How to Build a Tall Sculpture: Rail and Pulley System for Lifting and Pouring a Water Jug



Introduction: How to Build a Tall Sculpture: Rail and Pulley System for Lifting and Pouring a Water Jug

This project, titled Water Station, is a sculptural installation that I built as an art project. The Water Station enables a person to lift a water pitcher up a rail, then tilt the pitcher to pour water out of it. A vessel collects the water, then drips it down to fill a cup resting on a table. Watch the video included here below the photos.

While this setup is unique, non-utilitarian, and something I doubt you were looking to replicate exactly, I do think this could be a reference if you are looking for things like this:

  1. tips on making a tall sculptural installation,
  2. a way to dig a groove along a four-by-one piece of wood, or
  3. a way to use pulleys, or
  4. a way to make a very small table.

For weeks, I kept thinking about a concept: the tallest sculpture with the smallest footprint possible. An image played over in my head, of a drop of water dripping from a tall place. If this were the sculpture, then it would be an incredibly tall and narrow one.

I used this mental image as inspiration and embarked on building the tallest sculpture with the smallest surface area possible.

The end result as you can see, is actually not as minimal as the original inspiration. To make a minimal water-dropping sculpture will be another project. For this one, I rather enjoyed discovering the contraptions needed to let water drip from a high place.

Materials Needed


  • 1X4 poplar wood, 42 feet long in total (4-5 pieces of 10 foot longs)
  • Aluminum U channels
  • 6000 industrial strength glue

Pulley system

  • Rope
  • Square rods
  • Wood glue
  • 3 pulleys
  • eyelet hole hooks


  • Plastic bucket
  • Polypropelene plastic - 1" thick panel, .5" thick dowel
  • 5" diameter Wooden rod
  • Plywood

Pitcher and pitcher frame

  • Metal rods
  • Teflon tape
  • Pitcher that can be drilled


  • MIG welder
  • Circular saw
  • Table saw
  • Handheld tools
  • Scissor lift

Work duration

  • 2-3 weeks

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Step 1: Sketch the Idea

First, use pen/pencil and paper to sketch the initial idea and mechanisms. This is a quick way to materialize an abstract idea.

From the sketches, you'll be able to identify the main parts of the installation.

In the sketches shared above, there were a few possible ways to hoist up and tilt a water jug.

The sketches help uncover possible directions, but you'll need to move onto prototyping to figure out what is actually feasible given the nature of the materials and structures.

Step 2: Prototype

The prototypes pictured above are for figuring out how the water jug would get tilted.

I created a few triangular braces using scrap 2 by 4s and strips of plywood- these are easy to make and easy to customize based on the dimensions you need. A time-saving alternative would be to purchase shelf braces at Ikea.

Step 3: Build the Rails

Pivoting from my initial drawings, I decided to lift up the water jug along a railing system. My original drawing had incorporated a scissoring piece that could move the jug closer to and farther from the receiving vessel. However this structurally seemed too precarious. A railway fixed to the wall would guide the water jug as it traveled up and tilted at the top.

Here are the steps I took to make the railing system:

  1. Make grooves in the wood: Using a table saw set up with double blades, cut a 1/2" wide and deep groove alongside the 10-foot long, 1-by-4 pieces of wood.
  2. Make lap joints at the ends: Measure the space you want to install in, and appropriately set the length of your rail. Mine was 19 feet tall, and the gallery ceiling where I installed was 20 feet tall. I used 2 pieces of the 1-by-4 and created length by joining them together. To do this, cut out half of the depth using many passes with a circular saw. Overlap 2 inches of the wood so that there would be enough surface area for the wood glue to work.
  3. Attach the U channel into the groove: we want the water jug to travel up smoothly. Install an aluminum U channel into the wood grooves. Using the E6000 adhesive, glue the channel to the wood. E6000 has a rubbery consistency when dried, and was able to hold the pieces together and handle a little bit of movement between them as well.
  4. Construct the frame: Connect a top side and bottom side between the two long pieces. For this, use right angle brackets, washers, nuts, and bolts. This construct is easy to dis-assemble and re-assemble.
  5. Preview what it's going to be like: Propping up the rail against a wall, placed the water jug in between to test.

Step 4: Build the Water Pitcher Frame

The frames around the water pitcher need to do two jobs:

  1. Hold the pitcher as it travels up the railing
  2. Tilt the pitcher as a person pulls ropes

For the pitcher holder, create a rectangular frame with steel rods. The frame would stay in place as it was moved up, as the two sides stabilize its position. Wrap the sides of the metal rods with Teflon tape, to make the metal-on-metal movement feel smoother. Otherwise, the rail will make a screeching sound when the rods travel.

For the pitcher tilter, create a frame using square wooden dowels sold at the craft section of Home Depot or a different craft supply store. Wood glue the pieces together, and use a small nail inserted into a pre-drilled hole to make hinges for the frame.

Step 5: Build Tiny Table

The table's function is to hold the water that the cup receives. To give it a whimsical character, make it just the exact size to hold the cup and nothing more.

The final table is polypropylene plastic at the bottom and wooden at the top. The bucket can receive excess water flowing out of the cup, and the material suggests that it will not rot when submerged.

Step 6: Final Pieces: Water Vessel, Pulley, Shelf, Ropes

After the bigger parts have been made, create the other pieces:

  1. Pulley and pulley box
  2. Shelf for water vessel
  3. Color coded Ropes for pulling the water jug
  4. Big water vessel to be used as reservoir

For the final vessel (only an alternative shown here; I forgot to take pictures as I was running out of time), use a rectangular plastic storage container, drill a 2" hole on the bottom of a side surface, and glue a spigot cut out from a 2-gallon water container onto it.

Step 7: Install

Finally, install the structure against a wall. The wall is very helpful when creating a very tall sculpture, because it adds structural integrity to the piece. For example, you don't have to worry that this is going to topple over people when someone trips on a part or if there is an earthquake.

Screw the wooden rail into the wall on one of its sides, and install two triangle braces to support the shelf and water container.

Step 8: Show & Enjoy

People will come and watch the water drop into the cup. Some will laugh upon seeing the function of the sculpture, realizing the absurdity of its function.

When making a piece of art, I often find that people take the project lightly and enjoy it, whereas my process is labor intensive and serious. The audience helps bring my own mindset back to the moment when it was felt as a simple idea, a moment to be enjoyed.

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