Making things with wire looks simple, but it can be challenging. Pick up a few wire-bending tricks, though, and you can sketch in 3 dimensions and make anything from a tiny, delicate figurine to a large, mechanical sculpture with moving parts.

Like sketching with a pen on paper, there’s no right way to do it, but a few techniques can help you get started. We’ll show you how to make a functional crank toy using a few basic tools and ordinary fence wire. Along the way, you’ll learn some important bends and structures you can use in your own creations.

Our crank toy is made up of 5 pieces: frame, crankshaft, piston, connecting rod, and art. Each part is made separately using individual pieces of wire, but you need to construct them in the right order so they’ll fit together correctly. To make it easier, we’ve made a template (PDF) to guide you. Download it below, and use the template and the photos here for reference.

Project Steps

Fabricate the frame.

Measure out about 24″ of wire. Start by making the cylindrical coil at the top of the frame.

Wrap your wire around a prong of your pliers (round-nose work best), and bend into a coil, slipping the coil off as it grows.

Fabricate the Frame (continued)

Working your way around the template, grip the wire in the pliers’ jaws and bend it to make a right angle.

To make a continuing loop, grab the wire at the intended location of the loop with the tip of the pliers and wrap.

Fabricate the frame (continued)

Wrap the trailing edge of wire around the top of the frame to the far corner and leave the end long for now.

Create the crankshaft

Measure out about 8″ of wire.

To make a zig-zag, make a series of 180° bends around the tips of the pliers, then tighten them by squashing them with pliers

Create the crankshaft (continued)

To make a flat coil, twist a loop perpendicular to the main shaft, then continue to spiral the wire around the loop, keeping it in plane by gripping it with the pliers

Create the crankshaft (continued)

After completing it as shown on the template, make right-angle bends (indicated with stars), perpendicular to the plane of zig-zags, to finish the crankshaft

Create the crankshaft (continued)

Open the continuing loop on the side of the frame away from the trailing edge by twisting it sideways.

Slide the handle end of the crankshaft into the open loop. Trim the long end of the shaft to slip it through the opposite loop

Create the crankshaft (continued)

Make a terminal loop to secure the crankshaft in the frame.

Make a right angle bend in the crankshaft just on the outside of the frame, and trim the trailing end to about ½”.

Create the crankshaft (continued)

Turn it so the bent end is facing you. Grip the end in the tip of the pliers, and curl the end back in one smooth motion.

Neaten the loop with the tips of the pliers

And you’ve finished the crank

Prepare the piston

Measure and cut 6″ of wire.

Follow the template to create the basic shape (second image).

Prepare the piston (continued)

Grip both long edges of the rectangle in the pliers, then bend the rectangle over to make a V in profile.

Twist the loop so that it lies parallel to the V edges. Leave the long end trailing.

Construct the connecting rod

Measure 5″ of wire and follow the template for the first half of the connecting rod.

Slide the piston onto the top edge of the rod, with the V edges straddling the sides

Construct the connecting rod

Complete the template shape

Twist open the loops at the base of the connecting rod.

Mount the mechanism

Thread the trailing end of the piston through the cylindrical coil on the frame.

Hook the base of the connecting rod onto the crankshaft.

Close the loops by twisting them back into position.

Build the bird.

Follow the template to bend your choice of bird.

Turn a loop at the top of the piston, and another at the top of the frame.

Attach the bird

Twist open the loops, attach the bird, and close them.

And you’re done :)

Further Inspiration

Alexander Calder, famous for his mobiles, also experimented with directed motion in expressive, evocative bent-wire crank toys.

Arthur Ganson’s soldered wire automata are lovely and futile. His work is fascinating