Mechanical Marvels


Mechanical Marvels

Sick of the same old projects for your saw? Meet the Willy Wonka of the scrolling world

By Kathleen Ryan

“The only saw I have is a scroll saw, and I use it for everything I make,” said Keith Newstead, a self-taught artist from the UK who specializes in automata, kinetic figurative art, and mechanical sculptures. Over the past 30 years, Keith has designed and produced hundreds of mechanical marvels—everything from steampunk vehicles and flying pigs to underwater scenes and enchanting gardens that spring to life before your very eyes. His masterfully articulated thingamajigs quickly catch the eye and boggle the mind.

“I have drawn and made stuff for as long as I can remember. Taking apart clocks, mechanical toys, and motorcycle engines taught me the basics. I also made a lot of wooden things as a kid, such as boats, planes and doll houses,” Keith recalled. “Finding out about how camshafts work was a big step forward, as this allowed me to program my automata to do more complicated actions with a longer duration.”

The master himself, at work in his shop. 

Keith studied graphic design at Essex University, aspiring to become a book illustrator. After school he landed a position at an art studio in Newcastle but left after only six weeks, suffering from what he called “extreme boredom.” Keith then traveled to Finland for a job delivering newspapers, but frigid temperatures sent him shivering back to the United Kingdom for slightly warmer employment as a motorcycle dispatch rider. This he did for 10 years while designing and selling jewelry in his spare time.

In 1987, Keith viewed a television program on automata that rocked his world and changed his life forever. “I found the mixture of art, craft, graphics, and movement very exciting, and I started experimenting with it myself. It wasn’t long before I made my first piece.” Keith showed the finished work to a shop in London specializing in modern automata. The owner was so impressed she agreed to try and sell it for him. “It was an office worker dancing badly at the office party. It sold for $65, which was a lot of money back then. So I gave up dispatch riding hoping to make a living from my automata.” Keith never looked back.










Some of Keith’s recent automata. 

Today, Keith’s fascination with this unique art form continues, and he pushes the possibilities and redefines the limits with each new piece. His fanciful creations, ranging from 8˝ (20.3cm) to life-sized, operate off a motor or crank that turns gears, levers, pivots, pushrods, and springs to create movement. This might include a figure riding a bicycle, sipping a cup of tea, swatting a fly, conducting an orchestra, or playing an instrument; it might include scissors cutting, flowers dancing, a fish swimming. “I love to experiment with new styles and materials to find new ways of creating movement,” he said. “I never aim my work at a particular age group, but am always pleased that both children and adults enjoy it.”

Keith works out of his home studio in Falmouth, U.K., using a wide variety of hand tools plus a drill press, a sander, and a scroll saw. His basic materials include paper, cardboard, thin sheets of aluminum, and pine and tulipwood. He does all of the cutting on his scroll saw using medium and fine reverse-tooth blades. He creates signed and numbered limited edition pieces as well as one-of-a-kind commissioned works.

“Most of the time it is a case of coming up with an amusing story based on the information the client gives me. I then make a quick colored pencil drawing of the idea. If the client gives it the go-ahead, I have the drawing enlarged and use this as my blueprint,” he explained. “I always try to keep the spontaneity of the original drawing in my finished automata. The biggest issue with this type of work is tolerances of 0.5mm!” He finishes most of his pieces with up to five coats of brightly colored acrylic paint. However, some wooden pieces are just sanded and left bare. He said, “I never use varnish or wood stain because I really like the look of the bare wood.”

Keith’s work starts as detailed drawings. 

For those who like the fun of making articulated pieces without all the sawing and engineering, Keith offers a variety of automata kits for purchase on Etsy. Each kit includes a set of precision-cut parts that, once put together, form a crank-powered automaton with levers and sometimes gear wheels. An optional add-on base with a motor and music can also be ordered. Keith hopes the kits will encourage young and old alike to “unplug” for a while and work with their hands.

After 30 years of producing these articulated works of wonder, Keith continues to astound and delight with each piece. You can see his automata in action on YouTube, in his Facebook group—called Mechanical Adventures—and on his website at “I’m driven by obsession,” he said. “For me, it’s the adventure of making something that has never existed before that keeps me motivated. Knowing that my work will bring joy to those who see it is also very rewarding for me.”


For more fun ideas, see the Big Book of Gizmos and Gadgets which includes projects from Bob Gilsdorf, David Wakefield, Dug North, and more. Available for 16.99 + S&H from






CLICK HERE to see more great projects from Scroll Saw Woodworking & Crafts Summer 2018, Issue 71.

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