Make your own whimsical and wonderful creation using a few simple materials! Cranky Contraptions are wood and wire kinetic sculptures that animate a character or scene when the handle is turned. These tiny automata are powered by a simple crank slider mechanism which provides basic motion. Everyday materials around your home can be repurposed and reimagined into these mechanical marvels. Get started with your own Cranky Contraption with the materials, tools, and techniques below.
There are three main parts to a Cranky Contraption, or automata: a base, wire, and a follower. When the hand of the crank spins in a circle, the follower moves up and down. This movement is the basis of all Cranky Contraptions but the materials you use are totally up to you!
Many materials can be used as a supportive base for a mechanism. Choose a material that is sturdy and has a hole in it. Some materials can be easily modified to add holes using tools such as a hole punch. Others naturally have holes, such as cardboard corrugation or a straw. Others require using a hand drill to add a hole. Use a ⅛ inch drill bit and constrain the object with a vise or clamps while drilling.
Use wire that’s easy to bend with pliers and will hold its shape. We’ve found that 18 gauge stainless steel wire meets both of these requirements.
The movement from the wire crank is translated into vertical motion using a follower. It’s made from a material that’s easy to puncture but does not deteriorate easily. Possible follower material include craft foam (6mm), cardboard, cork, or sponge.
We use a variety of craft materials and tools. Markers and colorful paper can be used in many ways to make compelling narratives. Hot glue makes secure connections and works with a range of materials. Scissors allow for customization of shapes so various designs can be produced. More materials and tools can be used in this activity but it’s important to be intentional when selecting materials. Too many options can overwhelm a learner, but specific material choices can empower learners by showing them different mechanisms and narrative options that are available. We like to use thin craft foam, brads, googly eyes, tongue depressors, popsicle sticks, and skewer sticks. We also like to provide access to masking tape, hole punchers, both 1/4 inch (.6 cm) and 1/8 inch (.32 cm), popsicle stick cutters, wire cutters, and Elmer’s glue.
Make an up-and-down motion
Insert the pre-bent wire into the base and push it through so that the bend is close but not touching the base. Make two additional 90º bends, forming an L-shape that will become the handle for the contraption.
Add a follower to the U-shaped side of the block. The wire will puncture through the foam on the large flat face, not on the edge.
Glue a piece of cardboard on top of the block with a hole punched through it. Thread the second piece of wire through the hole and into the edge of the thick foam.
From an up-and-down motion, the possibilities are nearly endless! Check out these different directions to take your Cranky Contraption or create a new path.
Peekaboo: Add a box (or another place to hide) so a character can pop out!
Soft Constraints: Use thin foam as decorative, bendable extremities. These jellyfish tentacles flex as the body moves up and down, as if swimming through the ocean.
Fixed Constraints: Two rigid popsicle sticks create an inching motion when attached together with the up-and-down wire. This worm crawls forward with the help of two stationary
Double Up and Down: A second U-shape bend to the wire adds additional up-and-down motion. These birds fly through the sky thanks to two wire pieces and flexible foam wings.
Related Tinkering Activities
Cranky Contraptions developed out of a long-standing tinkering activity: Cardboard Automata. Build outside the box by creating a mechanism inside a cardboard box that creates motion on the outside. Check it out.
Extensions and Connections
Inspirational Artists and Groups
Arthur Ganson is a kinetic sculptor in Boston, Massachussetts. His sculptures combine steel and grease with natural objects like eggshells and feathers. His mechanical machines have exhibited in museums and science museums around the world. Read more.
Bernie Lubell builds interactive sculptural instillations based on his studies of psychology and engineering in San Francisco, California. One of his pieces Aspirations was housed in the Tinkering Studio for visitors to come and experience themselves. Read more.
Cabaret Mechanical Theatre is a collective of artists who build and exhibit contemporary automata around the world. Read more.
Carlos Zapata is a self-taught automata artist from Colombia. He started as a painter but always felt like something was missing, until he found automata. He is a member of Cabaret Mechanical Theatre and explores politcal and sexual themes in his automata. Hear him describe his work in this video. Read more.
Federico Tobon is a maker and artist living in Los Angeles, California. He considers himself a curious generalist with a passion for learning and doing things with his hands. His automata have ranged from the teeny tiny to larger pieces made from laser cut wood. Read more. (Twitter: @wolfCatWorkshop, Instagram: @wolfcatworkshop)
Hernán Lira builds automata based on the culture, poetry, and music of his native country of Argentina. His series “Juguetes con Oficio” (Toys with a Trade) is an homage to the culture of work and represents the variety of trades that have been around him since childhood. Read more.
Kazu Harada is an automata artist based in Yamaguchi, Japan. A hobby transformed into full-time automata work after a visit to England in 2006. During a residency at the Tinkering Studio in December 2019, he build a large scale ball run. Read more.
Keith Newstead is an English automata artist who works with Cabaret Mechanical Theatre (see above). He loves to experiment with new styles and materials and to find new ways of creating movement. His work resonates with both children and adults, including his Tinkering Studio Robo-Bird that sits proudly at the Exploratorium. Read more.
Noga Elhassid is an Israeli artist and the founder of the Moving Toys Workshop. She teaches kids basic physical phenomena and mechanical principles through play. Read more.
Rob Ives makes paper animations that he shares widely for others to make. A former classroom teacher of 10 years, he now spends his time as a designer of new paper models. Read more. (Twitter: @robives, Instagram: @robivescom)
Books and Other Resources
Cabaret Mechanical Movement: Understanding Movement and Making Automata by Gary Alexander and Aiden Lawrence Onn
Cabaret Mechanical Movement combines automata theory with practical tips and ideas for making your own automata, moving toys or mechanical sculpture. Check it out.
Tinkering Fundamentals: Motions and Mechanisms
This online class is offered through Coursera and combines tinkering pedagogy with physical making and thoughts from critical friends. Check it out.
Automata Idea Bot
Need an idea? This Twitter account made by Ryan Jenkins is a humorous way to find inspiration for your Cranky Contraption (or automata in general). Check in out.