Wednesday, August 10, 2016

You Can Build a Spinner from the Things You Find at Home

You may have noticed I was gone for a while. Here's what I was up to for the past week and some odd days. First, you'll need this musical selection to get you in the right frame of mind...

Okay, now that you've been properly Demento'ed, here's what I created while I was doing my best imitation of that other mad doctor, Victor Von whatever. You remember how paddles and dials used to be standard equipment for the really old game systems, right? Well, the industry has moved on from that style of input, but dozens of games (mostly of the "strike a ball with a paddle" variety) still play best with a spinner. Good luck actually finding one for a reasonable price, though. Your only options are to either pay through the nose for an arcade-quality dial like the Spintrak or TurboTwist, or get... creative. I chose door number two, and here's what I found behind it.

This wouldn't be the first time I've tried building a dial for Arkanoid-a-likes, but this is by far my most successful attempt. That's due in large part to the VCR head, that large silver platter crowning the plastic container. It was difficult to fish out of the dead VCR that reluctantly donated it, but it was well worth all that unscrewing. First, it's stupid cheap now that the technology is obsolete, and there's never a shortage of busted VHS players. Second, there's nothing better suited to spinning. Give it a whirl once it's anchored in place, and it'll spin for a solid seven seconds. It also responds to a delicate touch, making it perfect for catching a ball with the end of a bank tube trapped in space.
Come on, you can't tell me you weren't
thinking about Arkanoid when your
mom went through the drive-through.
(image courtesy of
You're going to need a device that can read all those twists and turns, and that's where the computer mouse comes in. Early homemade spinners used ball mouses with PS/2 connectors, but nuts to that! It's the twenty-first century, the age of optical, and you're going to want a USB cable so your modern day computer can recognize your creation.

Luckily, even optical mouses (yes, it's pluralized that way for input devices) can be found for a couple of bucks at a garage sale or thrift store. Break out a screwdriver, take the mouse apart, then put the mouse guts into an Altoids tin with a few notches strategically cut into it, as shown here on Instructables. Take off the scroll wheel and don't bother with the buttons, by the way... you won't be needing them. You want this mouse perfectly flat, or close to it.

With that done, you'll want to make a circle that attaches to the underside of your VCR head. I found that corrugated cardboard works best for this; it's light, easy to cut, and maintains its flatness. Light plastic warps, and a compact disc won't fit inside the Tupp-er, completely generic plastic container. I took the cap from a water jug, cut screw holes into it, and glued it into the center of the cardboard wheel after I cut a small hole into the center of that. 

Precision is important, and a ruler is your friend. If you're off by more than a small amount, you may get unwanted wobble, and your spinner may not work properly. Give the VCR head a few spins after you've screwed on the wheel. When you're satisfied with your work, unscrew the wheel and cut a circle into the top of the plastic container's lid with a precision knife. Make it large enough for the cap to spin freely, but not so large that the VCR head falls through. Thread the bottom of the head through the hole you've made, glue the head firmly in place with a glue gun, and reattach the cardboard wheel.

This is where things get tricky. After you cut a hole in the side of the container to thread a cable through, you're going to need to turn your mint mouse upside down so the light is facing up and shining into the cardboard wheel. The mouse has to be close enough to the wheel to trick it into believing that it's rolling on a flat surface, BUT not so close that the two rub against each other. That will keep the head from spinning freely and makes your spinner feel kind of crappy as a result.

You'll have to fill the bottom of the container just enough so that the mouse and wheel can make a love connection. Experiment with materials (I used a miniature ice cube tray and a single thin sheet of foam) and when you're happy with the way it looks, put the lid on and give your spinner a test drive on your computer. Once you've found the perfect distance between the mouse and wheel, and once the Altoids tin is lying flat, then and only then can you use the glue gun on the edges to hold everything in place.

So close you can almost taste it...
(image from EmuParadise)
Oh yeah, there's one other thing. The plastic container will be very light unless you've used wood to close the gap between the mouse and cardboard wheel. What you may want to do is add plastic feet on the bottom of the container to prevent skidding. I used thin strips of a shower sticker along the bottom of the spinner, to keep it in place. You may also want to consider gluing something heavy (rolls of pennies, used batteries, whatever) inside the container so you don't accidentally launch it off the table with frantic spinning. Distribute the weight evenly so it's balanced.

Top your spinner off with a smaller dial if you please; I used a cola cap. And that's pretty much it! The genius of this spinner's design is that it requires no soldering, no expensive parts, and no oddball drivers. If your computer could recognize your mouse before you took it apart, it'll recognize this spinner too. It's also modular, so if you make a mistake or it gets damaged in any way, you can take off the lid and fix what's broken pretty easily.

There are downsides too, of course. First, it's pretty... uh, well, it's not pretty at all, actually. If the look gets to you, you can always put it in something more presentable, like a wooden cabinet. Second, you won't have access to the three buttons on the mouse, unless you're willing to solder in a solution. The space bar on the bottom of your keyboard works pretty well as a surrogate laser in Arkanoid... just flail away and watch the bricks melt!

Oh, by the way, here are the tools and materials I used to make this spinner, since you'll probably need to know all that. You will need a precision knife for this, and you may cut yourself if you're not careful. Keep a first aid kit handy. (Also, for legal reasons, I assume no responsibility for any damage done to yourself or your property if you make this spinner.)


Scissors (any sturdy pair with long blades will do)
Precision knife; ie X-Acto Size 2 blade
Glue gun
Glue sticks
Ruler (optionally, a compass for clean circles)
A pen and/or Sharpie
Phillips screwdriver (preferably a set with various sizes/bits)
Electrical tape (used to line inside of Altoids tin)
Paper (for taking notes)


VCR Head (remove from an unloved VHS player)
Sterilite 1.2 Quart container (UPC: 73149 09923)
Microsoft Wheel Mouse Optical (model: D66-00029)
Corrugated cardboard (cut from a box)
Cap from Crystal Geyser Water, 1 Gallon
Altoids tin (standard size; just find a place for the mints)
Liner for inside of Sterilite container (roughly 2.3cm deep)
Skid-proof feet (optional, but strongly recommended)
Textured cap or dial (optional)


Measure twice, cut once
Don't cut yourself
Take your time
Use/borrow a small drill to cut the Altoids tin if necessary
A frictionless, flat spin is crucial
Substitutions/alterations are possible but use caution
Keep first aid around just in case
Have a few of the mints; they're pretty good!
Try some of these games with your spinner
Please give credit if you use this guide elsewhere

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