Walking Wooden Poodle Automata / Karakuri Machine

jchismar Poodle Dog Automata Karakuri

Yesterday was my super-sweet standard poodle Fleur’s thirteenth birthday. To commemorate the occasion I dug in and built an automata in her likeness. Loosely defined, an automata (or Japanese karakuri) is mechanism that imitates the movement of a living creature. This project has been on my to-do list for several years and I thought it was about time I gave it a go.

The mechanism is based on a popular design that’s been around for a while. In the early 2000’s Theo Jansen, either refined or invented the linkage for his very popular wind-powered walking machines. Each part of of Jansen’s mechanism is carefully specified, elegant and mind-boggling in it’s function. Me? Well, I just sort of guesstimated the dimensions and ran with it.

jchismar Poodle Dog Automata Karakuri

I first made templates out of cardboard of each part. Each template was transferred to 1/8″ plywood and cut out using a scroll saw. The holes for the pivots were made with the drill press. I then used 1/8″ wooden dowels to assemble the mechanism.

Assembly was tricky at times because I didn’t have an assembly schematic. I just went with the flow. I made sure the dowels were plenty long to allow me to put the puzzle together on the fly. Once everything was in place the excess was trimmed from each dowel.

All in all I’m pretty impressed with the complete mechanism. This was the first, but certainly not the last machine of this style I build. I already have tweaks I’d like to try to give this girl a little more life. Watch the machine in action in the video below.

How to Design and Make Automata or Whirligig Gears Using the Power of Geometry

“…Chemistry is not an exact science” ~Mario Andrada

jchismar How To Make Wood Gears

In this post I will do my very best to simplify the process of designing and making gears from wood and other materials. The process to build a simple Spur Gear and Pinwheel Gear will be explained.

Thanks to my background in 3d animation I have a rudimentary understanding of geometry and mathematics. I would love to be a math magician but like many people I get lost with anything beyond algebra. Thank goodness for the internet and calculators!

jchismar N-Gon Automata GearAs my math magician friend Charlie reminded me, “To get the teeth to mesh, the spacing BETWEEN the teeth need to be the SAME on all gears.” With this in mind, using the n-gon is ideal to design a gear, the spacing between each vertex is uniform. Simply stated, an n-gon is a polygon with “n” amount of edges. The image to the left is of an eight sided n-gon. The n-gon has two radius measurements: circumcircle (rc)and incircle (ri). If you need a refresher, the radius is the distance from the center to the outer edge of the n-gon, the diameter is the complete distance from side to side (through the center). Vertices are the angular points where each edge meets (the white “edge” arrows point to vertices).

When designing gears we will focus mostly on the circumcircle radius (rc), the vertices are positioned along this radius.  The vertices will become the teeth of our gears.  If the desire is to use a gear to turn another gear uniformly each gear will be identical resulting with a 1:1 ratio. To use a drive gear to rotate a second gear at half speed the second gear needs twice as many teeth as the drive gear, a 2:1 ratio.

Below I have included a calculator to do all the hard stuff for us.

Say you want to make a pair of gears with a 2:1 ratio, the drive gear turning twice for each turn of the second. You also want the drive gear to have a 1″ radius (2″ diameter). You also want the teeth to be separated by 0.5″. This is easily accomplished with the use of the above calculator. The calculator’s default settings are Edge Length (a): 0.5 and Number of Vertices (n): 8 resulting with radius (rc)  of 0.6535. This radius is just over half of what we desire. We can’t change the Edge Length because in this example we want the tooth spacing to be .5″. Instead, increase the Number of vertices to 12. Now radius (rc) is 0.9664 just under the 1″ radius we were looking for. Perfect!

The 2:1 ratio requires the second gear to have twice as many teeth. This doesn’t mean twice the teeth makes the gear twice as large. Let’s see. In the calculator change the Number of Vertices to 16, doubling the amount of the drive gear. Radius (rc) is 1.9162.


This is important! When I started designing gears I was under the impression that to double the ratio, the radius simply needed to be doubled. This is NOT the case (thanks Charlie)! Let’s examine our calculated radius values:

  • 12 vertices Drive Gear (rc): 0.9664
  • 24 vertices Second Gear (rc): 1.9162

That’s double, right? No. It’s not double. By doubling the drive gear radius (rc), 2 x 0.9664 the product is 1.9328, a difference of 0.0166. Doesn’t seem like a huge deal, but a .0166 error can, in fact, impede the smooth operation of the gears. To emphasize this point let’s examine a more extreme 10:1 ratio example.

  • 12 vertices Drive Gear (rc): 0.9664
  • 120 vertices Second Gear (rc): 9.5552

Multiplying the 12 vertices Drive Gear (rc): 0.9664 by 10 (0.9664 x 10) results with a product of  9.664. That’s 0.1088, or a tenth of an inch, larger than calculated (rc) value.


Making Spur Gears

Right about now you’re probably thinking, “Hey John. I thought you were going to show me how to make gears, not bore me to death with math.” Well, you’re in for a treat, let make some gears! We’ll start by making a pair of spur gears: one 1:1 and another 1:2. A spur gear is a gearwheel with teeth projecting parallel to the wheel’s axis, this is the sort of gear everyone is familiar with. For this example we’ll be making wood gears. You’ll need paper, wood, glue, drill (or drill press), saw, an accurate caliper gauge and a quality pencil compass.  If you don’t own these instruments you can find them at any hardware store – or you can be like me and score vintage beauties at flea markets and estate sales. Cheap tools may work, Harbor Freight – cough, cough, but I often find cheap tools more frustrating than productive.

jchismar How to Make Wooden Gears 01
Step 1

Step 1: Layout the Gear

Laying out the gear is the most important task of making your own gears. I own a few sets of old drafting tools I picked up estate sales for a few dollars. The compasses in these sets are fantastic quality and several of them have an adjustment lock. I use several compasses, and once their settings are perfect, I don’t change a thing until every gear is marked on on wood.

First, calibrate the compasses by drawing on paper. To layout the drive gear use a pencil to draw a small dot on paper, this is the center of the first gear. Set your caliper gauge set (rc): 0.9664 (or as close to this value as the gauge allows) match the pencil compass to this value. Place the compass needle on the pencil center mark and draw the circle. Reference your caliper gauge from the center of the circle to ensure the drawn circle is correct.

Set the caliper gauge to the Edge Length (a): 0.5 and adjust a second pencil compass (preferably locking) to match. Using the circle as reference, draw ticks across the circle (rc) at .5 intervals. When you’ve gone all the way around the circumference your last tick should match the first tick exactly. Refer to the Step 1 image to see my terrible first result (red circle). If it’s not perfect, something went amiss in your settings. You’ll need to start again. This requires patience and practice. The width of the pencil line complicates creating accurate marks. You’ll need to get a feel for the process.

Once you’re comfortable laying out the gear, layout the pattern for each gear on the wood you’re using. This also may require a few tries. Working on this example required about two hours to layout eleven gears from start to finish.

jchismar How To Make Wood Gears 02
Steps 2 & 3

Step 2: Cut Out the Gear

Now you’ll need to cut the round gear from the block of wood. Generally I use the band saw or jigsaw for the task. You can use whatever works best for you: hand jigsaw, Dremel, router, etc. Cut to the outside of the radius (rc) line you created with the compass. Try not to remove the line! Once the gear is roughed out, use a disc sander to shape the circle precisely to the line (bottom left Steps 2 &3 image).

Step 3: Drill a Hole

I generally use 1/8″ wire to mount the gear to the project. The wire serves as the shaft for the gear to rotate about. I use an 1/8″ drill bit in my drill press for the task. Drill an appropriate sized hole centered on the depression you make with an awl. This is the middle of the gear.

After the gear is complete I use a small round file to enlarge the hole to make it rotate more easily on the wire shaft. But that’s the last step!

jchismar How To Make Wooden Gears
Step 4:

Step 4: Add the Teeth

This is where personal preference, practice and experience comes into play. For this example I will be using poplar that I’ve planed to .125″ thickness. The strip of .125″ poplar is ripped on the table saw to .75″ width. Individual teeth are crosscut from the strip to a .75″ length. Each tooth is .125″ x .75″ x .75″.

I’ve constructed a miter bar jig for the table saw to hold the gear while cutting a dado for each tooth around the the gear. The dado I cut is .25″ deep and .125″ wide.  With the table saw jig I am able to center the vertex ticks drawn in Step 1 spaced at .5″ around the gear. I center the tick to the blade, cut the dado. The gear is rotated to center the next tick and the next dado is cut. This process continues until each required dado is cut.

I squirt out a puddle of wood glue on a scrap. I dip the point of a wood skewer (the grocery store kind) into the glue and spread glue into a gear dado. Then, using the skewer, add a little glue to the end of a tooth square. It is important to insert the tooth square into the dado so the wood grain is perpendicular to the dado. If the tooth is attached with the grain parallel to the dado you run the risk of the tooth breaking with the grain.

Continue this process until you’ve completed the gear.

Step 5: You’ve Made a Spur Gear!

Congratulations on making your first gear! Repeat these steps for the second gear (keeping in mind the second gear is larger: 24 vertices Second Gear (rc): 1.9162).


Making Pinwheel Gears

Let’s say your project requires the drive shaft to power another element or shaft at a ninety degree angle. Enter the Pinwheel Gear. You’ll need wood, drill (or drill press), saw, an accurate caliper gauge and a quality pencil compass.

jchismar How To Make a Wood Pinwheel Gear
Step 1: Layout the Pinwheel Gear

Step 1: Layout the Gear

The layout for differential gears is the same as spur gears above. Use an awl to mark center. Then draw the circle with radius (rc) using a compass. Use the compass again to draw evenly spaced vertex ticks around the circle. Because we’ll be using nails as the teeth on these gears we’ll need to draw another larger circle outside radius (rc). In this case radius (rc) is 0.9664, I generally add an eighth of an inch (0.125) resulting with a radius of 1.0914.

Step 2: Cut Out the Gear

Cut the gear to the outside of the largest circle. Then sand precisely to the line.

Step 3: Drill a Hole

This is exactly at Step 3 for the spur gears. I drill a 0.125″ hole centered on the awl mark.

jchismar How To Make Wood Pinwheel Gear
Step 4

Step 4: Add the Teeth

I use the drill press to create an appropriately sized pilot hole at each vertex cross tick. The pilot hole should not be completely through the gear, only as deep as the nail will be driven into the wood. Here, I’m using three penny nails. Start the nail in partway then place a scrap of wood against the nail as a depth gauge. Then hammer the nail until you’re hammering the wood scrap. Continue adding nails in this fashion until your pinwheel gear is complete.

Step 5: You’ve Made a Pinwheel Gear!

You’re an expert gear maker now. Let your imagination run wild! I’d love to see the mechanical creations you’ve built.

A Note About Gears

I started the post with a quote that originated from the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics, “…Chemistry is not an exact science…” This was an Olympics official’s response to questions pertaining to why the pool smelled rotten and the water was green. I’m here to say Chemistry is and exact science. What does this have to do with making gears? Well, making gears is an exact science also. This post, however, is the groundwork to understand how to construct gears, not exact science.

Earlier I posted about building a Pegasus whirligig kit. Assembling the kit was a fun distraction, but I honestly didn’t learn much from the task. I’m a tinkerer. I enjoy spending time considering how to make things, and how things work. I find little satisfaction in following a detailed design – robots do that. I like to build the plane while it’s in the air, as they say. It’s fun to start something, and troubleshoot and modify along the way. This is how I gain a full understanding of the project. I often build many test projects before I tackle the actual build.

Creating mechanical machines is challenging. There is a lot of trial and error involved for the novice (myself included). There is more to designing precision gears than I’ve mentioned in the post. I’ll be honest, I don’t understand most of the technical mumbo jumbo, big words like dedendum, addendum, clearance and working depth versus whole depth. If things don’t work – that’s normal. It’s an entertaining learning experience. I personally find as much enjoyment in the flops as in the successes. When the project is complete, the challenge is over – and that can be a bummer.

Making gears using this method will require trial and error. The space between the gear positions will be an issue. The heads of the nails and the lack of a taper on the ends of the spur gear will likely cause these gears to jam. Consider using a metal cutting wheel to cut the heads off the nails – and taper the metal end. Also consider sanding a taper on each tooth before assembling the spur gear.

For those makers that want a detailed, guaranteed plan you can visit http://geargenerator.com/ to design and print precise gears. This post will get you started making functioning gears. Please take what you learned here, build on it and make it your own. There’s more than one way to make a gear.

I am planning a follow up post regarding making wooden gears. There will be more information and project ideas to be found in the follow up post. In the meantime, be creative and have fun.