Thursday, 27 October 2011

Ball & Socket Armature - Double Ball Joint

Double Ball Joint 

This is going to be a monstrously long post so you might want to get comfortable.
In this post I'll be demonstrating how to make a ball and socket joint. Its quite a complex process so bare with me.
Ball joints are a more advanced method of making armatures. Unlike wire armatures, ball and sockets joints can be manipulated over and over again without wearing out and breaking. Another positive it that individual joints can be loosened or tightened to your desired tension. The down side to using ball joints is that they are time consuming and complicated to make. In the past I've made ball joints out of brass and used them in the necks of my puppets.You can read about my old ball and socket joints HERE.

I plan to make new armatures for the characters 'Roy' and 'Elle'. This will hopefully give them a greater range of motion and I won't have to worry about wearing out the aluminium wire armature. I plan to achieve all the articulation with an mix of steel ball joints and hinges. I'm quite confident that my home made ball joints work, the challenge is making them small enough to fit inside my characters.

If you want to see some great examples of ball and socket joints then I'd recommend John Wright. His ball and socket joints are super high quality and used for many professional productions. John Wright Ball Joints can be found HERE. 

Tools & Machinery

Here are some of the tools that I will be using. Firstly a bench drill press. I recently invested in this specifically for making ball and socket joints. Its quite small so it doesn't take up too much space.

The bench drill gives a lot more control that a hand drill and most importantly it drills strait down at 90 degrees every time. This is crucial as any wobbly holes will reduce the quality of the joint. I also use a range of different sized drill bits. Its important that they are HSS (high speed steel) as they will be drilling into steel.

Above you can see a small vice I use for holding materials while I drill. Its screwed into a small  wooden base so I can move it around while I'm working.

Finally, I use this rotary tool quite often at various stages. I have a collection of accessories that fit into the tool. pictured above is a reinforced cutting wheel.

Sandwich Plates

I start by making the plates that will hold the steel ball bearing. The size of the materials will vary depending on the size of the joint. Here I'm making a 5mm joint.

Above are the material for the plates. I use 6mm x 3mm steel bar (sold at B&Q in 1 meter lengths). The nuts and bolts are M2 (2mm). The bolts are called socket cap bolts and on the right is the Allen key that is used to tighten them.
I started by cutting 2 small identical lengths of steel bar with a hack saw. 
Its easier to make the plates in batches so I've marked one of the bars to show where it will be divided. I will be focusing on the left section.

Next I  mark where holes will be drilled. In the left hand section you can see that there will be 3 holes. the middle hole will be for the bolt and the holes either side of it will hold the ball bearings. Its best to keep all the holes central. If they are too close to an edge the joint could be wonky or weakened. I usually measure all the marks to make sure everything will line up OK.
When I'm happy with the positioning of the holes I use a center punch to put a little dent into the steel. This acts as a guide for the drill bit and locates it to the right spot. Without the center punch the drill bit would skate on the surface and drift off course.

I then clamped the two bars together making sure they lined up and the edges were flush. The blue vice holds the bars steady and the red G-clamp will stop them from separating when they are drilled.

I used a M1.5 HSS drill bit to drill a pilot hole into the steel. Its best to take your time and drill in short bursts, removing any metal filings. Its also a good idea to use cutting lubricant. After drilling the first 3 holes I re drilled them, expanding them to M2.

Once the holes where drilled I attached some of the nuts and bolts. These help to hold the 2 bars together. You don't want the bars to slip or the holes won't line up and the joint will be ruined.

I then drilled the holes for the other joints using the same method.I kept the G clamp on until all the holes where finished and I could bolt them together. The next stage was to separate the 3 joints.

Above are the 3 joints after they where cut with a hack saw. Its important not to mix up or rotate any of the plates or you might mess up the alignment. I draw black marks on the outside of each joint so I can remember how they line up. From now on I will just be showing the 3 hole joint that's at the front of the picture above.

Next I round the ends. I secure the plates in the vice with one nut and bolt tied in the middle hole.

The reinforced cutting wheel is great for cutting into the steel and shaping it. I use it on its fastest speed. Small sparks and metal specs fly from the metal so I recommend wearing goggles and a mask. ( I haven't mentioned any health and safety stuff before, but you should always take the necessary precautions when using tools and machinery).

After finishing one end I flipped the joint and rounded the other end. The rounded ends make the joints easier to handle and will give the joint more freedom to move.

Finally the plates should be complete and ready to hold some ball bearings. Above you can see the two plates loosened and separated.

Drilling & Soldering Ball Bearings

Now that the plates are ready the next stage is to drill some steel ball bearings to go in them.

For this I use 5mm stainless steel ball bearings and 1.5mm steel rod. The hardest part of this whole process is drilling ball bearings. Drilling straight into a sphere is tricky, and doing it at this scale can be a nightmare.

To hold the bearing steady I use some brass bar that has holes drilled into it. Much like the sandwich plates I just made, these will be used to clamp the ball on either side. If I tried to hold the bearing in a vice without the bars the ball would get scratched and likely spin loose when you try to drill it. Because brass is softer than steel it won't scratch the bearing.

To make the ball easier to drill I flatten the top edge. A flat surface is much easier to drill into than a curved surface. I use the cutting wheel but you could also use file.

Next I make a small dent in the centre where the hole will be drilled. This will guide the drill much line a centre punch would. To do this I use a small, pointed diamond cutting bit in the rotary tool.

Next I expand the dent using a 1mm drill bit in the rotary tool.
I then drill the bearing using a M1.5 HSS drill bit and the drill press. I once again drill in short bursts. I try to drill about 60% of the way through.

Finally I check to see if the steel rod fits. If the hole is too shallow I drill some more.

Next the ball bearing needs to be soldered onto the steel rod. The join needs to be really strong as the ball and rod will be under huge pressure when secured in the joint.
 Above are the tools I use. On the left is a tub of flux which is used to help the solder fuse with the metal. At the top you can see some helping hands (small metal clips) that holds things in place while I work. The yellow reel holds Silver Solder wire. Mine is an acid core solder thats designed to be used with metal. Silver Solder is much stronger than soft solder (which is designed for electrical soldering.) My solder isn't ideal as its a little bit thick. The thinner solder is best for making ball and socket Joints. You can find Solder and Flux HERE
At the bottom of the picture is a small butane torch that's used for heating up the metal and melting the solder. Finally you can see that everything is laying on grey brick. This acts as a heat proof surface that I work on. I don't want to burn down my desk.

First I roughed up the surface of the areas that will be joined. This helps the solder stick the the metal and gives it something to grab onto. To do this I used a file. You don't want any grease or dirt on the metal or it might prevent the solder from sicking.
I then applied flux paste into the hole of the bearing and onto the end of the steel rod. I pushed the two parts together and used the helping hands to hold the parts on the surface.

Its difficult to take pictures while your soldering as my hands are busy holding the torch and the solder wire. I start by heating up the ball all around and keeping the flame moving. The white flux paste will fizz and turn clear. As this happens I dab the solder wire onto the join. The solder should melt and move around the flux into the join. The flux helps the solder to move and sometimes you can direct the solder using the heat.
The bearing will start to glow a cherry pink. Once this happens I dunk the ball into some water and quench the heat.

After drying it down it should be cool. You can see in the picture above that the metal is darker and has fire scale on it.
I use some wire wool to clean of the dirt and shine the bearing up. Now that I've completed the first ball  I repeat the process to make the second ball.
Above you can see the two balls ready to be assembled between the sandwich plates. After testing if everything works I usually solder the nut onto the outside of the sandwich plate to stop it from rotating. this will mean the joint can be tightened using just the Allen key in the socket cap screw. To neaten things up I cut off the excess bolt and give everything a quick polish.

Finally the ball and socket joint is complete and ready to be played with. It's wise to test the function of the joint before incorporating it into the rest of the armature and building a puppet around it. you wouldn't want to discover that one of the soldered parts was loose after all that work.
I will be using this kind of ball and socket joint for the waist of my new armatures. Using these basic methods I will be making several different joints and I'll post details about them soon. I will probably continue with hinge joints.( Hopefully it will be a shorter post)

I hope people find this useful.
Thanks for reading.


  1. nice walk thru. when you guys gonna start a feature film? So why not sodder the ball to the rod first, so it's easier for the vice grip to hold it?

  2. Thanks for the informative tutorial Nathan!

  3. I wish I had a shop so I could try this! Super-great tutorial, invaluable info!

  4. Thanks very much. I am going to make one of those myself but I would just like to know what size bass tubing you are using for the puppets. Cheers, Toby.

  5. Thanks for the comments everyone.
    Toby- I use many different sizes of K&S. It depends on what body part I'm making. For example the Mail mans arms and legs are 3/16" (4.76mm). The hands and feet that slot into them are one size down 5/32" (3.97mm). The Elle armature used even thinner K&S to fit her petite size.If you can I'd recommend buying it in person at a store. That way you can see the sizes first hand and choose what suits your characters needs.

  6. where did you buy your ball bearings? loving the stuff you and your bro are doing.

  7. I got mine from ebay.
    If I were you, I'd stick with the jewellery bars.
    They're cheap and much easier to drill.
    Nice blog by the way, I like your character. :)

    1. cheers thanks a lot. i have started using my drill press as a lathe. cut a piece of brass tube then put it in the drill press, turn it on and use a little dremel tool to slowly grind out the shape of a ball on the end of a bar. worked quite well. ill try put some pics up soon.

      all the best

  8. Where do you get your bearings and rods from? I'm having difficulty finding any at my local hardware stores

  9. Unknown-
    I had the same problem.
    I got the steel ball bearings from ebay and found the rod from a local model shop.
    Its propably easiest to shop online.
    Hardware stores rarely stock the correct materials for small scale projects like ball and socket joints.

  10. I got my white metal bearings at the best company that provides them. Still using it for a long time already.
    white metal bearings

  11. Wonderful blog! I have just one question: how to make holes in the spheres of carbon steel?

    1. Thanks, I'm glad you like the blog. :)

      The steel spheres (Ball Bearings) were drilled using a drill press.

    2. I apologize for my bad English. I meant, what kind of drill bit do you use?

    3. No need to apologize :)

      I use a HSS drill bit.
      HSS stands for 'High Speed Steel' and is designed for cutting metal.

      Hope that helps :)

    4. You and your brother's blogs are really cool. I like to see how you make all the pieces that most people wouldn't notice. I used to do stop motion a few years back but kinda stepped back from it for a while but I'm looking to start doing it again.

  12. Thank you so much, I will follow always your blog!

  13. Regardless of the materials, all bearing needs care to insure the proper working of the machine. babbit bearings

  14. A nice blog this is, having ideas of Application and useness of ball joint. Ball joint is constructed using a bearing stud and a socket. They are housed within a casing. The bearing stud is fitted into a thin hole in the navigating knuckle. Thanks for sharing

  15. Hey there. Excellent blog! I've recently begun creating my own ball and socket armatures out of raw materials and pre-fabricated ball and socket joints from mini inspection mirrors. However, I just purchased a drill press so I can begin crafting everything for my armatures from scratch. (Oh how many times I've said, "If I had a drill press...")

    Anyways... I have a question for you about attaching the ball bearings to the steel rods. I'm terribly inefficient when it comes to soldering (still hoping to get it right some day), so I was wondering if steel epoxy might be used in it's place? Do you think that would be strong enough, have you tried that before?

    I suppose the best way to find out is to just try it, but you seem to have this down to a science so I figured it was worth picking your brain about.

    Thank you again for making so much useful and detailed information available on your blog. Best of luck to you in all of your creative endeavors.

    1. Hi Mike,
      Thanks for the compliments :)
      Sadly, I don't think epoxy will be strong enough.
      The joint will be under a huge amount of pressure and that's the most delicate area.
      I think, for peace of mind, you're better off soldering it. Epoxy might work for a little while, but it won't last. And you wouldn't want your armature to fail after you've fleshed out your puppet and started animating.

    2. Thanks for your reply. :-)

      I appreciate the incite. You may have just saved me some heartache. Looks like I'm off to the hardware store for some soldering supplies.

      It's better that I learn to do it anyway. "If I only knew how to solder and weld" is probably the second most frequent thing I've said to myself since I started down this path. :P

      Thank you very much for sharing your knowledge.

    3. Hi Mike,

      You're welcome.
      I'm glad I could help.

      Make sure you pick a solder that is designed for metal work. (Not electrical solder)
      The higher the silver content the better, and don't forget the Flux.

      Good luck with your project. :)

    4. Hi Nathan,

      I have another question for you. I've run into a snag with my ball bearings. I bought chrome-steel bearings, and they are proving to be incredibly difficult to drill.

      I've filed them down on one side, but when I tried to punch a hole it just dulled the end of my awl, and a few other pointy things I tried.

      So I did some research, and came across a thread that suggested heating the bearings and letting them slow-cool to soften the steel. So I tried it, and I was able to punch a hole, but my bits still slide and bend against the bearing when i go to drill. It doesn't even look like they're making a scratch, and I've notice the tips on a few bits have begun to wear down.

      When I purchased my drill press, I couldn't remember what sort of bits you used, so I just asked for bits that could drill hard steel. The clerk suggested titanium bits. Now I see that you mention High Speed Steel (HSS) bits, and I'm not sure if those are stronger than titanium ones or not.

      So I'm interested to know if you used a special kind of bearing? For example I read that carbon steel bearings are easier to drill. I'm also curious if you know whether or not titanium drill bits are suited for this task or not. I've tried so many times now that I'm pulling my hair out trying to pin point what the issue is. I'm supposed to finish the armature and sculpting by the weekend, so I'm starting to worry a bit.

    5. Hi Mike,

      Steel comes in lots of different grades and it sounds like the bearings you have will be too tough to drill.
      If the titanium or HSS drill bits can't even scratch the surface then I don't think the heat trick will work.
      You might have to source some new (lower grade) bearings.
      If your tight for time, you could try using stainless steel body peircings. I think they're called barbells. I've used them before with no problems. I got a pack of 10 on ebay with equals 20 pre drilled balls.

      I hope that helps. :)

    6. That barbell tip is genius! I will definitely have to remember that.

      Well, I did finally manage to drill into these bearings. I've never done any metal-working before, so I didn't think to use lubrication. That was the key ingredient. I didn't have time to go out and get anything specific, so I just used some W-D40. Drills through like butter.

      Now I just need to practice punching better center holes. I've had 50% success so far, the rest are pretty... pretty off. haha

      Thank you again for all your help. I really appreciate it very much. I think I've got a handle on this now... I hope.

      Take care :D

  16. I totally, TOTALLY admire the DIY-approach here. Having worked as a designer / design manager on LEGO's Bionicle project (basically armatures clad with plastic elements), I know how hard it is to come up with a concept that works as well as yours... one tiny piece of advice: A rotary tool is good for many things - but NOT for cutting mild steel or even rounding off large radii. Get a metal file (#3, 180 - 240mm long) and a metal saw (HSS bi-metal) - you will be surprised how effective and precise you can work with just a little practice (also, you are way faster and you don't dust you whole work area with abrasive dust)...

    1. Thanks for the advice.
      I'll give it a go next time. :)

  17. Do you have to have a 6mm x 3mm Steel bar. Can you use a 1/4,1/2

    1. Hi Jacob,

      It doesn't have to use 6mm x 3mm steel.
      That's just the best size I could find localy.

      The size of the steel plates will change depending on the size of the ball in the joint.
      When selecting the steel, be mindful that it will need to be thick/strong enough to hold the tension of the joint. If it's too thin it will buckle under the pressure. Also If the steel is too thick/big you'll have larger, clunkier joints that will add unwanted extra weight to your puppet.

      Hope that helps :)

  18. have you ever considered using some piercing balls like this one

    since they come already threaded?
    I'm planning to use them, but I can't manage to find the right rods

    1. Hi Daniel,

      Yes I've used the piercing balls before.
      (I used tongue bars...eww)
      They work great. That's a good eBay find.

      If you can, I'd avoid using the thread.
      When I did it I ended up using the existing hole as a pilot and drilled out the thread. (much easier than drilling a steel bearing from scratch). Then I cut steel rod to size and soldered them together.

      I've never had much faith in the threaded bar/glue method of making ball joints. Soldering gives a much more secure join, and a secure join gives me peace of mind. ;)

      I hope that helps.

  19. Great blog , ...I have fully read the post. Thanks for sharing it...

    I really liked it ...Have A Nice Day...


  20. I'm glad to have came across your blog. I'm a sculptor of dolls and figurines. I don't want to use wire because they will break eventually which can be expensive. I want my dolls to be seamless with all of the joints in the inside. I'll try your method out. Thanks a lot!

  21. Thanks for this great blog. Are you in the business of providing finished joints? If not, does anyone know where I might purchase a good number of them? I am looking for sandwich plates of 1 inch, 1/4 inch rod and 3/8 diameter balls. My email address is Thank you very much.

  22. Great blog. Thank you. Are you or anyone you know in the business of providing joints? I'd be interested in proto typing a specific project with prefabricated joints. Thanks.

  23. Hi I hope someone can help me here, I am looking for ball joints that are very small and will hold a pose. I make posable dragons, I am using barbie doll leg joints for the knees and elbows but I can't seem to find any ball joints that are strong enough to hold a pose.

  24. Hello, I'm really grateful for your blog! It's been very helpful for my specialism in uni. I was wondering if you would answer a question. I couldn't find any Steel bars at that size besides HSS. I got it in thinking it was ok, but my tutor told be it's virtually impossible to cut without a special drill bit. Is there anywhere you can recommend for the steel or can we replace it for aluminum or a softer metal? Thanks again for your blog.

    1. Hi Joe,
      I’m glad you’ve found my blog useful.
      I’ve had a quick look online and it seems really difficult to find any 3mm thick steel flat bar that’s less that’s 10mm in width. I think the steel I got from B&Q many years ago was only available in store. It may have been discontinued since.
      Your tutor is right. Most drill bits are made from HSS so they wouldn’t be much good against the steel you bought. My first idea would be to cut down a wider steel bar to make your joint plates. It’s a little bit of extra work but you can get the same results. Alternately you could try sourcing another material. Steel was a good choice because it’s very strong and least likely to buckle under the tension of the screw in the joint. You could try using brass which it a little bit softer. I’ve made armatures entirely out of brass before with success. Aluminium is probably much too soft so I would avoid that.
      I hope that helps and good luck with your project.