How to Build / Make Mobiles / Kinetic Sculptures
I’m a kinetic sculptor specializing in mobiles. I get an e-mail once in a while wanting to know how to make mobiles which prompted me to write up this page. It explains some of the basics about balance. It’s really simple. It’s all about physics. Look through the following four illustrations, then read the rest below.
Part A weighs the same as part B – Balance point is right in the middle:
Part A weighs more than part B – Balance point moves closer to part A, the heavier part:
The following illustration might look complex, but it’s really the exact same idea. All those lower parts count as just one part when it comes to the balance of the top part, it’s only about the balance between part A and part B:
And then it just goes on like that to the next level of the mobile:
The trick is that you build the mobile from bottom to top. Find the balance point between the bottom two elements. Then you add the next element on top of that and find the balance point between the new element and the first two elements and so on. Don’t weigh the parts or anything to make sure it balances. Just find the point by balancing it on your finger, or if you want to be exact, tie a string around it and move it back and forth until it balances.
Anything goes from here. Use whatever you want for weights or to connect the pieces. The possibilities are infinite.
Oh, here’s something else to consider:
There’s a balance point and a center of the mass (weight) of the object. If the center of mass of the object is above the balance point (meaning the majority of the weight is above the balance point), the object will fall over. If the center of mass of the object is below the balance point, it will balance. The farther below the balance point the center of mass is, the more stable is the balance. So by making the parts of a mobile curved downwards, you lower the center of mass, and therefore making it more stable and easier to balance. Also see my blog post Balance – Suspension Points and the Centers of Mass in Abstract Mobile Sculptures and there’s also a Wikipedia page about the center of mass that explains more about this.
You can also use “sliders” to build flexibility into your mobile designs. Using sliders to adjust the balance points on a mobile allows for experimentation with design options and reduces the chance of wasted materials. Also take a look at the micro-adjustment sliders that Jay Jones developed for his line of “Build it Yourself” Mobile Kits. He tested over 30 materials and configurations before arriving at the one used. The kits are also available at MoMA NYC, MoMA SF, Guggenheim NYC, Smithsonian and about 100+ museum shops and galleries.
Additional resources for making mobiles:
- Blog post I wrote about What Wire to Use to Make a Hanging Mobile and Where to Buy It
- Blog post with mobile-making related questions that I’ve received via email and my answers
- An article I wrote for MAKE magazine on How to Make a Mobile Based on Calder’s Mobiles
- An article I wrote for Houzz: From the Artist: How to Make a Real Mobile – It’s All in the Balancing Points (there’s a number of questions and answers in the comment section of the article as well). The article is now also available in German
- A history of early mobiles that I’ve put together
- Some technical (“behind-the-scenes”) aspects of designing, making and installing a large custom mobile
- A definition of mobiles
- Q&A about Mobiles for a middle school student’s math class project
- See some of my mobiles if you’re looking for design ideas: handmade mobiles, large custom-made mobiles, 3D printed mobiles and kinetic sculptures
If there’s anything else I can help with, don’t hesitate to contact me.
And just for fun, here’s Alexander Calder‘s answer when he was asked how he gets that subtle balance in his work: “You put a disk here and then you put another disk that is a triangle at the other end and then you balance them on your finger and keep on adding. I don’t use rectangles––they stop. You can use them; I have at times but only when I want to block, to constipate movement.”
A diagram by Alexander Calder on how to install one of his mobiles at the IMA in 1947: