Sunday, September 21, 2008

How to make a kaleidoscope

The Great Philosophical Toy

(originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, September 19, 2008)

The word “Kaleidoscope” is based on three words from ancient Greek: 'Kalos' meaning beautiful, 'Eidos' meaning form and 'Scopos' meaning watcher. So a kaleidoscope is a “beautiful form watcher.” Patented by a Scotsman, Sir David Brewster, in 1816, kaleidoscopes were instantly successful in London and Paris. Early fans called it “the great philosophical toy,” alluding to its metaphorical qualities.

I own three inexpensive kaleidoscopes, each with its own distinctive, ever-changing view. One is filled with multicolored plastic beads of various shapes which tumble around against a plastic stained-glass-like background. As you turn the barrel, colorful patterns burst like a 4th of July sky.

The second (technically a teleidoscope) is constructed simply from three mirrored strips with a clear marble at the end. It fractures the world around you into unrecognizable triangular patterns--even pointing it at this computer screen creates fascinating geometric images.

The third—my favorite—has tiny Leonardo da Vinci-like silhouettes of male figures, which click-clack about as you turn the barrel to create intriguing new body shapes from reassembled heads, limbs, and torsos.

Clearly, the kaleidoscope achieves its “beautiful philosophical forms” by a variety of means. And, although high-end parlor scopes can cost thousands of dollars, a toy scope can be made simply with amazing results.

Using the only two how-to books I could find on the subject--“The Kaleidoscope Book” edited by Thom Boswell and “Simple Kaleidoscopes” by Gary Newlin—I made several scopes using inexpensive and recycled materials. Jackie Marr, owner of Kiss My Glass on 7th Avenue in Santa Cruz, also graciously brainstormed with me one afternoon and offered some creative solutions and materials. (See Jackie for mirrors, cutting tools, copper tape, and glass.)

I had trouble breaking away from making kaleidoscopes to write about making them because I never felt finished. I just wanted to keep on experimenting with different mirror sizes, angles, and numbers; different constructions; and different items to view. (Note on mirrors: first surface mirrors are best for kaleidoscopes and can be ordered, but are more expensive. For a box of six inexpensive mirror tiles, try Home Depot.) Here are two novice projects to get you started.

Pringles Scope

What you need:

2 Potato-chip canisters with plastic caps

Mirrored paper, 3 pieces cut to 2” x 8 7/8” each (look in the scrapbooking section of a craft store)

Can opener

Plastic milk container

Packing peanuts or bubble-wrap

Electrical tape

Scissors, craft knife, clear-drying glue, ruler, fine-tip Sharpie

Clear packaging plastic (pre-packaged produce comes in these recyclable containers—look for ones with large flat areas)

Basically, you are constructing an eyepiece, a mirror system, and an object chamber. The canister holds the mirror system in place and makes the whole construction sturdier.

  • To make the eyepiece, cut a dime-sized hole in the center of one plastic cap.
  • To make the mirror system, tape the three pieces of mirrored paper together with tape so that they will bend into a triangular tube.
  • To make the object chamber, carefully cut two circular pieces from plastic. The clear plastic circle should fit inside the canister. The translucent plastic circle should fit inside the plastic end cap.
  • To assemble the kaleidoscope, attach the eyepiece to the bottom of the canister after removing the metal end with a can opener (add electrical tape to get a tighter fit). Insert the mirror system into the canister and pad with Styrofoam bits or bubble wrap. Drop the clear plastic circle into the canister to rest on the end of the mirrors. Fill the object chamber with flat, colorful items and attach the end cap. If desired, cover the outside of the scope with paper and other decorations. Rotate the kaleidoscope to view.

To see photos of this assembly, go to When it calls for butyrate plastic, use mirrored paper and/or any clear plastic thin enough to cut with scissors.

PVC Scope #1

What you need:

Double strength mirror, 3 pieces each 1/8” x 9” long (use a ruler and glass cutter to score and running pliers to break; or get a shop or experienced friend to do the cutting for you)

PVC pipe, 1 ½” diameter, 9” long

PVC end cap, 1 ½ diameter

PVC female adapter with threaded end, 1 ½ diameter

Hacksaw and file

Drill with bits

Last four items listed above for Pringles scope

  • To make the eyepiece, drill a hole in the center of the end cap using a 1/8” drill bit, and then a 5/16” bit.
  • To make the mirror system, tape the three pieces of mirrored paper together with tape so that they will bend into a triangular tube.
  • To make the object chamber, carefully cut two circular pieces from clear plastic to fit inside the female adapter pipe. Glue one to the threaded end of the female adapter piece on top of the outermost thread. The second piece will be placed inside the threaded piece, to rest on the rim of the innermost thread,
  • To make the body, cut the PVC pipe to length with a hacksaw, and file the edges smooth.
  • To assemble the kaleidoscope, insert one end of the PVC pipe into the eye piece. Insert the mirror system into and pad with Styrofoam bits or bubble wrap. Fill the object chamber 2/3 full with colorful items and attach the end cap. Drop the clear plastic circle into the object chamber. Insert the PVC pipe into the chamber. Rotate the end cap to view.

Possible items for the object chamber include broken colored glass or plastic, broken windshields, beads, die-cut shapes, marbles, ball bearings, seashells, paperclips, sequins, flowers or insects. Take a walk down a well-traveled country road, keep your eyes on the ground and you’ll have a pocket full of objects to use by the end of your walk.

For a YouTube video on making a PVC pipe kaleidoscope, go to:

To see where making kaleidoscopes can take you, visit to view the wares of this international kaleidoscope society’s members.

Kaleidoscope Group (1st photo): These are the four kaleidoscopes I made: Pringles Scope (dark green), Tapered Scope (red), PVC Scope #1 (white) with chamber, and PVC Scope #2 (blue) with interchangeable wheels. PVC Scope #2 is a variation on PVC Scope #1. Use spray paint to coat the PVC pipe and copper tape to attach a glass lens as the eye piece. Use two mirrors with black mat board on the third side, cut at a narrower width. Add a glass rod to the body while stuffing. Cut two round pieces of clear plastic 4” in diameter, and drill a hole in the center of each to fit snuggly on the glass rod. Glue objects to each piece of plastic and spin the discs on rod to view.

Three kaleidoscope views (2nd, 3rd and 4th photos): All viewed through the PVC Scopes, using: found items in an object chamber (PVC Scope #1); flower petals glued between a sandwich of clear plastic to make a wheel (PVC Scope #2); plastic items glued to a plastic wheel (PVC Scope #2).

Two more kaleidoscope views (5th and 6th photos): Objects viewed through PVC Scope #1 and through a tapered scope.