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Steampunk Kaleidoscope-How you can make one

Updated on September 21, 2010

I’m not going to answer the question “what is steampunk?” that’s a whole topic by itself; also I’m going to assume that you probably already know, that’s why you’re here. Incidentally “are you a steampunk” is also a separate topic as is “How do I know I’m a steampunk”. If you are a steampunk at heart, then I believe you will know it the instant you see photos of steampunks or steampunk devices.

OK, to business. This is not and never really could be a step by step “how to make a steampunk kaleidoscope”. “Why not?” you're probably asking. Because the very nature of the majority of steampunk devices and gadgets means that they were probably made partly from old parts of other objects. For example old clock parts (wind up clocks of course) By the way, sticking cogs on something doesn’t make it steampunk. That can earn you ridicule and the wrath of the steampunk gods. Though it might be acceptable to add cogs for embellishment if they at least look as though they do something.

A vague list of things you will need

Mirrors. You can use any type of mirror as long as you can cut it to size, so plate glass mirrors are not a good choice, “ordinary” mirror of about 3 mm thickness is ok but for the best, clearest image you need “front surface” or sometimes it’s called “first surface” mirror. If you doing this project with children you should be able to find some plastic mirror which will do the job.

Something to hold the mirrors, usually a tube of some sort, could even be cardboard or plastic, ideally you will be covering it with something to get the steampunk look, maybe wood or brass or thin copper sheet, which you should be able to get from craft stores. You could use leather. For more basic information on kaleidoscopes and mirrors go to About Kaleidoscopes

Parlour Kaleidoscope

Steampunk Kaleidoscope
Steampunk Kaleidoscope

Traditional kaleidoscope or parlour scope?

You can buy some pretty good basic kaleidoscope kits which would mean all you had to do after assembling it is “steam it up” to your hearts content.
If you’re making a traditional hand held kaleidoscope, the sort that you hold up to your eye like a telescope then you’re good to go.

If you want to make something more elaborate like a parlour scope then it needs to have a stand as well. The kaleidoscope is usually attached to the stand but you could make it removable, that might make things easier or more difficult, depending on your skill level and what materials you’ve collected to build it with. I’ve used Victorian brass candlesticks for stands, like the one in the picture on the right. But I’ve made the parts to join the kaleidoscope and stand together from brass strip and brass knobs. I can solder metal parts together, but bolting or screwing can work and there’s no shame in using glue, especially if no one can tell you used it.

If you make a parlour scope and particularly if you really decorate it with knobs, screws, cogs, whatever you can find then it might need a base to stop it from toppling over. I tend to make mine from scratch from wood. If you don’t have the wood or the necessary skills or tools, then flatter a family member, friend, or colleague, anyone who does have the skills and get them to help. Again you might find something in the craft stores which will do the job. I always stick some felt on the bottom of bases to protect furniture.

Stained glass kaleidoscope wheel
Stained glass kaleidoscope wheel

Kaleidoscope image wheel or chamber

A kaleidoscope needs something in front of the mirrors to make the pretty patterns that you see when you look through it. The traditional toy kaleidoscopes had a bottom tube or chamber which contained bits of coloured glass or plastic or beads. If you managed to get a kit that contains all you need then that’s a job done for you. Though you could change the contents of the chamber for things you’ve found, such as tiny watch parts or very tiny sea shells.

The alternate option is not a chamber but an image wheel. That’s exactly what it sounds like and is very common in modern hand made kaleidoscopes. It is literally a small wheel which rotates in front of the end of the mirror tube. Once again it’s possible to buy various types of wheel in kit form, and then you just have to attach it to your kaleidoscope.

You could make your own wheel from things glued onto a circle of plastic, as long as you can put a hole on the centre of the wheel and attach it to some sort of axle.

These are just guidlines as the pirate said.

I’m well aware that you might think this is all a bit vague but for those of us who consider ourselves to be steampunk craftsmen or tinkerers or builders, much of the pleasure we get is from finding ways to put odd stuff together to make something new, and in using whatever skills we have or in developing new ones. Some steampunks who make things are very skilled in metalwork; some are equally skilled in woodwork. Others are highly skilled at using plastics and glues but they make objects which look as if they’re made from old metal. Or the whole piece looks like an antique. I confess I spend lots of time just looking at old bits of brass and wood and wondering how I can fit them together.

So if you really want to make a steampunk kaleidoscope, have a go. Don’t worry if you’ve never done anything like it before, we all have to start somewhere. Don’t beat yourself about your lack of skills, start developing them now. Search the internet for images of steampunk gadgets and devices and use your imagination. Have some fun.

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