Make an Epic Cardboard Marble Machine

Marbles, Engineering, Popsicle Sticks
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How The Epic Marble Machine Was Built

If you are reading this, but haven't yet seen our cardboard marble machine, you should first take a look: Our Epic Cardboard Marble Machine.

This machine was enjoyable to build, and even though my two sons are a little young to help build it, they enjoyed watching it every step of the way. I will warn you; you need patience. Making a marble machine can be tedious at times. Just take it all like a challenge, and don't rush. In this post, we will talk in-depth about how we built our cardboard marble machine.

What Is Our Epic Marble Machine Is Made From?

We were inspired to build this machine because of our stash of cardboard tubes we have been collecting for a long time. Cardboard tubes are great for many reasons. They are free, and from an engineering point of view, cylinders are strong. Here is the full list of materials used for this project:

Cardboard Tubes: Collected from inside wrapping paper, cling wrap, bin liners, paper towel and toilet rolls. Some are super tough, and some were soft.

Flat Cardboard: We moved recently, and I used a couple of packing boxes. Most of the flat cardboard was used for the solid base.

Popsicle Sticks: Also known at paddle pop sticks. We bought a bulk pack of 1,000 for around $14. I used about half (From memory).

Glue: Hot Glue for the solid joints, super glue for finishing touches and craft glue for sticking broad cardboard sheets together. We used the cheapest super glue I could find. Pack of 6 small tubes for $1.80AUD, and we used about 18 tubes.

Nails: We didn't plan on using nails, but I was looking around the house for something to use as a hinge for the marble switch (toggle). I noticed the nails were perfect, so I used them. Only 1 type of nail was used for the whole project.

Motor for Lift: For the ball lift, I used a 5v DC motor I had for an Arduino car project. These are cheap, and I thought it was essential to build the marble lift to complete the project.

Marbles: I didn't have any marbles at home, so I went down to Kmart and got a bulk pack for $12. Bad move... It turned out; they are all slightly different sizes. I think for the next marble machine I will invest in some accurately sized marbles. Different sizes cause consistency problems.

Building Process Overview

We will go into a lot of detail for each section below, but I wanted to give you an overview of the building process we used. We did not have a plan for this marble machine. We had a rough idea and just built one section at a time.

The first thing we wanted to build was a basic frame, followed by the marble collect point (end of the run) and the marble lift. This gave us the basic overall framework. Once we had a place where the marbles started and ended, it was just a matter of building modules, placing them in a good spot, and getting the marbles to and from each module.

Here is a photo of our completed mainframe:

Epic Cardboard Marble Machine Build Base

DIY Cardboard Marble Machine Building Tips

Building your marble machine from recycled cardboard is very fun and rewarding. But it can be tedious and frustrating at times. Here are our tips for building your cardboard tube marble machine:

1) Don't Be in a Rush

Take your time, slow down, and just chip away at it. This type of marble machine takes many days to build. Just focus on the section you are building, make sure it works 100% before moving on to the next. If you rush, you will end up with marbles falling all over the place when you finish.

2) Build a Starting Point & End Point First

This is not a hard and fast rule, but just a tip from us to you. Once we had the endpoint for the marbles and the starting point, it made sense and made it easy to build the other components.

3) Slow Down The Marbles

I have seen plenty of marble machines on the internet, and one thing I wanted to do on our machine was to slow down the marbles. No need to have the cardboard tubes at 45 degrees and rush the marble through. Just tilt it enough to keep the marble moving. This way, each run lasts a lot longer and is more satisfying, in my opinion.

4) Different Glue for Different Jobs

Probably more common sense, but I thought I would share. We used three types of glue. Craft glue, hot glue and super glue. Craft glue was used to stick broad sheets of cardboard. Hot glue was for really strong bulky joints, and super glue was used for the finer details. If you just used hot glue, especially for the finer jobs, it will end up messy. The superglue we used was really cheap and very strong. Not to mention far less messy.

5) Build Separate Components

Once we had the mainframe setup, we started building the major components. We looked where we wanted them to go, and what size they should be, and then built them on our building table. Once it was complete, we then attached it to the marble machine. We did not build them directly on the marble machine. This was a straightforward way to do it.

6) Use A Level Surface

Just make sure you keep a level surface when you make this. If it is eleven, when you move it around, you might discover marbles going in the wrong direction, or not balancing correctly.

7) Test, Test, Test

You can't test enough. You need to test each component and see if/where it fails. If it fails, you can adjust. Stick on an extra popsicle stick, glue it on a better angle, do whatever you need to do. Also, if it only fails one in ten times, that's not good and needs to be fixed. You want it to work 99% of the time. Any more, and you will get frustrated when the whole thing runs at the same time.

Build Photos

Here are some photos from the epic marble machine build. There are quite a few, and I will explain a little about each one. They are in build order, so you get to see it as it goes along.

5 Layer Cardboard Base

This is the solid five layer base we made. Glued together with craft glue. Once dry, we cut it neatly and taped the edges with packing tape to stop any tears.

Cardboard Marble Machine DIY Base Glued

Cardboard Base Finished

Marble Collection Point

Because we were building a lift, we needed all of the marbles to end in the same place. We built a typical marble machine round dish out of a Manila folder and when the marbles fell through they rolled down into a rear channel.

Marble Collection Point - Cardboard & Popsicle Stick

Cardboard Marble Run UFO Dish

Structural Uprights

We used five wrapping paper tubes as the structural uprights for this DIY marble project. They were evenly spaced, three at the back, and two at the front. We glued them with plenty of hot glue. We squirted plenty of glue inside the tube holding it horizontal, then tipped it up quickly to place them. The hot glue then ran down the inside to make a good connection. Then we placed a neat bead of hot glue around the outside. We wanted these very strong.

Cardboard Tubes to Make Marble Machine

Gluing the Cardboard Uprights for the Epic Marble Machine

Marble Lift Construction

We made a fairly typical marble lift out of cardboard. The spiral is another wrapping paper tube wrapped with 1cm strips of cardboard. The concept is that the spiral turns, but the marbles can't turn with it, so they get forced upwards. Our cylinder has a cog at the top because the motor turned to fast directly attached.

Making the Cardboard Marble Lift

Cog for Cardboard Marble Machine Lift

Marble In Epic Marble Lift

Marble Lift Motor & Connection

We had a 5v DC motor from an old Arduino car project and decided to use it for the lift. It was a bit noisy, but it is all we had. We added it to the top and used a cog to connect it to the spiral shaft. The cog was used to slow the speed and increase torque. We ran the wire for the motor down the rear upright out the bottom and to the rear for the connection to the ac adaptor.

5v Motor for Cardboard Tube Marble Lift

Motor and Cog on Marble Machine Lift

Powering the Marble Lift

Making the Tumblers Module

The first main module we built was the tumblers. The marble would fall in the top on the first one, then tip into each other all the way down. Easy to make, just need to ensure the bottom weight slightly more than the top, but when the marble is in it, the top weighs more and causes it to tip. We used inserts in the base to increase weight without making them too long.

Tumblers for Cardboard Marble Machine

Weight for the Cardboard Tumbler

Tumblers Added to Main Machine

Building the Bed of Nails

Next was the Bed of Nails. We wanted a collection of marbles to fall through a bed of nails for visual and sound excitement. So we built this bed of nails. Just a piece of flat cardboard with nails spread evenly apart. We superglued them on the front, and hot glued them on the back. They needed to be strong because they were going to take a pounding. Installed on an angle, all we needed was a tipper at the top and a collection tube at the bottom. Both were introduced after the bed of nails was in place.

Bed of Nails Marble Machine DIY

Bed of Nails Underside

Bed of Nails Installed on Marble Machine

Building the 4 Ball Tipper Mechanism

At the top of the bed of nails, we wanted a tipper. It was to collect three marbles, and on the 4th it would tip over. We used the upright as the pivot point and made the structure out of popsicle sticks. Just make sure the back weight more than three marbles and less than four. Saying that you can decide the number of marbles you want to tip. All we needed to do was build a channel later on that put the balls onto the mechanism.

Marble Machine 4 Ball Tipper

Open Face & Design on Tube

Got a bit fancy here. This tube is front-facing, so we decided to make it a little bit fancy by cutting a design into it. It is to carry marbles from one side of the machine into the tumblers. On the right side, we decided to put in place a weighted arm. A marble will enter it from the left; it would drop, and send the marble back out the left side toward the tumblers.

Design Cut into Cardboard Tube

Design on Tube for Marble Machine

Tipper on Tube for DIY Marble Run

Top Switch/Toggle

As the marbles exit the marble lift, we wanted to split them in two different directions. We did this with a small switch/toggle. It is in the shape of an upside-down T. When a marble hits the bottom of one side, it tilts the top over, and forces the next marble to take the opposite side. Easy to make and very effective.

Marble Machine Ball Switch

Builting the Corner Module With Splitter

At the top of the right section, I wanted to create a visually pleasing 90-degree marble run where the marbles ran against the cardboard. I also wanted to build another splitter in this so that I can split up the marbles again. This will be the only splitter on this side of the machine. So, with this being the second splitter in the line, the output will be 25% of the marbles each side.

90 Degree Marble Run Machine

DIY Marble Machine Ball Splitter Toggle

Connecting The Right Side Modules Together

By now, we had the major modules in place, and we just needed to connect them. I just tried to come up with unique ways to get the marbles to the correct section. One of the runs needed to get from the 90-degree board to the weighted arm for the tumblers, and the other from the 90-degree board to the bed of nails tipper. We made a zig-zag board for one side, and a toilet roll windmill for the other. They could be anything; it didn't matter; it just had to get the marbles to the next module while looking interesting and unique. One photo I wanted to include was us making the windmill. We tried to be neat and accurate. We used the cutting board measurements to be accurate.

Connecting Modules for the Epic Marble Machine

Zig Zag Run for Cardboard Marble Machine

Finished Right Run for Marble Machine

Windmill for Marble Run 1

Right Side Completed

That concluded 50% of our epic marble machine. I could drop marbles from the top on the right side of the splitter, and they would take one of two ball runs to the bottom. They worked really well, and we were pleased.

Half of the Marble Machine Done

Popsicle Stick Track & Splitter

Now we start the left side. We made a simple 3 tier track out of popsicle sticks and at the end, we put in the left side-splitter. This is our last splitter and the second for this side. That means there is a total of 4 separate runs with 25% of the marbles each. Once this section was in place, we had just two runs to complete.

Making the Popsicle Stick Marble Tracks

Popsicle Stick Track and Splitter Installed

Making the Speed Ramp

We wanted a high-speed section for the marble machine, so we went with the speed ramp. Two tracks of popsicle sticks joined at the bottom by a curved popsicle stick. We curved the popsicle stick by soaking it in water overnight and then bending it around a bottle holding it in place with a rubber band until it dried. Where the tracks meet, we wanted to make it smooth, so we cut out small triangles, glued them, and sanded them flat. In hindsight, I should have cut the round ends off. When you join the tracks to the curve, be careful to ensure a smooth transition from the track to the curve. When this speed ramp is in action, the marble goes from side to side until it loses momentum and falls off the track at the bottom.

Speed Ramp Bent Popsicle Stick

Smoothing Out the Marble Machine Speed Ramp

Marble Machine Speed Ramp Installed

Building the Slalom Section

The slalom section is the only module that we built on the machine. The reason is that each half pipe is connected directly onto a supporting upright. We made the end curves on the building table, and then we installed one halfpipe and one end piece at a time ensuring they lined up perfectly.

Speed Slalom End Pieces for Cardboard Marble Machine

Slalom Run for Marble Machine

The Snake Tube

We wanted something visually interesting to get the marbles from the speed slalom to the bottom tube, to we made the snake tube. We cut a tube into small rings and glued them together. The marbles treat them like steps, and it looks amazing.

Cutting Tube Rings for Cardboard Marble Machine

Building the Cardboard Snake Tube

Finishing Touches

The machine was lacking some design, so we decided to put our logo on the top. This took a very long time. I cut each letter from cardboard matching our logo and then coloured it just as our logo appears. I think it finished it off quite nicely.

Making the STEM Mayhem Sigh for the Marble Machine

Cardboard and Popsicle Stick Marble Machine Sign

The Completed Epic Cardboard Marble Machine

This was the finished product before any final testing. You will probably see a few small changes between this photo and the finished video. Usually, an extra popsicle stick added here and there. This is because there were a few loose marbles in final testing, and these needed to be fixed.

The Finished Marble Machine - Epic Cardboard Marble Machine

Fantastic. Great job. Gave me some great ideas. Thanks for the detailed explanation and photos.
hi I am doing a school project and I tried to make the marble funnel thing but it just didn't stay on the funnel and go round and round like yours do. Instead, after one turn it fell through the whole. The purpose of our marble run is to make it last the longest time so that isn't helpful. Could you please explain in detail how you made it. If you can please do asap as I need it done by tonight.
STEM Mayhem
Hi Alex. There are a couple of things you could try to make the funnel last longer. Firstly, the angle of the walls, make sure they are not steep, make them as flat as possible. Secondly, the angle the ball enters the funnel. Make sure it enters in the direction you want the marble to travel and at the top of the funnel. One more thing, the ball should be going at the correct speed when it enters the funnel. Too slow, and it will just roll to the bottom. Good luck!

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