Cthulhu Automata

A 3D printed, cardboard, rubber, and wood automata mechanism.

This automata project grew out of the automata workshop I am co-facilitating combined with a binge-read of many of H.P. Lovecraft's works. 


This is the second automata that I built during the course of this workshop. It utilized the same cardboard box, wire shirt hanger, bamboo skewer, masking tape, and cardboard construction from which the students built their automata as a proof-of-concept and automata construction skill building exercise. 


However, possessed perhaps by the mighty Cthulhu itself, I transformed my own automata over the course of five months into a grotesque, soul-piercing automata that might drive you, too, insane if you spend too much time pondering this text and the accompanying horrific images. Along the way most parts were upgraded with 3D printed parts that I designed and printed, a wood cigar box, a wood drive shaft, LEDs, and circuitry. My innocent son was even dragged into the madness, painting the paper that became Cthulhu's skin. It took me roughly four months to construct in fits and starts. I implore you, as you explore this project, to beware the power of Cthulhu.

The project started with a simple cardboard box with a hinged side. At one time it housed a much less psychologically damaging Drawdio.

The students in the automata workshop were provided the supplies necessary to build a simple automata along with the Exploratorium's invaluable guide to building automata. Each chose a motion that they wanted the machinery to produce. I chose to use an oblong cam that would make a cam follower rise and fall.

Very early version. Oblong cam, cam follower. The straw guides the rod from the cam follower through the box and helps keep the cam follower properly positioned over the cam. The drive shaft is constructed from a bent wire shirt hanger.
The first version of the automata did not hint at the horrors in store. Joseph drew a fine portrait of me that bobbed up and down. It was fun but lacking.

The Wings

After deciding that I would transform the lowly Josh automata into something far more sinister, I started with the wings. I constructed a simple frame using bamboo skewers and masking tape. I covered the frame with a piece of paper my son scribbled on with a ballpoint pen cut to size. 


The flapping mechanism was constructed around a drinking straw. Flexing and releasing the straw caused the wings to flap.

Demonstration of the wing mechanism. Constructed from wire shirt hanger, drinking straw, bamboo skewers, and masking tape.

As the automata progressed, the simple wing mechanism began to fail as the masking tape and drinking straw aged and were stressed by the movement and Cthulhu's evilness. I decided to upgrade the automata and start replacing key components with 3D printed parts. The drinking straw was the first part to be replaced. I took advantage of the flexibility of ABS plastic, which my MakerBot Thing-O-Matic uses, and was able to maintain the same flex that the drinking straw exhibited but with more durable results. The design also allowed me to move from round bamboo skewers to 1/8" bass wood dowels.

The original 3D printed replacement part was printed in two parts because of the limited size of the Thing-O-Matic. The two parts were acetone welded together with poor results.
The wing hinge was completely redesigned over three iterations in how it worked but retained some of the original design that had proven itself durable through the iterations.
After a number of iterations the wing hinge was completely redesigned. Using a "cardboard rivet" (http://www.thingiverse.com/thing:551396) with a remixed bushing that also secures the wings to the cam follower shaft, this design separates the movement of the wings, unlike previous designs. The straw emerging from the top of the box was replaced by a 3D printed part that combined the straw and a rectangular "slab" to which Cthulhu's demented skull could be mounted.
The bamboo skewers were replaced with 3D printed brackets and 1/8" bass wood dowels. Additionally, the paper wings were replaced with 3D printed panels.
The wing panels were designed in Tinkercad.com using the Voronoi shape generator that was massively customized and debased with the slider options. Simple brackets were designed to hold the panels to the bass wood frame. Tinkercad's mirror function saved time because only two panels needed to be designed. The two panels were mirrored for the second wing.
The panels were 3D printed on a MakerBot Replicator 2 in MakerBot True Black PLA filament.
The 3D printed panels were about 14 cm along the base and about 5 mm at their thickest.
The panels fit nicely into the basswood frame. The bar code was left exposed as a Mark of the Beast.
With two panels mounted on the wing frame the wing was too heavy for the automata mechanics. The wings needed to be redesigned to work properly.
The same Tinkercad design was used but its height was reduced to 1.5 mm. The mounting bracket design was greatly improved. The panel was 3D printed in MakerBot Warm Gray PLA filament.
The thin panels are beautifully translucent for such a hideous creature as Cthulhu.
Once lifted by the cam and cam follower, the wings had the tendency to stay lifted. A clip that further secured the wing rivet was designed with a notch for a rubber band. Additionally, the top of the cam follower shaft was given a hook to hold the rubber band. Now the cam follower shaft could lift the wings and pulled them back down as the automata was cranked.
Try not to go insane from the sound of Cthulhu's wings flapping.

The Head

Cthulhu's head was constructed using strips of cardboard cut from paper towel rolls. The strips were originally shaped around a partially inflated balloon. Once the skull came into shape the balloon was deflated and removed. Additional strips, affixed to one another with masking tape, conjured the disgusting visage into shape.

The original scaffolding was fairly symmetrical and simple.
Additional strips continued to fill out the shape of the demented brain pan.
The otherworldly skull crept around the top of the box and down the front.
Dear reader, you have been reading and looking at these horrifying images for a while. It might be best to take a break before your soul is too poisoned by the exposure.
The skull is simultaneously humanoid and alien.
An unsuspecting child was deceived into painting craft paper to serve as Cthulhu's slimy, awful skin.
He produced two sheets before he was overcome by terror.
The paper was cut into inch-wide strips and glued to the cardboard scaffold and one another to form Cthulhu's skin. The back of the head was left open to give the viewer a glimpse into the nightmares within.

The Eyes

Cthulhu's eyes were built in upcycled egg carton cups. Chibitronic LED stickers provide light, while copper tape with conductive adhesive serves as the wiring.


The wiring was routed through the skull, similar in a creepy way to the optic nerve. The copper tape emerged from the base of the skull and was routed through holes cut in the wood cigar box.

The cardboard cups were separated from the carton and cleaned up. Cthulhu's eyes were red and angry.
The copper tape wiring was routed through small slits in either side of the egg carton cup. The circuit was tested before the copper tape backing was removed. Cthulhu's evil was confirmed when its eyes lit up red.
Although mostly hidden from view in the finished automata, care was taken to artistically route the positive and negative leads through Cthulhu's nightmarish skull and affixed to the the cardboard scaffolding.
Cthulhu's soul-piercing stare. Visible, too, are Cthulhu's repulsive tentacles, made from foam pipe insulation.
The contrast with the skin was terrifying and stark.
The Chibitronics LED sticker and copper tape combined for a cephalopod eyeball.
The positive leads from the Chibitronics LED sticker wound their way to the cam follower. A special slot that held the copper tape and a 3 volt 2032 coin cell battery in place was designed as part of the cam follower.
A second lever for the negative leads from the LED was 3D printed. The red clips help hold the copper tape wires in place and keep the evil flowing through the circuit. When the cam follower rises on the oblong cam, it makes contact with this lever and the circuit is complete, lighting Cthulhu's eyes. Thus, as the automata is cranked the eyes blink on and off hypnotically, draining the viewer's soul along with the 3 volt battery.
The egg carton cups were painted black to enhance the evil of Cthulhu's gaze.

The Second Cam Follower

Overtaken, perhaps, by the terrible flapping of Cthulhu's wings, I constructed a second cam follower on the front of the box on which Cthulhu perched. This cam follower would move Cthulhu's tentacles as the automata was cranked. 

A ballpoint pen was unceremoniously sacrificed for its spring to serve Cthulhu. The secondary cam follower on the front was small and needed a smaller return mechanism to insure that it did not get stuck when it was pushed by the cam. 
The cam follower, spring, and cam follower shaft emerged from the front of the box.
A crude, blasphemous contraption fashioned from a wire shirt hanger pushed against the foam tentacles.
The 3D printed replacement part retained the ballpoint pen spring. A second iteration needed to be 3D printed because the first, a two piece 3D printed model acetone welded together, failed while under pressure. You can glimpse, if you dare linger on this horrible image, the rubber tentacles that replaced the foam ones.

The Tentacles

Cthulhu's tentacles started as foam pipe insulation, cut into crude tentacle shapes by hands shaking in fear. 


As the automata grew in design and intensity, replacement tentacles were located on Amazon. 


An octopus model was located on Thingiverse. Using a combination of Meshmixer and Tinkercad, all but four tentacle stubs were removed from the model. The resulting monstrosity was 3D printed in a test size first, then full sized.

The test size looked good and proved that the Thing-O-Matic could handle the ghastly overhangs in parts of the model without needing a raft and supports.
The rubber tentacles fit the 3D printed base like an unholy matrimony.
Cthulhu gnawed at my conscious until I re-3D printed the tentacle base in MakerBot Red ABS.
The red tentacle base matched the rubber tentacles perfectly. Lengths of monofilament were attached to the tentacles. The monofilament was routed through an eye hook screwed into the wood cigar box and obscured by the 3D printed base. The monofilament was then attached to a part at the end of the front cam follower shaft. As the automata is cranked this cam follower shaft tugs the monofilament tighter, causing the hideous tentacles to wave.

The Completed Model

All of this brings us, brave reader, to the conclusion, with the various malformed, 3D printed parts combined to form an unholy monster.

Wicked wing.
Evil eye.
Terrorizing Tentacles.
Cthulhu automata!!

3D modeled in Tinkercad and Meshmixer

3D printed on a MakerBot Thing-O-Matic and a Replicator 2

3D printed in Inventables 3mm Gray ABS, MakerBot Red ABS, and MakerBot Warm Gray PLA filaments


Thanks to Joseph Schott for guidance, tools, and workshop space.


Twitter: @joshburker

Website: http://joshburker.blogspot.com

This work and images copyright 2015 Josh Burker