Introduction: Duct Tape Compass

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This project will show you how you can make a simple compass with duct tape, a cork, a needle and a magnet: a floating needle compass. The benefit of this duct tape design is that the this compass can be rolled and stored neatly when not in use, a duct tape collapsible compass; how cool is that?

This instructable will cover the process of making a compass with duct tape, as well as alternatives to all the materials used. So you'll never be far from some materials that will work instead of what's shown, even out in the wilderness.
Making your own compass is considered as a rite of passage for many scouts, and a staple for wildness survival along side of making a fire and tying knots. Don't plan of having any of these materials handy next time you go camping? You need to come more prepared (read: bring duct tape)!

If you don't already know, compasses work on magnetism. The science is that our planet is just a really big magnet and creates a magnetic field that surrounds us an extends out into space, It's called the magnetosphere. This magnetic field isn't very strong, but is enough to orient a freely rotating magnet. By magnetizing a lightweight metal object and allowing it to rotate with low resistance we can determine which direction the magnetic poles of the earth are, using the known phenomenon that similar poles repelling while dissimilar poles attract.

Even if you think you know how to make a basic compass, it's wise to refresh yourself with themost important step.

Enough talk, let's make a duct tape compass!

Step 1: Materials

The nice thing about compasses is that they are very basic and only require a few materials, many of which can be substituted for other (more readily available) items.

Here's a list of what i used in this project, along with some alternatives
    duct tape compass:
  • duct tape for bowl
  • cork
  • needle
  • magnet
what it is:
  • vessel to hold water
  • lightweight floatation for needle
  • thin ferrous pointer
  • aligns pointer towards nearest pole
  • anything that can hold water (cup/bowl/puddle)
  • small stick or leaf, bottle cap
  • portion of paperclip or safety pin, straightened earring wire
  • silk fabric


Step 2: Create Mat

Lay down a strip of duct tape, face-side up. Then, lay another face-up piece along the long edge. Repeat once again to have a 3 wide mat, then lay a 3 wide face-down mat perpendicularly on top of the face-up mat.

You should now have a mat with the sticky-sides faced together, giving you a two-ply non-sticky 3x3 matrix; this will be the container for the water which will float the cork and tell us our direction.

Step 3: Shape Bowl, Make Collapsable

Once you've made your duct tape mat it's time to shape it into a bowl that will hold water. This bowl was made by wrapping the duct tape mat around a rigid square form, then cut down to the appropriate height. The bowl does not need to to be deep, in fact it only needs to be deep enough to float a cork and needle. the water depth should be at least 2mm (1/12"), with an overall height of 5mm (1/5").

Start by folding up each side of the mat around the form, folding over the overlap to one side, then a small amount of duct tape join overlapping sides. You should now have a a square-ish bowl-like shape with the form still inside. Next, using a sharp hobby knife or scissors, trim down the bowl to about 5mm (1/5").

To allow the bowl to fold down and be rolled I also created foldable corners, without too much bunching duct tape getting in the way. These extra flaps of duct tape were created when the mat sides were overlapped. To remove, place form back into the rough bowl shape and ensure the extra flaps are sticking outward. Then use scissors to trim excess, use a small amount of duct tape to reseal the edges of the cut.

Step 4: Drill Cork

The cork will need to be prepared to accept a rolled up duct tape bowl, which means creating an opening through the centre.

Start with a small drill bit 4mm (5/32") to make a pilot hole, then move up to a larger bit until your desired diameter of 9.5mm (3/8"). By easing to a larger bit the fragile cork is less likely to crumble apart.

When the opening is completed use a hacksaw or sharp blade to slice cork into 4mm (1/6") rings. use a fine grit sandpaper to smooth remove burrs from cork and create a smooth finish.

Step 5: **The MOST IMPORTANT Step** - Magnetize the Needle

*Read this*
If you take anything away from this project, please let it be this step. This step covers how to magnetize the needle for your compass, and how to read the results.

How to magnetize:
In order for your compass to point in the right direction you need to magnetize the needle, and you need to know how to do it correctly. Omitting or erroneously applying this step will result in a failure.

To magnetize your needle you need to stroke in the magnet along the needle in one direction, from eye of needle to point about 10 times. If using a paperclip or other portion of magnetic metal that isn't easily polarized by geometry, how can you tell which way is north? Make a small mark or indentation in the metal to determine which end to stroke towards, and always stroke toward the tip of the needle or mark on your paperclip. If you don't have a magnet you can magnetize the needle by using a piece of silk or other sheer fabric, again stroking on one direction. If you use silk you'll need to stroke needle about 50 times or more.

How to read the bearings:
When the needle is magnetized it will be positively magnetized, meaning it will be attracted to a negative and repulsed by positive magnetic fields. once magnetized the tip of the needle will be polarized and will point towards the strongest magnetic pole, meaning north in the Northern Hemisphere and south in the Southern Hemisphere. From this initial bearing you should be able to determine the remaining cardinal bearings by drawing an imaginary line perpendicular to the needle bearing. Facing north, east is on the right with west on your left.

Remember, this information orients you based on magnetic poles, not geographic poles. More skilled compass users can ascertain the magnetic declination and determine true north from the readings. But this is optional and may not be required for rough readings.

Step 6: Final Thoughts

This project is a duct tape variation of a compass and easily illustrates the effect the magnetosphere has on our world. It's important to know that the needle will point towards the magnetic poles, which is not the same as the geographical North Pole. However this is enough for you to get a general direction of where you are going.

Of course, a compass isn't the only way to navigate and find your way:

  • Using the sun (shadow-tip method):
    Place a stick in the ground pointing straight up. The stick will cast a shadow from the sun, make note of the direction of this shadow on the ground by placing a stick in the shadow path. Wait 10-15 minutes and using another stick mark where the shadow line now lies. The suns travels from east to west and determining the arced path of the sticks' shadow you can determine which way is east/west by the suns' movement.
    This method is less effective in polar environments (above 60 deg. latitude).
  • Using the stars 1 - constellations:
    • Northern Hemisphere
      An imaginary line drawn from the North Star to the ground will be true north. The North Star (Polaris) can be found as the last star in the Little Dipper. If you can't find the Little Dipper, find the Big Dipper and draw and imaginary line up and away from the two stars that form the right edge of the ladle. These stars will point towards the handle of the Little Dipper and Polaris. You can also use the celestial body Cassiopeia, which is always opposite from the Big Dipper. The North Star is located about midway between the the center star in Cassiopeia and the ladle of the Big Dipper.
    • Southern Hemisphere
      Find the Southern Cross constellation, a group of stars that resemble a religious cross on an angle. Find the two stars that make up the long axis of the Southern Cross, then draw an imaginary line between these two stars. Extend this line down towards the horizon about five times the distance between the two reference stars. The line will terminate at some imaginary point in the sky, draw a line straight down from this point. This is true south. It's best to associate the point on the horizon which will serve as your landmark after you have established true north.
  • Using the stars 2 -two sticks method:
    Plant a stick vertically in the ground, ideally the tip will be at standing eye-level. Lean another taller stick against the embedded stick and align your eye to a star where the two sticks meet. Wait about 5-10 minutes, the star will have appeared to have moved (the Earth is actually moving, not the stars).
    How the star has appeared to move will indicate the direction you are facing:
    • Up, you are facing east.
    • Down, you are facing west.
    • Right, you are facing south.
    • Left, you are facing north.
  • Moss:
    Moss grows in damp and places out off direct sunlight. In the North Hemisphere moss grows primarily on the north side of trees and rocks, as it is the side with the least amount of sunlight. In Southern Hemispheres the moss will grow on the southern sides of trees and rocks.
    However moss can grown in any dark and damp areas, so be careful when using this technique.

Have you made your own duct tape or other compass? Comments with pictures of your own DIY compass (duct tape or otherwise). Happy making :)

Have fun!

The Great Outdoors Duct Tape Contest

Participated in the
The Great Outdoors Duct Tape Contest