Introduction: How to Make Children’s Vacuum Cleaner Ball Cannon

About: Pudding is my co-pilot
There are many tutorials on how to make a cannon using suction, but it requires too much set up per shot. What I wanted was something that just needs balls fed to it: something my two year old son could use. The cannon design basically is to turn a vacuum motor around and have it blow the balls out. Most of the tutorial is concerned with how to do this both efficiently and safely.

Firm foam (flooring mats used)
Bubble wrap or soft foam (like that used in sofas)
An old vacuum cleaner
A cardboard box about 30 cm for each dimension or larger
A grill (to keep fingers out of where they shouldn’t be)
Superglue (lots)
Hot glue or Caulking
Thin, firm and flexible plastic (I used plastic file folders)

Step 1: Preparing the Vacuum

1. The first thing to do is to let your vacuum cleaner rest a few days after it has last been used. AC motors may use multiple capacitors which can hold onto current even after the motor has been turned off. Leaving the vacuum cleaner off should let them drain naturally, but always double check with a voltmeter to make sure the capacitor is not holding a charge.

2. Open the vacuum cleaner. If you have cheap vacuum cleaner, you shouldn’t really have much in the way of electronics. For anything else, you may find yourself looking at a circuit board. Take stock of where the parts are and take a photo. When you have to put it all back together, it helps to have something to refer to.

Your goal is to make the part that was sucking an intake with little obstruction. The vacuum generally vents that air out of several vents. You need to consolidate all of that air into one output with equally little obstruction. If you have an expensive vacuum, you might just be able to reverse airflow by flipping a switch. This would save you a lot of trouble. For the others, you most likely will need to do a bit of sawing. It might seem like you can just reverse the wires and force the motor to spin in the opposite direction, but not all motors are reversible. Another thing that might seem to make sense is to throw out the vacuum cleaner casing rather than try to modify this. A vacuum cleaner motor can produce a lot of torque and needs to be held in place very well. The vacuum cleaner casing is already doing a good job of this along with enclosing the wiring. If you can mount the motor another way, best of luck to you, but it really is more effort than you need.

The vacuum cleaner casing will have lots of air filters (and dust if it’s not new). Get rid of those. The motor will have a rubber/foam gasket on it to prevent vibrations from carrying into the casing. Keep this as it reduces noise greatly. After you’ve figured out how you want to modify the casing, remove the motor and all electronics. As there is a big range in vacuum cleaner casing constructions, there is not much advice to give save for:
a) Remove obstructions
b) Keep as much of the casing as you need to cover the electronics
c) Keep the casing around the switch so you don’t have to worry about mounting the switch later
d) Most shortcomings with the casing modifications can be overcome in later steps but not the engine mounting. Make sure you have enough plastic to keep the motor in place.

Be very careful when cutting the plastic as the saw blade can slip easily.

Step 2: Mount the Casing

3. Create a foam ring or other shape to mount the vacuum cleaner to. This should be sturdy but not block the airflow. Somewhere near 45° is a good angle for any cannon. The mount would ideally absorb some of the vibration caused by the motor because if not, that vibration would both loosen the motor from the mounting over time and carry the vibration into the box causing a lot of sound.

Step 3: Build the Loading Chamber

4. Build the loading chamber for the cannon. Again, the design of this depends on the shape of your original vacuum casing. You basically need a place for balls to go in and one for the balls to go out. Air will blow out of both the ball chute and the exit, but we can fix that later. Make the size of the chute only slightly larger than your intended ammo. It is easier to pull a stuck ball out of the chute than it is to pull it out of the center of the cannon.

Although the inside of this chamber can be any shape, the chamber exit should be tapered to slightly larger than cannon barrel. To get a nice round shape to the foam, it needs to be cut to aid in bending. Make slices along the foam, bend it and insert hot glue into the cracks so that the foam will hold that shape. If you are using other materials than foam, the forming of them would be different.

To keep balls, toys and fingers from getting into the vacuum motor, insert a grill. I used a plastic grill that is strong enough to withstand a hammer, but you can also make your own grill by inserting rods through the foam. Since my two-year-old is using this, I added window screen mesh behind the grill just in case some really small toys get fed into it. Always test this grill very strongly before continuing building the cannon. If you feel you could rip it out with anything less than your strongest effort, it is not good enough. Redo it.

As hot glue is not hot enough (at least mine isn’t) to partially melt the plastic used for the vacuum casing (which is required to get a proper bond), the best way to attach the foam is with epoxy or superglue. Hot glue is only used for caulking. Making your joints air-tight is very important for the final strength of the cannon. Also block up any holes in the casing that you don’t want. Since I cut the handle right above the switch, I had a hole there to fill in.

Step 4: Place It in a Box and Add the Barrel

5. Mount it in a box. I had a strong cardboard box the right size, but other materials are fine. The purpose of the box is mainly sound dampening although it serves to keep fingers away from the vacuum cleaner electronics and air intake. Glue the foam mounting to the bottom of the box and cut an air intake vent on the opposite side. I used the same plastic grill for the air intake as I used inside the cannon. Line the inside of the box with sound dampening materials I had lots of bubble wrap so I used that, but that is far from ideal. The best would be soft, spongy foam. Whatever you use, make sure it is taped/glued down well so it will not get sucked up by the vacuum and block the intake. Use the lid of the box to help support the loading chamber. If you have a switch you want to have exposed, you may have to change the shape of the box. I cut out a section of cardboard to access the button and lined that with firm foam. Also make a hole for the power cord to come out.

6. Make the barrel. Any firm yet bendable plastic sheet will do. Roll it into a tube slightly larger than your ammo. Use multiple layers if it is not sturdy enough. I recommend clear plastic so you can see what has been loaded/is stuck in the cannon. It is better for the barrel to be too big in diameter than too small because too small won’t fire. PVC pipe the right size would also work, but you would need to support the heavier barrel. Fire a few balls to test the barrel length. Mine was too long and firing too far, so I cut back the barrel. You can place foam protection at the end of the barrel if you’d like.

The barrel does not need to be flush with the sides of the firing chamber when you attach it because the air (and the balls) will find the way out. I recommend using hot glue to caulk around the barrel first to get a perfect fit. If the hot glue did not bond well to the barrel, remove the barrel. Now the hot glue is in the perfect shape of the barrel and is the perfect surface to glue the barrel to using super glue or epoxy.

Step 5: Finishing Touches

7. All that is left to do is add a flap over the ball chute to block the air from escaping. I used a silicone pot holder cut to shape, but there are many options. The better you cover this hole, the further the ball will go, but also this will block a lot of the noise from being directed at the person firing. When finished, the cannon should about the same loudness or quieter as the vacuum cleaner would have been on its side, with most of the noise coming out the barrel. Decorate and have fun!