Introduction: Artisan Kaleidoscope

Do you want to build a beautiful Kaleidoscope? Not one of those cardboard tube science class versions, but an artistic creation that you can give as a gift to yourself and others. This is also a more advanced project, that requires access to a laser cutter, and some moderately expensive materials. But these general principles can be tweaked and twisted to create your own version.

This Kaleidoscope will use three mirrors arranged in a triangular configuration. To create a nice visual effect, we will use an oil filled plastic container to hold the shiny objects at the viewing end of the Kaleidoscope. The oil acts to buffer the movement of the objects, and results in a nice fluid motion (see video above).

Step 1: Materials

The resource bottleneck for this project is (1) a laser cutter, and (2) the first surface acrylic mirror which is pricey.

The first surface mirror greatly improves the quality of the image inside the Kaleidoscope. (See above image for comparison of normal and first surface mirror). With a normal mirror the image reflects off both the reflective surface *and* the clear material (glass or acrylic) in front of the reflective coating. Its totally possible to use glass for this project, but I was optimizing for cutting everything using the laser cutter. When I did this project I built 37 in one go, so I was also thinking about saving time.

Aside from that, everything is a home depot purchase, and can be constructed with common tools.


  • Shiny objects for viewing.
    • A bead store is a great place to find such things. They should be mostly translucent, otherwise you'll block all the light from entering.
  • Mineral oil for inside the object chamber.
  • Glue for attaching acrylic and wood to PVC.
    • Any clear epoxy will work.
  • Glue for attaching decorative cover to PVC.
    • I used contact cement. This is tricky to use, as it bonds immediately. You could probably get away with using the epoxy.
  • Material for decorative cover. I've used:
    • Leather
    • Wood Veneer
    • Variety of fabrics from fabric store
    • Suede
  • Compressed air

Step 2: Cut Your Parts

The dimensions I provide here might vary for you, as you're probably using a different laser cutter. Luckily, most of the materials are cheap. And the expensive material - the mirror - can be tested using small pieces.
  • Cut 1x 9" length of 1.25" PVC
    • I used a Miter Saw. A hand saw is fine, but you really want to get a clean, perpendicular cut. So use a jig of some kind if doing it by hand. And sand after by placing the sandpaper on a hard flat surface, and sanding the end of the PVC until its totally flat.
  • Cut 2x 1.35" diameter circles out of the clear acrylic
  • Cut 1x wooden eyepiece.
    • Outside diameter = 1.7" (this will be a bit oversized, for sanding down later)
    • Inside diameter = 5/8"
  • Cut 1x wooden back piece
    • Outside diameter = 1.7"
    • Inside diameter = ____
  • Cut 3x mirrors 1.025" wide
    • Height of mirror = 9" - 2*(thickness of acrylic) + (height of clear jar) - .01 (wiggle factor)
    • Test the mirror width by cutting short pieces, and taping them using a short piece of PVC as show in image above. The mirror triangle does not need to be super tight. We will use material to keep it from moving later. But you don't want it to be undersized because we want all the mirror surface area we can get.

Step 3: Cut Decorative Cover

I made this a separate step because there is quite a bit of possibility and potential complexity here. First step is to choose which material you want to use. I also used two different wrapping techniques: (1) Overlap, where the material wrapped all the way around the pipe, plus like .5" of overlap, (2) Exact fit, where the two sides of the piece of material met exactly at 360 degrees. There is no doubt that the overlap is way easier. But for some materials it might not look as good.

The general procedure is that you are going to cut a rectangle of material. The length of the rectangle = 9" + 2*(width of wood). For some materials it makes sense to give yourself some wiggle room, and make the rectangle longer. Then cut the excess off later. For other materials this results in a crappy finish.

The height of the rectangle depends on if you are going for overlap or exact fit. If you are going for overlap, then its going to be something like: 1.66" (outside diam of PVC) * 3.14 + .5" = ~5.7". If you are going for exact fit then you need to figure this out by trial and error, starting with 1.66" * 3.14 = 5.212".

Here are some thoughts on different materials

  • Fabric
    • Huge variety.
    • Sometimes less expensive (not always)
    • Readily available
    • Forgiving during the gluing process
    • Can be tricky to apply contact cement to fabric because its thin, and the glue absorbs quickly
    • Easy to snip excess fabric off the ends, though the burn from the laser cutter also keeps edges from fraying. So, if you are dexterous, then cut the exact length. Otherwise, cut bigger and snip the excess.
    • Perfect candidate for overlap wrapping technique
  • Leather - I used this:
    • More expensive
    • Looks great!
    • You'll want to finish it with some kind of leather finish or oil
    • Really smelly if you cut it with the laser
    • Easy to apply glue
    • Stiff and not forgiving during glueing
    • Cutting excess material off the ends seems to produce a rough edge. Best to measure twice and do it right.
    • You could go overlap, or exact fit for the wrapping technique. But the overlap produces a very distinctive ridge, which I think looks sort of cool.
  • Suede - I used this
    • A bit more expensive
    • Looks awesome
    • Doesn't need any kind of finish
    • Easy to glue
    • Forgiving during glueing (can be stretched and wiggled a little bit)
    • I didn't try an overlap wrap, but the exact wrap looked amazing. But it really took some serious tweaking to get the edges to perfectly match up.
  • Wood Veneer
    • I thought this would be super hard to work with, and was expecting to need all kinds of techniques to bend and form the wood, but turns out its not the case. The veneer happily bends around the pipe without any conditioning.
    • Easy and recommended to cut and sand excess material from the ends
    • Really easy to apply glue
    • Difficult to get an exact fit for the wrap. You'll need to do quite a few test to get this right.
    • I haven't tried an overlap but I suspect this won't look very good.

Step 4: Sand PVC

  • The PVC needs to be well roughed for the glue to adhere
  • Wear a protective mask. PVC dust is not awesome. And should not be inhaled.
  • Use 80 grit sandpaper to sand the outside surface, end edge where it was cut, AND the inside lip.
  • The edges and inside lip need to be sanded (about 1/2" down) so that the end caps can be properly glued on
  • Use compressed air, or a cloth to remove the PVC dust

Step 5: Construct Mirror

  • Make sure the reflective surface is facing inward
  • Don't touch the reflective surface - it will leave fingerprints
  • Remove protective film from front and back of mirrors (keep this around for later)
  • Using a PVC pipe that is around 6" makes this easier
  • Place the short pipe vertical on a table
  • Place the mirrors in a rough triangular configuration.
  • The edges will meet as shown in the image above.
  • Cut a length of electrical tape that is 4-5" long
  • Wrap tape around, one panel at a time, making sure to keep the symmetrical configuration shown above.
  • Pull the triangle out, and flip it around, and retape
  • Now you should have two rings of tape, one on either side of the mirror triangle

Step 6: Construct Endpieces

  • Wear appropriate respiration and eye protection. If you are gluing indoors, then use a hood or ventilator.
  • Remove protective film from only one side of the clear acrylic
  • Apply glue to the wood where the acrylic will meet.
  • You only need a thin film. If you put too much, and it squishes onto the acylic, you need to start over. There is no cleaning that glue off.
  • You can use a short piece of pipe to line the acrylic up with the wood, but I ended up just doing it by eye.

Step 7: Attach Eye Piece

  • Glue around edges
  • Make sure you've got some glue on the wood, and on the outside edge of the acrylic
  • REMOVE THE PROTECTIVE FILM from the clear acrylic (would be a bummer to forget this step)
  • Push against PVC
  • Wipe up any excess glue.
  • Avoid getting glue on the front surface of the wood

Step 8: Make Your Shiny Stuff Jar

  • Fill your jar with shiny stuff
  • Translucent stuff is best, as this will allow light through. If its all opaque, it will keep light from getting to your eye.
  • Fill it about 3/4 full of stuff. Though ultimately this is an aesthetic decision.
  • You can actually test this before gluing the final piece on. (just hold it in place)
  • Slowly pour in the mineral oil as full as you can get it.
  • The mineral oil is so viscous that it takes time to settle. So either pour slow, or do it in a couple rounds to make sure you get it totally full.
  • Carefully place the cap on, and tighten super duper tight. There is not easy fix if this starts leaking later down the road.
  • Place some foam or cushy material around the edge of the jar to hold it in place. This is important. You don't want it jiggling around. Here I'm using the type of insulation used on windows and doors. It comes in a roll at home depot. Even packing peanuts would probably be fine.

Step 9: Fill'er Up!

  • Put the mirrors in
  • I use the protective film from the mirrors to keep them from jiggling
  • Scrunch the film into bundles, and shove behind each mirror. Three in total.
  • Use a stick to push the three bundles down into the pipe.
  • Shake the PVC and make sure the mirror doesn't jiggle
  • If it does, shove some more stuff back there. Packing peanuts could work.
  • Blow compressed air thoroughly to remove any dust. Once this is sealed, you'll live with that dust forever
  • Check the eye piece to make sure there is no dust on the inside.
  • Place the shiny stuff jar over the mirror
  • Place the back piece on (without glue)
  • Check out your Kaleidoscope!!
  • If you don't like what you see, then you can change the contents of the jar around, and do this again.

Step 10: Close It Up!

  • REMOVE PROTECTIVE FILM from the clear acrylic
  • Glue around wood, making sure to also get some on the outside edge of the acrylic
  • Press into PVC
  • Wipe any excess glue
  • Avoid getting glue on wood surface
  • You now have a finished and not so pretty Kaleidoscope! Congratulations!
  • Now its time to make it pretty

Step 11: Finish the Wood End Pieces

  • Sand and finish the wood end pieces
  • Sand around perimeter of wood and make sure it is flush with PVC
  • Finish any way you like
  • If you are doing a veneer wrap, then you should wait and do this step after the veneer is on

Step 12: Attach the Decorative Cover

  • These instructions are for contact cement, as that's what I used
  • Contact cement forms a bond immediately, so it can be tricky to use.
  • Glue outside or under a hood or ventilator. Wear a respirator. Glues, especially contact cement, can be really nasty. Don't breath it
  • Wear rubber glovers
  • Painter's tape the ends
  • Paint on the Contact Cement onto the PVC using paint brush.
    • Make sure to get full covering around the edges of the wood end pieces. (The tape should protect the face)
    • Let it dry for 15-20 min. Should be tacky, but not wet.
  • Paint contact cement onto your material.
    • for fabric, it sort of soaks in. Just keep going. Make sure to get a full covering around the edges.
    • For leather and veneer its a bit more straightforward. Get a full covering, and let dry 15-20 min
  • Tilt an edge of the Kaleidoscope down, so the very edge of one of the wood end caps touches the edge of your material. This is a way to line up your horizontal spacing.
    • If you have extra length of material, then give yourself some buffer room here.
  • Then slowly lower the other edge of the scope down toward the other edge of the material.
  • There is no science here. Just try to get the scope as parallel as possible to the top and bottom of the material
  • If you have extra length of material, then you don't need to worry so much.
  • Start rolling the pipe one direction until that half of material is adhered
  • Now roll back and get the other side
  • If you are using a flexible material, then go real slow. And if needed you can nudge the material into better alignment. This won't work for veneer or leather.
  • If you are doing an overlap then there is an extra step.
  • The extra flap won't glue to the outside of the material because there isn't glue on both sides.
  • Fold the flap over, and place a piece of blue painters tape right along the edge of the flap running from one end of the K-scope to the other (see picture above)
  • Glue onto the exposed, un-glued strip, AND apply a new coat of glue to the inside of the flap.
  • Let dry 15 - 20 min
  • Fold over, and press firmly.

Contact cement needs pressure to bond. Use a piece of PVC, or a glass bottle, or something hard and smooth to firmly press the material into the PVC.

You're done!! Go enjoy your special creation!

Homemade Gifts Contest 2015

Participated in the
Homemade Gifts Contest 2015