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Merlin-Style DIY Camera Stabilizer/Steadicam Build Tutorial

Written by mike on October 19th, 2011

DIY Steadicam by StudioAmarelo. Tutorial on construction below.

Steadicams are like handheld tripods that hold a videocamera on a swiveling base, so that almost any movement you make is isolated from the camera. The resulting shots are flowing, dreamy, and somewhat ethereal (sorta like this).The big wheel scene in The Shining is one of the classic examples, although they used a modified system (also: the notes about the way Stanley Kubrick and director of photography Garret Brown set up the shots for that film is a fascinating read)

Large, Hollywood-quality steadicam rigs cost $60,000. Smaller professional units are available, with compact consumer level units like the Merlin retailing for a bit under $1000.

For many hobbyists, even the consumer price is beyond their budget. So people began to tinker and many DIY alternatives were developed. Johnny Chung Lee made himself famous with his $14 Steadicam website, detailing a simple design that uses a counterweighted pole to shift the center of gravity and help smooth the jitters, although it excludes the concept that makes a “true” steadicam, the gimbal.

The gimbal is a key part to the movement that defines steadicams–it’s basically the pivot point that allows the handle of the system to move separately from the camera it’s connected to. Able to tilt forward/backward, side to side, and rotate in circles, the gimbal isolates most jerking movements, except up/down. A counterweight system helps control that by increasing the mass of the whole package, so any up/down movement has a deadened effect.

The most simple gimbal construction is a cup that balances on a pin, with the camera platform attached to the top of the cup structure. More commonly, it’s made from three bearings that can rotate independent of each other. Many DIY gimbal units started off using three short segments of PVC pipe stacked into each other (from small to large diameter) and connected together other through their middles with a rod. Inside the the smallest of the pipes, a skateboard bearing is affixed that allows for the rotational movement. A photo illustrates this much more easily:

The PVC gimbal from YB2Normal.com's DIY steadicam. Click to check their build.

The problem with the PVC gimbal is getting precise holes drilled in the center of the pipe, and then using PVC as the rotational surface. A new technique was devised using the universal joint from an RC car drive shaft (the Traxxis 5151 seems to be the most sought after unit). Still using a skate bearing for rotation, it reduced size while increasing accuracy. A few build details on this design can be found here and here.

Use this RC car driveshaft to stabilize your camera tilt problems

The beauty of these efforts is that now there are many writeups and tutorials on how to build your own mock-Merlin steadicam, at a fraction of the cost. One of my favorites is by Vimeo user StudioAmarelo, and uses parts sourced almost entirely at Home Depot, costing approximately $30. The video below steps you through the process.

MAIN BODY COMPONENTS:
2 x Electrical Ground Clamps
1 x Approx. 7″ Curved PVC Conduit Elbow
1 x Male (Threaded) PVC Adapter
 
MAIN BODY HARDWARE:
1 x Extra Large Ladder Hook (Approx. 15″ High x 10″ Deep)
2 x Universal Brackets, 1.5″ Wide, 2″ High
2 x 1.5″-1/4″ Flathead Screws
1 x 1″-1/4″ Flathead Screw
2 x 6″-1/4″ Bolts (Smooth Shaft)
2 x 1.5″ U Clamp
1 x 4″-Wide Double Eye Tension Rod
2 x 3.5″-1/4″ Screws (Fully Threaded)
8 x 1/4″ Locking Nuts (Nylon Locks)
4 x 1/4″ Regular Nuts
3 x 1/4″ Wing Nut Locks
1 x Zap Strap
2 x 1/2″ Washers with 1/4″ hole
2 x 1″ Washers with 1/4″ hole
36 x 1.5″ Washers with 1/4″ hole
 
GIMBAL COMPONENTS:
Adapted from “WSCLATER” YouTube Design
2 x Traxxas T-Maxx 2.5R – 3.3 F/R Center Driveshafts (#5151) – get on eBay
2 x 1″ (Diameter) Skateboard Bearings
1 x 1″ (Diameter) Male (Threaded) PVC Adapter (for top of gimbal)
1 x 1″ (Diameter), 1.5″ long PVC Straight Connector (No Threads, for bottom of gimbal)
2 x PVC “Shims”
1 x 1″ (Diameter) Screw-on Hose Cap
2 x Small Screw + Washer (To Mount Driveshafts to Bearings)
 
OPTIONAL:
1 x Manfrotto 323 RC2 Quick Release Plate (w/ 200PL-14 Plate)
1 x 1/4″-to-3/8″ Step Up Screw Adapter
1 x Rubber Bike Grip
 
“LADDER HOOK/STORAGE HANGER” ONLINE
**similar but with 90 degree bend on end, except for 2nd Aubuchon link that looks to be the same one I found, but sold in bulk


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  • Pretty sweet RT @msenese: Just posted another writeup: Merlin-Style DIY Camera Stabilizer/Steadicam Build Tutorial http://t.co/spV5eahX

  • Just posted another writeup: Merlin-Style DIY Camera Stabilizer/Steadicam Build Tutorial http://t.co/0NPiKAwM

  • Just posted another writeup: Merlin-Style DIY Camera Stabilizer/Steadicam Build Tutorial http://t.co/0NPiKAwM

  • I tried to do this once, couldn't figure out the last pieces: DIY Camera Stabilizer/Steadicam Build Tutorial http://t.co/cgPgSrKF

  • Merlin-Style DIY Camera Stabilizer/Steadicam Build Tutorial | DO IT … http://t.co/Bte7HiSF

  • Robert Doyle

    Thanks for this post.  In what Home Depot  department did you find the Universal Brackets?  Could not find in my local Home Depot even with staff help.

    • Bryan

      I couldn’t find these either. Did you ever have any luck locating them?

      • I couldn’t find the universal brackets either. Did you have any luck eventually

        • chris

          They are in with the screw and bolts area, in a bin with all the other bins. Look for the teardown furiture connections (similar to IKEA screw/brackets, etc.)

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for the stabilizer post! It is very helpful and useful. But I would prefer to use my wondlan stabilizers. not that expensive though, cause wondlan.com is a professional manufacturer and supplier of dslr rigs,camcorder kits etc. 

    • Head Talabanana

      clearly you work for them. and wondlan does not have prices posted how much was it.? I always think how shady a company is if they cant post prices on there site its a red flag.

    • Christopher Smith

      Gee thats nice, Why does Wondlan.com not list prices and only say inquire. Oh no wait, I have been down this road before. Its because its priced in such a way that folks run away once they see the cost. Point here is the guy built a Nice DIY that is based on the same design and works very well. Now if your saying this site sells something that is VERY similar and only adds the cost of assembly then that might be fair. Otherwise your post is pure spam and unappreciated. Any chances you had of folks here being a customer, you just blew it.

  • So building one of these… RT @msenese: Merlin-Style DIY Camera Stabilizer/Steadicam Build Tutorial http://t.co/DUbHZKWL

  • Peter

    Hi Mike. I like your merlin-like steadicam. What is the weight it would handle do you think? I have a 2.0-2.5kg semi pro camcorder. Would it be suitable?

  • Check out this sweet DIY stabilizer http://t.co/9Ub0uvN2

  • @AJCFILMS I've seriously looked into it in the past, and this one comes pretty damn close. http://t.co/pPjvdTXd

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