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Paper Automata | Free Templates, Fun Design Ideas and Mechanism Info

Roundup of How-Tos & Free Toys to Make

Paper automata are mechanical models which are powered by human input - usually in the form of a crank - and this leads to a range of movements from simple back and forth actions to multiple types of movement at once.

Automata are usually either wood or paper, with paper obviously being much easier, quicker and more versatile to use, and wood being more long-lasting and hard wearing. Most of the mechanical toys are whimsical and fun in style and are meant as curiosities or heirlooms, with the fun being as much in the making of them as it is in the end result.

Knowledge of cams and simple mechanical systems is necessary if you plan on creating your own designs from scratch, but otherwise there are plenty of templates you can buy or find for free online, many of which you will find listed below.

I hope you find this page interesting, and I hope you have fun making your own automata :-)

Banjo Strummer & Foot Tapper


Photo and toy by Custom Paper Toys.

To see the automaton in action click here.

Top-Rated Automata Books

Books are an excellent resource for paper automata makers because they contain all the info you need in one place, plus expert instruction and tips, and the best thing is that some books contain pre-printed patterns that you can cut out and use straight from the book. Here is a selection of the best options:


An Introduction To The Basic Mechanisms

The difference between a paper model/sculpture and a paper automaton is that an automaton needs to contain at least one mechanism in order to create a movement.

Here are a few main mechanisms and devices you will frequently see when making your own paper automata:

- Cams and followers: You will find a 'cam' in almost all automata, and it is always paired with a 'follower'. The mechanism is designed to turn a rotary movement into a back-and-forth (reciprocating) movement. A cam is a flat, often round shape with a hole through it. A shaft (a rod) goes through the hole and it is around this shaft that the cam rotates. The cam can be all kinds of shapes including a circle, oval or heart, and the hole through which the shaft goes can be through the centre of the cam or can be off-centre. These variances are what create different kinds of reciprocating movement, via the 'follower'.

A follower is a rod which has one end that rests on the rotating cam's edge and therefore moves up and down in a certain way depending on the shape of the cam. The follower is what translates the rotation into a specific pattern of reciprocating movement.

Click here for excellent diagrams and photos of cams, and here for mechanism animations.

- Crank Slider: A crank is a mechanism that also converts a rotary movement into a reciprocating movement (or vice versa). The crank is the part that rotates, and it can be as simple as a flat circle shape, whilst a slider is a long thin rigid shape that is attached (via a hinge/pivot) at a right angle to the crank so that it is offset from the centre line. As the crank rotates, the slider follows the circular movement and translates this into a back-and-forth motion within an enclosure. The slider part is called the slider because it slides within an enclosure, in order to control the movement. See this mechanism demonstrated here and here.

The handle on the side a paper automaton is most commonly a crank mechanism.

- Linkages: These mechanisms are created by linking together a series of levers using pivots or joints that allow the linkage to move freely. Linkages are very useful for producing a specific direction of movement. Click here and here for diagrams and more information about linkages.

- Levers: These are the most simple of mechanisms and sometimes a paper automaton consists solely of a lever mechanism where the user presses one side of the lever (a flat and long piece of rigid paper), which pivots on a fulcrum point and delivers an 'up' motion at the other end of the lever. Have a look at the mechanism in action here.

Different Types of Cam - (A Major Component of Automata)


1) Eccentric cam: This is a simple circular cam shape with a center of rotation that's not actually in the center. The cam rotates about this point (shown with a white dot on the diagram) and in paper models this is usually a rectangular tube, and in wood automata it is usually a cylindrical dowel.

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The further off-center it is, the more movement you will produce. The motion is a steady and constant up-down motion.

2) Drop/snail cam: This cam can only be rotated one way otherwise the mechanism would get stuck. It produces a steady up motion followed by a sudden drop for each rotation.

3) Pear/lobed cam: This produces a more pronounced up-and-down motion compared to the eccentric cam, and there is also not a constant movement - the motion is up, down, still, up, down, still... etc.

4) Oval cam: This produces two up-and-down movements in one rotation.

5) Circular cam: This has a point in the center of the circle, and therefore produces no movement.

6) Irregular cam: This fan-shaped example would create an up motion, then no motion (also called 'dwell'), then back down again and no motion. This would be one rotation.

There are various other designs you can use for cams, including hearts and hexagons, but you only find the simplest shapes in paper automata. If you would like to experiment with irregular or more complicated cams you would find far fewer limitations when working with wood.

1) is probably the most popular cam, and 2) and 3) also feature often in paper and wood models.

Cams & Followers


Cams are the basis of most automata and come in many different shapes. Pear-shaped cams like the one shown here are very popular, and the rods which rest on top of them are called followers (and are usually tubes made of folded card).

The followers convert the rotary cam motion to up-and-down motion. Looking at the labelled diagram, the cam is the same distance from the center to the outer edge between marks A and B as marked with the line. When the the follower is resting on any of this edge between A and B, therefore, it stays level at the same height and doesn't move.

As the cam rotates, the follower will start to rise as it travels along the edge of the cam from A to C. C is the peak height of the follower. Then from C to B the follower lowers back down to the original height.

The Dog Ate My Homework


Photo by Rob Ives.

Available to buy here.

Beginner's Lessons & Tips

Flying Pig

Free Templates & Toys 1

Whimsical Wooden Model

Free Templates & Toys 2

Slow Lovin'!


Download this design for free at Cardbawdy (I love the name!)

Photo from Rob Ives.

Where to Buy Kits & Downloads

  • Flyig Pig
    Fun printed kits which can be posted worldwide.
  • Rob Ives Shop
    With a few free printouts available too.
  • Cool4Cats
    King Kong, a stirring cup of tea & more.
  • Walter Ruffler
    Cool paper designs including dragons, pirates and knights.

Paper Automata Examples

Blogs, Inspiration & Ideas

Non-Paper Automata - Mechanisms Made With Wood, Metal & More

Rowing Shrimp

Please Leave a Comment!

anonymous on September 17, 2013:

nice as visit.

anonymous on September 17, 2013:

nice as visit

KidGryphon on February 07, 2013:

As an enthusiast for both papercraft and automata, I approve!

jim-s lm on April 16, 2012:

This is a very useful lens for people like me who are interested in all kind of things paper made

Sher Ritchie on April 15, 2012:

Wow - these are amazing! I love the rowing shrimp, he's fun!

anonymous on April 01, 2012:

very interesting idea!!!! great lens

lesliesinclair on January 31, 2012:

I'm so glad you made this lens, to teach me about some new paper and wood tricks! Delightful and fun.

MagnoliaTree on October 15, 2011:

I love all the fun and creative ideas you have here! So much fun in this article!

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