Introduction: Steampunk Bonsai

About: Currently studying Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Toronto, and one day soon will invent FTL Drive, build a spaceship, adventure, invent and discover.

Hey everyone! My brother is coming to university this year, and I felt that I should get him a gift. He has recently developed an interest in steampunk, which is awesome, and so I thought that I'd have a go at building something wicked for him.

I originally got this idea by reading an instructable by Stico found here .

Now, I have an old bonsai tree that had died due to my neglect (as well as occasional flying textbooks). It was beautiful while it was alive, but it was coniferous, so it's pines haven't fallen off since it's died, they've just turned a nice colour.

The following is a list of materials and tools I personally used, and found useful. Keep in mind that this project can be done using any number of components and configurations, though of course (barring any strange quantum action along the way :P), I'll only show you the process for the one I built.

Let's go!

List of Materials
- A deceased bonsai tree
- An appropriately sized box    OR    the core bord reqired to build one (about the same size as the crown of the tree)
- many, many watch gears (I ordered them from these guys )
- small DC motor
- drawer key/lock
- electrical "turn-switch"
- thin core board/thick card to build the box
- two washers (fit around the lock, and the switch)
- old school film canister
- hot glue sticks
- wires
- solder (preferably lead-free. More expensive, but your lungs will thank you)
- 9V battery
- resistor (very small if your motor is brushed)
- a sheet of leather/fake leather (I used a leather table matt)
- larger (order of magnitude: 1-2.5 cm diameters) gears
- gold/brass sprey paint
- shafts for the larger gears to rotate around
- additional metal (preferably brass/gold/copper) nicknacks
- amber LEDs
- pen you don't mind destroying

List of Tools
- Hot glue gun
- Soldering Iron
- protoboard (just to test your circuit on, not really required)
- multi-tool with a knife ( I love my leatherman )
- superglue

Step 1: Preparing Your Gears

Initially, you will want to get all of your components in good order. We'll start by making sure all of your gears (the larger ones) and other components look like they're straight out of Victorian-Era mechanics!

Get yourself , your gears, and any other nicknacks you'd like to add for aesthetics to a well ventilated area. If you're quite keen on making everything look absolutely perfect, you'll want to prime all of the items you plan to paint. Usually, I'm big on this, but the end of the summer is coming fast, and I want to make sure this is done for my brother in time, so I skipped the priming.

Once primed, or otherwise, take your gold/brass/copper spray paint and have a go at all of your gears and whatever other components you want in these metalics. Keep in mind, you'll want some varience. I used gold for all of my large gears, but I left the shafts iron, and added some copper and brass later for good measure.

Don't worry about the gears effectiveness after painting. Unless you put on a very heavy coat, the gears will work just as well once painted.

Step 2: Preparing Your Switch Components

In my mind, this is one of the coolest parts of the project.

I was walking around the store I went to for my components (Active Surplus , they are amazing) and I found a key & drawer lock. I started to think that it would be amazing to make the gears beneith the tree move, as I had originally intended them to be purely aesthetic. I managed to find an electrical turn-switch, and decided to affix them to one another, so that when I put the key in the lock and turned it, the circuit would connect, and the gears would turn!

This is how you build a key operated electrical switch:

First, make sure you have your:
- key
- lock (yes, your key has to fit it)
- turn-switch
- film cannister
- pen you don't mind destroying
- hot glue
- super glue
- two washers (fit around the lock, and the switch)

Step 3: Building the Key-Switch

So now that you have everything together, let's build a key-switch.

First, take the super glue, and (carefully) glue one washer around the rim of the switch, and the other around the backrim of the lock (the part that does NOT turn when you turn the key). This is so that they have the same radius, and we can lock the non-moving parts together.

Before we do that though, we must lock the moving parts to one another. Take your pen, and cut a section out of it's body. The section should be long enough (and wide enough) to snugly fit the arm of the turn-switch, and the back part of the lock (the part that DOES turn). Slide the pen cut-out into place over the turn-switch arm. Take your hot glue gun, fill the remaining space inside the pen-switch-tube with glue, and quickly (before it solidifies) fit the lock's part into the tube. Hold them in place tightly for a good two minutes. Set the component aside to let it cool.

Meanwhile! Take the old film canister and cut off the bottom so you are left with a cylender. Cut along the length of the cylender, and take out enough of it so that it fits snugly around the two washers you glued onto your key-switch earlier. Once you've found the ideal size, take an elastic band, and use it to hold the cylender around the washers as you want it to sit.

Now take your hot glue gun, and liberally apply some hot glue to both sides of the device, securing the two (unmoving) parts of each side to each other.

Once this has dried, you are done! If you insert the key into the lock and turn it, you should hear a satisfying click, which is the electrical switch turning from off to on!

Note: Although this worked for me the first time, I had planned out exactly what I was doing, and tested all along the way. It would be prudent for you to test your switch immediately upon completion with a battery and motor or LED, to verify that turning the key does, in fact, turn the turn-switch's arm.

Lastly, cover all of the switch components (except for the key-turn part) in some kind of scrap paper, and place it inside of your extra cardboard box on it's side. Take your gold spray paint, and spray it, so that the key-turn part is gold. This will let it fit in with the aesthetic of the box later on.

Step 4: Putting Together the Electronics


I know what you must be thinking;  "Zach! You're a madman! This completely defeats the ideals of steampunk!

Or, if you're actually into steampunk; "Zach! You're a madman! How are you going to hide the circuitry, so that no one immediately realizes it uses electricity!

Well of course it uses electricity, and of course we're going to hide it as best we can, but before we can do that, we have to put it together!

So, get together your 9V battery, wires, protoboard (if you have one), motor, and appropriate resistor and LED's if you have them.

Solder a wire to each terminal of the motor, and connect it to the protoboard

In series, connect the battery, motor, and resistor. (My motor is brushed, and provides enough resistance to prevent the circuit from frying, ergo, no resistor for me) It is easier if you do it on the protoboard

Step 5: Build the Box

This part, along with the shape of your bonsai tree will determine most of the "look" of the device. I decided to go with a rectangular box, not very tall, but just a bit longer than my tree (as it is a cloud like bonsai, rather than a upward reaching tree).

Start out by gathering up your:

- Core board (cost me about 2 dollars alltogether, go to a local art shop)
- a pen to mark out the cut outs
- Hot Glue/hot glue gun
- Multi tool (for the knife)
- A perfect cube (anything cubic and small. I didn't use one, but it may prove useful if you can't easily create a perfect right angle)

Measure out the size of the base, then sketch it onto the core board with the pen. Make sure to do this twice so that the top and bottom are the same size (if that's what you want).

Using the measurements for length and width, and knowing how tall you want the box to be (must be taller than the roots of the bonsai, and large enough to fit your motor, gears, and switch!) draw out the four sides of the box on the core board.

Now, take your knife and carefully cut out the shapes you have drawn on the core board. Patience is important if you want it to fit nicely together on your first try.

Once you have all of your pieces cut out, plug in your hot glue gun and let it warm up.

While waiting, get the base of your box and one of the sides (long ones) lined up and ready to go. Take your hot glue gun, and quickly (to avoid drying) apply a line of hot glue to the bottom of the FACE of the side piece (not the bottom!). Stick it to the appropriate side of the base piece, and hold it in place in a right angle. If this is difficult for you, use the perfect cube to line it up correctly. Wait about a minute to let this dry. Once it is dry, take your glue gun and, as liberally as you wish, apply more glue to the groove between the base and the side, to make sure it's rigidly in place. Be sure not to go all of the way to the ends though, as you will need some clear space to work with later. Repeat this for the opposing side.

For the third side, turn the "box" on it's side, and place the new side piece between the two existing sides, so that it sits on the base. Use the hot glue gun to put glue between all of the grooves to lock this piece in place. Repeat this for the last side.

You will not want to seal the box yet, so we'll leave the top for later. For style, and so that it is possible to see into the moving gear components of the box, I decided to cut a hole much larger than the trunk of the tree out of the box. Take a circular object (I used a roll of ducktape :P) and trace out the circle size you want onto the top piece. Cut it out carefully using the knife.

You're done the basic box for now, and so now we can start building the gear system inside!

Step 6: Building the "Inner Workings"

Now that the base of the box is completed, we know how much space we have to play around with!

Take your bonsai tree and, holding it in the place you would like it to sit, trace the approximate area its roots take up inside the box onto the inside base of the box. Put the tree away for now.

Take your motor, battery, and switch and place them loosly inside the open box. Using these three components and the trace of the roots as guides, map out where you would like to place the three components, and how you would like to place/interlock the larger gears. Remember: Gears can't turn when tangled in roots, and you need space not only for the gears, but for the shafts that the gears rotate around!

Also, figure out where you would like to place the switch, as the key slot will be sticking out of the side of the box. The battery needs a way to be accessed (replaced), so figure out where, and how you would like to deal with that. I cut & hinged a small door on one of the sides that opens and lets you change the battery, but you can do this in any number of ways.

Take your motor, and using the hot glue gun, glue a gear to the rotating shaft. Try your best to make sure this gear is perfectly level, it'll haunt you later if you don't.

Using this gear as the starting point of your network, put together a series of gears and shafts so that they all turn once the motor's gear starts turning. If possible, try to use mechanical efficiency to "slow down" later gears in the chain of gears so that you can see them rotating slowly (which looks really cool). I've added a brief explaination of some simple mechanical principles on the next page in case you've never worked with gears before.

As this section is really up to the user, I'm just going to give some advice and tips to avoid issues I ran into.

1. If your shafts are too long for the box (ok, I just realized how bad that sounded), use your multi tool to bend them, but be sure to know where on the shaft you're placing your gear BEFOREHAND! It can get really irritating when gear either no longer fit into place, or refuse to rotate because the shaft is bend.

2. The motor spins VERY fast. This may cause you trouble when you have a gear "connected" to it at a right angle if not lined up well.

3. The motor can be quite noisey, especially in an echoey box. To prevent much/any noise from coming out, I'm planning to line the inside walls of the box with black felt, and perhaps something bumpy to break up the sound. I'll add it into the instructable when I figure something out.

Make sure to test your gear system regularly with each addition but turning on the circuit. If there's a problem, isolate what is not spinning and fix it as needed before moving on. It's far harder to fix a gear chain with an issue further back than the most recent gear.

An additional note in making it look amazing. Any other nicknacks and components you've attained for the box should go in around/ under/over the gears as well. There are any number of things which will look great, and you'll only know by trying them out! The last thing you want is a lot of empty space when you look down the trunk of the tree into the belly of the box.

Step 7: A Brief Note on Mechanical Efficiency

This is just a brief introduction to those of you who have never worked with gears before.

I'm not going to go into any mathematics or physics with you, as that would take up a lot of time, and it probably won't be as clear to everyone as a very simple explaination would. To this end, I ask that anyone with issues with my explaination understand that I do have an advanced knowledge of dynamics and mechanics, I simply want to provide the most simplistic practical explaination I can to those following this instructable.

So, in simplest words, this is the principle to go by for "speeding up" or "slowing down" gears in a gear chain.

Big turning Small = spins faster
Small turning Big = spins slower

So, to "slow down" later gears in the chain that is driven by the fast motor gear, you need to make use of the Small turning Big principle.

Those of you who are particularly insightful will be asking: "well, how do we keep increasing the size of the gears we use if  we're limited by the size of the box?"

Those who are even more insightful will say: "Wait - do we use those gears that have two different gears on them, one smaller and one bigger?"

The answer is yes. The trick to staying in the scale you want, and slowing down later gears in the chain is to use gears with both a large gear and a small gear on the same shaft, and always have the small gear turn the larger part of the following gear.

Step 8: Leathering the Box

Now we'll work on making the box look, and act, the part.

For this step, you'll need:

- Leather
- Gold/Brass/Copper spray paint
- Multi Tool
- Hot Glue Gun/Hot Glue
- Extra Core Board

Firstly, we are going to deal with the key-switch. Using the key-in end as a guide, mark out a circle on the outside of the box (where you would like the key slot to come out. Taking your knife, cut the circle out, and make sure that the key switch fits through the hole. Additionally, if you need to cut your door for the battery (or anything else for that matter) do it now.

Take your leather, and cut leather rectangles to fit each side. It's allright if they are a little smaller than each side, as we will be capping all of the edges anyway, but get as close as you can to perfect sizes. Make sure to do this for the top of the box as well, even though it isn't attached yet.

Once you have your leather pieces, use the hot glue around their edges to glue them into place. Be sure to hold them taught while doing this. Loose leather would look kind of cruddy.

You'll notice, of course, that we've now completely covered up both our key-switch hole, and the hold for the bonsai tree! Take your knife and, starting with the key-switch hole, cut a slit into the leather where the hole is. Taking a scizor, cut a number of slits around the inside of the circle (it should look a little like a pizza when finished). Readying your hot glue gun, pull one of the "slices" inside the hole, and around to the inside of the box. Use the hot glue to stick it to the inside of the box. Do this for each "slice" in tern, making sure to pull each one tightly as you do it. When done, th hold should be well shaped again, but the leather should cover the entire thing.

Using this same method, though with many more thin slices, finish the top of the box in leather.

Any other holes you've cut out, use this method to reveal them/cover them nicely in the leather. For doors, be sure to glue leather to them either seperately, or completely wrap them before attaching them to the box.

Lastly, fit the key-switch into it's place, and glue it down inside the box. Test it out a couple of times to make sure it continues to function.

Step 9: Adding Rims to the Box

Taking the rest of the core board, measure, and cut out edge designs that will cover every edge on the box. These designs can be anything from simple rectagles to elaborate designs. I'm more one for the elaborate, so I cut some wave patterns for the edges of the box I'm building.

Once cut, take them outside in the extra carboard box you were using before, and spray paint them all gold, making sure to hit all sides.

Once all golden, use the hot glue gun to, carefully, glue the the edge pieces together as required. Do not use too much glue, because it will show if you do!

Now, taking your knife (or some sandpaper if you have it), clean down the faces of your edge pieces so that no glue bubbles up from them. Put all of the edges back into the extra cardboard box, and give them one last gold spray over, to ensure they look awesome.

Taking your now perfected edges (which you of course measured to size!) and glue them in place on each edge of the box. Of course, the top of the box is not on yet, so leave the top edges for later.

Step 10: Gearing Up the Tree

This is the most elaborate, and likely the single most time consuming part of this entire build. It also can yield the best visual results, so if you take your time doing it, you can end up with something amazing.

For this you will need your:
- bonsai tree (deceased)
- watch gears (yup, all of those tiny ones)
- very thin copper wire (You'll see I used a red-enamled one. Not entirely by choice, but it'll look good either way)
- Multitool (for the tweezers)
- patience

Take your bonsai tree, and set it in a position where it can be easily manipulated without falling over. If you have a tree like mine (carniferous) and the leaves aren't attached to branches, so much as they ARE their own branchs, be sure to either take pictures or sketch the shape of your tree for later reference. Even if you have a deciduous (leafy) tree, this isn't a bad idea.

Start picking off all of the tree's leaves/pines. Be careful not to damage the branches/trunk of the tree as you do this. Bonsai trees are fairly delicate, so be patient while doing this.

Once all the leaves/ pines are off, sit back and take a look at the bare tree. Try to get an idea of where the branches/ trunk are, and where the crown (the top, leafy part) of the tree should be.

Now we'll begin the fun part. Take your watch gears and your thin wire. Cut the wire so that you have a short strand, and push the wire through the gear. The gear will tkae the part of a "leaf", and the wire will act as it's "stem". Once through, wind the two ends of wire together, leaving about half of it free for later wrapping. Use this extra wire to wrap the gear to a branch of the tree. Repeat this process for all of your gears, or until your tree looks full.

Keep in mind, using the wire, you can actually create extra branches for the tree. Additionally, keep in mind the colour of the gears you are using. I would suggest using only gold/brass/copper, but with my tree I didn't have the choice to do so. I ended up using gears that were gold/silver/copper, which didn't keep the colour completely consisant, but I still think it looks amazing.

Step 11: "Planting" the Tree/ Finishing the Box

Take your tree, and put the roots through the hole in the top part of the box. I also added a (spray painted) gold webbing around the base of the tree for added effect. Using hot glue (and some small nicknacks to make it look good) glue the roots of the tree in place at the bottom of the box. Test the gear system now to make sure that the roots do not disturb the gears turning, and vice versa.

As the lid is pretty much in place now anyway, take your hot glue gun, and glue along the top rim of the box. Set the lid carefully into place to seal the box.

To finish up the box, take the remaining edges, and glue them into place.

Congratulations! We've finished the SteamPunk Bonsai Tree!

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