How to Make a Compass

How to build a compass from scratch

To make a compass, you must first magnetize a needle by rubbing its endpoint with a magnet about fifty to a hundred times. Next, flip the magnet over and use the opposite side to magnetize the other end of the needle. Finally, push the needle into a piece of cork or cardboard, place it on water, and observe as your makeshift compass aligns itself with the Earth’s magnetic field.

Brian Connelly
Last Updated: October 28, 2020

Want to know how to make a compass?

You’re in the right place! In this guide, we will be covering the following:

    • A list of all the materials that you need plus their alternatives
    • Step-by-step instructions on how to make a compass
    • Bonus: How to create an emergency compass when you’re out in the field
    • Learn both how to make compasses for kids and real-life, emergency situations

p>For a kid, a compass is one of the most interesting items in a hiker’s arsenal. And if your kids of the curious kind, the day may well come when they ask you just how this quirky-looking contraption works. 

To save yourself (and your kid!) the trouble of delving into a snore-fest of a scientific explanation, why not make things more interesting and create a DIY magnetic compass together?

Making your own compass is an awesome family bonding activity that will help you explain how a compass works. What’s more, not only does it give your children a cool learning experience, it will also boost your chances of earning the “Parent of the Year” accolade and, of course, might just come in handy someday when you find yourself in a pinch without any navigational equipment to hand.

In this article, we’ll show you how it’s done with a step-by-step guide on how to make a compass DIY-style both at home and out in the field. Do the steps right and you’ll add another nifty bit of know-how to your backcountry smarts.

Here’s What You Need…

A compass fundamentally requires only three basic components. These are:

  1. Needle
  2. Dial
  3. Housing

To make a simple homemade compass for kids, you will need the following:

  • Cardboard
  • A sewing needle
  • Cork
  • Magnet
  • Scissors
  • Ruler
  • Tape
  • Plastic cup
  • Pen

When you’re out in the field where without materials, here are some alternatives you could use as substitutes to make a simple compass:

  • In a place of a sewing needle – a piece of wire, a paperclip, a hairpin, or a safety pin
  • In place of a cork – anything that can float while carrying the needle
  • In place of a cup and water – any body of stagnant water

Ready to make your own compass? Let’s do it!

Step 1: Prepare the Dial

The dial is the compass part that tells you which way is North, South, East, and West. This is the easiest part to prepare and gives “direction” to your project.

  1. Cut out a disc from the cardboard. Make sure that the size is just right to fit inside the cup’s mouth.
  2. Next, cut out a smaller circle in the middle of the disc. The end product should resemble a thin cardboard donut. The cork should fit snugly inside the smaller circle.
  3. Lastly, divide the donut into four quadrants, each 90°, and label them with the four cardinal directions, i.e. North, South, East, West.

Step 2: Magnetize the Needle

After you’re done with the dial, you can then proceed to your needle. Magnetizing the needle will allow it to align with our planet’s magnetic fields and align with Earth’s north pole and south pole.

  1. To magnetize the needle, stroke the needle with the magnet from the eye to the tip about 50 times. The greater the number of strokes, the more strongly magnetized the needle will become—just remember to stroke it in one direction only, i.e. not back and forth.
  2. Next, flip the needle to the other end and turn the magnet over. Repeat the process described above, using the other end of the needle and the opposite side of the magnet. You now have a magnetized needle!
  3. If you don’t have a magnet, you can magnetize a needle by rubbing it against fur, hair, or silk.

Step 3: Put Everything on the Housing

Now it’s time to assemble your compass. For this step, you need to prepare the cork and the cup of water.

  1. Cut a piece of the cork that’s about 1/2 cm thick and not so tall that it will tip over. Cut as evenly as possible to make it a stable platform. In the next step, the cork will be the “float” for your compass dial, so make sure there’s enough space at the bottom to keep the cardboard from touching the water.
  2. Next, carefully push the needle right through the middle of the top part of the cork. Remember to ensure that there is enough space at the bottom of the cork for the dial.
  3. Stick the cork through the center hole of the cardboard dial. Make sure that the magnetized end of the needle is aligned with N. The dial should rotate with the cork, so use glue or tape to hold everything in place if necessary.
  4. Finally, fill the plastic cup with water up to just short of the rim and gently place everything in the water. Take care that the cardboard dial doesn’t get wet in the process.
  5. The needle should align itself with the Earth’s magnetic field and point toward magnetic north pole. If it does, your compass for kids is complete!

Warning: It’s very easy (speaking from experience!) to prick your finger with the needle when pushing it through the cork. This should be done by an adult or, if your kid insists on doing it himself/herself, close supervision is advised.

When in the Wild

If you ever find yourself in an emergency situation in the backcountry (hopefully you won’t!) when knowing which way is north and south might just be your source of salvation, you can easily rustle one together with some basic materials.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Start by sourcing a needle. You might have one in your tent repair kit. If not, a piece of wire, a paperclip, or hair clip will do.
  2. Use silk or wool from your clothing to magnetize the needle or wire. A piece of steel or iron will work, too.
  3. Rub or tap one end of your improvised needle against your clothing or the steel/iron object around fifty times to magnetize it. Remember to rub in one direction only and that the more strokes you make, the more magnetized it becomes.
  4. Next, take a leaf or anything that floats and secure the needle or the wire on top of it.
  5. Lastly, place your makeshift magnet in stagnant water and wait for it to turn. After a few seconds, the needle tip should be pointing roughly north. 

Go Forth and Navigate!

Making your own compass is a fun and creative way to gain a better understanding of how a compass works. 

Having followed the above steps, you are now also a newly crowned homemade compass creator and equipped with the knowledge needed to navigate without technology if the need should ever arise. 

So, did you enjoy our guide on how to make a compass? If you have any comments or suggestions, please feel free to share your thoughts with us in the comment box below.

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