Introduction: The Bobbins of Babel Stacking Puzzle (prototype)

About: I work for a charity most of the time but when i,m not i am a wood tuner, former teacher, artist and prop maker, developer and researcher residing in the UK. I cannot think of anything better than the exciteme…

I made a thing.. It's a concept puzzle game where hidden magnets result in difficulties stacking a straight tower. Because of the magnets communication with each other, I'm calling them babel bobbins... The concept still needs refining but it's a fun little stacking toy that can be played competitively in a Jenga style..

I have a few sketchbooks full of ideas for projects, and some of them just get stuck in my brain untill I have the time to investigate them.

The idea for this puzzle is each section of the tower has magnets in a different array. Building a tall straight tower will require the user to try different bobbin blocks in different orientations to succeed.

The bobbins are designed to emulate a bobbin used in the textile industry, famous from the song wind the bobbin up. The idea of the tower of babel derives from a religious idea where the builders of the tower were cursed not to understand each others communication. In the same way, the magnets will communicate to each other to indicate the correct or incorrect placement.

This Puzzle is called the Bobbins of Babel , (though it also works as a Jenga style game is you want to complete the puzzle competitively)

In fairness, this project would probably be an ideal project for 3d printing, But I think in wood as a primary.


3x2mm magnets (I got 250 for around $10) you will need 10 per bobbin
also wood and tools (tools include standard lathe tools, a drill press, 3mm drill bit) (nonstandard and completely optional tool is a texturing tool I used to cut the spirals

Step 1: Super Fast Mock Up Just to Test Dimensions

When working with components I always like to make a quick mock-up (pre-prototype) before I do a nicer job that I would be happy to show people. This allows me to confirm my understanding of things like how far the magnets needed to be from each other and start to anticipate what issues I would need to compensate for in the next stage of development.

So If you want to know how to make the who thing in a kinda ugly way here is how I did it.
And if you want to do it this way I have a few ideas of how to do a single wood version but make it look a lot better.

1, I took a length of wood and rounded it so it would hold nicely in my chuck.
2, I measured 1.5 cm intervals and marked them with a pencil
3, I shaped a bobbin and sawed each bobbin free

4, I used a drill press with a 3mm bit to make 5 holes on each end of the bobbin
5, I glued these magnets in place

6 I tested the bobbins for stackability and for if they worked as a puzzle.

What I learned from this test.

1, I have spent to long away from the lathe and I love making things on the lathe.
2, the concept works
3, I could have glued and wound thread of a contrasting colour onto the bobbins to make them look a bit more fun
4, I could have glued a disk of wood veneer to each side fo further finish off these bobbins and they would have been fine.

So this is the quick how-to,, but I would recommend continuing to read on, because... its worth it.

Step 2: Chucking Up and Turning to Size

For those not initiated into woodturning, I would really recommend checking out another one of my guides here

It goes through the basics and is a guide I would point anyone to (I'm a bit proud of it)

I like to start any turning by finding the center of the wood and then turning to round, then using the lathe chuck to hold this round part rather than a square or rectangle as it gives a more consistent hold on the work and reduces the risk of things going wrong.

Knowing the diameter I needed I used a tool to check the wood was at or close to this size.

I am sure everyone has heard about PPE (personal protective equipment) and here is my announcement that you should use it when turning. I have known people who haven't and they haven't always been lucky with near misses. I would recommend a face sheal and a respirator set to filter wood dust as a minimum (if like me you sometimes work with finishes and resins, then go for a higher level of filtration ... mine is set for organic vapor)

Step 3: Adding Some Spiral Goodness and Cutting the Thread Parts

I could say this is my favorite tool about a whole bunch of tools but the spiral cutting texture tool is one of them.
If you're a turner, chances are you will not use it often, but I have created projects just so I could use it because I think it's brilliant.

Though admittedly because I haven't used it for a while I had to re-learn on this project and you can tell the results are a little janky.

The best way to use this tool is to introduce the cut from the bottom part of the work, unlike how you would cut the wood using a standard tool. This allows the tool to start cutting the spiral and then you can move the tool along the length you want to introduce texture to.

I further highlighted this texture by staining the wood and sanding out the top lair.
This makes the deep parts look visibly darker than the higher parts of the texture.

Then I brushed the sanding debris and game the length a coat or two of finish. This will protect it through play and make it look better.

From this point, I used a "Talking Stick" (a piece of wood with a dimension marked at my desired length) to help mark the lengths of the threaded parts of the bobbins.

With a parting tool, I made a grove at these intersections and then I cut them free with a saw with a minimal kerth.

Step 4: Drilling Some Holes

These bobbins hold 5 magnets,

I originally did some maths to work out where these holes should be, But ended up eyeballing it.
A drill press is really handy for doing this. I tried it freehand with one of the early prototypes and ended up with a much less satisfactory result than desired.

TOP TIP if you are using a drill press remember with most of them you can set a machine stop to ensure you don't drill too deep.

Step 5: Top and Bottom It

I sometimes find lovely wood in the fire pile, This is a chunk of cherry set to find flames in the winter,
I rescued a sliver of it for this project.

using the pre-cut threaded parts of the bobbins I offered up the size as I cut a recess, shaped the tops and bottoms, and then sawed them loose.

This sort of repetitive work can help new turners to develop good techniques.

Step 6: Glue Time

I used a quick setting glue to fix the magnets in place.

Each side had 5 magnets with polarity ranging from +,+,+,+,+ to -,-,-,-,-
I found that for best puzzle and gaming results orientating the magnets with the same polarity close to each other made for a more satisfying feel.

For my set, I mirrored the same pattern on the top and bottom of each bobbin .

The tops and bottoms required a bit more flexibility to avoid breakage, I used a quick setting glue known for flexibility here (gorilla glue)

Once everything was together I sanded lightly to give a less uniform result.

Step 7: Puzzle It Out

The idea of this puzzle is to be able to build a tall straight tower.

The problem is the magnets actively work against you doing this, so some trial and error is required to work out the winning combination.

The same peaces can be used by 2 or more people as a staking game trying to make the tallest tower without letting it fall, the problem here is the magnets actively push the center of gravity to one side or another whilst being placed. (chances are you will not need more than 10 bobbins per game if you are doing this)

Other than that ... ENJOY

I have prototyped this and might develop it further.
If you are interested in the possibility of buying something like this from me and helping to support the sort of investigations I do you can find me on etsy here.

If enough people ask I will try to develop a better production method in order to make these available to more people than just the folk with a lathe, (though I absolutely encourage you to change this idea to suet the tools that you have because it is fun, and I'm sure you will have a blast developing your own versions)


I bet you have been thinking of ways to make this in a much faster and easy way that doesn't require fancy tools.

It would absolutely be possible to get a functioning version of this puzzle with a dowel, glue, magnets, and end caps.
They wouldn't look as much like bobbins, but they would be great.

If you do this please share a pic of what you made

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