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Marble Machine Plans: Ideas, Inspiration, and DIY Tips

Robert is an author, artist, graphic designer, and photographer. He writes about survivalism, futurism, and artistic creations.

Marble machines involve a combination of engineering, science, and woodworking. Then you let gravity take the marbles where it may.

Marble machines involve a combination of engineering, science, and woodworking. Then you let gravity take the marbles where it may.

My Marble Machine Plans and Dreams

The concept of a marble machine is relatively simple: a ball-run contraption of tubes, funnels, tracks, and bumpers that lets gravity take your shiniest marbles on a turbulent miniature roller coaster ride. Simple—yet there's something about the idea of building a marble machine that makes me feel like I could control the world.

Lately, I've been fascinated by the relatively obscure but vibrant community of marble machine enthusiasts and innovators, as well as the underlying elegance and practicality involved. Marble machines can be made from everyday, reusable scraps and upcycled materials. You don't necessarily need any special gear or devices. You should be able to find the wood and other components already laying around your home or yard. And if you have a friendly junkyard nearby, all the better.

The greatest thing about marble machines is that the only limits are your own creativity and craftiness. Of course, for the more complex (sometimes mind-boggling) projects, which we'll take a look at later, engineering and/or carpentry experience will obviously enhance one's abilities.

I have not built a marble machine yet, but I've decided I have to at least look into it. And I'm bringing you along for the ride.

How to Make a Marble Machine

Exploratorium describes making a marble machine as an individual project or group collaboration using science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Additional concepts explored:

  • Gravitational potential energy
  • Kinetic energy
  • Energy conversion
  • Simple machines

Marble Machine Pegboard Wall

Exploratorium's beginner's tutorial gives instructions for how to make a marble machine pegboard wall and a variety of DIY homespun obstacles and diversions—the goal being to have a marble travel from the top of the wall to the bottom as slowly but wildly as possible. The cool thing about this project is that you can start basic and then scale up the complexity in proportion to your experience and available materials.

Additional materials for the obstacles are listed below (remember: these are just recommendations—really you can use anything you want):

  • Marbles—lots of marbles (you can also use ball bearings)
  • Scrap wire, or copper wire
  • Tape, clothespins, cove moulding
  • Cups or bowls to hold marbles
  • Bells or metal objects for sound
  • String
  • Dixie cups
  • Straws, springs, metal ball bearings, foamies, mesh, cardboard, pipe cleaners

Where to Find Scrap Wood

As I mentioned before, you can use just about any wood. You can even buy it from your local hardware store. That is not necessary, though. There are plenty of places where you can find free scrap wood. You can usually go to those same hardware stores and ask for the scraps that are left behind when customers have their plywood cut to specific sizes. The stores will often give those to free of charge. You can also pick wood out of dumpsters from construction sites. Just make sure you ask permission first.

Where to Find Marbles

I like to get my marbles from the Dollar Store. I love them for several different reasons, including their role in marble machine experiments. If I find rare marbles (at antique shops or online), I will add them to my collection. Marbles come in all kinds of colors and, usually, they are cheap. Most of the time they come in small drawstring bags; sometimes they are just in plastic bags and you have to find a way to store them after you buy them.

Tips for Building a Marble Machine

If you're going to try to build a marble machine, here are a few housekeeping notes to consider:

  • Because the core of this activity involves patient observation and experimentation, you'll want to clear a space in which you can easily sit, kneel, stand, and build. Or, if it's a group project, set up a central communal hub in which people can share ideas.
  • Do a few test runs so you get an idea of which materials work best. Exploratorium recommends using "cafeteria trays, large bowls, and paint buckets to arrange the materials on a table."
  • Keep the marbles either in a carpeted or enclosed area to prevent them from rolling around (dangerous) or getting lost (frustrating). A taped-down garden hose also works as a kind of holding cell for the marbles.
  • Good lighting is very important. It helps you see the intricacies of your marble run and ensures you don't step on things (speaking of which, you should probably wear shoes).
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Read More From Feltmagnet

Making a Marble Run

Whether you've finished a pegboard wall or just want to experiment with the idea of a marble machine, a marble run is a good start. This is when you get to design the obstacles, pathways, and diversions that will take your marbles on their journey from the top of the wall to the bottom.

Start thinking about and tinkering with a couple of the basic but important concepts involved with a marble run, such as using a ball lifter and using wire to make custom tracks.

Defying Gravity With a Ball Lifter

There are endless ways to lift a ball high enough to get your marble machine running. If you can get it to the top, gravity will do the rest.

Take a sheet of paper and draw out some ideas. Think about how you can design your own lifters and get your own ball rolling. Let your creativity and ingenuity run wild!

Take a look at these awesome videos to get a few great ideas for lifting the balls of your own marble machine.

Shaping the Wire Tracks

You will need pathways for the marbles or ball bearings to roll along. I like the idea of making tracks out of copper wire. For one, they are easy to shape and easy to solder together. Another reason to use copper wire is because it is so much easier than trying to dig out channels in your pieces of wood, which takes a lot of work and can require carpentry skills you may not have or machines you can't afford. I know I can't afford them. I believe you can use other types of wire, but I like the color and flexibility of copper.

I like the wire tracks because you can see the metal balls better. The machine looks more like a machine when you can see the metal-on-metal action.

Finished Machines That Feature Amazing Engineering

Now that we've learned and tried some of the basic concepts of marble machines, let's look at a few of the amazing feats of engineering and design by some of the marble-machine masters. They have great ideas and amazing woodworking skills.

You can tell these guys have the skill to shape wood and wire into a finely oiled machine. They take their knowledge and build something that is artistic and functional. They inspire me to build one of my own.

Woodworkers Make the Coolest Machines

There are a lot of people out there who are building their own marble machines. Most of them are not even working from any kind of plans. They build these machines with only an idea in their minds. They wing it, just wanting to see the ball move from one point to another.

Sometimes these machines become something unexpected and even seem to take on a life of their own.

Next-Level Marble Machine Projects

Now we come to the best of the best—marble machine projects that push design, engineering, and artistry to the limit.

The Wintergatan Marble Machine

Wintergatan made a marble-powered musical instrument Rube Goldberg machine with a vibraphone, bass guitar, and drum kit. It is played by unleashing a torrent of 2,000 marbles.

Archimedis by Paul Grundbacher

This project uses the Archimedes screw technology from thousands of years ago to transport marbles in the same way farmers used to transport water for irrigation.

3D-Printed Marble Machine

Marble Mountain

Ronald Walter's Clockwork Gears Marble Machine

The centerpiece for this marble machine are the gears. They lift dozens of marbles at a time and send them down an amazing track of twists and turns.

At first glance, I thought this creation was some sort of wooden gear clock. The only thing that gave it away was the fact there were no hands on the face, not to mention it was missing numbers.

If you go to the project site you will find an array of chutes and barrels and other things for the balls to do on their way down. I can't tell if he had plans for this one or not.

It inspires me to think about designing a clock that has a marble run aspect. What if the machine can tell time while lifting ball bearings up to a point where they can run down a series of tracks? I think that would be so cool.

I have seen some marble machines that are built to tell time. Each ball signified a different number so the viewer can tell the time.

I counted the ball bearings in the gears. This machine moves 47 at one time. It makes me wonder how often it gets jammed.

Ronald Walter's marble machine

Ronald Walter's marble machine

Rolling Marble Ball Machine

Marble Machine Made of Popsicle Sticks

If you ever find yourself in Abita Springs near New Orleans, you should visit the Abita "Mystery House." They have a marble machine made out of popsicle sticks. I can't imagine what it took to figure out how to get it to work properly.

I can picture tons of dripping glue drying from the edges of all the popsicle sticks. I can see kids laughing and having so much fun building something like this. Heck. I can see me having so much fun building this.

This model is an attraction for the museum. People want to understand how this thing works when they first see it. It looks like a mess. It looks like there was no way it could actually work but it does.

I have seen other people make these popsicle machines, but I have never seen one on public display. I would worry too much about someone tearing it up or breaking it in some way. I guess if it is securely glued, there would be nothing to worry about.

Popsicle stick Marble Machine at the "Mystery House" in Abita

Popsicle stick Marble Machine at the "Mystery House" in Abita

Macaroni Marble Machine

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

What Did You Do With Marbles as a Kid?

Marty Mandelbaum on December 17, 2019:

What gauge wire are you using?

bob on September 07, 2016:

what type of motors did he use

UnitedHerps on January 06, 2015:

He's not using copper wire....he's using brass. I would update your site to say so.

Robert T Gasperson (author) from South Carolina on January 21, 2014:

@SusanAston: You should look up the games online. I played "Ringer" with the scouts last week and they had a blast.

Robert T Gasperson (author) from South Carolina on January 21, 2014:

@Paul-Lenton: I always thought the ball bearings were cool. They make great marbles. I can't seem to find them. I guess I could go to Tractor Supply or something like that to find them. Instead I buy the 50 marble bag from the dollar store.

Paul Lenton from El Calafate, Argentina on November 28, 2013:

I used to play with them like in the video above, and every kid had another one with which to get the marbles out of a circle in the ground, that was a ball bearing from a big truck or a tractor. Nice memories!

SusanAston on July 28, 2013:

I remember playing with them - can't remember exactly what the rules of the game were but I did enjoy them.

Robert T Gasperson (author) from South Carolina on July 24, 2013:

@anonymous: He cut the big wheel with a band saw and a drill press. The balls don't fall out because the holes are drilled at an angle. They stay in the wheel till they are upside down at the top. Ingenious design really.

anonymous on July 24, 2013:

I wonder if the wheel from the big marble machine was self made or purchased.

If it's self made how to do it if you don't have any special tools (machines that you cannot affort) for it?

Why don't the marbles fall out of the wheel from the beginning and are only kept in place when they are already half away the lifting?

imagelist lm on April 03, 2013:

Great lens with valuable info...

anonymous on June 21, 2012:

I was here a 1 year and 1 day ago and am returning to enjoy this marble coolness once again. I loved playing marbles as a kid and once one of the big kids won all my marbles. My sister saw me in tears and went and challenge the big kid to a game at the next recess and won all his marbles playing pots...I got all my marbles back!

anonymous on March 23, 2012:

played marble games and made set it was great fun i love these videos

flycatcherrr on March 22, 2012:

I remember we used to build our own marble runs with things like wooden blocks and Meccano sets and those orange plastic Hot Wheels tracks... there are probably still some lost marbles behind the radiators in my parents' rec room, not to mention some marble-shaped dings in the baseboards.

anonymous on September 06, 2011:

Fantastic! I loved watching these. We mostly just collected marbles--I don't actually recall playing marbles, but we all had huge collections of them. Later there was a trend for "fried marbles", so most of our collections were reduced considerably by that.

Linda Hoxie from Idaho on September 04, 2011:

I love shooting for marbles as a kid. These marble machines are so cool, Blessed!

cdevries on August 17, 2011:

What a great idea for a Lens! I love these machines, whether they use marbles or larger diameter balls. Fascinating! Squid Angel blessed.

Andrew Douse on June 29, 2011:

Played. And i still do, though now its with cuboro as the building blocks.

anonymous on June 20, 2011:

This is cool, and a lot of fun. They would make great home projects to work on with the kids. I have always liked marble.

rwoman on June 01, 2011:

This might make a good summer project for my son...

sousababy on June 01, 2011:

Oh, this is the coolest thing. As a kid, I used to try to construct really simplistic ones (like zig-zag steps) with the edging left over in our bungalow (the V-shaped long strips that are used to line doorways, etc). I never would have thought of shaping wire. I really must try this with my daughter, she is fascinated by this sort of thing too. Great lens!

dannystaple on May 30, 2011:

Oh yes. Have you come across the Lego based ball contraptions? Its known as GBC - there is a set of guidelines so different Lego builders can build different modules, and then they all link up by having a particular spec for ball hoppers and average flow rate. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rWd3vgLaA_M

Also - don't forget the old helter skelter kids marbles game - perhaps room for an amazon link for that?

Anyway - given you a blessing - I love this stuff.

hayleylou lm on January 27, 2011:

Played the old fashioned way - trying to hit the main marble and win others marbles in the process.