Alexander Calder (1898 – 1976) is one of my favourite artists and arguably the king of hanging sculptures, or modern mobiles as they are often referred to (although, he has worked in many more mediums). I love the playfulness of his work and photos of Calder always seem to show a twinkle in his eye. I was lucky enough to see some of his work, both paintings and mobiles, while I’ve been living in France and I highly recommend a visit to the Foundation Maeght in St Paul de Vence.
There’s something therapeutic about watching a mobile lazily twirl as micro air currents and our own movements gently nudge them into motion, and it’s even more magical seeing your own creation take on a life of its own. I like to think of my own mobiles as ceiling jewellery – something to dramatacize the usually bland and unused space of our homes. They can be as simple or complex as you like, but this tutorial *as featured on Instructables* focuses on the basics with tips peppered throughout from my own learnings and experiments.
Calder-style mobile tutorial
- Sheet metal of 0.4 – 0.5mm thick (stainless steel recommended for beginners, followed by copper or brass)
- Galvanised steel wire of 1.2mm thickness (wire gauge chart here). Note, 1.6mm is better for heavier, larger mobiles which need more support
- Fishing wire for hanging
- Spray paint (optional)
- Matt spray varnish (optional)
- Tin snips / metal shears like these
- Round nose pliers
- Gardening / safety gloves (and safety glasses if we’re being pedantic)
- Metal file and diamond file
- Hammer and old screw or nail
- Dremel and drill bit of 1.2mm
- Sharpie pen
- Wire jig (optional) like this
1.Design your mobile
Keep it simple for your first one, and opt for simple shapes and fewer of them. Get some inspiration by looking at nature’s own mobiles (aka, tree leaves) or the master of man’s mobiles, Calder, and sketch out your shapes on paper to a size that you like.
Tip 1: Around six is a good number of pieces for a beginner of a size ranging from around 4 – 9cm. If you’re unsure, different sized circles will look beautiful and celestial.
Tip 2: Try to keep your shapes abstract with no sharp corners (you’ll thank me later).
(A photo from the garden – abstract leaf shapes make good subject matter for mobiles)
2. Mark out your shapes
To transfer your design to your sheet metal, you can either cut out your drawing, tack it on with blue-tac and draw around it, or (if you’re feeling brave) draw straight onto the metal with a sharpie pen. Don’t worry about mistakes with the sharpie as these will get sanded off later!
Tip 3: Try to pack as many shapes in to as smaller area as possible to avoid wasting metal, and be careful with the waste as it will be sharp. Gardening gloves advised! (Another post coming soon for a project to use up scrap metal.)
3. Cut out your pieces
Slowly and carefully use your tin snips to cut out your shapes. Remember, you can always take off more material when you file / sand later, but you can’t put it back!
Tip 4: Don’t close the snips all the way to fully closed as it will ding / warp the metal…just keep going a little at a time to get a smoother result. Think tortoise, not hare!
Tip 5: Don’t angle the tin snips when you cut (in my photo, they only look angled as I had to put them down to take the photo! I’m still looking for that third arm), keep them perpendicular to the metal. If you try to use them on their side, you’ll end up damaging the tip snips.
4. Filing and sanding
The tedious bit (well, I find it tedious, you may find it therapeutic). There’s no escaping it, so put on a podcast (I recommend S-Town, you’re welcome), grab a cuppa and get started. Use a coarse metal file on the edges to get rid of excess metal and refine the shape, and a smaller diamond file for any fiddle places. Finish off the edges with sandpaper to smooth so that there are no sharp places.
Tip 6: I have tried using a Dremel for sanding and it does help speed things up, but I have always used a metal file initially and done a final hand sand for better results.
5. Making holes
Use your sharpie to place two dots on your metal pieces – these are where the wire will connect. Place your first hole a few mm – 1cm from the edge. The second hole should be roughly 1.5cm – 2cm from the first. This will be small enough to be neat, but wide enough to easily bend the wire to fix the piece.
With a piece of scrap wood underneath, lightly hammer a nail / screw on your hole marks to make a small indentation – this will help you keep your drill steady when you come to make the holes. Use a Dremel with a 1.2mm drill to make the holes in each piece.
Tip 7: You can lightly hammer the metal pieces to flatten them if they warp when you make the holes. Make sure you do this on a flat surface.
Tip 8: If your holes aren’t quite the right size, use a diamond file to widen them.
6. Wire bending
Take your first two mobile pieces (the pieces which sit at the bottom – these types of mobiles are always built from the bottom up), ready to cut the wire needed to link them.
To work out the amount of wire you need, the math is roughly as follows:
– The distance of wire you want between the pieces (let’s say 12cm) PLUS
-The amount of wire needed for the fixing to the mobile piece/s (I allow around 4cm – 6cm) x2, PLUS
-The amount of wire to do the loop in the middle (I allow around 2cm – 4cm)
-Totals about 24cm – 28cm in this case (it’s an art not a science!)
Cut your wire using your tin snips or wire cutters, and, using your round nosed pliers, bend a right angle at roughly 3cm from the edge. Next, bend another right angle about 1.5cm – 2cm from the first (this will be the distance between your two holes in the mobile piece).
Thread your mobile piece onto wire. Use your plyers to flatter the 3cm length to secure the mobile piece, and trim if needed.
Repeat to secure your second ‘balancing’ mobile piece on the other end of the wire.
Tip 9: This is a little fiddly, but practice makes perfect! It will become intuitive after you’ve done a few! Be careful not to squeeze your plyers too hard against your mobile pieces as it could damage them.
Here’s where the magic happens and it, literally, starts coming together. You’ll want to make a loop on your wire (which should now have two mobile pieces attached, one each side), roughly in the centre.
Decide where you want your hanging loop by balancing the piece on your finger – maybe you’d like it to hang down to the left or right, or perhaps you’d prefer more of a equilibrium. Mark the spot with a sharpie.
Take either your round nose plyers or your wire jig. You’ll start bending the wire anti-clockwise (over), starting the bend just to the left of your mark (as it will take some wire up making the loop).
Tip 10: Once you’ve made your loop, give your wire a slight curve – this will be more pleasing to the eye, stylise the mobile and be more forgiving to balance. There are no rules, but a more exaggerated curve will give a different look to a straighter one. In my final mobile, you’ll see I’ve used a range of curves.
8. The all important jump ring
The most best step for my favourite number! This little jump ring has a whole step because he is super important. He allows your mobile to have a much wider range of motion.
It’s dead simple…take about 5cm – 10cm of wire and bend into a loop using plyers or a wire jig. Thread the jump ring onto the loop you made in the previous step, squeeze it together, and trim any excess wire with your tin snips or wire cutters.
Tip 11: Try to be consistent in your loop / jump ring sizes for a better finish. A wire jig will help you be consistent, but if you only have pliers then use a sharpie to mark a point on them where you will bend.
9. Building layers
You’re going to repeat the process to build up your mobile. The only difference is, after layer 1, you will only attach one new mobile piece to each new piece of wire (rather than two), and on the other side you will do a loop to attach to your lower segment of the mobile (the section we just made). Your balance point will depend on the weight of the lower layers and your new mobile piece.
10. Getting to the top
When you get to the very top the middle loop will attach to a jump ring (as before), then that jump ring will be attached to fishing wire to hang it. In my version, I’ve used some pretty copper wire of about 0.6mm to hang it.
Hang it up, fiddle around, trim, neaten, tweak and stand back and admire!
(Above, reproduction of a Calder for demonstration)
(Above, a different design to the right, using more of a vine style)
11. Painting and finishing
Even if you’re not painting, it’s a good idea to sand the scratches off your mobile (a Dremel is recommended for speed) and give it a coat of varnish if it’s a metal that will corrode like brass or copper. Although, that said, I love an aged brass.
Use masking tape to seal off the edges of your wire (where it meets the mobile pieces) and spray paint 2 – 3 coats. A clear matt spray varnish will finish it off and protect it.
Tip 12: Chalk spray paint will give you a striking super matt finish – I love the stuff!
And…you’re done! Hooray! Thanks for getting this far and sharing in my passion I’ll be sharing more updates on my own mobile making in the future. 🙂
(Another style using straight links instead of a balance mechanism)