Building a Wimshurst Machine – Part 1.

April 19th, 2008

The Wimshurst machine project (or my great device as I like to call it) came about as I needed something to make at my metalwork night class that I go to to get access to the lathes and mill since I am not lucky enough to own these myself (yet). The project has a fair bit of machining in it allowing me to keep practicing my skills on the machine tools. I am also able to make a lot of it in my shed by improvising with the tools I do have.

Part two is now available here:

A Wimshurst machine is a device for generating static electricity. Basically you use it to make sparks. Big sparks! Also I just love how they look. They have a very old fashioned scientific look to them and they look fantastic when they are running due to their main feature, two large contra-rotating discs with foil sectors on them. What is also fascinating is the device is totally mechanical. You need no batteries or power supplies. It is hand cranked and will generate electricity seemingly out of thin air!

I decided to make my machine fairly large (I like BIG sparks) so I chose a disc size of 500mm. Initially I had two glass discs made up this size. Once I got them though I quickly realised glass was not a good idea!

1. Glass is very heavy.

2. There is no easy way to attach the hubs to the center of the discs.

3. Glass is somewhat hygroscopic. It will absorb moisture from the air.

The third point is rather important. To successfully generate static electricity you need dry air.  Any moisture around will limit the amount of charge you can build up.

So instead of glass I went and got two sheets of clear acrylic 5mm thick and large enough to make 500mm discs from.  The glass discs won’t be wasted however as I will need something to sit the machine on when it is finished and I will use the glass to make a small table.

When I was at the plastics place I found a length of 50mm diameter nylon rod lying on the floor. I picked it up and asked how much it would be and the chap said it was an off cut and I could have that for free. That turned out to be the perfect thing to make the hubs from.

20080412_0254_1 The starting materials. Acrylic sheet and nylon rod. The clear acrylic has brown protective paper.

I needed to turn my square acrylic sheet into circular discs. First I marked the center of each sheet then I drilled a 6mm hole thorough each one. This hole is where the axle will run through on the finished machine and it allows me to fit the sheet onto my circle cutting jig.

20080412_0258_1 Circle cutting jig.

To cut the circles I use a jig I made. Basically it is a flat board with a bolt through the middle of it acting as a pivot point. The sheet is put over this board with the pivot protruding up through the center of it. I then use a plunge router with a cutting bit that I attached to another flat piece of wood. At one end is attached the router. Along the board are various holes. Each hole is a certain radius away from the cutting tool. You select the correct hole, insert that over the pivot and then using the router you can cut an accurate circle to just the diameter you require.

20080412_0261_1 Discs cut to 500mm diameter.

One I had the two discs cut out I was able to begin on the supports that will hold the discs in position. I decided to make these from thick plastic sheet. A nice, cheap source of such sheet is plastic chopping board. It is easy to work with and nice and flat.

20080413_0274_1 More materials including the plastic chopping board.

To accurately cut the board I again turned to my router with which I could machine the edges of the plastic to be nice and square. I first made a thin wooden template the shape of the supports I wanted to make.

20080412_0265_1 Wooden template from thin MDF.

Next I traced around the template onto the chopping board. I then cut around the template outline with a jig saw. This only needs to be done roughly but you want to me close to the edge so when you are routing the edges of the board there isn’t too much plastic to cut away. When routing everything the cutting bit cuts turns into plastic saw dust and you end up with the stuff everywhere so it is a good idea to try to minimise this.

20080413_0278_1 Template firmly screwed to the chopping board which extends past it a few mm all around.

I screwed the template to the cut out chopping board so that the plastic extends past the template by a few mm all around. Next I made  another jig for my router. This time I attached the router from underneath the board (I used scrap acrylic sheet as it is nice and smooth) so that the cutting bit protrudes up. I used a bit that has on it’s tip a small bearing. This is intended to be used as a guide when routing along edges. What I did was set the height of the cutting bit so that the bearing would run along the edge of my wooden template and the cutting tool would only cut the plastic underneath it.

20080413_0283_1 Cutting against the bit and the bearing guide wheel.

You then start the router and simply (but carefully) rung the template around the cutting bit so that the bearing rolls along the side of the template. The plastic will then be cut by the bit to exactly the same shape as the template. I also used the template to accurately position the holes I was going to drill in the supports. The holes are mainly decorative except for the bottom middle hole which will contain the bearings that the crank shaft will run though.

20080413_0285_1 Cut out supports with guide holes drilled in them.

Once the supports were cut out I again used the router and a larger bit to cut the large holes in the supports. As it happens the bit I used is the same diameter as the bearing I am using on the machine. Both the hubs and the crank shaft will contain bearings to ensure smooth running. I use skateboard bearings as they are cheap and easy to get and they will take a 8mm shaft.

20080413_0287_1 Routing out larger holes.

With the supports mostly done (I still need to make cross bracing pieces and drill holes to allow fixing to the base of the machine) I started on the hubs. These I machined from the nylon rod at my night class where I have access to a lathe and mill. The hubs are simply short sections of the rod with the ends faced smooth and a large hole 22mm diameter bored ALMOST all the way through. One side of the hub has a 9mm hole that the 8mm shaft can pass through. The larger hole diameter on the other side is such that the bearings can slide down into the hub. Each hub contains two bearings. The first is slide down into the hole, next a compression spring is added and finally the last bearing. Three equally spaces holes were drilled using a rotary head on the mill and the holes were tapped for a 5mm screw. Matching holes were drilled in each of the acrylic discs so the disc can be screwed to the hub. When the disc is screwed to the hub (using countersunk screws so the heads are flush with the surface) the spring is compressed forcing the two bearings apart. One against the inside of the hub and the other against the disc. This allows maximum separation of the bearings on the shaft providing better support.There is also a belt groove machined onto the outside of each hub which will be how the hubs are driven from the crank shaft.

20080415_0301 Lathe machined nylon hubs to contain the bearings.

Once the hubs were done I started on the foil sectors. I decided on 20 sectors per disc and they are sized to give me a good length spark as well as a reasonable current. The sectors are made from foil tape. I used tape that comes with a backing attached that you peel off. This allowed me to make a cardboard template of the sector shape and trace around this on the paper backed foil. Then I was able to cut out each sector using scissors.

20080419_0233_1 Making foil sectors using paper backed tape and a cardboard template.

The foil sectors must be accurately positioned on the discs. Since I am using clear acrylic I simply drew up a paper guide sheet that the clear disc could sit over. Lines and marks on the guide sheet allow me to easily position the sectors. One important thing to note is that you attach the sectors to the correct side of the disc. The sectors are on the same side as the hubs. Perhaps one of the most fun parts of the project is removing the brown backing paper from the acrylic. For some reason I find doing that terribly satisfying!

20080419_0236_1 Paper guide sheet for positing foil sectors under a clear disc.

With all the foil sectors positioned I could then attach the hubs and bearings to each disc. We know have something that is starting to look recognisable as part of the great device!

20080419_0238_1 Disc with sectors attached.

With the discs finished I turned my attention to the Leyden jars. These are simple capacitors that are used to store the charge generated by the machine and give the sparks it makes more OOMMPPPHHH! I am using square shaped glass jars (that used to contain spaghetti sauce). Each jar has a layer of foil added to the inside and outside of it. The glass jar itself forms the dielectric of the capacitor. Each jar will have a plastic top made from the offcuts of the plastic chopping boards and a round brass door handle on top as a terminal. With the two layers of foil in place I measured the capacitance of the jars and they are both more or less 1nF.

20080419_0244_1 Starting to make the Leyden jars.

Unfortunately it is now school holidays for the next two weeks meaning no night class and no access to the lathe. I will continue making what I can at home however and I should be able to finish the Leyden jars and start work on the wooden base of the machine and the support stands.

20080419_0247_1 The finished discs with sectors attached.

20080419_0250_1 Detail of the hub attachment and sectors.

More to follow soon.

Part two is now available here: it took so long!

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12 Responses to “Building a Wimshurst Machine – Part 1.”

  1. Phil Neale Says:

    I’m interested in this project. I own a nice commercially made wimshurst genertor and I’m fascinated by it. Have you finished it ? I’d like to make one myself.

  2. Simon Says:

    I am currently working on it. Hopefully tonight I can get the Leyden jars completed and start thinking about making the base. The crank and main pulleys will have to wait until I have access to a lathe again in a few weeks time.

  3. Shane Says:

    Have you been able to complete your project? You have provided a great source of info and I would like to build one for myself. Im hopeing that you would be able to spend some more time noteing what you have done in addition to what you have givin already

  4. Simon Says:

    Oddly enough I was working to get this completed this weekend. The machine has been working for months, it just needs me to write it all up now. I am picking up the last piece this morning and just want to make up a couple of new hubs for the neautraliser bars (in black plastic rather than white). I will write it all up in the next few days time. If you want to see it going you can look here at a little film I made of it:


  5. Sam Says:

    I am very interested in building a Wimshurst Machine. To conduct my own static electricity experiments. I happened to come upon your site and found your Part 1 instructions, ( Very neat and interesting). Am planning to build one myself using your instructions. Can you tell me when you will post rest of instructions? Thank you for your time!

    Warm regards,


  6. Simon Says:

    Funnily enough I am updating it right now!

    I should be done in a few hours time. Just stopping for lunch 🙂


  7. amin Says:

    I made my own wimshurst mechine about 1year ago. n I’m ready to share my technichal experiences in the field with anyone who is interested!
    right now I’m looking for any further theorical expanded explanation that how the system works?!?
    -why the two ends of sparkle bars have to be spherical?(its probably because of the formation of electric field in the medium!!??)
    _why aluminium sectors on the plates have to be that shape?
    -what is the relation of the angle between two neutralizer bars with the maximum length of the sparkle that the wimshurst mechine can make??

  8. Bob Says:

    A colleague of mine recently bought a commercially made wimshurst machine. Neither of us could get it to work. I tried all sorts of tweaking but to no avail. I did notice a difference between it and all the ones on the internet. The one I have has alternating metal and paper contacts as opposed to all metal foil contacts. Could this be a manufacturing error? If so how on earth could it have passed any testing. If you respond by email I could send you a jpeg to show I am not crazy.

  9. Asciimation » Blog Archives » More on Nigel. Says:

    […] looked in my junk box and found some round plastic stock left over from my Wimshurst machine project. I machined up a bearing carrier that holds a skateboard bearing in each end. The bearings are a […]

  10. tom kaye Says:

    In my build the most chalking part was setting the foil on the rotors. To this I found a gear making program on the internet and selected 32 teeth’ selected for output as vectors from I the connected the vector line though the center to generate a placement guide. Extend the vector lines past the edge of your disc so the template can be properly set I also used a small price of plexiglass or acrylic from the remains of the disc cutting to make a template for the foil shape. Glurf a wood handle to the templates . I used adhesive backed foil tape. Cut the tape into the lengths needed then place the template on the foil and trace caround it with an exacto knife. This very effectively proved the shape of the foil and location based on the vector lines
    I then laid my plexiglass rounds it took about an hour to do 64 sectors. When done burnish with a dull stiff do well rod or hard plastic removing allbair bubbles. Now the restbius bup to you

  11. Clive Says:

    I am not sure about your comment on hygroscopic materials. I believe that acrylic is more hygroscopic than glass (PVC, polyethylene and some others are better) and is harder to dry. Also glass is normally coated with shellac.

  12. Simon Says:

    It might be that the plastic is easier to keep dry than the glass? I do actually have some shellac now. After years of wondering what it actually was. I should try coating some glass with it perhaps.