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 rotting 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 charged, 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) will earn a digital patch and a 3-Month Pro Membership to Instructables.com.

Have fun!



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    39 Discussions

    Andrew Gee

    3 years ago

    "When the needle is magnetized it will be positively charged, 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."

    Sorry, but the needle will point to the same pole no matter where you are in the world. The earth is a magnet. The needle is a magnet. The free-floating needle will align itself with the magnetic field of the earth, with the north-seeking pole of the magnet pointing to the North Magnetic Pole of the earth. The problem is that unless you know which end of the magnet is "north" and take care of which way you stroke the needle (toward or away from the eye), you won't really know which way the needle will point until you try it.

    By the way, it's not just the tip of the needle that is magnetized; the needle is magnetized. Cut a magnetized needle in two and you will have two complete magnets.


    4 years ago

    So if a make one and post it on here i get a 3 month pro membership to instructables

    Phil B

    7 years ago on Introduction

    Mike, what you have described is almost exactly the recipe for a compass used by US prisoners of war in World War II German prison camps. You can see a display at the USAF Museum at Wright-Patterson AFB in Fairborn (suburban Dayton), Ohio. The display shows how prisoners made compasses for use in making their way back to Allied lines after an escape. Instead of a duct tape dish filled with water, they pressed a wooden cylinder into a vinyl phonograph record softened with a candle. They magnetized needles and floated them on cardboard discs.

    I appreciate the variety of methods you offered for determining the points of the compass under all sorts of conditions. When a person is under stress it is easy to become confused and doubt otherwise reliable instruments. Confirming readings by a variety of methods helps keep someone from walking into disaster because he followed an inner sense rather than objective tools.

    2 replies
    dlowtherPhil B

    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    Thanks so much Phil, my grandpa took me to that museum when I was a kid and I've never been able to remember what it was called or exactly where in Ohio. One of the most creative things I remember from there were the extremely intricate home-made mousetraps, out of soup cans and such. Now that I know where it is I can take my own kids.

    Phil Bdlowther

    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    I am glad to have been of help. We took our kids there when they were old enough to benefit from the experience. I would like to go again, sometime; but now live far away in Idaho. I do not remember the mousetraps, but do remember a pendulum clock and a water wheel, all made from tin cans.


    7 years ago on Introduction

    Despite all the naysayers I would like to thank you for the instructable. Although it may not be as simple as greasing up a needle, it's going to make a great activity for my cub scout group this Wed. Sometimes it's more about having a fun and educational time and coming out with a finished product the boys can keep.

    Gary Hartman

    7 years ago on Introduction

    I am an Electrical Engineer and wish to advise the silk alternative is totally incorrect, rubbing plastic with silk gives it a STATIC charge which is NOT the same as a magnetic field. Rubbing a needle with silk DOES NOT make it magnetic! There seems to be a lot of belief in this myth.
    Actually, the typical needle will usually have already been magnetized by collapsing electric fields which are present in any building or home, or near any form of electrical system. See my book, "KIDS' BOOK of ADVENTURE PROJECTS" (Gary F. Hartman) for a complete and clear explanation of how this "silk making a compass" myth began. Ask any Electrical Engineer. We need to quit mixing up static electricity with magnet fields.
    Gary F. Hartman

    2 replies

    Thanks for responding. I've heard the same thing (rubbing silk along a needle does not make it magnetic), however I am just reporting the empirical evidence I encountered. Maybe it's just as you say, that my needle was previously magnetized.

    Go to a site (for example that enclosed) which presents a scientific test , it seems ridiculous that people continue to further an incorrect myth. I am an old guy, and in school in the 50's we knew the difference.
    Apparently modern education is sorely lacking.
    Not all are fooled: Check this wilderness site from Canada.


    7 years ago on Introduction

    Absolute overkill. Why the heck do you make it that complicated? If I omit the simple fact, that needle itself smudged with little bit of grease floats by itself (water tension keeps it floating), what about to take bit of a duct tape, stick needle to it and throw it on the water. I'm sorry, this is sooo unpractical.

    10 replies

    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    Sounds like you have it figured.
    Why don't you show us how it's done, and post your version?


    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    Absolutely no offense.
    I'm just pointing out on the simple fact, that if you are in emergency, you will probably use the least amount of energy and effort to find north. This is not what I would do. Nothing else.


    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    So, does that mean you're not going to put your money where your mouth is?
    No offense, but your statement doesn't hold much water (pun intended) without some evidence.

    If you post the results you'll earn your self a 3-month Pro Membership, too.


    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    Does it mean, that I have to make an Instructable to prove you I'm "putting my money where my mouth is"? Are you serious?
    I have to say I like Instructables a lot, but for some people it starts to be a way of life. Ok, no problem, but it is not my way of life.
    Sometimes is better to just go out and look. What about google (takes 3 seconds)?

    Also, you last comment is irrelevant to the topic.


    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    Whoa guys, cool your jets!

    Instructables is all about sharing ideas and iterating on them. Mikeasaurus, you did a fantastic job of documenting this project. Thank you!

    Please keep your comments constructive and helpful. As my mother always taught me, if you don't have something nice to say, it's better not to say anything at all.


    Editor, Instructables.com


    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    I'm cool, don't worry. If I hurt somebody's feelings, I apologies.

    Laura, I'm however disappointed, that non-offensive conflict of opinions is discouraged here. Conflicts of opinions means evolution and it can generates innovative idea's. That's my motto.

    St JimmyFogl

    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    Okay, sorry for commenting late on a post and everything, but dude, Fogl. Non-offensive is not how I'd describe your comments. You're essentially telling Mikeasaurus that his Instructable is useless and that we could all do without it. That isn't non-offensive. What you need to do is to say something constructive, like, "Hey, mikeasaurus, I like the idea of a simple compass, but wouldn't it be more convenient if you just used a needle with some grease on it? Duct tape and cork can be bulky." You do not need to add the 'sooo unpractical.' Also, as you type your comments, look down slightly. You will see the "be nice" policy clearly outlined. Thank you for your time.

    FoglSt Jimmy

    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    Jimmy, "Dude", I didn't say it is useless, I didn't say we could all do without it. Don't put words in my mouth, it is not very smart.
    Anyway, you are commenting 6 month too late, you are neither positive or constructive (telling me what "I need to do" is not constructive, it is dictatorial) and actually, I would describe your post as "opening old wounds".
    So please stop now and let it be. Thank you.

    St JimmyFogl

    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    I'm not the 'let it be' type. The word essentially means it's the essence of what you're saying, or my personal impression of your opinion. I was not putting words in your mouth. I would not like any animosity between us, I consider this a healthy battle of wits, and I will concede this victory to you.
    Now I take this opportunity to be crass and unintelligent:
    Sorry about that. Anyway, cool.
    P.S. It's funny how people think my name is Jimmy

    corsiSt Jimmy

    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    i would rely on this compass. keep it in a backpack when camping. small in comparison to backpack.