Automata Autopsy: In-Depth with Dug North's Kinetic Sculptures

By Wesley Fenlon

After seeing his automata at World Maker Faire, we asked Dug to tell us more about the wood, tools and techniques he uses to build each mechanical sculpture.

The minotaur strains against the tiny chains binding his wrists, rhythmically surging forward and falling back, desperate to break free of his shackles. He'll never make it. Mekanikos, the strongest man alive, is there to pull him back. With one foot planted on the ground, he yanks on a thick rope bound to the minotaur's waist and wrenches his entire body downwards to keep the monster at bay.

But beneath the stage where Mekanikos and the minotaur endlessly struggle lurk a pair of craftsmen: one chipping away at a replica of the minotaur's wooden head, the other manipulating an elaborate set of gears that brings the strongman-versus-beast struggle to life. Or so it appears. In reality, a hand crank jutting from the side of Dug North's "Mekanikos vs. the Minotaur" makes the elaborate scene come to life, and the workers hiding below the stage add a meta layer of storytelling to the intricate automaton.

The scene-within-a-scene design of "Mekanikos vs. the Minotaur" made it an ideal centerpiece for Dug North at World Maker Faire. The struggling minotaur is an instant attention-grabber, but the workers below the stage reveal the inner workings of North's most complex piece to date.

"[Mekanikos vs. the Minotaur] started off as just the monster, and then I added the strongman, and then a whole second scene below the stage," North told us in an interview at Maker Faire. "I'll start with a sketch and then I'll work in 2D, using say cardboard and paper and thumbtacks. I'll work out the proportions of where does this strongman need to be, how do his joints move? I work that out in two dimensions on paper and take that to three dimensions when carving or making the mechanisms."

After North talked us through the modern automata scene, we wanted to delve deeper into the work that goes into each of his sculptures. Here's what he had to say on graduating from signmaker to kinetic sculptor, using wood (and as little glue as possible) in his automata, and the prospect of producing more than one of each painstakingly crafted automaton.

"I had some woodworking experience before starting to do this, I was a sign maker for a while, I made small bits of furniture," said North. "I grew up in Vermont so I was familiar with woodworking. I knew nothing about mechanics. I knew nothing about machines. So that's where the education, where I've learned the most.

I've always been fascinated by how things work. As a kid I didn't have the patience or the guidance to really learn. As an adult it kind of clicked one day, 'Oh wait, I can learn if I want to.' So I was inspired by a group of artists in the UK called the Cabaret Mechanical Theater. I saw one of their pieces online and realized it was something I could do, or at least I wanted to try. So I started right away."

How does a woodworker learn to make automata, which require gears and mechanisms?

"Books and websites. My library and reading are entirely non-fiction. Mechanical toys are an amazing source for learning about mechanisms. I've also learned a lot by studying what other automata makers have done. I try to keep my eyes open everywhere I go. Any mechanical thing out there in the world can be incorporated into an automaton somehow -- it just takes a bit of lateral thinking. For the last two years, I've been writing a quarterly column about automata-making for the Cabaret Mechanical Theatre blog. Trying to teach others how to do something truly is educational for the instructor!"

Learning how to put together an automaton is the next step, and it's one North has an interesting approach to: Relying on friction rather than glue.

"[I use] Friction when I can get away with it. Screws when I can get away with it....There's a fair amount of glue. I try to avoid it as much as possible because it's a fact of like that a machine is going to wear and you're going to have to take it apart to tweak it, fix it, replace stuff. And if everything's glued together solid, unless you use something like a hide glue that can be softened and taken apart again, glue is asking for a lot of headaches. I do use it, but try to use it sparingly.

The box that forms the structure of [Mekanikos vs. the Minotaur] is not glued at this point. Dowels, the friction of the dowel joints [holds it together]."

As North mentioned in our video interview, he prefers the feel and charm of a wooden machine to metal, which many people expect automata to be crafted from. North uses a variety of woods in his projects, all of which have their own specific advantages.

"Basswood is a knot-free wood with a light, even color. Though it is technically a hardwood, it is actually fairly soft. These characteristics make it ideal for carving. It's soft enough to cut with a knife, but hard enough that the fibers don't crush under the pressure of the blade. The light color and absence of knots means you can paint it or stain it. Staining allows the wood to show through the pigment. I think this gives a carving a nice vintage feel.

As you know, balsa is very light. I've used it in a few very specific applications where weight was a factor. As an example, my piece Christmas: The Pre-Reindeer Era features Santa Claus flying by flapping his arms. His bag of toys is tied to his leg and trails behind him. Only a thin wire holds that bag up. The bag must be very light so that it doesn't bend the wire or apply too much torque to the spot where it attaches to the Santa figure.

I used aspen most recently in a piece that I designed for a magazine article showing how to make a wood automaton (theGizmos & Gadgets special issue from the publishers of Scroll Saw & Woodworking Crafts magazine). I knew the magazine would have readers from all over the country, so I wanted to choose a wood that wasn't expensive or hard to find. I discovered that one of the big-box home improvement stores sells aspen boards in a variety of sizes. I constructed the bulk of the automaton from two board thicknesses (1/2" and 1/4"). It was my goal to reduce the number of different materials that someone building the project would need to obtain.

Cherry is a favorite of mine. I use it for the box-like structures that hold the mechanism and for the mechanical components themselves. The rich reddish-brown wood is often used for fine furniture. I think it makes nice looking boxes too. It is a fine, closed grained hardwood that is fairly stable dimensionally with changes in humidity. It was used extensively by the New England clock makers of the 1800s for clocks with wooden works. I didn't learn this until after I had already made several automata! If it's good enough for a clock's time train, it is good enough for an automaton's mechanism.

Plywood is both strong and very dimensionally stable. The alternating layers even out the expansion and contraction caused by humidity. It is a very good choice for wooden mechanisms. Baltic birch plywood is especially good. It is built up from many thin layers, so it is strong and there are no voids in the wood. I had never heard of the stuff before starting to make automata.

I recently discovered that the bamboo slats used for some window shades make good small-scale floor boards. That's what I've used for the stage on Mekanikos vs. The Minotaur.

I have yet to use it, but I am very intrigued by a wood called lignum vitae. It is among the densest of all woods. It sinks in water! It also contains oils that make it self-lubricating. It's been used for all sorts of unlikely things from billy clubs to submarines. I became fascinated with it when I read that John Harrison used it for the bearings in some of his marine chronometers -- the first clocks capable of telling time reliably while on a ship at sea."

North had good advice for any aspiring carvers (or kinetic sculptors): Quality tools are essential.

"First, don't buy cheap hand tools. They suck and worse, they will trick you into thinking that you suck. Second, use sharp carving tools. Learn to sharpen them or carve with blades that can be replaced. Don't get caught up in the religious wars about which method of sharpening is "the best". Just pick one that looks good to you, master it, and make sure you don't neglect stropping as part of the process.

When it comes to hand-carving tools, I use a variety but tend to keep the standard carving knife in my hand 80% of the time. Mine is a Butz carving knife made in Germany. I use a few Swiss-made palm handled gouges and veiners. I also really like the micro carving tool sets made by Dockyard. You can get all of these things online at Woodcraft.com.

For cutting curves, the bandsaw is my favorite saw. Mine isn't anything special -- an inexpensive Delta benchtop model. With everything adjusted properly, a good quality blade, and aftermarket blade guides installed, it cuts well. For straight cuts, I bought a miniature table saw. When working on small-scale projects, a full-size table saw feels like a dangerous amount of overkill. My little saw was ordered from Micro-mark, but I believe it's actually made by Proxxon. It's about as big as a toaster oven, but it can cut 3/4" hardwood. You can get standard, carbide, slitting, abrasive and even diamond blades for it. It's pricey, but worth every penny.

North doesn't make enough money off his automata to work on them full time--at least not yet. So far all of his pieces have been one-of-a-kind, but he hopes to one day produce limited runs of creations like Mekanikos vs. the Minotaur.

I would still make them by hand for the most part. I would be able to do some simple things to improve efficiency. For example, I could stack up pieces of wood and cut several identical cams at once. A lot of time is spent setting up for a cut--getting organized, changing the blade, adjusting a fence, making a jig. Once a machine is set up to cut one piece properly, it only takes a few minutes more to cut another nine pieces. Have you ever noticed that when you have to make three of something, it's usually on the third one that you've worked out the kinks? If you were to make ten total, at least you would have an easy time of the last six.

If I really planned ahead, I could start establishing some standards of my own. For example, I could choose a specific diametral pitch for the pin wheels I use in place of gears and use it every time. That way, I might build up a stock of different sized pin wheels that would all work together."

While North's automata aren't all as intricate as Mekanikos, they're still major undertakings. The minotaur has been a work in progress for years. North doesn't even know how many hours it took to complete.

"I wish I knew! That automaton has been an off-and-on project for several years. Certainly I have many hundreds of hours in it by now. It's particularly hard for me to estimate how the time breaks down because I tend to bounce back and forth between the characters and the mechanism. I would say that more time goes into the mechanism than into the figures and scenery. This estimate could be biased though because I find carving to be kind of meditative. I can really lose track of time."

North catalogs his kinetic sculptures on his website and runs a separate blog dedicated to automata of all kinds. Check out some of the other creations he mentioned, like magician Machini the Marvel in "The Study of Levitations."