A Mechanical Summer: Part 7- It’s Alive!!!!

All I can say is wow! It works- it’s alive!!!!! I have 16 vertebrae and 8 are moving precisely like they are supposed to! Stage 1 of the tentacle- from the tip to vertebrae 9 is moving and curling. However, for some reason, stage 2 is barely moving. Current working theory is that the brake cable housing I am using is too stiff to allow the stage 2 mechanism to move at all. I may have to make another base plate that has no large passage holes and screw all the brake cable housings into that so that the bare cable is running through the passage holes of the actual tentacle.


I am still waiting for more set screws to arrive so I can finish attaching all the vertebrae and the tail tip. While I am waiting, I have started designing the next mechanism!!!

A Mechanical Summer: Part 6

I have started assembling the tentacle! After printing one of the vertebrae, I held it up to a puppet that it could be used for, and I found that the diameter of the vertebrae was too wide. So I reduced the diameter on the original model to 1.5 inches, reconverted it to metric and printed 12 vertebrae. For the tip, base and vertebrae 8 & 9, where the cable housing had to be inserted or the cables terminated, I had to adjust the design so that the holes were 4mm in diameter.

Each vertebrae holds onto the central speedometer cable using a 10/32 by 0.25″ set screw. I had the drill and tap each hole to be able to thread the set screws. I am now waiting for more set screws to arrive, then, I will be able to thread through the outer cables and hopefully this tentacle will start moving!

A Mechanical Summer: Part 5

Today I tried to print the first of the vertebrae. When I imported the design into the UP Studio software, the vertebrae appeared incredibly small. I designed the vertebrae to be 1.75 inches in diameter and the main ring is 0.25 inches high, but in the UP Studio software, the design was 1.75mm wide!

I consulted with a more experienced colleague of mine and together, we discovered the problem. UP Studio software cannot distinguish between imperial and metric measurements. It can only read in metric, so when I imported my design in imperial measurement of 1.75 inches, it read it as 1.75mm. I had to convert the design parameters to millimetres in the software I use to design 3D objects and then re-import the file into UP Studio. Finally the design could be printed!

A Mechanical Summer- Part 4

I had a much more successful day today, finding the brake cable I need. I ended up going to Clarence Street Cyclery in Sydney where they had both the brake cable and the cable housing! I was really impressed with their service and amused at when they asked me what kind of bike I needed the cable for, and when I said it’s not for a bike, they were very confused.

Now that I have all the cables, I am almost ready to start construction. All that I need to do now is order the set screws for each of the vertebrae and 3D print the first test vertebrae so I can test my concepts.

A Mechanical Summer- Part 3

I have had mixed success finding the necessary hardware for the tentacle mechanism. I was able to get the speedometer cable for the tentacle core at a car parts and accessories store in my area, but finding the bicycle break cable has proven to be impossible as there are no bike repair shops in my neighbourhood. I have one break cable in my collection of puppet parts that I can use, but to make the whole tentacle I need seven more. I have found a bicycle repair shop in Sydney CBD that I will try, otherwise I might have to look online.



Now that I have the speedometer cable and one of the bicycle break cables, I have started 3D designing the vertebrae. I started by designing a disc that had the holes for the cables marked. Next, I designed the oval passage holes to pull the first stage of cables through the second stage. At the moment, I have two concerns. Firstly, the vertebrae feels too thick dimensionally. The pieces need to be 1/4 inch thick maximum. My second concern is making the passage hole for the set screw that will hold the vertebrae on the core cable. At the moment, the hole is not passing through the stem properly. It could be because the size of the hole is wrong, or the stem is the wrong size.



I won’t know how to solve these issues until I 3D print at least 2 of the vertebrae and test fit them into a tentacle.

A Mechanical Summer- Part 2

While I was watching the full tutorial on designing and making tentacles from Stan Winston School of Character Arts, I took some notes on how I might proceed to make my cat’s tail tentacle mechanism.


So now I begin the process of sourcing all the hardware required to make the tentacle mechanism. I have to get the hardware first, before I can start modelling and 3D printing the vertebrae. Fortunately, a colleague of mine, made a fantastic suggestion about using bicycle brake cables for the main cables as the cables come with their own housings.

So it is off to Autobarn tomorrow to get the speedometer cable I need for the central shaft of the tail, then I need to find a bike repair shop to get the brake cables I need. I still have to source a few parts like the 16 set screws online but if I can find all the cables on the weekend, I can start 3D designing the vertebrae!

A Mechanical Summer- Part 1

I am about to start my summer school vacation. It has been a challenging year for me teaching and puppetry wise, but now that the year is almost over, I have some time to persue a few of my goals in learning more about mechanical design in puppets.

I have three goals in mind; 1. Design and make a cat’s tail using a cable mechanism, 2. Design and make a rotating eye mechanism, 3. Design and make a sliding control mechanism for blinking eyes. All of these mechanisms already exist in the world but, for me, making them myself will give me an opportunity to explore these shapes and movements and challenge my 3D printing and design experience.

Here are the videos that have inspired me

But, this book has been my chief inspiration-


Figures in the Fourth dimension- Mechanical Movement for Puppets and Automata by Ellen S. Rixford

Here is a preview link of this incredible book

This is going to be an interesting summer!

An adventure in 3D Printing and Animatronics Part 3

I am now much more comfortable using 123D Design and I have finished designing the remaining components. I also learned another important word in animatronics, E-Bar. In animatronics, the E-bar holds all the main servos that control the puppet’s eyes and the actual eyes are suspended from the bars of the E using screws. This mechanism actually has a second platform directly above the E-Bar for additional servos. The servos on the E-bar control the eyeblink part of the mechanism while the servos on the upper platform control the up/down and side to side movement of the actual eyeball.

A really helpful part of the forum for this particular project over at Stan Winston School of Character Arts, is that the teacher, David Covarrubuas, uploaded a 3D model of the recommended servo for students of the class to use for free! Since I was able to buy that particular servo, it has made designing the E-bar and the upper platform so much easier!

3D designed pulley for the 3D printed animatronic eyes project.

3D designed pulley for the 3D printed animatronic eyes project.

E-bar and servo for animatronic eyes

E-bar and servo for 3D printed animatronic eyes

Now that I have finished the core design and I am ready to print the parts, it is time to consider how I could support students in the Library in designing their own 3D models. While I have been using 123D Design, the Industrial Arts faculty teaches and uses another piece of software called Creo. My feeling is that if I bring 3D printing into the Library, I should install Creo onto the Library computers so not only the Industrial Arts classes can come to the Library and use familiar software, but students who have taken Industrial Arts classes at any time during their school years have some familiarity with the software.

Time to fire up the 3D printer! Can’t wait!

-Miss H


An adventure in 3D Printing and Animatronics Part 2

As I use the 123D Design software more, I am starting to understand the quirks of the software but I have also found an excellent series of youtube videos from a public library that explain how the current version of the software works.

I have also learnt an important word in animatronics- Swash Plate. The swash plate is the connector between the control cables and the part being moved. So in the animatronic eyes, the swash plate will snap into the interior of the eyeball and because the control cables are tied to the four holes, the plate will pull the eyeball around according to the cables that are being pulled by the servos. I do really like how this design is drawn with all the part sketches in orientation to each other. It means I can see where there are parts that might get in the way of other parts when the whole project is assembled.

Sketching and revolving the Swash Plate, Eyeball and Eyelid.

Sketching and revolving the Swash Plate, Eyeball and Eyelid.


I am looking forward to designing the E-Bar bracket next. In the meantime, I am trying to negotiate the loan of a 3D printer from the Industrial Arts Faculty at my school so I can print my mechanism!

– Miss H

An adventure in 3D Printing and Animatronics Part 1

As a puppet maker and someone who likes to know how things work, I have always wanted to learn how to make animatronic mechanisms like those found in the great movie creatures like T-Rex from Jurassic Park or creatures from Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. For many years I have also wanted to try 3D printing as there are many public libraries and school libraries that have created maker spaces for their patrons that include 3D printers. Before I invest school money in a 3D printer for the library, I wanted to know how to design, how to print, how to look after the printer and to make a list of what to be aware of when students are near the printer in terms of safety.

Since last year I have been completing online puppet making courses with the Stan Winston School of Character Arts and in many of my social media feeds, this course has been advertised:

I could not resist such a wonderful opportunity to combine my interest in learning how to make puppet mechanisms along with my curiosity about 3D printing!

The course is 5 hours long but the thing I really enjoy about the way these kinds of courses are presented, is that the content is on demand and always available. I can also pause sections or even repeat segments as necessary.

I have completed the first few exercises in drawing the eyeball in the 3D software 123D Design. The part that is really slowing my progress down is that since the course was published, the software has been updated so much that it does not resemble the software being demonstrated in the video at all! With the help of many youtube and google searches, I am starting to feel more confident in using the software. Another thing I am finding useful while watching the lesson and making my design simultaneously, is using 2 monitors one showing the video from the Stan Winston Site and the other with my design in progress.