Photo-Frame Pinwheel



This pinwheel is the classic, retro fidget-spinner — with photos added for personality. Shiny, spinny things have fascinated me since I was born, and I'll never outgrow it. You need this dynamic desk toy.

The pinwheel spins by breath, gusts of wind, air-conditioning, fans, or the twirl of a toothpick. Tekkies among you can add a pager motor and wire it to a battery or solar cell for added style. My solar pinwheel spins all day while the sun shines.

Transmogrifying cans into spinning pinwheels is a great party trick. I've spent entire airplane flights making them for the kids on the plane. The overhead air nozzle really sets it spinning.

Demo Videos


Scratch a Line. This "first" step is optional. Making the pinwheel as shown requires you to separate the can into two parts: the base (made from the top of the can) and the wheel (made from its bottom). If you want the "petals" at the base to be identical in length and the "arms" of the pinwheel to be identical in length, it helps to scratch a line around the circumference of the can. You will make this line before you cut the eight slots down the side of the can using the slider. After making the slots and removing the can from the sleeve, you will cut with scissors along the line you've drawn; this separates the can in two parts, the base and wheel.

To scratch the line, put the can partway into the sleeve. About the top third should be sticking up. The precise height doesn't matter, but obviously it affects the length of the leaves and the length of the arms. Then stick a pushpin into the side of the can at the holes in the top of the sleeve in order to anchor the can in place. This prevents the can from rotating, elevating, or decending in the sleeve as you scratch the line. Use a pushpin to scratch a line around the circumference of the can by dragging it along the circle where the can meets the upper ledge of the sleeve.

Be firm in your scratching, since the whole point is to abrade away the epoxy-covered paint to expose the aluminum surface of the can. Remove the pushpin.

Make the Slots. Push the can fully into the sleeve. Rotate the can so that the hole you just made in the "Scratch a Line" step lies along a slot-edge that you're going to use. [This way, it will "disappear" when you make your slot over it.] Poke a pushpin into the side so that the can is locked into place. Make 8 slots, equidistantly placed around the can, as taught on the instructions page ("Slicing the Side").

Cut the Can. Use the line you scratched in step two to cut the can into two parts. If you skipped scratching the line, then estimate where the line would be and cut there. I find that, if I haven't scratched the line, my cuts are more accurate if I cut one panel, then cut three panels in the clockwise direction, then four panels in the counter-clockwise direction. This way, any drifting in my cut lines are minimized.

Spread the Petals. The petals serve both a functional and aesthetic purpose. The wider the base, the harder it is to tip it over. Since the can is lightweight, this adds important stability. Another trick for adding stability is to tape or glue pennies to the underside of the base.

Making perfect petals can be a bit tricky, and I haven't been able to devise a good tool to make this easier. There is a point just a few millimeters from the beginning of the petal where the can's metal goes from being stiff to being flappy. That's the place where the bend in the petal should be. I've learned where this point is by feel and practice, and you will too after making a few pinwheels.

There is a way to find the bending point if you're not sure where it is. Gently bend the top of the petal and then continue that curve downward until you feel the point where it resists curving. Then make a gentle fold right there. The videos above show this better process than I can describe it. Bend out all eight petals until each is pointing out at a 90 degree angle from the base. Obviously, you need to keep your thumb away from the sharp edges of the petals as you curve them. If you're worried, wear gloves or a "thumble" on your thumb.

Make the Straw Stand. There are two good ways to do this. In each way, the first step is to remove the tab. Just wiggle it back and forth over its full range of motion until the tab snaps off by itself. This is called "fatiguing" the metal. (Basically, metal can only bend back and forth over the same point until it gives up resisting your attempt to pull it apart.) If it breaks on only one side of the "C" shaped tab, then you can peel it all off gently. Otherwise, if it breaks on both sides of the "C," you can pull off the tab, then twist the "C" around until the back end hangs over the opening and then pry off the "C" using the tab.


The easiest way to make the straw stand is to use the plastic one sold with your Aluminator kit. Drop the bottom end into the opening, then twist it so the slot slips over the lip of the opening. Push it gently into place. The straw is then slipped on top of the stand. The nice thing about the straw stand is that you can easily remove and replace the straw so that you don't have to carry the base around with the pinwheel. Also, the straw stand can be easily removed and transferred to your next pinwheel.

strawstand generic

If you don't have a spare straw stand, then you can use two toothpicks to make one. Use a pushpin to poke a hole in the very center of the base from the inside surface to the outside surface. Enlarge the hole to toothpick-size by using the punch – again by poking from the inside to the outside. Cut a wedge-shaped section out of the straw where you intend to fit it over the hole. For aesthetic and functional reasons, the flat part of the wedge should be resting against the top surface of the base. Position the wedge over the hole, then push a toothpick through the hole so it passes through the straw without being exposed. Push the toothpick far enough into the straw so that it won't hit the floor upon which the base will rest.

At this point, the straw will be secured to the base but will be wobbly. You can kill the wobble by spearing the straw into the base with another toothpick. Use your pushpin and punch as before to poke a hole completely through the straw. The holes should line up at about a 45 degree angle so that, when the straw is pointing straight up, the toothpick passing through the holes will intersect the base at a 45 degree angle.

The best way to make the second hole in the base is to pass the toothpick through the straw and see where the toothpick is going to pierce the metal when the straw is properly positioned. Pierce that spot with a pushpin. Don't pierce it at an angle; just push straight down with a lot of force, since the metal here is strong. Pierce it again with the punch to enlarge the hole – then tilt the punch so the hole it makes is twisted to line up with the toothpick.

Shove the toothpick firmly through the second hole. Don't slip and stab yourself in the center of your palm with the toothpick. Don't shove so hard that you splinter the toothpick into your fingers. Once the toothpick is inserted securely, you can clip off the pointy end with nail clippers if desired.

If you like, you can cut your main straw in half, or use multiple straws, to make a "telescoping" straw that can be lengthened or shortened at will.

Make the Wheel. The first wheel-making step is exactly like making the petals. Spread the arms out at a 90 degree angle.

Then make the center hole by first placing the center finder into the wheel, then poking the pushpin forcefully through its center hole, then removing the center finder, and then pushing the punch through the hole to enlarge it to toothpick-size. It can help to twist the punch as you penetrate the metal.

Then shove the toothpick perpendicularly through either a toothpick clip or a short segment of straw. (This will act as a stabilizer to ensure that the toothpick will extend exactly axially from the can bottom.) Then shove the toothpick tip through the hole so that the wood is firmly gripped and compressed in the hole. [If you like, you can add a drop of water to the tip of the toothpick so it soaks into the wood to expand it. This helps lock it in place.] If you want, you can insert the toothpick after you've put the curve and twist in the arms, as explained below. The arms will flex against the table, but they'll flex back into proper position after the toothpick is properly seated in the can.

The next steps are to curve the arms, then put the twist in them. This can be accomplished in one step if you're skillful enough. You can take different approaches here. First, you can use the twisting wand to put in the curve and the twist, as shown in the video. Try to position the wand at a 45 degree angle to the arm so that you are adding the twist simultaneously with the curve. If not, you can put the curve in with the wand and then, carefully, manually twist the arm into shape. Bend the arm around until it has been moved into the shape you want. Remember, the way metal works is that it will bend for a bit without permanently deforming, but once you move past that point, it will keep part of the bend that you just put into it. So overshoot a slight bit on your bending.

Another approach is to put the curve and twist in manually. Your fingers are a more sensitive tool, and with practice, the curve and twist you tend to get will be smoother and more regular. The trick here is to protect your thumb. Be aware of where it is at all times. Also, don't apply very much force as you bend the metal. You don't need to pinch the arm with any force as you flex it. You don't need to slide your thumb forcefully against the silver arm. [Your other fingers are protected because there's nothing sharp on the other side of the arm.] If you're concerned about injury, wear a cotton glove or a thumb-thimble. Or, cover your thumb with a towel or napkin.

Again, you can put in the curve and the twist simultaneously by working at a 45 degree angle. Your index and second fingers will be positioned equidistantly at the inner apex of the curve. The fingertip points should make an angle that is 45 degrees relative to the direction of the arm. (See the videos above for better clarification.) The bottom fingers do most of the pressing up and the work, whereas the thumb is there mainly as a guide and to ensure that the arm stays bent over the other fingers.

Make the Spin Mount.

Make the spin mount by passing a pushpin through the straw at a 45 degree angle. (I like the look of the wheel tilting up slightly to face the observer.) Then push the punch or a toothpick through those holes. Then put a short section of coffee straw over a nail. Then push the end of the nail through the holes. While the nail is positioned completely through the straw, slide the straw section over the nail so it also penetrates the larger straw. You may have to pinch the larger straw a bit to keep it from being crushed in by the force of the nail or the straw section as they penetrate. After sliding the straw segment completely through the larger straw, pull out the nail.

As an alternative to using a nail, you can simply snip a horizontal cut in the places where the coffee straw segment will enter and exit the larger straw. Then pass the straw through the slots you made.

Slide the wheel's toothpick through the straw segment. To keep it from falling out, cut a small section of straw and pierce it perpendicularly with a pushpin. Shove that on the end of the toothpick up to the spin mechanism, but don't touch it against the coffee straw. If you do, the friction between them can prevent spinning. If you don't have a coffee straw, you can use a short, folded-up section of the larger straw, as shown in the photo above.

Picture It. The centerfinder serves a dual purpose. Not only does it find the center of the can for spinning purposes (the pinwheel and the Canimation), but you can use it to cut out images to place in the center of the pinwheel. Just place the center finder on the magazine or photo image you want. Place the center hole of the center finder on top of the center of the desired point of rotation. Poke a small hole in the image with your pushpin. Use the curved slots in the center finder to draw cut-line borders in the image. Cut those lines you've drawn with scissors. I guess you could use a pushpin to scratch the image off the page by using the curved slots, but I've never gotten good results that way. Shove the toothpick tip through the center hole in the image and press it into place.

Friction is usually strong enough to hold the picture in place. If a more permanent solution is desired, you can tape the image in place with double-sided tape stretched across the bottom/dish. This method keeps the image flat and unsquished, which sometimes is a better effect.

Image seletion is a matter of taste, but I like colorful images that have a sense of rotation. For example, consider the spiral in the photos above. Or, the muppet pouring chips into its mouth as the pinwheel spins. Also, feel free to extend slightly outside the borders of the wheel for effect -- like when I left the muppet's green hair fall outside the circle. When spinning a face, it's good to have the center fall exactly on a pupil or the tip of the nose.

For your convenience, I've included a pdf file containing some center images for you to print out. I hope you like them.

Electrify It.

We do not yet sell the motors and connectors for making the electric pinwheel or the solar-powered pinwheel. Thank you for your patience.

If you are motivated nonetheless, you could purchase a pager motor at your local electronics store, along with the necessary wiring and battery casing, and solder and superglue this together yourself. [The eccentric weights that cause vibration are very, very difficult to remove without damaging the motor's shaft.] The solar cells and "Miller" solar engine components can be secured from Solarbotics, or perhaps you could cannibalize parts from solar lights bought from Home Depot or from a solar toy.

You can conceal the pager motor in a piece of straw held by a fuse clip and also run the wiring through the support straw and into the base, if you want to get fancy.

Clock It.

Print out an image of your choice with a clock-hands foreground that's sized to fit the well of the wheel. You'll need some skills with Gimp or Photoshop and it's layering function, sizing function, and transparency functions, but it's doable. The skills needed to do this are beyond what I'm capable of teaching in this website, but Youtube can teach you these essential life skills. If you just want a blank clock face, it's in this pdf. To order the clock mechanism, try Amazon or Klockit.


  1. The photo-frame pinwheel makes a great fundraising tool. Instead of a lemonade stand, just sell cold sodas. While the customer waits, watching in amazement, drinking her soda from a plastic cup, you can quickly make the can into a pinwheel. You should be able to charge more than you could for an ordinary soda that doesn't include a personalized show.

    If you've got a cell phone and a mobile printer, then you can customize your pinwheel with a "party pic" memento. Great for parties, bar mitzvahs, and school carnivals.

  2. Is it Earth Week again already? Then have your class make pinwheels to demonstrate your commitment to sustainable energy. Advanced classes can make solar-powered pinwheels or battery-powered ones.
  3. Pesky critters in the garden? Plant two pinwheels in there side-by-side. Put pictures of giant round eyeballs in them. See if they're willing to mess with THAT! Make 'em solar powered and wind powered for extra fun.
  4. Make a personalized photo-clock, like I did in the photos above.
  5. Are you familiar with the Buddhist Tibetian prayer wheel? Then transform your pinwheel into a sort-of one by writing prayers around the silver back surface of the wheel with a marker. Each spin represents a recitation of the prayer. Prayers can be serious (the Lord's Prayer or the Shema or the Takbir; Get Well Soon) or frivolous (Beat the Dallas Cowboys).
  6. Do you know a sick kid that needs encouragement to do respiratory therapy? Try a pinwheel.
  7. Bored on the airplane? Get cans from the flight attendant, then start making and passing out pinwheels to your seatmates. The overhead air nozzle really makes it spin.
  8. Surprises within surprises! Don't just make it, scent it. Dab some perfume to the center photo for a really personal touch that engages the senses.
  9. Don't settle for one image in your pinwheel. The center well is deep, so stack alternates in there so you can change pictures at will. Or, make them into a connected filmstrip/comicstrip that you can pull out for stylish or secret messaging.
  10. Your back of your photo can hide a secret message (e.g.,your computer password login info, or a love note).
  11. Pinwheels fascinate cats.
  12. Why not make a hanging mobile from pinwheel tops?
  13. Up-cycling cans doesn't prevent you from recycling the metal eventually. You're not forced to make a choice between one or the other.
  14. I get a tremendous kick out of giving pinwheels to strangers or their kids. I'll usually go up to their parent and say, "I just made this out of the soda I just drank. I'd like to give it to your kid if you don't mind. Would you like to inspect it so you can feel that it's not as dangerous as it might look to you?
  15. Like roulette? Put a paper wheel having colored, pie-shaped sections in your pinwheel's center well. Write your prizes or punishments on the pie slices.
  16. The pinwheel is a great attention-getter. I've often been minding my own business, making pinwheels quietly at my table at IHOP or McDonalds, and I'll look up to notice that my table-neighbors are watching me in fascination. They'll usually break the ice by asking about it.
  17. A great thing about the pinwheel is that it's obviously recycled, and you didn't put any real expense into it -- only a bit of time and skill. Consequently, people are happy to accept them as gifts without feeling uncomfortably obligated to you to return the favor.
  18. Pinwheels -- Better than origami. Cheaper than fidget spinners. Conversation starters. Treasured gifts. Smile-makers. Art. Both free and priceless.

Bonus Material

Center Images.

Here are examples of center images that you can download. If you download from the pdf file below, and if your printer is set to print at actual size, then they should be perfectly sized for a standard can.

Print it out at actual resolution, in a 1-to-1 ratio, by adjusting the output on your pdf print settings menu. If you're particular about your spirals, then there's a free web utility from for generating PNG copies of differnt spirals.

Clock Face with Picture. Make a clock-face with your favorite photo in the middle. Blocklayer offers a free web-based utility for generating PNG copies of clock faces, with your personal photos in them.

If you don't use Blocklayer, then you'll need to know how to work with layers in Photoshop, Gimp (free), or a similar program. The image below is a PNG image of a clock face, with transparency where your picture should display. The resolution of the clockface here is at 560 by 560, whereas your photo will be a different size; so you'll need to make your photo fit that (or vice versa). Also, you'll need to set the print size of your result to 1.75 inches (44 millimeters). You'll want to:

  1. open your chosen image in your photo editing program;
  2. import my clockface.png file as a layer on top of that picture;
  3. size and position each layer so that the clock face lays neatly over the part of the picture that you want as your clock background;
  4. merge the layers;
  5. save the picture to your computer;
  6. print it out at 1.75 inches (or 44 millimeters); and
  7. cut out the excess parts of the image that lay outside the circular border of the clockface.

Click Standroid to download the transparent clock file:

PDF Download

Click here to download a pdf copy of this webpage.

center images

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