Automaton Tutorial

Something different today.

for sale on Etsy at SteampunkDollsHouse
Some I made earlier

For quite a while now we have been selling little vintage clockwork motors and birds from our Etsy shop, together with the fixings needed to turn them into pretty little twittering and swooping automatons.  They come with a copy of the ‘instruction sheet’ I inherited when I originally bought them.  It was written in the 1980s and is – to my way of thinking – heavy on hyperbole but light on helpful information.  It took me many hours of trial and error to figure out how the various tiny parts went together, but then I’m not very mechanically minded.

It was quite heartening when a customer who had bought several was struggling to make them work and asked if I could explain how I do mine.   I decided to put together a tutorial for her, and anyone else who wants to try making one.  What follows is probably laughable for anyone who understands mechanical bits and bobs, but it may be some help to fellow bodgers and tinkerers who would enjoy building their own automaton.


As well as the parts supplied, you will need a box or housing of some kind.  Mine are little card boxes about 8.5cm/3.25 inches square and 4cm/1.5 inches deep (2 for £1 at The Works in UK at time of writing) but you can pack any spare space with foam board or folded card if your box is a bit bigger.


Drill a hole in the top of the box. Fig 2 shows the template for the hole, usefully placed on the back of the motor. Check bush fits snuggly in hole. I glue it in place or wrap it with a piece of double-sided tape.

Check fit of motor in box and pack spaces but check mechanism works OK. Don’t fix it in place yet.

If you want a stop/start bar, push the bar through its two slits and press it hard against the back of the box to make a dent (fig 4). Take motor out and cut a slit where your mark is (fig 5).  (The bar provided isn’t long enough for my boxes, so I make one out of plastic packaging.)

I think the pictures (figs 6 to 10) work better than words for attaching the bird. Very fiddly and you may need to adjust position of motor to get the arm moving freely. Lots of trial and error!


A true artisan would have crafted a wooden box and screwed the motor into it.  Me, I’m happier with glue, so here’s a picture of where you can safely spread glue without gumming up the mechanism.

Fig 12 shows the finished all-singing all-dancing bird. You can buy the kits from our Etsy shop at this link…/…/small-vintage-clockwork-motor-with… 

The Clockwork Entomologist

It puzzled me… but I enjoy a good puzzle.

I have this pile of vintage clockwork parts, as many of you will know.  Time hasn’t been kind to them, left as they were to rot in an attic for decades.

for sale on Etsy at SteampunkDollsHouseThe ones I can clean up and get working are either sold as they are to automaton makers or turned into pretty clockwork twittering birds that sell as fast as I can make them.  The ones that have seized up completely are taken to pieces, the parts being upcycled into our miniature gizmos and contraptions.

But there was this one.  It defied all reason.  The spring had snapped, the rubber bellows had perished, the little band that turned a few cogs in the middle had disintegrated, and yet, when I turned the key, it whirred into life.  I had no idea how parts of it were still working.

It most certainly couldn’t be sold or turned into a singing bird.  I removed the broken bellows and whistle.   Stubbornly, the part that was left continued to function.  Admittedly it was rather primitive, but each time I gave the key a few turns, the brass bit in the middle zoomed around at a rate of knots and the arm which should have moved the bird waved up and down unevenly, controlled by the blue steel cam.  I presume one of the broken parts had once regulated the speed.  The other mechanisms move relatively sedately.  This one, though, buzzed like an insect as it spun around…

…and that gave me an idea.

I hunted in an old box of bracelet charms and found a few dragonflies, a butterfly and a bee.  These were painted in jewel colours and most were stuck to the casing.  Another was threaded on to a length of copper wire and fixed to the wheel in the centre.

Next I turned my attention to the arm.

Arm!  That was when the idea of the Clockwork Entomologist came to mind.  Somewhere I had…  yes… in one of those boxes of junk-I’ll-find-a-use-for-one-day…

There it was – a 12th scale butterfly net!

Constructing a pair of arms and hands from epoxy putty was relatively easy.  One held the net and was molded to the flailing metal arm.  The other held a diminutive magnifying glass, cobbled together with a few bits from the stash.  It fitted neatly into the now empty housing from the bird whistle.  A pair of small black sleeves and cuffs dressed the arms in a suitably formal fashion.  My entomologist might lack all other body parts, but those he had were at least well attired.

The mechanism was housed in a small cardboard box, decorated with an assemblage of suitable images.  A few coffee stirrers were sawn up to make a cover for the spring, so that the sharp, snapped steel edges would be safely covered.

So there it is – my rather inept clockwork bug collecting automaton, swiping ineffectually with his net at the buzzing insect each time the little brass key is turned.

The vintage clockwork mechanisms (in full working order) can be bought from this link at the SteampunkDollsHouse, in case you’d like to try your hand at making an automaton.

The magical mechanical birds are available on Steampunk-Shrunk stalls (see home page for dates and venues) or from this link.

As for The Clockwork Entomologist – I’m not sure that I can part with him at the moment, unless someone makes me an offer I can’t refuse…