would find on an automotive style engine, but I was worried that this larger engine would need more weight to power it through so I glued two CD's together and stuck them on the crank.  As you can see I balanced it with a quarter- You wouldnt need to do that if you bent the crank with journals at 180 degrees, instead of at 90 degrees like I did on this one.

There you go!

Comments

gdlwalker (author)2015-10-01

A great way of demonstrating the power of steam.

T0BY (author)2015-06-23

This is a lovely idea! I remember making exactly this out of Lego when I was about 10. Mine didn't work very well but was an interesting device to add to the list of attempts.

dorkpunch (author)T0BY2015-06-23

Thanks! Speaking of Lego engines, here are a couple some of my students designed. They actually work pretty well, too!

http://dorkpunch.blogspot.com/2015/04/lego-engines.html

427hotrod (author)2015-01-01

some one should do a v8 with this that would be cool

bfk (author)2013-09-05

"Piston?" I never knew that. Great instructable and an excellent use of Sketchup. Thanks

vwtm2006 (author)2013-03-01

hi , look to make things easier just make the template of the crank and cylinder supports with degrees, thats it !!!!!!!!!!!!

vwtm2006 (author)2013-02-28

i really dont know how to thank you are the best !!!!

waiting patterns

vwtm2006 (author)2013-02-28

hi bro can you make templates for the v4 engine , it will be very very helpful.
I agree with others its the best idea and the best project , thanks

dorkpunch (author)vwtm20062013-02-28

I will see what I can do!

dorkpunch (author)2012-03-12

Just an update- I've had a few people ask about other resources, so I have added a few websites to the first step you might want to check out.

biochemtronics (author)2012-02-16

This is so simple it is amazing. Thanks so much for sharing it.

dorkpunch (author)2011-12-16

UPDATE!!!

I built a V4 model, and it works! There is a new step at the end called Variations 2 with more information on the V4.

I also added a picture there of all three engines together AND a picture of the 20 or so engines my class just finished building.

Teaser pics for ya'll.

Ugifer (author)dorkpunch2012-01-17

I love these!

I sometimes do holiday projects with my 6-year old and a few of her friends. This may well be featuring!

You could make valves using more toilet roll tubes and ping-pong balls.

This time, you would attach a ball to the shaft, so it spun with the engine inside a toilet roll. It would want an "inlet" hole in the front (away from the engine) and an outlet hole (well, groove) in the side that matched a hole in the side of the tube. Then, as the engine turns, the valve opens on the power stroke (outlet hole lines up with groove in ball) but then once the ball turns so the groove is past the hole, the hole is blocked and no more air blows in. A tube would take air to the calendar head and another valve on the other end of the shaft would have the opposite timing as an outlet.

Two cylinders could run off one pair of valves by having their inlet holes on opposite sides of the tube.

Not sure if that makes any sense but it works in my head!

Gydoko (author)dorkpunch2011-12-20

how do you blow on all 4 cylinders with good timing?

dorkpunch (author)Gydoko2011-12-20

You don't have to, one person running one cylinder will spin the other 3 over, so basically you only have one power cylinder, the rest are for show. You can, however, use any of the 4 cylinders as the power cylinder!

Gydoko (author)dorkpunch2011-12-21

powerful thing, for an toilet paper engine!

earlyflyer (author)2012-01-02

Great instructable. Putting this on the winter-project-with-the-kids list!

vedant (author)2011-12-19

will it matter if i don't add the flywheels ?
where does the air you blow in escape from and how does the piston come back ?

dorkpunch (author)vedant2011-12-19

Yes, it will matter. You can make the piston go up and down without flywheels, but its very jerky and it will not continue to "run". I have had students make them out of cardboard when they forgot cd's, and it seemed to work okay. You may have to double layer the cardboard to get enough weight to make the engine run smooth.

The air that was blown in is sucked back out when you inhale. If the engine is built well, you can just time your breaths out- but you have to take your mouth of the engine a little to let the air inside come back out.

vedant (author)dorkpunch2011-12-20

I have an idea but it will work with 2 cylinder engine only.
If you make an air out let on both the cylinders and then blow air into it
you wont have to coordinate the breathing hopefully.
The placement is very important.
I am not sure if it will work or not.
What do you think ? + I really liked the work you have done

dorkpunch (author)vedant2011-12-20

I've been toying with that idea- basically making a port at the bottom of the cylinder kind of like a 2 stroke engine would have. Not sure how well it would work- you would still have to stop blowing so the piston would come back up. You don't need two people to run the 2 cylinder- it will run on one cylinder just fine! Still need to upload video of it and the V4 running.

pop88 (author)2011-12-17

Creatively
thank you

rondacosta (author)2011-12-15

Big test to be tried?: could it work just by spot-blowing into de piston ball and when it comes back from inertia another blow will send it back away again? The demostration by a young "engineer" would be perhaps more successful,,,,

dorkpunch (author)rondacosta2011-12-16

It does, and actually quite well. I do think it would be pretty easy to cut a port at the bottom of the cylinder sorta like a 2 stroke, and build only an "intake" valve system on top to time the pulses of air. Still working on it though, got side tracked and built a V4 model... Pics to follow!

absolutekold (author)rondacosta2011-12-16

Yeah it's possible but would require more weight to be added to the flywheel (for added inertia to keep the piston traveling during the return stroke) and either a careful eye or some sort of timing making the project far more complicated than the original design intended. If it were me modeling it after a 2 stroke with a port near the bottom of the stroke for exhaust and just giving it a blast when it passes TDC (top dead center) like a hit or miss engine should do nicely. Compressed air or computer duster would be good then let it run a few cycles and when it slows enough for you to time it give it another blast. also with added weight, balancing the flywheel becomes an issue but keeping it speeds low and using something like pre-molded door trim to keep the weight close i don't see why it wouldn't work.

Carleyy (author)2011-12-15

This is a great resource for teachers! Thanks for documenting it so thoroughly!

axiesdad (author)2011-12-15

What a great classroom project! Have you shared this through any professional journals (NEA or whatever)? You should; Junior high science classes would love this.

Green Silver (author)2011-12-15

All you need to do now is hook it up to a hair dryer or the air outlet of a vacuum cleaner. 10/10 idble.. :D

dorkpunch (author)2011-12-14

For anyone thats interested, I added one more step, "Variations", showing the two cylinder engine I built with a little more information. Heres a quick pic for you though:

jackjackboom (author)2011-12-13

Do you think it would be possible to add more cylinders

dorkpunch (author)jackjackboom2011-12-13

It would be very simple to make this into a two cylinder opposed or "boxer" engine- just add another connecting rod and piston to the same crankshaft but point it out the opposite direction. It would be hard to get it "powered"- two people controlling their breathing at the same time enough to spin it would take some practice. I'm sure you could build a v8 as well, but again, tough to power it!

jackjackboom (author)dorkpunch2011-12-14

AWESOME

dorkpunch (author)jackjackboom2011-12-14

So... I couldn't stop thinking about it. I built a 2 cylinder opposed boxer-style engine and it worked great- the other piston just goes back and forth, no power, but it still works. I'll add some pics to the final step later tonight.

Dream Dragon (author)2011-12-13

That's REALLY clever!

A ball shaped piston gets around complex linkages at that end, and it's all nice and easy to get parts. One thing that I DO wonder about is the possibility of an "exhaust valve". Obviously lung pressure takes care of inlet valve and ignition timing, but the only engine that has a "suck" on the exhaust stroke is a Newcommen Steam engine where the stem is condensed in the cylinder.

I'm wondering if a "Pallet Valve" might be possible with a trip on the flywheel or something?

dorkpunch (author)Dream Dragon2011-12-13

I have a couple of ideas I should probably get around to trying out, but yes, it would be really cool to have a valve of some sort so you could run it on compressed air instead of having to do it with breath...

I was thinking of having a flapper valve or reed valve that could be tripped open by having an extra bend on the crankshaft that hits a pushrod - sort of an over head valve 2 stroke. Hard to explain, guess I need to build a model and see how it works!

dorkpunch (author)dorkpunch2011-12-13

AND...

I think in a pinch you could live with out the ball piston- pretty sure if you cut a disk the right size out and glued that to the dowel, it would still work. Theres a LOT of room for error on this engine...

Dream Dragon (author)dorkpunch2011-12-13

Yes it's got a lot of built in tolerance but with sticky tape and toilet rolls you kinda NEED a lot of leeway.

Valve Wise, that's more or less what I was thinking. I suggested a trip on the fly wheel to get around having to bend the crank shaft in more devious convolutions, and I'm not sure it'd run on compressed air without an INLET valve too. If you have an exhaust valve it'd certainly be POSSIBLE to add an inlet valve, and I imagine it would run adequately fron the air in a baloon if you did, but I like the way that the user has to TIME their breath to get the thing to move correctly. Makes it a more interactive demonstration...

Or put both valves in and make them MANUALLY operated...

wilgubeast (author)2011-12-13

This is an AWESOME CLASSROOM PROJECT.

A bazillion imaginary internet PBL points. Love the language acquisition objective, too.

janaWolf (author)2011-12-12

Looks interesting, but are you sure it will work?

dorkpunch (author)janaWolf2011-12-13

Yes, it "works"... We've built maybe a hundred of these in my classes over the last 3 years. Some work better than others, just depends on how much time you spend on it and how accurate you are. It doesnt run by itself if thats what you mean- you have to continually suck the piston up and then blow it back down like it shows in the video clip.

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