Merlot, a kinetic sculpture

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Project by Derek Hugger posted 09-24-2014 01:16 AM 7344 views 16 times favorited 11 comments Add to Favorites Watch

Merlot is a kinetic wooden sculpture that creates a mesmerizing kaleidoscopic effect. In one orientation, Merlot’s forms create an array of stemless wine glasses. Rotate those forms 180 degrees, and smaller, stemmed wine glasses appear. Fully wound, this sculpture will dance for hours at a time.

Merlot is a sculpture that came into its final form after more than seven months of refinement, with forms evolving through nearly two dozen design iterations. It was a project that sparked challenge after unexpected challenge. The first full round of parts that were assembled did not work at all. I had difficulty getting assemblies to stay balanced, parts were moving in ways I hadn’t anticipated, and the spring that I thought was going to have plenty of excess power had hardly enough to keep an already spinning assembly moving. With the months of time that I had devoted to the project at that point, the number of failures in my design seemed almost depressing. Regardless, there exists a solution to every problem. I jumped back into design mode and got back to work.

After a few iterations, the design appeared promising. Parts were more robust, assemblies were easier to put together, and balancing everything was a simple and straight forward process. The only issue now was that my initial thoughts about the spring were true; it was putting out too much power, and the sculpture was spinning too quickly. In hindsight, the solution to this problem seems obvious, but at the time, it left me puzzled for days. What eventually materialized was a simple brake, a weighted speed limiter that wrapped itself around the main spinning assembly. With that last piece in place, Merlot was complete. It worked well, and it worked reliably.

Merlot is a sculpture that was incredibly frustrating to design, but all things considered, that frustration was good. It challenged me to think, and it forced ingenuity. In the end, it was a project that gave me a great sense of accomplishment.

For more info or to get woodworking plans, check out my website:

A sample of the woodworking plans for Merlot are here.

Here’s a video of Merlot in motion:

11 comments so far

View wseand's profile


2796 posts in 4288 days

#1 posted 09-24-2014 02:59 AM

Just a great design, you have a great web site too.

View steve_in_ohio's profile


1195 posts in 2857 days

#2 posted 09-24-2014 10:34 AM

Wow, that is amazing, great job

-- steve, simple and effective

View hotncold's profile


788 posts in 2791 days

#3 posted 09-24-2014 04:01 PM

Kinetic Art!! That is not only beautiful, but it’s absolutely AMAZING to watch.
Most excellent!!

-- Dennie - Tennessee

View ay1978pa's profile


33 posts in 3153 days

#4 posted 09-24-2014 04:11 PM


-- Alex

View mahdee's profile


4291 posts in 3014 days

#5 posted 09-24-2014 04:15 PM

Love it.. Great work.


View RPhillips's profile


1323 posts in 3082 days

#6 posted 09-24-2014 05:25 PM

Amazing work, very nice site too. I’ll probably be picking up a set of plans in the near future.

-- Rob - Indianapolis IN - Learning... one mistake at a time...

View exelectrician's profile


2339 posts in 3674 days

#7 posted 09-24-2014 06:46 PM

Your stick-toit-ness is evident, so many people quit when the going gets tough, Well done!

-- Love thy neighbour as thyself

View Redoak49's profile


5395 posts in 3235 days

#8 posted 09-24-2014 11:46 PM

I am at a loss for words for this project. An incredible design job and implementation.

View Philip's profile


1277 posts in 3785 days

#9 posted 09-25-2014 01:16 AM

Great project Derek, looks amazing

-- I never finish anyth

View mcoyfrog's profile


4757 posts in 4841 days

#10 posted 09-25-2014 06:10 PM

Holy Crikey thats amazing. How did you come up with that kind of a design??

-- Wood and Glass they kick (well you know) Have a great day - Dug

View Derek Hugger's profile

Derek Hugger

48 posts in 3204 days

#11 posted 09-26-2014 01:19 AM

The overall architecture of six identical shapes rotating in a kaleidoscopic manner was inspired by the “Variation” sculptures by David C. Roy. I loved the idea and wanted to see what I could do with it. I also wanted to see if I could simplify it…

In David’s escapement mechanisms, he typically uses three pulleys connected with two extension springs (essentially act as the pulley’s belts). The third pulley is also the wheel that contains the pins that drive the pulling arms. On the pulleys, there appear to be two ratchet mechanisms, which allow a user to wind the sculpture by turning the last pulley. For my simplification, I wanted to turn this dual-stage pulley reduction into a single stage gear reduction. I also wanted to make one ratchet instead of two, and I wanted one of my gears to double as the wheel the escapement pins mount to. What I realized once I built my sculpture was that David used this pulley system for a reason. My sculpture requires a brake that limits its speed. Without this brake, the sculpture would spin too fast, gain too much momentum, and could eventually “self destruct” by stretching itself too far. The need for the brake (and the cause of the fast spinning) stems from the resultant force on the spinning assembly caused by the combination of (1) the torque of the constant force spring driving the sculpture, (2) the gear reduction ratio, (3) the length of the pulling arms, and (4) the diameter of the pulley on the spinning assembly. In order to get just the right speed, all of these things have to be tuned perfectly. Well, I couldn’t change my gear reduction without making some major design changes, so the gears needed to stay the same; I needed to limit the pulling arms’ sizes to fit on an 11×17 sheet of paper to make the plans easy to print, so I couldn’t change those; the spring was close to $40 after shipping and required several custom wood parts to properly mount, so I didn’t want to change that; and the spinning assembly’s pulley diameter couldn’t change because it was already about as small as I was comfortable with. So, a tunable brake was my solution. I suspect the way David deals with this is just to make a different diameter pulley. His extension spring stretches around the new diameter, and it’s good to go. The downfall to my braking method is a pretty big hit to efficiency. Merlot will run for about 2.5 hours on a wind, which seems like a pretty long time. But, some of David’s sculptures will run for for 5 or 6 times that on what I suspect to be a similar constant force spring.

In terms of my design and forms, I experimented for quite some time and drew up nearly two dozen different shape ideas. The challenge was trying to develop (1) shapes that looked good, (2) were radially balanced (i.e. their center of gravity was exactly in the center), (3) allowed weight to be added to different areas in order to orient them in the sculpture, and (4) look interesting while in motion. Finding forms that fit all these requirements was tricky. I’ll admit, the forms that I ultimately went with were an a bit of a serendipity. I drew a few ellipses, cut them with a circle and thought, that looks cool. Then I took that shape, flipped it over, shrunk it, and made it a different color. It was only after I put the shapes in motion in animation software that I realized they looked like wine glasses. At that point, the sculpture’s name, “Merlot,” seemed obvious. From there, I refined the shapes to both look a little better and to have a centered CG. Keeping with the wine theme, I did my best to make the arms that hold the shapes look like wine glass stems, and I also did what I could to give the escapement mechanism the aesthetic of a wine bottle opener.

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