Kaleidoscope Parts and How to Build One

Kaleidoscopes come in an unlimited number of shapes, sizes, materials and colors. 

There is no set design for kaleidoscopes, however many do have similar appearances.  Most are round or square tubular shapes around 6 to 12 inches long and a few inches in diameter.  Most have one end designed to be looked through and the other end designed to provide objects for viewing. 

All Kaleidoscopes have one or more reflective surfaces inside them to create the kaleidoscope's image. This is called the scope's mirror system. 

All kaleidoscopes allow for light to enter the object end.  Without light, kaleidoscope do not function.

There are four basic scope types:

  • Handheld
  • Parlor or Desktop
  • Miniature (often made into jewelry such as necklaces, rings, pendants and earrings)
  • Floor Model


Pictures of two handheld and then one parlor, miniature and floor model kaleidoscopes

Kaleidoscopes consist of the following parts:

  • The Body
  • The Mirror System
  • The Eye Piece
  • The Object Mechanism (and the Objects)
  • The Stand (optional)
  • Additional Options (Additional Viewing Objects, Storage Box, Light Source, Music Box) 

You basically need to construct each part in a manner that will eventually allow them to fit together and then assemble the scope by combining the parts. Start with the body and insert and secure the mirror system inside it.  Then add the eye piece and object chamber to each end.

See either of the following two books for detailed directions on how to make many different forms of kaleidoscopes:

  • "The Kaleidoscope Book: A Spectrum of Spectacular Scopes to Make" by Thomas Bowell
  • "Simple Kaleidoscopes: 24 Spectacular Scopes to Make" by Gray Newlin

Another good option for making a first kaleidoscope is to purchase a kaleidoscope kit.  The kit will provide the parts needed and allow you to assemble it.  Be careful when picking a kit, as the amount of effort needed varies greatly between kits.  Many different kits can be found by searching the internet.  A variety of good kits are available from Kaleidoscope World or Boston Craftworks.  More advanced kits can be found at Clarity Glass

The Body

The kaleidoscope body is the main part of the scope to which the other parts are attached.  The body of scopes is usually structured in one of the classic geometric shapes of the cylinder, triangle, square and rectangle.

Kaleidoscope bodies are usually made of stained glass, brass (or other metals), wood or acrylics however scopes have been made from just about anything. Popular items include soda, beer & wine bottles, eggs, gourds, and seashells.  

Kaleidoscope bodies are often built to look like other objects such as planes, cars, people, animals, lighthouses and even famous buildings however, mostly kaleidoscope bodies are built to look beautiful.  To look like the pieces of art they are.

Some scopes have two or more bodies.  These are either Binocular or Companion scopes. 

  • Binocular Scopes - scopes which have two bodies connected together in the middle to allow the person viewing the scope to use both eyes
  • Companion Scopes - Scopes that allow 2 or more people to view the objects at the same time.  Companion scopes often have many bodies connected together to allow multiple people to view simultaneously.  Companion scopes which have the objects in the middle and allow the viewers to view from each end usually have only a single body. 

When building a first kaleidoscope's body, objects most often used are Pringles potato chip cans, plastic cups or PVC piping.  Remember that the human eye needs around 6 inches to focus, so the body should be at least that long or a magnifying lens is required.  After constructing the body, it may be decorated.  Legs are often added to the body so that a stand is not needed.

Below photos show 4 scopes made from the most common materials (stained glass, wood, acrylic, brass) and 4 scopes made from odd materials (tree burl, beer bottle, seashell, goose egg).


The Mirror System

The mirror system is the heart and soul of the kaleidoscope.

The following are three considerations for mirror systems:

  • Dimensions
  • Materials
  • Configuration

Dimensions - The mirror systems should fit well inside the body of the scope.  The length is easy to figure out (length from the eye piece to the object cell).  The diameter is harder to figure out.  Once you determine the type of mirror system you want, do some math to estimate the width of your mirrors.  Then cut up some cardboard strips to size and tape them together as a mock-up of your mirror system.   Use it to temporarily test putting your scope together.  If the fit is good, purchase or cut real mirrors to this size.

Materials - Most first time scopes are created using 2nd surface mirrors.  Second surface mirrors have the reflective coating on the back surface.  This material is available at all glass shops and they will usually sell cut-to-size pieces.  High end scopes use front or first surface mirror.  It is a bit harder to get and more expensive but since the reflection comes off the front, it provides superior quality for kaleidoscopes (if you see a kaleidoscope image that is cloudier in some areas, the scope uses second surface mirrors).  Remember that must front surface mirrors come with a removable plastic lamination to protect the mirror coating which must be removed before using.

Configuration - This means picking the type of system and the angle of the mirrors.  Types are most usually 2, 3 or 4 mirrors.  Two and three mirror systems have a triangular mirror shape while four mirror systems are either square, rectangular or diamond shaped.

The most popular system is the 60-60-60 degree 3-mirror system.  For it, 3 mirrors all the same length and width, are taped together length-wise to form an equilibrium triangle.

To learn more about different types of mirror systems go to our Kaleidoscope Mirror Systems page.

The Eye Piece

The eye piece is the area of the scope that will be used for viewing.  It needs to conform to the body shape of the scope.  It has a viewing hole (also called an "eye hole") that often conforms to the mirror system.  Three considerations exist for the viewing hole within the eye piece:

  • Placement - in the center or off center
  • Size - may be almost as big as the end of the scope body
  • Shape - mostly circular or an oval but can be triangular or square (teardrop shape is very popular for 2-mirror scopes)

The viewing hole is usually back filled with a piece of glass to prevent dust from entering the scope.  This glass is referred to as the scope's lens.  Top end kaleidoscopes often use an optical lens with magnifying properties.

Some scopes have dual bodies allowing the viewer to uses both eyes.  These are called binocular scopes.  Another type of scope which requires eye piece considerations is the multiple mirror system scope.  It has 2 or 3 mirror systems inside of one body using one object chamber.  It requires the eye piece to have a lens for each mirror system. 

When building a first kaleidoscope's eye piece, objects most often used are cardboard taped to the end, duct tape with an opening or a PVC pipe end cap with a hole drilled in it.  It is also fine to omit the eye piece altogether.  A piece of plastic secured to the inside of the eye piece makes a great first lens.

Below photo shows 5 scopes with different sizes and shapes of eye piece.

The Object Mechanism

Kaleidoscopes must provide objects to be viewed.  These objects often are translucent to allow light to enter te mirror system (light must enter the mirror system for the scope to function).  These objects are attached to the scope or made accessible to the scope via the one of the following Object Mechanisms: 

  • Object Cell or Chamber
  • Wand(s)/Puck(s)
  • Wheel(s)/Cylinders/Turntables
  • Teleidoscope
  • Marbles or Crystals
  • Polarized Light Filters
  • Hybrid

Object Cell or Chamber- These terms are used interchangeably.  Object cells are attached directly to the scope's body.  They can rotate independently of the scope's body.

Object cells are filled with objects which change positions when the scope moves or the object cell is turned.  Each time the objects change position a different image is produced.  Three basic types exist:

  • Dry cell - contains dry objects.  The objects only move when the scope or chamber moves allowing viewers to see an image indefinitely.
  • Liquid-filled cell - The objects continue to move on their own.  This provides continuously changing images. 
  • Fillable cells - these open so that the viewer can change the objects they are viewing.  These are dry cells.

Wand(s)/Puck - These are similar to the liquid filled cell in that they are liquid-filled however they are not directly attached to the scopes body.  This allows them to be interchanged.  The popular "wand scopes"  allow for the purchase of additional wands with different color liquids.  Most "puck scopess" come with multiple interchangable pucks.

Wheel(s)/Cylinders/Turntables - They often attach to the scope's body via an attachment such as a rod or wire(s).   Some attach through the end of the scope's body or are attached to the scope's stand.  They always rotate independently of the scope's body and are at an angle to the scope's body.

Wheel scopes use one or more wheels as objects.  Most use multiple wheels since a single wheel greatly reduces the number of viewable images.  The wheels usually contain objects such as stained glass, gemstones and dried flowers. 

Cylinders (disc, drum, barrel) are also used.  They add to the scopes appearance and don't hang down below the scope like wheels do.  For this reason must scopes with a cylinder don't need a stand.  Scopes with a dry cylinder are limited to a small number of unique images (one time around the cylinder and you have seen every possible image).  Liquid filled cylinders are also used which prevents the issue of a limited number of viewable images.

Turntables (sometimes called a carousel) are plates that objects can be put on.  They are usually part of the stand and the scope looks down at an angle at them.  They usually add to the appearance of the scope and allow for changing of objects. 

Teleidoscope - There is no object chamber, only a clear lens that turns everything it is pointed toward into a kaleidoscopic image.  This allows the viewer to turn anything from friends and family to their flower garden into a kaleidoscopic image.

Marbles or Crystals- They allow for glass marbles or crystals to be viewed as objects.  Turning the marble or crystal changes the image.  Marbles can often be changed. Crystals usually contain colors or objects for viewing and also allow the scope to function as a teleidoscope.

Polarized Light Filters - They filter out light rays that would normally pass through creating a dark background for the image.  Other light rays are refracted or angled though the filters and are seen as various colors depending on the angles.  The images are dramatically different from other kaleidoscopic images in both color and shape and appear almost 3-dimentional.

Hybrid - This is simply a combination of two of the about.  A common one is to have an object cell with a clear end so it is also a teleidoscope.

When creating an object chamber it is important to remember that light must enter the object chamber.  Most object chambers are end lit, meaning that the light enters though a translucent end to the object chamber.   Some are side lit.  When viewing a kaleidoscope you need to understand this to know what direction to the light to hold the scope so that the maximum amount of light to enters it.

The simplest object chamber is the mirror system itself.  By putting 20 or so small translucent beads of different colors and shapes into the mirror system and sealing the non-viewing end with a plastic cap, you have made an excellent object chamber.  Add the eye piece to the other end and you have a great first scope.  Not only will the image change as you turn the scope but you will get a very unique experience as you tilt the scope up and down (the beads will flow back and forth).

You can use many different objects in your object chamber.  Paper clips, buttons, feathers and small translucent colored beads of different shapes and sizes work well.  Remember to use objects that allows light to pass through them and not to fill the chamber too full over the pieces will not easily move.  High end scopes will use dichroic glass, semi-precious stones, liquid filled glass ampules and polarized materials.

Below photo 11 scopes with different object mechanisms.  Objects mechanisms are: dry cell, liquid-filled cell, fillable cell, wand, wheel, cylinder, turntable, marble, crystal, polarized light filters and teleidoscope.  Can you find them all?

Below photo shows a puck object mechanism.

The Stand

The kaleidoscope stand allows the scope to remain stable while at rest and also enhances the display of the kaleidoscope.  Stands are either custom designed for a particular scope or generic in that they work with a variety of scopes.

Kaleidoscope stands come in many varieties.  The scopes are either separate (handheld scopes) or attached (parlor and floor models).  While parlor or floor model scopes are designed to be viewed while on their stand, many are removable from the stands. 

Handheld scope stands are usually made of wood or plastics.  Sometimes small pillows or cloths are used as stands.  

Often stands serve additional purposes such as adding a light source to the scope, providing music, or holding the scope's object chamber.

While no stand is needed when building a first kaleidoscope, most high end scopes will come with a matching stand.

Below photo shows a large scope with a large custom stand.

Additional Options

These items are also found on or come with kaleidoscopes however it is rare:

  • Additional Viewing Objects
  • Storage Box
  • Light Source
  • Music Box

Additional Viewing Objects - Scopes may come with extra wheels, marbles or object cells.  Usually when this occurs a stand is provided that allows the extras to be stored on or in the stand.  Sometimes a box is provided for storing the scope and the extras. 

Some scopes with opening objects cells come with extra objects.  Often they can be stored in the scope's stand.

Storage Box - Some scopes come with storage box.  The box is usually a wooded box however some boxes are matched to the scope's material.  These boxes are most often padded or felt lined.  It is called a "boxed set" kaleidoscope when the kaleidoscope comes with several interchangeable additional viweing objects which all fits into a specially crafted box.

Light Source -  some scopes come with their own light source.  Most often the light is part of the stand and utilizes a switch to turn it on.  The earliest example of this was the Bush parlor scope which came with a wire candle holder.

Music Box - Some scopes come with a music box built into them or their stand. 

Below photos show a scope that has a stand that stores its extra objects and a "box set" scope.