Introduction: Grand Wooden Orrery

About: Action pig loves truth, justice, and his new jig saw.

Hello fellow space-lovers!  Firstly, a little background.  An orrery is a mechanical model of the solar systems built to show the relative positions and motions of the planets.  A grand orrery incorporates all of the planets known at the time of its making (traditional orreries stop at Saturn).  The funny name comes from the Charles Boyle, the 4th Earl of Orrery, who I suppose probably liked this sort of thing.

I chose a ten planet model, incorporating Pluto and Eris, with a modified scale (see step 1).  Distances, for reasons that you know doubt understand, are not to scale.  My model is not mechanical, although the planets can be rotated individually. 

For more information and plans to build a true mechanical orrery, check out Clayton Boyer's beautiful designs here.  

Edit:  Thank you to everyone who voted for me in the Celestron Space Contest!  As you might be able to guess, this is still a work in progress.  I will post the final pictures after it is completely finished.  Thanks!

Step 1: Calculations

For those who do not care about scale calculations, move on to the next step.  Nerds, stay with me.  

I set Jupiter's size at 7 inches (diameter) and scaled the other planets relative to it.  Be aware that seven inches is a lot bigger than it sounds and a lot heavier than you think (Jupiter weights ~3 lbs).  Many of my later design constraints came from Jupiter and Saturn's weight.  

The terrestrial planets and earth's moon are magnified by a factor of 5 in order for them to be visible (In the photo below, Pluto at ~0.6 inches in diameter is approximately the correct size for Earth without the 5x magnification).  The sun is essentially not to scale, for reasons that are unlikely to become clear at the moment. 

The calculations below do not include Eris.  Reports vary as to whether it is in fact significantly larger than Pluto or only slightly larger.  I chose the smaller value for the radius as it is the most recent.  All the data is from Nasa.  The scale was calculated in excel and modeled in photoshop.  

Step 2: A Note Regarding Dwarf Planets

Pluto's "demotion" has been emotionally and intellectually challenging for a lot of us.  The new rules regarding an astronomical body's ability to "clear the neighborhood" in order to qualify for planethood still feels rather arbitrary.  As such, in my orrery (as in New Mexico) Pluto has retained full planethood.  And if Pluto is a planet, then Eris must surely also be included.  The other prospective planets- Haumea, MakeMake, and Ceres - were not included due to their size (at 0.38 inches MakeMake would only be slightly larger than the hole I would need to drill in it). 

Moving on...

Step 3: Part 1: the Planets - Stuff You Need


Wood for the spheres:  For several different colors I started out with 4-5 feet each of red oak, mahogany, walnut, hickory, and maple.
Note: I did not use all of this for building the spheres,  but I used all of it and more in building the orrery structure. 
Wood for the patterns:  I used plywood.  Cardboard or mat board can also be used.  
Copper for Saturn's rings
Brass Rod: 1/8" thick for Saturn's rings
Wood Glue (I used Titebond)
Epoxy and inlay materials (optional)


Table saw
Band saw
Scroll saw
Belt Sander
Dremel with sanding and carving attachments
Wood Burner (optional)

*Not all of this equipment is absolutely necessary.  Chisels, a hammer, and indefinite patience can be substituted for a band saw.  A dremel is incredibly useful for touching up the sanding process, but it is not necessary.  A lathe, and the ability to use it, would substitute almost all of the equipment listed above.  

Step 4: Gluing the Blocks

Each board has to be squared, planed, and cut to size before they can be glued into blocks.  You really don't need a lot of extra when gluing the blocks together - the closer your blocks are in size to the final sphere size, the happier you will be later on. 

Thin layers cannot be glued width-wise as they will bow in the clamps.  Glue thin layers onto thicker layers, rinse and repeat.  Wait at least 30 minutes between gluing layers, and at least 24 hours before doing any work on the block.  

Step 5: Cutting the Pattern

Now you need a pattern.  Cut a circle out a piece of plywood, mat board, or cardboard equal to the final diameter of your sphere.  This will be your guide in making the planet spherical and the correct size.  

The stronger the pattern material, the less likely you are to break it as you are trying to fit the planet through it.  

Step 6: Cutting the Blocks

You will save many, many hours by cutting out a cylinder on the band saw before shaping the block on the belt sander.  This is really not very safe, especially for the large planets.  Be extremely careful and cut only a little bit off at a time.  The cylinder should have a diameter equal to or slightly larger than the final diameter. 

Make sure that you are cutting with a flat surface on the platform.   Under no circumstances should you try to cut a curved surface on the band saw.  It is possible, and it will save a great deal of time, but it could also cause the blade to bind, screwing up your piece and possibly your hand and definitely your blade.  

Step 7: Shaping the Spheres

If shaping a sphere with a belt sander sounds incredibly tedious, you would be correct.  It is.  And it is not very accurate - you are not going to make a perfect sphere.  But you can get pretty close by eyeing the shape and using your pattern.  

Begin on the corners.  Use your judgment until the block is pretty much spherical.  Then start using the pattern, trying to fit the circle over the sphere and marking where the block is too big.  Sand, repeat.  Using a 40 grit sand paper will make this process go by much easier.

After the block fits the pattern, it is time to use the dremel.  Feel where the block is still angular and use the sanding attachment to smooth it out.

In general the smaller the planet, the easier it is to shape.  Plan on spending a lot of time on any sphere over 5 inches in diameter.  

Step 8: Adding Something Extra - Venus, Earth, Uranus, and Neptune

Using an old atlas for guidance I used a wood burner to make the continents for Earth.  I used rock inlay to give a little color to Venus, Neptune, and Uranus.  You can get great rock from any rock shop and crush it yourself if you want, or buy already crushed rock for a little extra.  If you are going to crush rock, make sure you DO NOT BUY AGATE.  It is not only extremely hard and frustrating to work with, it is made of silica and its dust is toxic.  Malachite is expensive to buy already crushed, but is cheap if you can buy little fragments in scrap bins and it is easy to crush yourself.  I used a mix of blue rocks for Neptune, some of which I crushed myself and some I had already crushed.  I used a dremel to carve the designs and sand away the epoxy.

For more detail on how to inlay, check out supersoftdrink's excellent instructable here.  

Step 9: Saturn's Rings

For Saturn's rings I used old, tarnished sheet copper.  I cut the rings with a pair of tin snips and sanded the edges with a dremel.  Using a drill press I drilled 8 1/8" holes around the middle of the sphere.  I cut and sanded a 1/8" thick brass rod to make pins to hold the rings in place. 

Note:  Saturn's rings are not to scale

Step 10: Finishing the Planets

For finishing work I hand sanded the smaller planets and power-sanded the bigger planets.  A dremel saves a lot of grief for the tiny spheres.  I used 150, 180, and 220 grit.  Applying a damp cloth in between grits will raise the grain and result in a smoother finish. 

For a finish I used a mixture of 1/2 tung oil 100% pure and 1/2 mineral spirits. Mixing them together in a mason jar, I applied it to the planet, rubbing it in with my hands. Then I wiped it off with a rag and waited for it to dry.  Then I rubbed the planet with a piece of 0000 steel wool, just enough to roughen the surface. Then I wiped away the little woolly bits and repeated the process. Tung oil, rag, dry, steel wool, tung oil, rag for seven coats. 

Step 11: Part 2: the Structure - Stuff You Need

For the sun:

~14" x 4" x 3/4" piece of hardwood (I used mahogany)
1/4" aluminum rods

For the structure:

1 hollow steel pipe (7/8" diameter, 6' long)
Wood for the rotating blocks (I used white oak)
Wood for the counterweights (I used white and red oak)
Wood for the base (I used Walnut)
Additional Weights (I used lead shot, available at any sporting good store, and concrete to fill in the gaps)
3 2.5 lb bar weights (for saturn and Jupiter's counter-weights)
8 (1/2" by 1/2"), 2 (0.75" x 0.75") brass elbow joints (available in the plumbing section of any hardware store)
1/2" wooden dowel for the elbow joint plugs
7/8" wooden dowel for the lamp, counter-weight plugs
0.75" wooden dowel for the large elbow joint plugs
Several each of:
1/4" diameter steel rod (used for horizontal rods)
3/16" diameter steel rod (used for vertical rods)
0.5" hollow diameter steel rod (used for horizontal rods for the heavier planets)
1/8" diameter brass rod (used for vertical rods and pins)*

*A brass vertical rod indicates that the planet has been magnified by a factor of 5, while a steel vertical rod indicates it has not been magnified.


Table Saw
Drill Press (with various size bits, including Forstner bits)
Belt Sander
Miter Saw
Dremel with metal cutting wheel
Power Sander

Step 12: Rotating Pins

The planets rotate on pins inserted through the 6' hollow pipe.  I used a drill press with a titanium drill bit (1/8") to drill holes through the metal rod 2.5" inches apart starting at 8" below the tip of the pipe. I prepared brass pins in the same manner discussed in step 8. 

Every metal rod had to be sanded to fit.  Sanding also transforms a grungy metal rod into a shiny metal rod.  I used a power sander at 100 to 150 grit for sanding metal and a belt sander (80 grit) to sharpen the tips.  For these pins I did not sand one end to help prevent the pins coming loose and falling into the hollow rod.  Each pin is slightly less than 1.5" long. 

Step 13: Rotating Blocks

I cut the rotating blocks to 2" x 3" x 3" using a miter saw, table saw, and planer (not in that order).  With the drill press (Forstner bit) I drilled a 7/8" hole through the block and a 1.5" recess into one side.  This recessed area is used to conceal the rotating pin and also helps to prevent the pin from coming loose once the block is in place. 

Step 14: Elbow Joints

In order to create a tight fit for each horizontal and vertical rod, I glued wooden dowels into both ends of each elbow joint using Epoxy.  The ends of the wooden plugs were sanded down with a belt sander, then appropriately sized holes were drilled with your friendly neighborhood drill press.  I used larger elbow joints for Saturn and Jupiter as they are so very heavy.

Step 15: Adding Horizontal and Vertical Rods

Holes for each rod had to be drilled in the each rotating block and elbow joint.  I used brass vertical rods for the planets that were magnified by 5, and steel vertical rods for the gas giants that were not magnified at all.  For small planets (Mercury, Mars, Pluto, Eris) I used 1/4" thick horizontal rods and 1/8" thick vertical rods.  For the other terrestrial planets (Venus, Earth) I used 1/4" thick horizontal rods and 3/16" thick vertical rods.  For the large gas giants (Jupiter, Saturn) I used 0.5" hollow horizontal rods and 1/4" thick vertical rods.  For Uranus and Neptune I used 1/4" thick horizontal rods and 3/16" thick vertical rods. 

For obvious reasons, distances are not at all, in any way, to scale.  I tried to conserve horizontal distance as much as possible and chose the length of the vertical rods based on esthetics. 

Each rod was cut using a dremel and sanded down with a belt and power sander. 

Step 16: Earth's Moon

The Moon's system is essentially a miniature version of the rest of the rotating system.  The moon rotates on a hex nut glued onto Earth's vertical rod and sanded smooth.  The rotating block is ~ 1" x 1" x 1" with a 0.5" recessed hole that rests on the hex nut.  I used a 1/8" brass bar bent into a 90 degree angle for the horizontal/vertical rod.  Due to its small size I elected not to counterweight the moon (as I would then have to counterweight the counterweight on the other side of the lamp).

For simplicity's sake, Earth's moon is the only moon I included in this system. 

Step 17: The Counterweights

The counterweights are wooden blocks drilled and weighted as necessary to compensate for the weight of the planet and metal bars.  I did this by trial and error rather than calculation - if anyone could instruct me on how I could have calculated the appropriate weight to compensate for the weight and distance of the planet, I would be much obliged. 

For most of the counterweights I was able to drill 7/8" holes with a forstner bit 3-5 inches deep and fill the holes with lead and concrete to achieve a sufficient weight.  The size of the counterweight block depended entirely on how heavy it needed to be, with a self imposed  limit of 9" from the bar to the end of the counterweight.  I used 5/16" metal bars to connect the counterweight to the rotating block (for a few weights the metal bar was sufficient to add weight).  Please let me know if you are interested in more exact dimensions and weights. 

After the weights were put in, I plugged the holes with an appropriately sized wooden dowel and epoxy and sanded the surfaces smooth.

Jupiter and Saturn, however, needed something extra...

Step 18: Counterweighting Jupiter and Saturn

Jupiter weighs 3 lbs and is ~1.5 feet out from the metal bar.  I estimated that I needed about 8 lbs of counterweight for a correct balance.  There was no way to get there with lead shot and concrete.  I ended up using  2.5 lb weights and building a wooden block around them - 2 weights in Jupiter's block, 1 in Saturn's.  Due to size restraints, I was not able to get a perfect balance for Jupiter or Saturn (Jupiter's counterweight is ~ 6 lbs, and Saturn's is ~ 3.5 lbs). 

First I prepared wooden boards (3/4" x 5" x 7") out of red oak.  I needed 3 for Jupiter and 2 for Saturn.  I marked the size of the weight and used the drill press (Forstner bit, to the rescue!) to create a recessed area for the weight.  VERY CAREFULLY I used chisels to finish hollowing out a recessed area (I lost more than one board by cracking it with a chisel). 

Because Jupiter's block houses 2 weights, I also used a scroll saw to cut out a hole to house the weight.  Jupiter now has 3 boards: 1 with a recess and 1 with a hole and 1 untouched.  Saturn has two boards, both with recesses. 

Time to glue!  I put the weights in and added lead shot and concrete in the empty areas to maximize the weight.  Then I glued the boards together with wood glue and clamps. 

For all of the blocks, after gluing I used a table saw to square the blocks before finishing them. 

Step 19: The Base

The design of the base comes from a lamp my mom designed. She also did most of the leg work in squaring, cutting, gluing the blocks for my base, as well as preparing the mortise and tenon and lap joints. Props to moms everywhere, and especially mine!

As you can see from the pictures above, the base consists of two crossed wooden blocks and four upright blocks. The upright blocks are connected and glued via mortise and tenon joints into the horizontal crossed blocks. Two walnut blocks were cut and glued to approximately 3" x 3" x 20".  Using a dado blade on a table saw we created a lap joint to form a cross.  

The upright pieces are connected to the base by mortise and tenon joints.  Using a drill press, we drilled as much of the mortise as we could and used chisels to fine tune the fit.  Using the table saw we created the tenon on each upright.  After creating the tenon, we used a band saw to prettify the uprights.  

It just so happened that the 6' steel pole I bought was threaded on both ends.  My mom found a threaded metal bar that my pole could screw into.  Using a drill press we drilled a hole for the pole, and inserted the threaded metal bar, gluing with epoxy. 

Sand, glue, finish.  

Step 20: Part 4 - the Sun

Originally I designed the model to incorporate a floor length lamp.  However, a dozen lamp shade designs later, I decided to ditch the lamp and go for a more simple design.  The 'sun' in these pictures is only half done - the final design will include a cross-bar with two more curved aluminum bars.  

The final sun design will use a lap joint.  See step 20 for more instructions.  

Step 21: Finishing Touches

I glued every wood/metal contact with epoxy, and every wood/wood contact with wood glue.  I did not glue the brass pins (step 12) or the planets in order to make sure I could take everything apart.  

I sanded all the metal rods with 220 grit and finished the base and blocks using the same method described in step 10.  

Celestron Space Challenge

First Prize in the
Celestron Space Challenge