Introduction: The World's First Vacuum Cleaner in an Altoids Tin

About: Inventor and Emergency Doctor.

I love making tiny vacuum cleaners and have made many of them since I first started over 30 years ago. The first ones were in black plastic film canisters with grey clip-on lids or party popper cases. It all started when I saw my mum struggling with a Hoover upright which had a paper bag to collect the dust. The bag would split and need replacing and they weren't cheap.

'Why do vacuum cleaners need bags?' I thought to myself and set to work making a tiny bagless vacuum cleaner. Being 8 at the time I didn't realise what a momentous invention it was although I have managed to get a Guinness World Record for the world's smallest vacuum cleaner out of it.

Anyhoo, I decided to make a vacuum cleaner in an Altoids tin because I thought you would appreciate it. Enjoy!

Difficulty; depends on whether you are used to making small, fiddly pieces and putting them together in small, fiddly spaces! Moderate/hard.

Time; took me about 12 hours but a lot of that was resoldering/reconfiguring/remaking which hopefully I have spared you! 6-9 hours depending on how slick you are.


Empty Altoids tin

Empty carbonated drinks can (lager is best)

Electric motor

Rectangular 9V battery

Dremel/craft drill

M2 or M3 Nuts, Screws and Washers

Thick double sided tape (I used Gorilla and it was great)

9V battery connector

7cm piece of insulated wire (not shown)

Washing up or bathroom sponge

1cm metal pipe (I used brass, you can use whichever metal you like or have to hand but I wouldn't recommend lead, titanium or mercury.)

Gaffer tape

A small nail/pair of compasses

Plastic fruit punnet (for base of switch)

Craft Knife, Pliers, Wire Strippers, Kitchen Shears


Step 1: Making the Bracket for the Suction Tube

With this project you could start with any of the components. I decided to start with the runner for the suction tube as this was the most original aspect of the design and the idea I was most excited to try out.

The suction tube fits into a tubular metal runner which keeps it running straight and stops it being pulled out or being turned too far. It is made from a section of the drinks can. I cut mine with big kitchen scissors but a Stanley knife would also do it. Cut a piece 2.8 by 6 cm and burnish it with sandpaper to remove the paint and protective coating. Wrap it round the tube and squeeze with a pair of long-nose pliers tight in against the tube, as shown in the pictures.

Measure 8mm out from the bend and cut to make a bracket to hold the tube onto the tin. Fold these 90 degrees 4mm away from the tube and drill holes in the positions shown. The extra fold creates an arm on the bracket to hold the tube away from the edge of the tin. The distance is adjustable by bending the bracket.

Step 2: Fitting the Suction Tube Bracket

I chose to screw the bracket to the wall of the tin but you could just as easily use the double sided tape.

It's much easier to mark up and drill the holes from the outside. Hold the bracket up against the side of the tin as shown, with the end the bracket lined up with where the curve of the corner starts. Draw round the inside of the holes with a pencil or marker then drill through. Put the screw through from the inside of the tin, through both sides of the bracket, through a washer then add a nut, doing it up tightly. Cut the end of the screw which protrudes from the nut with a Dremel/craft drill, making the end as flush and as neat as you can be bothered to. It's much easier to do this with the protruding end outside the tin, away from the bracket. Sorry, no photo of this!

Take the nut off and reassemble as shown in the image with the screw head on the outside and the nut, washer and bracket in the inside of the tin.

Step 3: Cutting the Notch in the Suction Tube

Cut a notch in the end of the bracket as shown. It is 1.5cm long and 1 cm wide at the widest end. This allows the tab in the end of the suction tube to travel whilst controlling the length of extension and degree of rotation so that the bevelled end of the suction tube doesn't rotate and get stuck in the opening of the tin.

Step 4: Making the Suction Tube

I love the extendable suction tube; it came out well. The flush sides of the tin aren't well suited to making a vacuum cleaner so it needs an extension to work well. I did consider cutting or grinding one of the corners off the box but I thought the extendable tube would be more elegant and allow better air flow.

Brass is ideal as it is hard but workable and keeps its shape well once formed.

Sand one end of the tube to create a nice burnished finish. Draw a tab on the end of the pipe, as shown, about 6mm long. Cut it out using a hacksaw or a grinding disc on your craft drill. I used my Dremel which allowed me to gently shape it and make it clean and symmetrical.

Measure 4cm along the tube and make a pencil mark. This is how long the finished tube will be. Push the tube through the hole in the tin and into the suction tube until the pencil mark meets the outside edge then draw round the tube, following the contour of the tin. Make sure the tab you cut just now is orientated towards the top of the tube on the inside so it will fit in the slot you have cut in the bracket when you fold it round later.

Draw a tab on about 6mm long, as in the diagram. Carefully cut out with your grinding disc. Check you are happy with the finish; use the grinding disc to neaten it up and make it symmetrical. Use some fine sandpaper to smooth the edges.

Push the suction tube back in and carefully bend the inner tab up using some needle-nose pliers, as shown in the photo. Gently fold the outer tab round to follow the contour of the tin. If the jaws of your pliers are serrated or rough you can put a tiny fold of paper over the metal tab to protect it.

Step 5: Making the Impeller Blade

The impeller blade is made from a small piece of aluminium/steel from the soda can. The motor is 2cm across and its spindle 7mm long so the blade needs to be slightly smaller in both directions to maximise its size whilst still giving clearance. I made it 1.9cm by 0.65cm. Cut it out using a Stanley knife; you need to measure and cut this as accurately as possible to reduce vibration.

Measure the middle of the blade and mark it with pencil then make two cuts with the tip of the Stanley knife, as shown. Make one end of the cut then turn the blade round to make the other.

REMEMBER; whenever you cut or drill a hole you can always make it bigger, you can't make it smaller.

Each cut is spaced a third of the way across the width of the blade. Use the tiny nail or similar small pointed implement to push the three strips you have created in opposite directions, staggered to allow the motor spindle to pass through. You want it to be tight-fitting; if it's too loose or wonky don't worry! See it as a practice and do it again.

Slide it on to the motor spindle and connect it to the battery to check it isn't rubbing on the base of the spindle. Make sure there is a fraction of a mm clearance. When it is well positioned put a tiny drop of superglue on both sides of the blade to keep it in place.

Step 6: Cutting the Hole in Side of the Tin for the Suction Tube

Hold the end of the tube against the left-hand end of the tin in the position shown, about 2-3mm from the longer edge and draw round with a pencil.

Drill it out with a grinding tool or drill, whichever you feel most comfortable with. I ground it out as I didn't want to damage the paintwork on the side of the tin. Unfortunately the tool slipped, as you may be able to spot in some of the other pictures. I was really annoyed but it's hardly noticeable once it's put together.

Keep the hole tight, grind it to 1/2 mm within the line; you don't want the tube to rattle. Remember that you can always make it bigger, not smaller!

Step 7: Making the Switch Part 1

I decided to make the switch as I thought it might be easier to make a low profile one which would work within the tight constraints imposed on it, rather than try to find one. You could use a microswitch or slider if you can find one which fits. You could mount a slider on the inside with the handle protruding on the outside. There are many differnet ways of making switches, feel free to use your own method!

Put two washers and a nut onto a screw and do them up tight. Cut the screw leaving about half a mm proud of the nut. This is to allow for the plastic base we will be adding. It doesn't need to be too neat or precise as the cut ends wont be visible in the finished vacuum cleaner.

It was a lot of fun cutting the screws; I have included a film to show you. Grinding can be incredibly loud; make sure you wear PPE when doing this. Goggles and earplugs are a must.

Step 8: Making the Switch, Part 2

Cut out a flat, smooth piece of plastic from a fruit punnet, milk carton or similar waste packaging. Neatly cut a 2cm by 1cm section and carefully drill holes for the bolts as shown. Try to get them as central as possible. Remember, if it looks terrible, see it as a practice and do it again.

Step 9: Making the Switch, Part 3

Burnish a piece of the soda can with sandpaper and cut out a rectangular piece slightly smaller than the plastic piece you made in the last step. Burnish it first as it will be too small afterwards. Put the plastic on top of the piece, centralise it and mark the hole with a pencil, then drill it out, as shown in the second image.

Fold the rectangle into a flattened 'z' as shown. I bent it over a metal rule but you could also bend using pliers if you prefer.

Screw together as shown with washers both sides of the plastic rectangle.

(I was very pleased with the end result. There was some head scratching involved to reach this solution. I wanted to bolt straight into the side of the tin but it would short the switch. When I was a kid I used to make similar switches for my mini vacuum cleaners using paper clips or brass paper fasteners instead of the metal rectangle here.)

Step 10: The Wiring

Drill a 3mm hole in the position shown for the wire to pass through to the switch. Try not slip (like I did, leaving a scuff mark. Thankfully its covered by the switch in the finished version.)

Cut the wires to 4cm and 7.5cm, stripping 6-7mm off the ends. Solder the shorter end to one motor terminal and another 7 cm length of wire to the other terminal.

Step 11: Cutting the Air Vents

Put the motor in position to work out where the air vents need to go. Push the terminal end as close to the wall of the tin as you can, without touching it or it will short. Don't stick it down yet.

Make sure the impeller can spin without clipping the tin. Rotate the impeller until it is horizontal then mark the tin directly underneath with a pointed implement hard enough to dent it so you can see it on the outside.

Mark straight lines between the dents on the outside of the tin then cut out as neatly as you can. Again, I ground it rather than drilled it. (I found this quite difficult to get symmetrical and neat!)

Step 12: Cutting the Air Vents 2

To cut the air vent in the lid first remove it from the base by gently bending the tabs out which hold it on at the hinge and separate the two parts. Place the base of the tin the right way up on top of the lid so that the two holes will be directly opposite each other. Make sure the lid is the right way up and round, the same orientation as when it is on the top. Carefully square it underneath the base of the tin and mark through the hole using a sharp tool. Carefully drill or grind it out.

Step 13: Fitting the Motor

You could use a glue gun to fit the motor or make a bracket and bolt it on. I used the double sided tape which is a bit of a cheat but it was quick, neat and effective. The motor is 2cm deep at its widest point, the same as the depth of the tin so I put a thin strip of tape down both sides. It is a couple of mm thick and would make the motor protrude from the top of the tin otherwise. The strips are about 4mm wide.

Make sure you test the motor and it's connections before you fit it. (See film).

Step 14: Fitting the Switch

Put the motor and the battery clip inside the tin and push the two loose ends of wire through the hole from the inside. Put the stripped wire ends between the nut and washer and tighten so it holds it neatly. Attach the battery and check the motor runs when you press the switch before you stick the switch in place with double-sided tape or glue-gun glue.

Step 15: Making the Divider

I made a metal divider to stop the air circulating around the tin, making it blow out through the holes.

Cut a piece of the drinks can the length of your motor and about 2.6cm wide. The depth of the wall is 1.8cm in this case due to the 2mm thickness of the tape. (The total depth of the tin is 2cm.) Each tab at the top and bottom is 4mm deep. The top one can be angled at slightly more than 90 degrees to ensure a tight fit against the tin lid. Stick it in place at the bottom with a glue gun or double-sided tape.

Step 16: Making the Filter

I made the filter using a kitchen sponge scourer as it is self-supporting, unlike a fabric filter which would a supporting structure, adding to the complexity of the project.

Use a sharp craft or work knife to cut a thin piece of sponge as shown. It is slightly over 2cm high to create a tight fit with the tin base and lid. It is about 4cm long, 3mm wide at the narrow end and 6mm at the wider end. One end is wider so it is held firmly in the divider and the other end narrower to allow good airflow.

Tuck it in place as shown.

Step 17: Fitting the Battery

Put some double-sided tape or glue on the back of the battery and position it against the left hand wall of the tin.

Step 18: ​Variations and Improvements

One small problem with the design is that the lid sometimes presses the switch when you open it. This could be avoided by moving the switch or putting a stop to block it. I was thinking I might need to improve the fit of the lid and cover the hinge holes to reduce leaks but the vacuum works fine so I didn't bother.

The battery is in the same area that the dirt collects in. I am not planning to suck up anything particularly messy or fine so I'm not bothered but you can put in an extra divider to create a dedicate waste area or make a tiny bag and attach it to the end of the pipe with a rubber band if you wanted.

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