Skip to main content

Cranky Contraptions

Cranky Contraptions
Cranky Contraptions

Make your own whimsical and wonderful creation using a few simple materials! Cranky Contraptions are kinetic sculptures that animate a character or scene when the handle is turned. These automata are powered by a simple crank slider mechanism which provides the basic motion. Everyday materials around your home can be repurposed into these mechanical marvels. Get started on your own Cranky Contraption with the materials, tools, and techniques below.

replace this text



Parts to a Cranky Contraption

replace this text

Cranky Contraptions can take many different forms, but a few key terms can get you up and running:

  • Crank: a bend in a piece of wire, in this case it's the handle for spinning but it can also refer to the bend around the connector (see Connector)

  • Crankshaft: a piece of bent wire that produces mechanical motion when spinning

  • Connector: a free moving piece that translates circular movement from the crankshaft into up and down movement

  • Guide: a hole that constrains movement of a vertical piece of wire


Check out the video below on how to make a crankshaft with wire and pliers:



Tools and Materials 

To make a Cranky Contraption, it's important to use real tools. Bending wire, gluing materials together, and punching holes are all part of the process of making mechanical motion. Check out some of our favorite tinkering tools:

  • Pliers: Essential for wire bending, look for needle nose pliers that are appropriately sized to the hands using them.

  • Scissors: An essential tinkering tool for many projects.

  • Hot glue gun: Another go-to tinkering tool.

  • Drill: Optional, if you need to add a hole to a thicker material like wood or plastic.

We've found that it's helpful to have a few more tools on hand as necessary but may not be required:

replace this text
  • Masking tape

  • Hole punchers: 1/4in (0.5cm) and 1/8in (0.25cm)

  • Popsicle stick cutter

  • Wire cutters

  • Elmer's glue

Use materials on hand to make a cranky contraptions: craft materials, recyclables, and even food can make whimsical creations. Here are some of our favorite materials:

  • Colorful markers

  • Construction paper

  • Thin craft foam

  • Brads

  • Googly eyes

  • Tongue depressors

  • Popsicle sticks

  • Skewer sticks



Tinkering Tangent: Junk Automata

Materials for making mechanisms can be very diverse. Consider recycling bottles and other unwanted objects around your home to enhance your creation. Plastic bottles, doll hands, and plastic cutlery are all possible tinkering materials.

replace this text
replace this text
replace this text


Artist Spotlight: Keith Newstead

Keith is an English automata artist who works with Cabaret Mechanical Theatre. He loves to experiment with new styles and materials, including recyclables as seen in these three automata above. His work resonates with both children and adults, including his Tinkering Studio Robo-Bird that sits proudly at the Exploratorium. Read more.



Make a Mechanism

Making your first mechanism can be tricky, frustration is a very common feeling to come up during this process. Follow these steps to make your first up-and-down motion and make adaptations to best suit your mechanism and materials. When you're ready, build out your mechanism into more complex designs. What would happen if you added more connectors and more bends in the wire? How would that change your motion?

  1. 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.

  2. Add a connector to the U-shaped side of the block. The wire will puncture through the connector on the large flat face, not on the edge.

  3. Glue a piece of cardboard on top of the block with a follower hole punched through it. Thread the second piece of wire through the hole and into the edge of the connector.


Motion Library

From the base up-and-down motion, there's a world of possibilities. Check out this collection of different motions and experiment with adding new movements to your contraptions.

replace this text
replace this text


replace this text
replace this text



PDF Guide

For a printable version of this activity, check out our PDF guide!