Motor Makeover




Introduction: Motor Makeover

About: The Oakland Toy Lab is a community-based wonder lab for students to build, tinker, explore, make, break, and learn! We are writing up engaging science experiences so that educators, parents, youth, and famil...

Does it feel like your motor is a little wound up? Time for a makeover!

Motors are everywhere, from appliances to toothbrushes to tools. Just about anything that uses electricity and moves. This exploration takes a look inside them to see how they work and experiment with making a more powerful one. And it's going to look great.

  • What: Motor Makeover
  • When: Oh, it's time.
  • Concepts: electromagnetism, physics, circuits
  • Time: ~15 minutes to make
  • Cost: ~$3, all re-usable
  • Materials:
    • DC Motor
    • Batteries and Pack with leads
    • Magnets x 2
    • Small pieces of wood
    • Alligator clip leads (optional)
  • Tools:
    • Hot glue gun / hot glue

Let's motor!

Step 1: Test Your Motor

Let's see how this puppy runs!

Make a flag of tape to put on the motor spindle to make spinning easier to see. Load up your batteries, attach them to the clip leads, and attach the other ends to the rear tabs of the DC motor. Feel the tape with your finger (it makes great shapes, too). What happens when you change which leads the black and red go to?

Step 2: Inside Out

Time to pop it open.

Turn your motor over to look at its bottom. Use a pair of pliers to bend the two metal tabs out, which were holding the plastic bottom. Then grip the plastic with the pliers, and pull to remove. What do you see inside? Let's pull it out and examine.

Step 3: Motor Anatomy

Starting from the metal tabs, the first stop is at the brushes. If you follow from each tab, you'll see that the brushes are made of springy metal and have grooved blocks at the end. This allows it to have constant contact with the motor as it spins.

The brushes are in constant contact with the commutator, which has three panels on most simple DC motors. As the motor spins, the brushes slide over the panels of the commutator, and at certain points in the rotation reverse the polarity of the current. It's an incredible trick, and also involves the way the armature windings are oriented as they connect to the rotor.

The motor functions as an electro-magnet, but which flops polarity halfway through its turn. The permanent magnets on the outside provide a common field. The electro-magnet moves partway attracting north to south. As it gets there, instead of locking in that orientation like most magnets do, suddenly its poles flop and it wants to be in the opposite orientation. With the rotational momentum it has, the motor simply keeps on spinning in the same direction.

A couple of things to examine include:

  • the wiring pattern of the windings
  • what having three commutators means as the spindle rotates
  • what north-south orientation are both of the permanent magnets

Step 4: Make a Base

Raise your motor to the sky!

With some wood extras, it isn't too hard to make a base for our motor to spin on. There are many solutions to this, but I cut two short pieces of dowel, glued them on a stirring stick, and glued the motor base on to that. I left the two motor tabs exposed on the sides for easy connecting.

Step 5: Make a Motor

Here's the fun part!

You can set up your motor however you like. You can put a tape flag or leave it, but the essential part is grabbing your two extra magnets to play with. Use the gator clips to hook up your motor. Putting them close to the rotors in the right orientation will get the motor running elegantly and extremely quickly.

Here are some wonderful things to try and notice:

  • What orientation do the magnets have to be in to make the motor spin? Try flipping them mid-way.
  • What happens when they get closer? Farther away?
  • What happens when just one magnet moves away?
  • Try starting your motor with one hand with only one magnet. Why does it do what you see?
  • What happens to the circuit if you don't put magnets near? (heat)
  • What happens when you add more magnets in a ring?
  • Try substituting your magnets for stronger ones. What happens?
  • Notice the spark and arcing happening where the brushes are touching the commutators.

Hope you enjoy this electronics take apart, which gets at the core of how electricity and motion play nice together. Open things up, get amazed, and as always, keep exploring.



    • Water Contest

      Water Contest
    • Fix It! Contest

      Fix It! Contest
    • Metalworking Contest

      Metalworking Contest

    24 Discussions

    Made It, but bigger :)

    OMG! Guys! This is where we share, explore, discover, and invent. . . whatever! This comments section is supposed to be about the 'ible, not for you to nitpick and make noise, so stop getting your panties in such a wad.

    Dave P

    2 years ago

    This is a far reach, just a shot in the dark question. And I am sure someone will think it's a stupid question, but who cares. Can the same trick here be used on a generator.

    1 reply

    As far as I know yes, it can be. When the motor spins it produces electricity, you can simply connect the two wires out of the motor to a LED and see it glow as and when the motor spins. Its the same concept of the generator.


    2 years ago

    A constructive side-note:

    Its A Commutator (singular), and you are referring to it's 3 segments (plural).


    It's A Rotor (singular), it is the whole rotating structure and contains multiple armature windings (plural).


    Perhaps, but someone needs to arrest America's atrocious massacre of English grammar and spelling.

    8 replies

    A nice simple experiment for the children. Why complicate it with concerns over grammar. However your use of "its, it's, and the following capital A" in lines 2 and 5 are also grammatically incorrect. just incase it is important to you. :-)

    Really? Just stop. No one cares and the piece still communicates perfectly. Grammar Nazis...sheesh.

    Ha Ha !!

    You must be one who sodders your wires together?

    Perhaps using Aloomin-um sodder ?

    I guess it's unimportant when your education stops at grade 6

    Yes, we do care. Just because you're lazy and don't want to speak eloquently or write grammatically and syntactically correct doesn't mean the majority of other people are the same.

    KenP30 I totally agree.

    Next up, someone needs to clue in America the difference between your/you're, then/than and there/their/they're.

    Absolutely correct concerning America's grammatical downward slide but what can be done, School? Not a prayer of that happening! As with Rafununu's comment - bi and multi lingual people have it hard enough without having common usage being corrupted and have to deal with idioms. I conversed with technical French and Italian and got along well BUT my conversational usage generally had my counterparts preferring we speak English, sigh.

    @Ken- Had to laugh at your comment; you're not alone. An hour ago I emailed a candidate with a suggestion that he locate a recording of an on-air interview he did this AM.

    During the 10 (or so) minutes, he must have punctuated his sentences hundreds of times with:

    "Ya know?"

    Ya know? LOL

    I agree at 100%. I'm french and cannot stand misemployed words, whatever could be the language.

    I love the last line in your final step! It's the hobbyist's anthem.

    3 replies

    "Open things up, get amazed, and as always, keep exploring."

    Ha ha ha ha, i got your jokes bro. Couldn't help but reply to your reply.

    I think you'll find that the brushes are not magnets (Why would they need to be? They have to maintain contact with the brass commutator segments, so being magnetic will not help. It's the springs that do that job.). They are usually made of carbon for its self lubricating properties and electrical conductivity properties.

    1 reply

    Hmmmm, I wonder how a graphene impregnated polymer would go instead of carbon?


    2 years ago

    I wonder how this would play out with a big@$$ motor like from a golf cart? Where's the %#*+! bandaids??