We love learning with a variety of methods in our homeschool. Learning about Geography & what a compass is, is one thing we for sure want to teach. A compass is merely a tool that indicates a direction. Sure, there’s a little more involved, but that is the basic definition of a compass. However, the purpose of a compass, specifically this DIY compass, carries more importance than its basic definition.
DIY Magnetic Compass Project
Before we get too deep into the compass, allow me to explain how a magnetic compass works. The magnetic needle inside of the compass is drawn toward Earth’s magnetic field. As we all know (or have just found out), Earth’s magnetic field is north. In short, a magnetic compass always points north.
Of course, there are always exceptions and extenuating circumstances, but let’s keep confusion out of this for now. I promise to cover the exceptions later.
I’ve taught my boys how to read a compass and discussed the importance of such a primitive, yet revolutionary tool. We all have that one kid who questions everything and is smarter than everyone else. In this case, that would be my teenager. As I’m discussing a compass, he decides to ask why the need for a compass if you have GPS as your fingertips. Well, that is true.
Technology has become so powerful that we now have countless maps stored in a handheld device that can also make phone calls and browse the Internet. However, GPS is not always foolproof. What if the GPS breaks? What if you’re in an area where the GPS doesn’t work properly?
What if your handheld device is unable to obtain signal or the battery is dead? How does a person find their way back if they’re lost and one of these things happens? A magnetic compass doesn’t use a battery. Nor does the compass need signal and a person would have to try to destroy it in order for it to not work properly.
Understanding how to use a compass could essentially be the difference between life and death. For example, you decide to take the family camping. As you’re looking for wood for fire or checking for wild animals because your wife heard a strange noise, you become lost and disoriented.
You know you began walking in an eastward direction from the camp, but now you can’t tell which way east is. With a compass, you’d never be lost. That seems like a far-fetched example, but it has happened.
Before we dive into this DIY Compass Project, I’d like to cover a few key terms. These terms are important whether you’ll be using a compass with a map or on its own.
Magnetic North. This is the direction the compass points. This north is controlled by the Earth’s magnetic field. Remember the exceptions I alluded to earlier? Many people assume Magnetic North is located at the North Pole. That’s a safe assumption, but it’s a wrong assumption. Magnetic North is actually located approximately 1,000 miles south of the North Pole in Canada.
True North. This is in relation to where the North Pole is located physically. The Earth rotates on an axis and the North and South Poles are not always physically north and south. Sound confusing? Draw a circle on a sheet of paper. Next, draw a line that extends from the upper most point to the lower most point on the circle.
Ideally, intersections of the upper and lower points on the circle are where the North and South Poles are always located. Next, draw another straight line that intersects your first line at approximately a 5-degree angle. This is the Earth on an axis. As you can see, True North is not exactly true.
Grid North. This refers to the top of your map. Instead of a single point, you see grid lines that run north and south (lines of longitude), east and west (lines of latitude). Orientating your map to north gives you a Grid North.
There are many, many more terms to explain, but we’ll stop there as not to get confusing nor get away from why we’re here – Compass Project
This is a neat project designed with kids in mind, but parents and adults who are unfamiliar with a compass or magnetic north have a lot to gain as well.
Without further ado, let’s jump right in, shall we?
First, let’s gather the items we’ll need to make a DIY Compass. Most of these items you already have lying around the house somewhere.
- Lid from a yogurt or similar container. Regardless where you get the lid, it needs to have a high lip so as not to lose water or make a mess.
- Sewing needle.
- Cork. If you don’t have one on hand, they are fairly inexpensive. You can find these at a dollar store or your local supermarket.
- Magnet. A refrigerator magnet might work (I’ve never tried with this type of magnet). I had one in my arts and crafts bin I keep in the garage. However, you can also purchase these fairly cheap from store.
- Permanent Marker.
- Water. It can come from a bottle or the sink, doesn’t matter.
- Knife. I used a utility knife for this project, but a sharp blade will work.
Now that we have all of our items, let’s get started making a
1) Turn the lid over so the high lip is facing towards you (the top of the lid is facing down).
2) Take the permanent marker and write the letters N, E, S, W on the edges to designate North, East, South, and West.
3) Cut a sliver off the cork. Make sure the sliver you have cut off is wide enough to stick a needle through. You don’t want it too wide where it touches the bottom of the lid. I cut a sliver that was just shy of a quarter of an inch.
4) Pour water into the lid.
Note: I placed a towel under the lid to catch any spillage and didn’t make a mess. Happy wife, happy life.
5) Grab the needle and the magnet. You want to run the needle across the magnet in ONE DIRECTION. This is very important. Do not rub the needle back and forth across the magnet. Rub it across the magnet from right to left (or vice versa) and repeat. You want to do this a few times.
6) Poke the needle through the sliver of cork you cut from Step 3.
Note: Parents – if you’re allowing your child to complete this project, you may want to take control of this step. Needles are sharp and safety first. The needle might be difficult to push through the cork. What I did was get the needle started in the cork. I then placed the needle on a hard surface and pushed the cork onto the needle.
KEEP YOUR FINGERS AWAY FROM THE AREA WHERE THE NEEDLE WILL PROTRUDE THROUGH THE CORK.
Ideally, you want the cork to be centered on the needle.
7) Place the needle in the water that you poured in the lid from Step 4.
You’ll see the shift quite a bit until it finally stops moving. The needle is now pointing north. You may need to rotate the lid so the needle is pointing towards the “N” you wrote on the lid.
Pick up the cork and rotate it so the needle is pointing toward the “S”. Place the cork back in the water and watch the needle rotate to point toward the “N”.
This occurs because of Step 5. As you rubbed the needle across the magnet in one direction, it magnetized the needle. As the needle is magnetized, it is drawn toward the Earth’s Magnetic Field.
Why did we have to rub the needle in one direction across the needle? Good question. Rubbing the needle back and forth across the magnetic makes the needle become a magnet. This experiment won’t work if the needle is a magnet.
Another thing to keep in mind is to ensure the compass isn’t near metal. Because the compass is magnetized, it will draw itself to metal objects. It’s not say it won’t work in the kitchen, but don’t try to make it work while standing next to the refrigerator or have a metal pot next to the lid. This is the other exception to magnetic compasses. I learned this lesson the hard way when I was a Private in the Army on a Land Navigation course.
The great thing about this project is its versatility. This is a DIY Magnetic Compass that you can take with you on your next family camping outing.
I hope you enjoyed this project as much as I did. As an added bonus, I have also put together a FREE printable for you!!! This is a compass printable with some hand writing practice. I hope you enjoy it! You can go here and download or click the arrow below.
Until next time, get out there and enjoy time spent with family and friends.
Want to print out the instructions? Here you go!