Ask MAKE: Gears and Chains and Pulleys and Belts

Ask MAKE: Gears and Chains and Pulleys and Belts

Ask MAKE is a monthly column where we answer your questions. Send your vexing conundrums on any aspect of making to If we don’t have the answer, we’ll scare up somebody who does.

On the Google+ Make: Forum Jesse Acosta asks:

Currently I am trying to build a zoetrope, but at a larger scale. The “bucket” I built is 24″ in diameter, I’d like to have larger and more detailed frames for the zoetrope animation strips. But my snag is the crank, gears, and belt. I have no idea where to find suitable parts. I’ve seen some pulleys, and even some hand cranks for windows, but not really anything that I can imagine would benefit me. Any suggestions for parts to look for, or even a website to find parts?
My plan is to enter the zoetrope in an upcoming art show, and illustrate several strips that attendees could change out at their viewing leisure.
I think half my problem is that I’m an artist, and not much of a Maker as I’d like to be.

Dear Jesse,
Lucky for you, there is an online store that is perfect for your application. Check out McMaster-Carr. They have almost everything you’ll need to build the drivetrain for your zoetrope. For an online store that specializes in parts, they have one of the most organized and intuitive interfaces around. Check out the pages for pulleys, belts, chains, sprockets, shaft couplings, shaft collars, and crank handles.

Everything on the site is organized by size and type, making it easy to find parts that match. When I was first building the Magnetotron, I had never assembled any linkages myself. I ordered the parts from McMaster and it worked on the first shot.

Pulleys and belts are generally less expensive, but chains and sprockets are much less prone to slippage, and are what I’d recommend. An easy way to mount your drivetrain is to attach one sprocket directly to the zoetrope, make a loop of chain that’s approximately the length you want, then mock up the second sprocket before mounting it on your substrate. Shaft couplings link shafts together, shaft collars hold them in place.

To choose which gears to purchase, check out this bicycle gear ratio calculator. Find out at what speed users are generally going to turn the crank, and what speed is optimum for the zoetrope to function effectively. Set the wheel size to 24″ (the width of your zoetrope) and season to taste.

Thanks for reaching out for help on your project, and I hope it goes well. If any readers have info they’d like to add, please do so in the comments.

9 thoughts on “Ask MAKE: Gears and Chains and Pulleys and Belts

  1. William Abernathy says:

    You might also try: (for gears only)

    I have seen good stuff for cheap at:, but you are limited to what they have in stock.

    If you see a good deal, for this application you will do fine with #25 (quarter-inch pitch) drive chain.

    Your application sounds slow and gentle enough for bicycle chain. If so, keep an eye out for bike store trash cans. If you want to use bike chain, bear in mind that many front sprockets are elliptical, which makes them unsuited to this purpose.

    1. kai says:

      Can you please elaborate on your front-bicycle-sprocket comment? I have never seen an elliptical sprocket, and definitely not on any of my bicycles.

      1. reboots says:


        I have a mountain bike with a Shimano Biopace chainring. I wouldn’t say they’re common (or particularly effective), but they do exist.

  2. asciimation says:

    In the past I have used the drive belts from wool spinning machines. This is the stuff here:

    You can make simple plastic or wooden pulleys to run it around and you make the belt to the exact length you need by cutting it and melting the ends together.

    I’ve used it successfully as drive belts in a Wimshurst machine and for a record player turntable.


  3. Alexandre Castro says:

    these stores are awsome… keep them coming :)

  4. Ryan Turner says:

    Econobelt is where qtc sells their timing pulleys/belts, and it is generally much cheaper than sdp-si.

    I greatly prefer timing belts to chains/gears where appropriate. Modern timing belts perform amazingly well. Nearly silent, high power, extremely high speeds and they are even pretty damn good for positioning since several profiles are zero backlash and zero stretch.

  5. satrianij44 says:

    Circular Technologies also offers timing belt pulleys. You might want to check them out, bearings, and rollers.

  6. Allen - Beaded Chain says:

    I’d agree, chains are the better choice when it comes to slippage. I’ve experienced it much less myself and I’ve tried tons of variations. Some work better than others of course but I always come back to chains over belts. Thanks for the read.

  7. Ressourcen Maschinen & Werkzeuge | DIGITALE ARCHITEKTURPRODUKTION says:

    […] Lernressourcen über Maschinen Types of Gears and terminology 507 Mechanical Movements How to make your own Gears Gears, Chains, Pulleys, Belts […]

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In addition to being an online editor for MAKE Magazine, Michael Colombo works in fabrication, electronics, sound design, music production and performance (Yes. All that.) In the past he has also been a childrens' educator and entertainer, and holds a Masters degree from NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program.

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