Pendulum Animation
d. bodnar rev

I am always on the lookout for ideas for animations that can be used on a model railroad.  Over the years I have used electric motors, servos, solenoids, and dozens of arrangements of gears, cogs and cams to make things move!

My latest project involves repurposing a home made magnetic pendulum to animate a gymnast who swings back & forth on a horizontal bar.

The idea came to me after reading an article in the September 2009 issue of an electronics hobbyist magazine called Nuts & Volts.  The article described a pendulum that would swing back and forth for weeks and weeks on the power provided by a battery made up of only two AA cells.  The electronic circuit was simple and I had most of the parts for it on hand.  The main component that I lacked was the wire to hand wind a coil.  I found the magnet wire that I needed on eBay and ordered it so that I could make my own version of the pendulum.

Once I built up a pendulum that was similar to the one was featured in the article I began work on the gymnast.  The timing was perfect as the Pittsburgh Garden Railway Society was preparing a layout that would be displayed during a three day Oktoberfest that was being held in a nearby town.  The theme was a circus and I thought the animated gymnast would fit right in.

In this article I will show you how to build the basic pendulum and then turn it into the swinging gymnast that is sure to add life to your layout!

Building Overview

Building the pendulum is fun and relatively easy.  I'll describe here how I built mine.  You can also see a similar design on the Internet at:

There is another description here:

that includes a wonderful explanation of how it works.  This is highly recommended reading, especially for those of you who will be tasked with explaining how it works to friends and visitors.

Four subsystems comprise the unit:

  1. A coil that goes directly under the pendulum

  2. An electronic circuit that senses the passing of the magnet on the pendulum and gives it a push each time it goes by

  3. A stand and horizontal bar to hold the pendulum

  4. The pendulum itself

The Coil

The coil is made up of several hundred feet of 28 gauge magnet wire that is wound on a plastic form.  Magnet wire is coated with a varnish or paint based insulation rather than the plastic insulation that we normally see on wire.  This allows more wire to be wound on a coil of a given size.

The form is made up of two 1 1/4" diameter disks of 3/32" Plexiglas and a 1/4" plastic core.

Cut the disks with a 1 1/2" hole saw


Back up the Plexiglas with wood when you cut out the disks.  A drill press makes the process much easier!

After the disks are cut a belt sander or a sheet of sandpaper can be used to clean up the edges.

Before gluing the disks drill two 1/16" holes in one of them.  The ends of the wire that make up the coil will pass through these holes.

Glue the disks to 1/4" plastic tubing.  Carefully align the disks on the tubing so that they are square and glue them with plastic glue such as Pro Weld.  The spacing between the disks should be close to 3/8" as shown here.

Winding the Coil

The coil can be wound by hand but it is much, much faster to do it with a motor.  I used a small DC motor that I found in my junk box.  Try to find a motor with a shaft that will fit tightly into the 1/4" plastic tubing at the center of the coil form.  I turned down the shaft on the motor shown here to get a proper fit.  If the shaft is too small you could build up the shaft diameter with pieces of brass or plastic tubing.

Here the motor is shown mounted in a small vise.  The coil form is mounted on the shaft.  Note that the 1/4" tubing extends from both sides of the coil form.  This makes it easier to wind the coil.  The section of tubing that extends from the disk without the 1/16" holes will be cut off when the coil is complete.

Push a 4" piece of the magnet wire through the inner hole that you drilled in one of the disks and wind it around the shaft.  Put a piece of tape around the shaft and onto the motor's shaft to hold the form to the motor. 

This is the motorized winding unit that was used to make the coil.  The motor is in the vise and the coil of magnet wire is on a shaft below it.  The motor is powered by a few AA cells wired in series.  Keep the voltage low enough so that you can stall the motor by holding back on the wire.

The video shows how quickly the coil can be wound.  Tension was kept on the wire as the coil form rotated. 

The first few rows were turned by hand then the power was turned on and the rest of the coil took form in short order.  It is very difficult to wind the coil perfectly when doing it by hand.  Just try to keep the winding as even as possible so that the maximum amount of wire is wound on the form. 

When the coil form was nearly full the power was turned off but the wire was kept under tension so that the newly wound coil and the  feed coil didn't unwind.

(right click the box below and select PLAY)

After the coil is wound cut the magnet wire a few inches from the coil and pull the end of the wire through the outer hole in the form.  Don't kink the wire and make sure that you keep the coil under tension until this is done or it will surely unwind itself.

Twist the two ends of the wire together and scrape or sandpaper the varnish off of the ends of each wire so that it can be soldered to stranded wire.  At this point I like to measure the resistance through the coil.  Put an ohm meter across the two leads.  The resistance should be about 10 ohms.  If it shows that the coil is open try removing more of the varnish from the wire.

The green and white wire is stranded and better able to take abuse.  It is soldered to the magnet wire and insulated by small pieces of heat shrink tubing.

Here is the completed coil.  Only the section of the 1/4" tubing that is on the side with the 1/16" holes remains.  The other end was cut off flush with the outer plastic disk.

The Circuit

The circuit uses a few common parts:

The schematic shows the connections between components. 

The simplest way to put the circuit together for testing is to use a prototyping board like the one shown here.

Radio Shack sells a similar board, # 276-003.  Make sure that the two transistors, the LED and the diode are oriented as shown.  The transistor's flat side goes towards the center of the board, the LED's flat side and the diode's band both go to the left.

Here is a photo of the wiring shown above.

Once everything is working properly the circuit can be soldered onto a piece of perfboard like Radio Shack's #267-1395. 

The bottom of the board holds most of the connections.

The Base and Horizontal Bar

The base for the test unit is made from plywood or MDF (medium density fiberboard) about 5" x 3" and the vertical sections are made from 1" x 12" x 1/8" wood strips.  The base should be fairly heavy to keep the unit from rocking as the pendulum swings.  A number of holes were drilled towards the top to accommodate different sized pendulums.

The horizontal bar is made from a 6" piece of 1/16" diameter piano wire.  It goes through holes in the wood uprights and securely supports the pendulum.  The silver pieces on each side of the top of the pendulum are stops that I got in the model airplane section of the local hobby shop.

The Pendulum

I made my pendulum from Plexiglas but it could be made from wood, brass or any other non-ferrous material.  Any convenient size can be used.  Mine is about 7" long.

I put small pieces of Plexiglas on either side of the top of of the pendulum to increase the area where the rod supports it thinking that it would wear more slowly.  It creates a bit more friction but seems to be worth doing.

The magnet is glued to the bottom of the Plexiglas pendulum.



The very bottom of the pendulum contains one or more rare earth magnets.  I have tried a number of different types of magnets and have found that all work but some work better than others.  Some of the best magnets for this project can be acquired for free.

If you have an old computer hard drive that is headed for the scrap pile take a few minutes to disassemble it and remove the magnet or magnets that are inside. 

They are used to move the read/write heads and can be found by the coil end of the movable heads. 

Remove the magnets from the "keepers" by gripping each end of the mount with pliers and bending down.  They will loosen and can easily be removed.

There are also a number of places on the Internet and on eBay that sell magnets.  I vendor that I have used and can recommend is


The unit will work well with any battery that supplies 3 to 4 volts.  I have tested it with 2 fresh alkaline AA cells (3 volts), 3 rechargeable NiMH cells (3.6 volts), a 2032 lithium watch battery and a 3.7 volt lithium ion battery from an old cell phone.  As you increase the voltage the swing of the pendulum will increase as well.  Just be careful not to exceed 5 volts as you reach a point of diminishing returns and there is a chance that the components will be damaged.


Place the pendulum arm, with magnet attached, on the horizontal rod.  Adjust the coil so that the magnet comes as close to it as possible without hitting.  Connect the coil and battery to the circuit board.  Make sure you observe polarity when connecting the battery.

Give the arm a little push and you should see the LED flash briefly each time the magnet crosses over the coil.  The arm should also start to swing more and more each time it swings.  Note that the video misses a good many of the LED flashes.  This is because the LED flashes for a few thousandths of a second and the frame rate of the video is not sufficient to catch them all.

(right click the box below and select PLAY)

If the LED does not light check the circuit for proper wiring and make sure the battery is supplying at least 3 volts.  Make sure that the diode, LED and transistors are oriented correctly.

If the pendulum swings back and forth you can try a few things to make it swing higher, even making 360 degree loops.

Gymnast Animation

Once you have gotten the basic pendulum to swing properly you can move on to making the gymnast animation.  The circuit and coil are identical.  Only the support system and the pendulum (gymnast) are changed.

I found a GI Joe figure at the local Dollar General store that has a number of important features that make it ideal for this project:

On the negative side it looks nothing like a gymnast but some paint can take care of that problem!

In order to decrease friction I decided to glue his hands to a piece of 3/32" brass tubing.  The tubing fits right over the piano wire and provides a very low friction support.


The magnet was glued to his feet and his joints were bent so that the feet were horizontal when it crosses over the coil.

The base of the gymnast's swing was made from a pretzel jar lid that sits atop an empty DVD / CD container. 

The black mark on the top of the CD container shows where the jar lid fits.  The material inside of that mark was removed to give access to the jar lid.

This photo shows how the top of the CD container was cut away.  Wood blocks were glued to the red lid.  The lid was drilled to support two 3/16" brass rods that will make up the vertical supports for the horizontal bar.

The rods are pushed through the holes in the lid and into the wood blocks below.  It may help to ream out the holes a bit so that the brass rods can be pushed in more easily.  Don't make them too tight as you have to be able to move them in and out of the holes to adjust the position of the gymnast.

Here the gymnast is supported by the horizontal bar.  The 3/32" brass rod between his hands goes over a piece 1/16" steel piano wire. 

The piano wire goes through 1/16" holes in the vertical brass rods.  To facilitate drilling a hole into round tubing a small area was ground flat before drilling.  To help reduce friction the outer hole in each vertical rod was drilled out to 3/32" so that the piano wire only contacts the inner hole.

The coil was glued to the bottom side of the lid. 

Here is the nearly completed gymnast during a test swing.

(right click the box below and select PLAY)

In this video he is joined by a properly painted team mate who has been adjusted and lubricated so that his swinging is much more energetic!  His other training secret is to add more magnets to his feet!

(right click the box below and select PLAY)

Give it a Try!

I have to say that this has been one of the most "fun" projects I have undertaken in some time.  More importantly it is something that visitors to our displays enjoy.  Give it a try and make sure you bring the bare bones version of the pendulum along so that you can use it to explain how it works!

Please let me know if you have any questions or need help.

Please click here for additional videos & a microcontroller based circuit