Flashback: Surprise Top Hat

Flashback: Surprise Top Hat

Ten days and counting until Halloween! This week’s flashback is another tasty morsel from Make: Halloween Special Edition, which hit newsstands back in August 2006. In this project, Dug North shows us how to make a mechanical automata-infused top hat using a bicycle brake lever, cable, and the monster of your choosing. If you’re like us and can’t get enough of Halloween, you can still pick up Make: Halloween in the Maker Shed. And be sure to enter our Make: Halloween Contest 2009!

Surprise Top Hat
Spook your friends with this monster-popping trick hat!
By Dug North

I routinely wear a derby hat around town. So when the Halloween season approaches, I feel the need to wear a hat that really makes a statement. I decided to combine my fondness for old-style hats with my love of mechanical automata. The result is this trick top hat. A little monster hides inside the hat and springs out of the top whenever I squeeze a hidden hand lever.


½” plywood about 8″×8″
Screw eyes
Small hinges
Metal L brackets
Springs (2)
about 3″ long; length will depend on your hat
Bicycle brake lever, cable housing, and cable
PVC pipe 5″ length
Costume coachman’s hats (2)
Rubber finger puppet
Small screws and washers
Aluminum cable sleeve
for making a loop at the end of a cable


Hobby knife
Glue gun

Step 1: Prepare the hat.
To create a hat that’s tall enough to house the mechanism, combine 2 costume top hats — sold as “coachman’s hats” — into one large hat. Cut the top off one hat. This will serve as the base hat, which will sit on your head and hold the mechanism base. Cut the top and brim off the second hat. Later, this tubular piece will form the upper half of the hat. Save all the pieces.

Step 2: Build the framework.


You’ll mount the pop-up mechanism to an oval plywood base fitted within the top rim of the base hat. Cut a plywood oval to fit the base hat. To support the pivoting parts, mount a plywood rectangle upright, perpendicular to the base, with metal L brackets. Cut a slot most of the way down the middle of the upright support, an additional piece of wood to the back of the support — just to one side of the slot — to provide a place to screw the pivoting parts to the mechanism base.

Step 3: Make the pop-up mechanism.


The mechanism is a 4-bar linkage — a wooden parallelogram with 2 horizontal and 2 vertical bars. There are 2 fixed pivot points at the rear of the 4-bar linkage, and 2 swinging ones in the front.


The 4-bar linkage amplifies a short pull from the cable into a larger upward motion of the front-most vertical bar. Fit the rubber finger puppet over the top of the front-most bar of the linkage. Attach a spring to the base and the front bar, to pull the monster back into the hat when the hand lever is released.

Step 4: Wire it up.


Mount the brake lever to your 5″ PVC handle, then attach the appropriate end of a universal brake cable to the brake lever. Cut the opposite end of the cable off, leaving the cable housing and metal ferrule intact.


Countersink a hole halfway through the underside of the oval plywood base, directly below the end of the linkage bar that the cable will pull; this pocket hole will accept the cable ferrule. Drill a smaller hole completely through the center of the first hole, to allow the cable itself to pass through the base. Epoxy the metal ferrule to the base, and thread the cable through the smaller hole. Pass the cable through a hole drilled in the end of the lowest linkage bar. Secure the loop formed by the doubled-over cable with an aluminum cable sleeve.

Step 5: Finish the hat.


Attach the mechanism base to the base hat with small screws. To hide the mechanism, invert what remains of the second hat and glue it to the base hat with hot glue. Hide the seam with ribbon, applied while the hot glue is still tacky.

Use the extra hat pieces to create a hinged lid. The hinges are mounted to the top of the upright support. When the hand lever is actuated, the upper horizontal bar of the 4-bar linkage lifts the hinged lid out of the way of the ascending monster. Another spring between the base and the lid ensures that it closes after the monster descends.

To operate, wear the hat and run the cable down the sleeve of a coat. Squeeze the brake lever and … surprise!


About the Author:
Dug North fabricates contemporary wood automata. He is also the voice behind The Automata/Automaton Blog, a site dedicated to the interests of makers and collectors of mechanical automata.

4 thoughts on “Flashback: Surprise Top Hat

  1. Anonymous says:

    This one is really looking one of the best tutorial post about Top hat. And this one is really looking unique and authentic. And the existing procedure of making is really looking impressive and rocking about it. Thanks for sharing some best of information about it.

  2. Home Accessories says:

    Wow………. What concept is this to make the marvellous featured Top hat. It’s completely looking one of the most precious tutorial to understand about it. Thanks for sharing.

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I'm a word nerd who loves to geek out on how emerging technology affects the lexicon. I was an editor on the first 40 volumes of MAKE, and I love shining light on the incredible makers in our community. In particular, covering art is my passion — after all, art is the first thing most of us ever made. When not fawning over perfect word choices, I can be found on the nearest mountain, looking for untouched powder fields and ideal alpine lakes.

Contact me at snowgoli@gmail.com or via @snowgoli.

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