Making a Vacuum Cannon

The Tube

The tube does not need to be super strong (the tape will fail long before the tube), but it does need to be close in diameter to a table-tennis ball (40mm). The right tube is known as Imperial 1½ inch PVC, common in the USA but not so much in the UK. I collected it from Koi Logic for £5.05 a metre since delivery is quite expensive and it is not too far away. CLEAPSS suggest the plastic pipe shop where it is about the same cost but you get a longer length (so more expensive and a lot of waste).

1m of tube is fine, it is easy to transport and store. You can get tremendous speeds from a 1m tube. CLEAPSS recommend that you do not go longer than 1.5m. I chose 1m because above that, the delivery charges get silly.

The valve and its Hole

You need a way to connect the vacuum pump to the tube. Patrick Kaplo sent me a link to the hose elbow he used in the USA and CLEAPSS suggests a metal schrader valve that you just self tap (force in to the PVC) and glue in to the pipe. Their instructions here are a bit vague on the size of drill bit you need. A very unscientific poll of physics teacher friends suggested that they all had rubber hoses on their vacuum pumps so the elbow is much more sensible.

Being a bit of a perfectionist I thought that tapping it in to a tapered thread would allow for cheaper components, a better seal and for replacing components if needed. I found some cheap nylon fittings at Wreking Pneumatics, all they needed was a correctly threaded hole.

For pneumatics I learned you really should used tapered thread (BSPT) holes to get a good seal with no need for tape, glue or sealant. Tracy tools are helpful on the phone and sell reasonably priced tap, dies and drills. I wasn’t sure what would work best so bought a plug tap and the correct size drill (8.4mm for the ⅛” plug tap) for both ¼” and ⅛” tapered thread holes. The prototype has ¼” BSPT but I learned that the schrader valves suggested by CLEAPSS and potential vacuum gauges all use ⅛” BSPT so the ¼” tap I bought was redundant. (I actually bought another but it took so long to come in the post via amazon I gave up on it; Tracy Tools delivered within 24 hours of ordering.) Tapping PVC is a doddle compared to steel.

The Tape

*just* an overlap

The tape was the cheapest “three inch” (78mm wide) tape I could find on eBay, just bought in bulk. The prototype used “two inch” and worked, but barely covered the width of the tube (see photo).

The Balls

The balls are practise balls from eBay, bought in bulk. “Real” balls are much stiffer and about twice the mass. I bought 300. Softer balls expand a little in the tube I think, so possibly get more push, and being lighter can accelerate faster? This is worth investigating perhaps?

No Flanges ?

Flanges make a great stand for the cannon and provide a good surface for the tape to adhere too. The best I could find was £8 a flange, but that would almost double the cost of the cannon. Robin and I tested the cannon with no flanges with very good results. My tech department whipped two up for free with no problem and you can make basic ones out of cardboard or 3D print them. There are many options. Our tube’s diameter was 48mm (Officially 48.26mm according to the Standard). This is a good opportunity for the school to personalise their cannon!

Adding a Pressure Gauge

I found pressure gauges on eBay for £7 including postage. They come with a ⅛” BSPT (taper) male and screw straight in to another ⅛” tapped hole. Just search for:
1/8″ BSPT pressure gauge.

If you make one, do let us know how you get on: