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Plate top starter kit
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An illustrated and annotated how-to and starter parts list for a non-AFOL friend
About this creation
Please feel free to look over the images and skip the verbiage.

When a friend asked me for a list of parts that his LEGOŽ-loving day-school students could turn into tops, I was happy to oblige.

Now, Mike's no stranger to tops. In fact, he's the "Earl of Whirl" over at the iTopSpin forum, where serious top enthusiasts, collectors, and trick performers from all over the world gather. But he's not an AFOL (Adult Fan of LEGOŽ) and has no BrickLink experience.

So how to convey such a list? Well, that's what this page is all about. The photos show common top parts and how they're used. And key parts are linked to their pages in the BrickLink parts catalog to allow Mike to build a BrickLink Wanted List as he goes along.



To keep the inventory both manageable and suitable for builders of all skill levels, I decided to limit the scope to a favorite genre -- studded plate tops. These tops are extremely versatile and loaded with play value, but they're also easy to build from readily available parts.



The large black top at left is a "blank" plate top waiting to be "decorated" with colorful parts from the plastic tray. The finished plate top at right is a smaller blank decorated with scoop-like black and white 4x6x2/3 triple curved wedges (52031) and colored 2x2 tiles with grooves (3068b).

Note the links into the BrickLink parts catalog in the last paragraph.

Warning! Always wear eye protection when working or playing with high-speed LEGOŽ rotating machinery and keep valuables and bystanders (including pets) a safe distance away -- especially when testing new designs.




Why LEGOŽ plate tops?

A "plate top" has a studded rotor built on a layer of LEGOŽ plates. The beauty of this simple format is the creativity it invites. The parts that one can attach to a plate top are limited only by the imagination. Experimentation with color patterns, 3D surface topographies, and mass distributions couldn't be easier. Revisions often take just a few seconds, and the effects can be seen immediately and adjusted accordingly.

Plate tops also tend to be good performers. They spin smoothly when rigid and properly balanced and are generally easy to "twirl" (i.e., spin with a twirl of the fingers) -- often to rather high speeds. And with clean enough aerodynamics and enough axial moment of inertia (AMI), they can spin for well over a minute.1

Some plate top videos
Clicking through the videos below will give you a feel for some of the things you can do with plate tops. No need to watch them from beginning to end.


Some of my early plate tops.


Reflector tops


Andromeda top


Clutch tops

Static vs. dynamic appearance
How a top looks at rest and how it looks at speed can be worlds apart. Plate tops make it easy to play with the difference between "static" and "dynamic" appearance. The resting black and white tops below are cases in point.






Their dynamic appearances are quite different in video and different yet again in person.



Color mixing
Color-mixing plate tops add another twist to the static-dynamic fun. The effect doesn't show well in videos, but these photos tell the story.






You'll find many more examples in my Topped Out folder.

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Plate top components

The plate top has 3 main structural "components": (i) A "stem" serving as the interface between the top and the hand during the twirl, (ii) a "tip" serving as the contact between the top and the "ground" (supporting surface) below, and (iii) the "rotor" sandwiched in between.

More often than not, components are "assemblies" of 2 or more parts, as in the blank plate top below.



At left, we see the black stem assembly and the upper side of the flat rotor assembly, and at right, the black tip assembly and the rotor's underside.

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Plate top core

Below is a typical plate top "core". Though a decent spinning top in its own right, it's really meant to be a spinning platform for more interesting parts. (The black piece is there only to help the rotor stand on edge.)





This core has only 6 parts, all cheap and widely available on BrickLink.

The green 10x10 octagonal plate with center hole (89523) ("octagonal plate" for short) is an excellent foundation for studded rotor assemblies.



The through-going light bluish gray Technic axle serves as both tip mount and stem. This particular one is a Technic axle 9 (60485), meaning that the axle is 9 "LEGO units" in length. (1 LEGO unit = 8 mm.)

The red and yellow 2x2 round plates (4032) clamp the axle securely to the rotor. Each is 2 LEGO units in diameter. The remaining parts are for the tip.

When the stem and tip are linked by a through-going Technic axle, as they are here, I think of the combined stem-axle-tip assembly as a "spindle". Here are 3 spindles with rotor clamps.



Using the bare axle as a tip, as in the rightmost spindle, results in a top that loves to "walk" (travel across the ground) but also tends to wobble. (This is the tip of choice for battle tops.) Capping the axle with a Technic ball joint (32474), here in white, also promotes walking and wobbling but to a lesser extent.



I generally prefer the fine tip assembly on the leftmost spindle, as it gives very smooth spins with little if any walking. It consists of 2 parts: (i) An orange tip holder (Brick, Round 2 x 2 Dome Top - Blocked Open Stud with Bottom Axle Holder x Shape + Orientation (553b)), and (ii) the black tip proper. The latter is just the last 4 mm of a black round-tipped 1x4 antenna stuck into the holder's open stud.2

Workable tip assemblies with upward-pointing studs that lock into the bottom of the core plate are few and far between. Favorite builder Nils O. reminded me of the one below. The white tip is a 2x2 round plate with rounded bottom (2654). The black tip holder is a 2x2 round brick with axle hole (3941).



Of all the tip assemblies shown on this page, this is the most rigid, but the large radius of curvature adds tip friction and invites wobble, both of which cut into spin time. Like the bare axle tip, it's a good option for battle tops, where walking is desirable and a little wobble won't hurt.

More on tip selection here.




Rotor assemblies

Warning: Always wear eye protection when spinning an unproven LEGOŽ top design at high speed. Seat all parts carefully beforehand and keep valuables and bystanders (including pets) a safe distance away until you know that the top will hold together. Really.

Each plate top component affects appearance and performance in its own way, but the rotor assembly dominates on both counts by virtue of its greater visual impact and AMI.

Building up a rotor assembly by adding decorations is easy. To make these simple reflector tops, for example, I first paved 2 dark bluish gray octagonal plates with black 1x2 jumpers (3794b) and 2x2 jumpers (87580). Then I attached trans red and trans dark pink 2x2 dishes (4740) to the jumpers.




Optical effects like these are the plate top's forte.

It's also easy to widen the rotor and weight its periphery to increase surface area and AMI. I widened this blank plate top with 4 black 8x8 cut-corner wedge plates (30504) and 4 black 2x8 plates (3034).



The stem assembly consists of a through-going black Technic axle 10 (3737) and a black 4x4x2 cone with axle hole (3943b) doubling as a rotor clamp and lateral stem support.



Then I attached black 2x4 plates (3020) and 2x8 plates (3034) to the periphery of the underside to stiffen the rotor assembly. These plates also improve smoothness and spin time by increasing AMI.

There's really no end to the decorative parts you can mount on a plate top rotor.






If you have any LEGOŽ to speak of, you're bound to come up fun decorations, but the laws of physics impose important restrictions.

First and foremost, you must realize that plate tops spin plenty fast enough to turn weakly attached decorations into dangerous shrapnel. Careful testing of new designs is an absolute necessity.

For the top to spin smoothly, the rotor must also be (i) rigid, (ii) well-balanced, and (iii) have at least 3-fold rotational symmetry about the spin axis.

But I have 2 pieces of good news here: (a) The great precision and uniformity of LEGOŽ parts guarantees that any symmetrical arrangement of rotor parts will be perfectly balanced. (b) Four-fold symmetry is very easy to arrange in a plate top.



Eight-fold and even 3-fold symmetries are also possible.

Note also that AMI increases rapidly as parts are added to the periphery of the rotor. High AMI is good for smoothness and spin time but makes a top harder to twirl.



≪ Back to top




Spindle variations

The fine tips on the plate tops below leave little ground clearance beneath their rotors. This improves smoothness and spin time, but the stem will have to stay close to the vertical throughout the twirl, and that can be a real challenge for young or unpracticed hands.



Lengthening the tip assembly alleviates the problem but should be kept to a minimum to avoid unnecessary wobble.

The odd space top below isn't really a plate top, but it shows how to jack up a rotor with round parts with center holes -- preferably axle holes.



From tip holder to the rotor, the stack of spacers here includes a black 2x2 round plate (4032), a yellow 3x3x2 cone (6233), a black 4x4 round plate with pin hole, and a yellow 4x4 round brick with center axle hole and side pin holes.



During twirls, the fingers are in contact with the stem of the top for only a fraction of a second. On high-AMI tops like the one below, I've learned to make the most of that time by starting my twirls at a wider part of the stem and ending them at the narrowest part.



All of my high-AMI tops use a smooth axle joiner (6538c) mounted narrow end up to widen the stem at the most efficacious point. Here we have a reddish brown joiner anchored to a reddish brown 2x2 round plate (4032) serving as a rotor clamp. A black Technic axle 3 (4159) completes the stem assembly.



The resulting finger grip functions as a 3-speed transmission, with the widest part of the axle joiner corresponding to first gear and the bare axle above it to 3rd gear. Starting the twirl at the widest part of the stem (1st gear) maximizes the torque my fingers can apply to get the resting top spinning. (Torque is what ultimately overcomes AMI.)



This trick is essential to long spin times in high-AMI tops. Here my fingers are shifting upward from 2nd to 3rd gear as I twirl. Finishing the twirl with the fingers at the narrowest part of the stem maximizes release speed. Spending ~70% of the twirl at this final station seems to work best.

<< Back to top




Footnotes

1 Axial moment of inertia (AMI) is arguably a top's most important property from a performance standpoint. See my AMI primer for details.

Freely spinning LEGOŽ tops lose speed mostly to air resistance, but tip friction also saps their rotational kinetic energy. Basically, the dirtier the top, the shorter the spin time. Aerodynamic drag looms especially large in plate tops, as they tend to have high release speeds and lots of rough surfaces.

2 The nearly identical Brick, Round 2 x 2 Dome Top - Hollow Stud with Bottom Axle Holder x Shape + Orientation (553c) also works well as a tip holder, but the antenna end inserted into the stud will be much harder to remove.

Be sure to avoid the closely related Brick, Round 2 x 2 Dome Top - Blocked Open Stud without Bottom Axle Holder (553a) and the flat-tipped 1x4 antenna.

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Comments

 I made it 
  August 12, 2016
Quoting Sam Sanister Couple questions. A top that's top-heavy is less stable, but how high can you get the weight while still getting a decent spin time? Also, you prefer the round antennae ends. What are the differences in spins between round-end and square-end antennae?
Excellent questions, Sam! I'll start with the tips. Flat tips excite wobbling, which robs kinetic energy from spin. Since a given top falls at a certain "critical" spin rate, the faster it spins down, the sooner it falls. The flat tip also increases the area of the contact patch at the tip. Since that increases tip friction, it brings the top down sooner. There's no simple answer to the height question. Critical speed grows with increasing CM height and transverse moment of inertia and shrinks rapidly with increasing axial moment of inertia (AMI). So the best way to stabilize any top is to move its mass toward the ground and away from the spin axis.
 I like it 
  August 12, 2016
Couple questions. A top that's top-heavy is less stable, but how high can you get the weight while still getting a decent spin time? Also, you prefer the round antennae ends. What are the differences in spins between round-end and square-end antennae?
 I made it 
  August 3, 2016
Quoting Topsy Creatori Just got the chance to come back. Of course, my favorite is the top that resembles the chemical structure of phenalene! I'm sure it probably does not whine when spinning, but perhaps it produces an aromatic carbon odor?! ;) You've detailed a lot of good tip tips too! I do have several ideas in my head right now for tops, but whether they will take a physical form soon it another story. I seem to be experiencing LEGO building boredom?! I'm sure it is just a phase though. As to your previous response to a comment of mine on another of your builds... I do indeed seem to be gradually spending more time on Flickr than here, although mocpages still offers the best format for stories and technical talks like you do. But Flickr offers many excellent photographers' eye for composition, which I find fascinating and informative right now. One is also exposed to a multitude of geometric, artsy stuff in other mediums which tends to tickle my interest right know also!
Many thanks, Tospy! That 3-fold molecular (aka honeycomb) top doesn't whine, it hisses! And loudly! Horrible aerodynamics and commensurately short spin time, but still a very fun top. You're a natural top-builder. If you try it, the joy of building will return. I guarantee it! Will respond to the rest later.
 I made it 
  August 3, 2016
Quoting Topsy Creatori Just got the chance to come back. Of course, my favorite is the top that resembles the chemical structure of phenalene! I'm sure it probably does not whine when spinning, but perhaps it produces an aromatic carbon odor?! ;) You've detailed a lot of good tip tips too! I do have several ideas in my head right now for tops, but whether they will take a physical form soon it another story. I seem to be experiencing LEGO building boredom?! I'm sure it is just a phase though. As to your previous response to a comment of mine on another of your builds... I do indeed seem to be gradually spending more time on Flickr than here, although mocpages still offers the best format for stories and technical talks like you do. But Flickr offers many excellent photographers' eye for composition, which I find fascinating and informative right now. One is also exposed to a multitude of geometric, artsy stuff in other mediums which tends to tickle my interest right know also!
Let me tickle your current interests, then: In the right hands, tops are kinetic art, and you've got those hands. They're also very geometric. And then there's your name.
 I like it 
  August 3, 2016
Just got the chance to come back. Of course, my favorite is the top that resembles the chemical structure of phenalene! I'm sure it probably does not whine when spinning, but perhaps it produces an aromatic carbon odor?! ;) You've detailed a lot of good tip tips too! I do have several ideas in my head right now for tops, but whether they will take a physical form soon it another story. I seem to be experiencing LEGO building boredom?! I'm sure it is just a phase though. As to your previous response to a comment of mine on another of your builds... I do indeed seem to be gradually spending more time on Flickr than here, although mocpages still offers the best format for stories and technical talks like you do. But Flickr offers many excellent photographers' eye for composition, which I find fascinating and informative right now. One is also exposed to a multitude of geometric, artsy stuff in other mediums which tends to tickle my interest right know also!
 I made it 
  August 2, 2016
Quoting Topsy Creatori Okay, today was my day to stop by for a visit, hence the comments on your previous builds. My viewing behavior can best be described with a word you used in describing the top quark... fleeting! But I always return... and I will return again to write another comment when I have a bit more time to digest/assimulate everything! Looks fascinating, as always! :)
Thanks, Topsy! Always a please to have you stop by. Looking forward to you take on these tops, as I know that you've posted a plate top in your own inimitable style on Flickr.
 I made it 
  August 2, 2016
Quoting Nils O. Very cool, I'm a great fan of Lego spinning tops, too. I just haven't found the time to post more than one here, yet. Great job and thanks for the tips! :-)) P.S.: I have another simple and well working "spinning tip" that I use frequently: A 2x2 round "slider" plate with a 2x2 round plate on top. Combined with base plates with a hole in the middle you can stick a Technic axle down to the bottom of the spinning tip.
Thanks, Nils! Would love to see your tops. Forgot about that tip. I'll take some photos and add it to the page with credit to you. It's a good tip when you're after a lot of walking and don't mind some wobble.
 I like it 
  August 1, 2016
Okay, today was my day to stop by for a visit, hence the comments on your previous builds. My viewing behavior can best be described with a word you used in describing the top quark... fleeting! But I always return... and I will return again to write another comment when I have a bit more time to digest/assimulate everything! Looks fascinating, as always! :)
 I like it 
  August 1, 2016
Very cool, I'm a great fan of Lego spinning tops, too. I just haven't found the time to post more than one here, yet. Great job and thanks for the tips! :-)) P.S.: I have another simple and well working "spinning tip" that I use frequently: A 2x2 round "slider" plate with a 2x2 round plate on top. Combined with base plates with a hole in the middle you can stick a Technic axle down to the bottom of the spinning tip.
 I made it 
  July 31, 2016
Quoting Sven J. Jeremy my friend, you did again a fantastic job. Really like your stuff, especially the ones who change the colours while spinning. Keep up your great work!
Many thanks, Sven! I never tire of watching the color-mixing tops work their magic, and they're among my biggest crowd-pleasers at LEGO shows. The effect is even better in person, as you can watch the mixes fall apart as the tops spin down.
 I made it 
  July 31, 2016
Quoting David Roberts Lego is an ideal way to get people investigating moments of inertia because of how quickly the masses can be moved, just like you say. What a great teaching tool. Thinking of this, I began to wonder if you could build a big top (spinning not tent variety) with motorised arms? It could have an S-brick remote to retract or extend to arms and show how rotation energy is conserved. The top would be heavy, so the engineering challenge would be interesting, plus the problem of evenly distributing the power components.
Thanks, David! Many hundreds of people have twirled my tops at LEGO shows by now. When I give them 2 tops of equal weight to twirl and ask afterward why one was much harder to get going than the other, I sometimes hear about mass distribution, though not in those terms. But I rarely hear the words "moment of inertia", even though our subconscious inner physicists know all about it. Totally agree -- the right plate top could fill this educational void in minutes. Your idea of a remote control top with variable moment of inertia intrigues me. It's certainly thinkable with 3 M motors and worm drives on a large 3-fold top like the one at http://www.moc-pages.com/moc.php/421340#bird. It might even be twirlable with a well-practiced hand. The many centrifugal tops I've posted also have variable moments, but the connections between moment changes and behavior changes aren't as obvious as they would be with your idea. Stay tuned!
 I made it 
  July 31, 2016
Quoting Magma ! Great stuff man! I love the ones with 3-fold symmetry. They look really modern and funky.
Thanks, Magma! I really like that 3-fold honeycomb top, too, but it's a little frustrating. Its high axial moment of inertia per unit mass and very low center of mass could translate into spin times of well over a minute if it weren't for the lousy aerodynamics. Instead, it barely stays up 15 sec. The thing actually hisses when you twirl it by hand!
 I made it 
  July 31, 2016
Quoting Gabor Pauler Agent Moulder will cry from envy...
Thanks, Gabor! You know, my top pages would get a lot more likes if the tops were surrounded by some of those pretty girls you posted a few days ago. Better yet, how about a "LEGO babe top" along the lines of the Titanic top I posted at http://www.moc-pages.com/moc.php/430656 a couple of weeks ago?
 I made it 
  July 31, 2016
Quoting Nick Barrett You make me want to put one of these together and give it a whirl :-)
I really hope you do, Nick! I know you'd come up with some beauties.
 I like it 
  July 31, 2016
Agent Moulder will cry from envy...
 I like it 
  July 31, 2016
Great stuff man! I love the ones with 3-fold symmetry. They look really modern and funky.
 I like it 
  July 31, 2016
You make me want to put one of these together and give it a whirl :-)
 I like it 
  July 31, 2016
Jeremy my friend, you did again a fantastic job. Really like your stuff, especially the ones who change the colours while spinning. Keep up your great work!
 I like it 
  July 31, 2016
Lego is an ideal way to get people investigating moments of inertia because of how quickly the masses can be moved, just like you say. What a great teaching tool. Thinking of this, I began to wonder if you could build a big top (spinning not tent variety) with motorised arms? It could have an S-brick remote to retract or extend to arms and show how rotation energy is conserved. The top would be heavy, so the engineering challenge would be interesting, plus the problem of evenly distributing the power components.
 I made it 
  July 30, 2016
Quoting Jimmie Martinez Excellent job Jeremy. I showed this to my wife who is a 6th grade science teacher and is in charge of the Science Olympiad at her school. She may use this as one of her teams entries in the force and motion competition for this school term. Thinks the kids will have a blast building these. BOAJEWD. Especially when you can expand the mind of a child.
Many thanks, Jimmie! Nothing would please me more than for LEGO tops to end up in a school science event. If I can help in any way, please e-mail me at mocpages@cliffshade.com.
 I made it 
  July 30, 2016
Quoting jds 7777 Newton would be proud!
I take that as the highest of compliments, JDS!
 I made it 
  July 30, 2016
Quoting D H Really neat stuff! I had no idea tops had so much to them till I saw your last few builds!
Thanks, DH! Yes, they're neat little platforms for all kinds of cool physics, but I didn't realize that until I started building them.
 I like it 
  July 30, 2016
Excellent job Jeremy. I showed this to my wife who is a 6th grade science teacher and is in charge of the Science Olympiad at her school. She may use this as one of her teams entries in the force and motion competition for this school term. Thinks the kids will have a blast building these. BOAJEWD. Especially when you can expand the mind of a child.
 I like it 
  July 30, 2016
Newton would be proud!
 I like it 
  July 30, 2016
Really neat stuff! I had no idea tops had so much to them till I saw your last few builds!
 I made it 
  July 30, 2016
Quoting Vibor Cavor Those reflector tops make a great effect there. Good thinking
Thanks, Vibor! Playing with the physical world through LEGO is lots of fun.
 I made it 
  July 30, 2016
Quoting Oran Cruzen Wow, wow wow, did I say wow? Jeremy you are the tops in tops!
Too kind, Oran!
 I like it 
  July 30, 2016
Those reflector tops make a great effect there. Good thinking
 I like it 
  July 30, 2016
Wow, wow wow, did I say wow? Jeremy you are the tops in tops!
 
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