Snap bracelets from tape measures - Bistable structures

21 November 2010



An old tape measure you no longer want Some tape
Some old scissors or tin snips


Cut a length of tape measure about 15-20cm long.

Warning - the cut edges will be very very sharp

Cover the cut edges with some kind of fairly tough tape, to make them a bit safer, though still be careful.

Curve the tape around a tight radius of around 6-10mm so it just starts to deform, you can either do this by rolling it around a pencil or I found it easier to just bend it between my hands until you can feel it starting to deform.

Try bending some tape with the inside of the curve and on the outside, and see if it behaves differently.

If you over do it you may need to bend the tape into its original curve a little.


You should find that the tape has two stable states rolled and straight. Depending how you rolled it the tape will behave slightly differently.

Making a bistable structure from a tape measure


The tape measure starts out with a curve across the tape, which gives the extended tape some depth making it much stiffer than it would be otherwise. This is done by deforming the steel tape in the factory so that the bottom is just slightly longer than the top, making it curve.

Tape Straight Tape
A tape measure is slightly curved which makes it much stiffer when unrolled. It is curved because it has been bent so that the bottom is slightly longer than the top across the tape.

When you deform the tape, you do something very similar, but this time bending it in the other direction into a coil.

Rolled Tape
In the rolled tape the outer side is slightly longer than the inner one.

This gives two stable states, but to get from one to the other without distorting the tape even more it has to go through a flat stage. And this stage is very unstable, (particularly for tapes which have been bent backwards) giving the structure two stable states so it is called bistable.

Stresses if rolled inwards Stresses if rolled outwards
If you have bent the tape upwards a flat tape can roll longways of crossways, but remaining flat is very unstable. Similarly if rolled downwards the tape has 2 states, but the transition between them is more violent, making a better snap bracelet.

These properties can be used in a variety of ways, as snap bracelets or bicycle clips of course, but also for remote handling in nuclear power stations, and for making poles to mount cameras on for the military. To find out more see the
interview with Keith Seffen in Naked Engineering


yeah, its not a toy, which can be extracted into a shiv, but a science experiment in limit points. This is the first DIY site which suggested wrapping a pencil. the finger fold is imprecise and introduces folds. i used a 1/4 inch rod, but is is a little too tight for wrist, so I think a 1/2 inch rod may be more useful for bracelets.

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