Finished Kaleidoscope Kaleidoscope image 1

In a different era when people possessed considerably longer attention spans, they enjoyed items known as conversation pieces.  Kaleidoscopes fell into that category and adults would collect them simply for their fascination and visual beauty. 

Held up to the light, kaleidoscopes offer a color show of images through the viewing end.  The mirrors inside are set at a 45 degree angle reflecting glittery objects stored at the other end.  Changing patterns are created by rotating the tube and watching the objects shift position.

While three mirrors are standard, interestingly, kaleidoscopes can have as few as 2 mirrors and as many as 8.  They can also be big or small.  At Catskill Corners in New York, you’ll find the largest Kaleidoscope in the world constructed in a silo where viewers wear neck supports to view the mammoth structure.

Kaleidoscopes and their construction vary greatly.  Store bought pieces are formed from almost anything, including metal and wood.  The containers inside house a variety of materials and liquids.  Some kaleidoscopes incorporate both liquid and small objects that will swim around when the tube is turned.  Check out children's learning websites online and you'll find them put together with kitchen plastic wrap to contain the shiny objects and rubber bands to hold them onto paper towel tubes.

The kaleidoscope on this page falls somewhere between the Castskill silo and the rubber band version. 

What You'll Need For This Project

1.5" mailing tube from Staples

Small, clear, craft container with screw on lid to fit in the tube end (approximately 1 3/8")

One sheet of Plastic Mirror measuring 9"x 6"

Materials for decorating the tube

Craft knife


Beads, rhinestones and other glittery objects

Sandpaper or fingernail file

1" painters tape

foam or sponge pieces

Constructing The Kaleidoscope

1.  Remove both caps from the ends of the tube.  Using a craft knife, cut the tube to measure 10" long. 

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2.  The cut end will be uneven and frayed.  Smooth and even it out with a fingernail file or sanding paper.

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3.  The mirrored plastic comes with a  film on it to protect it from scratches.  Do not remove it yet.  Use a craft knife to cut three panels from the plastic each measuring 9" by 1 3/16".

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4.  Place the panels with mirror sides down on your work surface.  Align the long edges together and secure them with tape.  Place one more length of tape on one side with only half of the tape adhering to the panel.

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5.  Turn the panels mirror side up and bend them in toward each other along the taped seams.

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6.  Create a triangle tent by overlapping the free tape edge onto the backside edge of the first folded section.  The mirrors will be facing each other inside the triangle.

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7.  Place the mirror tent inside the tube.  Cut six pieces of sponge or foam and tuck them against the inner wall of the tube between the panels and the tube wall.  Three pieces on each end of the tent will prevent it from moving around when the kaleidoscope is rotated.

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8.  Remove the lid from the clear plastic craft container.  Scuff up the bottom surface using a fingernail file or sanding paper.   When you're done and you hold it up to the light it, it should allow light through but not provide a completely clear view. 

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9.  Gather together shiny colorful objects like rhinestones, glass beads, glitter, metallic confetti, etc.  Use objects of different sizes, shapes and colors.   Allow enough room in the cup for the objects to tumble around but no so much that there are big empty spaces.  Screw the lid back on.

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10.  Force the filled cup into one open end of the tube, allowing half of the cup to extend beyond the end with the scuffed side facing out.  The craft container is ideal for this project because it fits firmly inside the tube yet can be easily removed, allowing you to experiment later by adding objects of different colors and shapes.

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11.  With a craft knife, cut slits in one of the cap ends that came with the tube. 

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12.  Insert sharp scissors into the slits and cut a round hole in the cap.

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13.  Cut a round circle out of metallic card stock or other decorative paper to fit the size of the cap.  Punch a hole in the center of the circle and glue it onto the cap.  Place the cap on the open end of the tube.

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You now have a kaleidoscope ready for decorating.  Before you do, hold it up to the eye, point it towards a light source and turn the cylinder to enjoy the spectacular color show.

When you're ready to decorate, let your imagination run free.  Cover the tube with paint, fancy paper, ribbon, stickers, or attach leftover gems with glue.  The kaleidoscope pictured at the top of the page was covered with flocked paper found at a scrapbooking store and glued onto the tube.

Here's another image after I replaced the bling with different objects.

Kaleidoscope image 2

Tips and Information

The haze in the bottom cup serves to distort the view beyond when looking into the kaleidoscope.  If the bottom were clear, too much light would enter the tube, diffusing the reflections. 

The viewing end should be opaque with only a view into the tube from the eyehole.

Vibrant bead and rhinestone colors will reflect best.

Kaleidoscopes made with mirrors but without colors inside them are called worldview kaleidoscopes, as they only reflect the world outside the tube through the mirrors.[3868]

Kaleidoscopes are sometimes made without beads and other shiny objects.  Instead, colorful markers are used to draw shapes inside a plastic end piece.  Interesting designs are formed by the markers when the end piece is rotated instead of the tube.

Alternate Materials

No matter what materials you choose for your kaleidoscope, the length of it should be approximately 9 to 12 inches for an optimal focal length.

Other materials to consider include water bottles, PVC and gift wrap cardboard tubes.  The tubes need to be sturdy and not give easily.  The reflective triangle tent inside should also be sturdy enough to remain rigid and hold its shape, as it does with the plastic mirror.  Children's kaleidoscopes often sustitute the kind of clear plastic found on notebook covers, in place of the plastic mirror.

Reflective effects can be enhanced by using genuine mirrors inside the tube but they require special cutting and additional expense. 

Kaleidoscopes and their origins are an interesting subject.  Read more.