The DIY Dolly Club

Posted on February 13, 2010

Filming a documentary in a robot workshop has its advantages, like a wide assortment of available tools and constant motivation to build something of your own. So I decided to take on the DIY dolly – the one with skateboard wheels on PVC pipe track – and join the club of all the other low budget filmmakers that have tackled this project.

One day and two cut fingers later, my dolly is done and works surprisingly well. I filmed a few robot battles with it today (in addition to getting some shots with a robot battle camera, which is a separate story). The plans I used were largely based on these sketches from a Videomaker magazine article.

The DIY Dolly Club 2

The project definitely cost more than the listed $39 (about double that, excluding all the wrong stuff I bought), but being that the sketch is dated 1996, there’s some inflation at play.

Here’s how mine came out:


I plan to do a PDF of the instructions of what I did with a detailed parts list, since there’s a lot of guessing required in all the plans I found online. I’m also going to add a removable T handle on one end for easier pushing/pulling.

If you don’t want to wait for the PDF (which might be a good idea), here are some notes I have on the plan I linked to above.

  • A lot of the design depends on the wheels you buy. I opted for the cheapest skateboard wheels I could get ($10 for 4 at Target, so $40 total). My thought was the fatter the better (as opposed to slim roller blade wheels) so there’s more surface contact with the pipe, and therefore more contact to smooth over bumps. However, the Target wheels required some adjustment to how they were mounted to the aluminum angle than was in the sketches.
  • I opted for 1.5″ PVC pipe. I think most plans are 1″ or 1.25″. My thought was the thicker the pipe, the more likely it is to stay straight and be more solid. I’m happy with this choice, however again I had to modify the plans and extend the distance of the wheels from the angle so they would touch the track more.
  • The plans say to leave the screw connecting the wheels to the board loose, so the dolly can self correct to the track. I think it should be the other way around, and make the wheels firm so the track corrects to the dolly. I tried both and I like the latter, so the wheels are locked.
  • It’s manageable to be used by one person, but the thing I like about this design is it’s strong enough to have an operator stand on it and be pushed (unlike a clever Ikea dolly that’s been making the rounds).
  • In the picture you see I have a box of junk and motor on the dolly. I found the more weight on, the better the dolly runs (out of 16 wheels, about 10 make contact, so it needs a little boost). An operator on the platform would of course help.

I’ll post some video of the dolly in action when I get my main Mac back.

I call this an induction type project because once you see it’s doable, it definitely gets you thinking about other things you can build. The only problem I’ve come across with most plans online (mainly a jib, as that’d be the next thing I want to tackle) is their designed for small camcorders, not medium sized cameras.

I’ll see if I can rectify that.

Post Script – In trying to find the plans I used above, I came across a nice list of some DIY projects I hadn’t seen before on Film School Rigs and Mounts. Interesting projects include a car roof mount and Mini DV Underwater Housing.

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