You Can Make A Rolling Ball Sculpture

by rolling Email


This sculpture is now complete, working properly, looking bright and colourful and is

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A Rolling Ball Sculpture 'work in progress'


The purpose of this site is to show how I make my Rolling Ball Sculptures and hopefully, pass on a few helpful tips and hints.

The methods shown here are the ones which give me the results I am after - they won’t suit everyone but I hope they might encourage those people who ‘want to have a go’ to get started.

Each RBS maker uses construction methods which, probably, include some learned by researching the internet and some which they have personally developed as their build progresses. This is a combination which produces some wonderful and fascinating machines.

The greatest personal pleasure in making a Rolling Ball Sculpture is the satisfaction gained during construction - working it all out - and best of all, the faces of the children - and adults - who watch with awe and delight, the work you have created.

Believe me, it’s well worth ‘having a go’.



This is the second rolling ball sculpture that I have made.

The first – shown below – is called

Sincere thanks to Matt Goulden for suggesting that I get in touch with the director of "Funique" a children's museum in Seoul, South Korea.

The contact resulted in their purchase of  'Controlled Chaos' and it is now a part of the museums collection and is in daily use:

I was having difficulty coming up with an appropriate name for my new Rolling Ball Sculpture – but it's obvious to me now that this one should be called

It certainly describes this machine accurately.

Building one of these things involves all sorts of different skills such as planning, designing, engineering, welding,  painting etc., Some makers are extremely talented and use all of these skills, and more, and can 'see' exactly what the finished sculpture will look like.

I'm unable to do that since I don't have that capability or vision.

The way I work is;

I build the outside frame first, put castors on it so that I can move it around. Then I make and fit a set of adjustable legs so that it can be made level on a sloping floor (like the one in my workshop). Then spray it with a nice bright colour.

(That's how we spell 'color' in Australia!).


Next, I decide how it is to be powered - electrically or by hand. So far, hand power has been the choice since it allows the children to participate rather than just watching.

Then the drive mechanism brackets are built and put in place.

Top Drive Bracket ready to be fitted.

Next, the drive mechanism is assembled and fitted.

Having looked at most of the Rolling Ball Sculptures, on the internet, for comparison, mine are 'medium' size.

The outside dimensions of the current one are:

Height. 185cm (6 feet) Width. 145cm (4 feet 91/2 inches) Depth. 600cm (2 feet). The frame is made from 25mm x 50mm (one x two inch) square tube. Welded with a mig welder.

The wire used for the tracks is 5mm mild steel in 4 meter lengths.

I would prefer to use 4mm because it is much easier to bend and adjust but, for some reason, 4mm wire lengths are not available at any of the Melbourne suppliers. I've been told that it is imported from China and that there is not sufficient demand for it for the suppliers to stock it.

Controlled Chaos was made with 4mm - which was available at that time - and I made a set of jigs to suit that size. These were redrilled to 5mm for the current build.

The balls used are 50mm (2 inch) snooker or pool balls.


I use a lot of 180° bends and in order to ensure smooth curves and consistency in size, I made a series of bending jigs, shown below with the bend that each one produces beside them.


The coloured bend reminds me which bit of wire goes where – very handy!

This is a double jig holding the wire/s in position to make a 180°  bend.

In the background are the pre-bent components for more 180° bends.

I usually prepare enough bends to make half a dozen at a time.

My preference is to use four wires for the tracks, two for the balls to run on and two as guard rails to prevent the balls from falling off.

I use rings to hold the track wires in position. While it is possible to roll the rings by hand - winding the wire around a piece of pipe - I find it easier to make them on the lathe.

The 5mm wire comes in 4 meter lengths and I usually roll four lengths in a session so that there are plenty of rings on hand.

The process:
First, one end of the wire is bent into a hook to fit into a hole in the pipe.
This keeps the wire held firmly when the lathe is started.


The pipe is put into the lathe supported by a live center in the tailstock - this is needed because rolling the rings puts a lot of pressure on the headstock. There are a number of 6mm holes, around the chuck end of the pipe, for the hook on the end of the wire to fit into.

The wire is fitted. The lathe is set to run at it's slowest speed. Heavy gloves, a welders leather jacket and a face mask are worn for safety.
A good grip on the wire - keeping the hand that's gripping, well away from the chuck jaws - ensures that the rings are made close together and are evenly tensioned - and then, having checked everything again - start the lathe.

Even running at its slowest speed, the lathe wraps the four meter (13 feet) length of wire around the pipe very quickly and it is necessary to be alert when the last meter (3 feet 3 inches) is being wound so that the lathe can be turned off BEFORE the last of the length is wound.

I learned from experience that if you hang on to the wire until there is only about 50mm (6 inches) remaining you will probably get a very painful smack on the fingers from the wire end.

You can see the straight, potentially dangerous, unrolled end of wire above.

Next, cut the wire to eliminate the hook and free the wire - remove the tailstock and slip the rolled rings off the pipe.

Repeat the process until you have enough rings.

Then separate the rings by cutting with (in my case) bolt cutters.

Because the rings have been wound on a slight angle it is necessary to align the two ends. Either hold the two sides of the ring and give it a twist or, if the metal is too strong to do by hand, put it into a vise and give it a tap with a hammer to line it up.

Ok. Now it's time to start making some track. Personally, I start to populate the sculpture from the top and work down.

The first track to be made is the one the balls are fed into by the chain drive.

The following photo's show the completed track with a direction changing gate in place.


There are several other tracks already in place because this is the second attempt to build this - the first had a spiral ball lift which did not work out. Before I realised that the spiral wasn't 'right' the other tracks which you see above, had been added. It was necessary to cut sections out of some of the tracks to be able to remove the spiral. The tracks were then repaired or replaced.
The tracks are built as they are required so that they can fit in with the tracks and other elements which have already been fitted.
A few are shown below so that you can see some of the variations needed.

As you can see, my workshop door reflects the colours that are used during the build.
and as you can see, once it starts to fill up, the placement of the new track becomes very interesting (challenging).
The track is made in sections which means that, in most cases, additional track will have to be joined to it to extend it to it's destination. The ends of each piece are butt welded together and then made smooth using an angle grinder or small air linisher.
To make it easier to align the wire/s I have modified a pair of locking pliers by adding an extra plate to each jaw. The plate, which was long enough to cut into four sections - two sections for each of the two pairs of pliars - has had a 2.5mm groove cut into it on the milling machine and has then been cut into sections and welded onto the original jaws.
To ensure that the slots in the plates line up properly, I fit a short piece of the 5mm wire in the grooves and then lock the jaws onto the plates. Having positioned them centrally, they are welded into place. The "U" shaped section, which allows access to the wire for welding, is then cut out of the plates with an angle grinder.
They work really well and hold the 5mm wire firmly and in line both on the bench and on the machine itself.


Using the jigs shown earlier in this blog, straight track is very easy to put together. The photo's below shows the basic setup.

The big advantage of making the tracks using the various jigs is that almost any combination can be assembled with the minimum of difficulty.

Having the modified locking pliars for butt joining the sections is a great convenience. They take care of the alignment at the point of joining but only at that point.

You can imagine how difficult it can be trying to hold a metre (3 feet 3 inches) length of track  with multiple curves on the end of it while also attempting to weld the ends in place.

Crude as it may seem, I usually use lengths of fine, very strong, string to position the track when adding to an existing section. (See below). The advantage here is the ability to adjust the track so that it mates properly with the older track and also to check that there is sufficient clearance for the balls to pass over/under the other, fixed tracks.


Below, at the other end of the new track, the locking pliars are doing their job, holding and aligning the old and new tracks.

Once I'm satisfied with the position, the track is removed for weld-grinding and painting. I use quick drying enamel, a compressor and spray gun and usually get an excellent finish. The only problem with this part of the process is that the beautifully painted track has to be welded into the position already chosen.

Sounds easy?

Welding relies on generating lots of heat. Heat burns paint - not just on the piece being welded but also on any track in the immediate vicinity.


So, my decision to paint each track in a bright colour, while making the sculpture vibrant and interesting, also brings the necessity to repaint or touch-up the welded or chipped colours. The picture below shows some of the chipped track and newly welded joints that accumulate and require attention.

Having made some track and fitted it to the frame, you have to decide how many tracks you need to make the sculpture alive and engaging. It is quite possible to use only one track but, obviously, this limits the mystery regarding the balls path.

Personally, I like to use as many as is practicable. The first Rolling Ball Sculpture I made 'Controlled Chaos' had sixteen tracks. This one 'Organised Chaos' has twelve. To achieve this it is necessary to have direction changing 'gates' or 'switches' to move the ball/s onto alternative tracks.

In addition to adding interest, the gates allow me to control the flow of balls throughout the sculpture including how many balls arrive at any given point at a time. Too many balls arriving together at a single junction or element can, potentially, jam the machine.

Below, are a couple of examples of the most common gate I use.

This gate is not complete as it has not been fitted with a lead-in track yet.

This is a good example of how sure you have to be that there is sufficient room between existing tracks to accomodate the new section.

Once again, showing how handy string can be to check the position of new track.

Once the decisions regarding tracks and gates are made and implemented you can work out the number and types of 'elements' that will be included.

Elements are the eye catching items that dress up your creation and add to the overall sense of movement and mystery.

You may choose to include a spinner which is activated by the ball passing over or under it.

There are many types of spinner - the four ring below is one I've used in 'Organised Chaos'. I've also used a couple with two rings.

Made from bits and pieces they add colour and movement.



Fitted under the track because there isn't enough space above.

One element that always meets with approval is the Wok or ball collector. Viewers enjoy the swirling movement of one or a number of balls which enter the wok from one or more tracks, eventually drop into the hole in the centre, run down the ball return track to the pickup point where they are collected, raised to the top by the chain lift and the whole process is repeated.


Wok, supports and track being assembled.

Shows the exit  hole, supports and track. Looks much better painted.
Another element which always gets a good response from the audience is the 'multi-ball' tilting switch.
The first ball to arrive goes straight on and rolls down to the long, curved track where it rolls back and forth many times before continuing on it's way.
The next ball is stopped on the tilting platform by a switch that drops down after the first ball goes past it. Following balls stack up on the platform.
The platform seems to be stuck because the ball/s don't do anything - they just sit there.
The action begins again when, at least in my version, the fourth ball arrives and provides sufficient weight to tilt the platform and release the balls onto a lower track. Then, they seem to chase each other to their destination.
Getting the balance right so that it operates smoothly and reliably, took a bit of time but it was well worth the effort.
The photo's below show the sequence:
(1) Shows the switch in the 'open' position which allows one ball to go straight through.

(2) The switch is now closed.

(3) Balls beginning to accumulate.

(4) All four balls are in place so the platform begins to tilt...

(5) which allows the balls to enter the lower track.

The switch is automatically reset when the platform returns to the original position.

Another item that I like to include is a Xylophone:



I have no knowledge of music or what a Xylophone should really sound like but this makes a pleasing sound and adds to the variety - and it's interesting to make.

Starting with some recycled 25mm square tube cut into sections which were each 10mm shorter than the one before, holes for mounting on the frame were then drilled.



The frame was already made when I remembered to take the above photo.

It is shown below after painting.

The bends in the mounting wires were each bent to suit the holes in the individual 'keys'. Washers were welded in place to set the height of the keys.

Foam rubber washers - cut with a home-made punch - from an old wetsuit were used to provide buffers for the keys allowing them to move and resonate.

The centre strip covers the welds on the base and tidies it up.

A couple of coats of paint finish it off.





The keys were cleaned thoroughly and then painted.




Once again, string was used to position the assembly before welding it in place.



Satisfied with the placement, the Xylophone was welded into place, the tracks too and from were made and fitted and that element was complete.


Soup spoons may seem like an unlikely inclusion in a Rolling Ball Sculpture but I like them for several reasons: Most importantly, kids know what they are and are usually quick to point them out to whoever is with them. They can be easily painted by either dipping them into the paint container or spraying them and then hanging up to dry. They add extra colour and movement. They are available cheaply at op shops. One other important reason: They are unique to my sculptures.

See what you think.

They are mounted each end of the upper sprocket shaft.

This is the front set.


This is the rear set.


As you can see, they provide quite a lot of additional colour and movement.


There are other 'elements' included in the sculpture which I will talk about soon, but, for now, I want to mention that, even having taken a lot of care to prevent it from happening, sometimes a ball or even a couple, will come off a track and fall to the bottom of the frame.

Rather than not dealing with these balls and just letting them accumulate on the floor, I decided to put in a sloping sub-floor which will cause any stray balls to run to either end of the base where they can be retrieved easily by a child who can then put them back into the machine.

This has the dual advantage of involving children even more with the running of the sculpture and also keeps all the balls in play.

This photo shows the completed sloping floor:

To accomodate the new floor, it was necessary to remove the legs from the 'Catcher'.
This was done - new supports were fitted while the originals were still in place to ensure the position of the catcher remained exactly the same:
and now the new floor could be made:
The new floor was made from 3mm steel salvaged from the back of an old bench.

The upright ends - to stop the balls from falling off - were made from a scrap pen tray from a discarded whiteboard.

The upright sides were made from scrap shelf supports from an old comms cabinet.

The underneath of the extra floor was lined with recycled 1" thick foam to deaden the sound when the balls hit it. Without the foam, the sound was extremely loud and not pleasant at all.

To make sure that the noise had been suppressed as efficiently as possible, there is also a sheet of 1/4" high-density foam, painted and positioned on top of the sloping floor.

Altogether, a successful result using recycled material.

The moral of this story: make the original floor slope rather than having to add another one later. I really must learn to plan ahead.

Below: Shows the foam insulation attached to the underside of the sloping floor with double-sided tape.

The top hd foam painted and ready to be fitted.
September 12th 2010
Latest news!
I'm getting excited: I made the last piece of track for this machine yesterday which means that I can start tweaking and repainting in preparation for putting it up for sale.

This is Track One:

Track Two:

Track Three:

Track Four:

Track Five: