Introduction: Building Machines From Paperclips

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

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.   



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