Tops with the longest spin times are made from metal. There is a lot of variety, though, in the metals that can be used for a long-lasting spin. Metal spinning tops are often made from common metals that we use in our everyday lives, but can also be crafted from precious metals.
How, then, does a machinist choose between the options? The choice of metal for a spinning top depends on a number of factors.
Look and feel of the top. The type of metal used for a spinning top will determine the look and feel of the finished top. The material impacts the top’s weight and the way it feels in your hand when spinning and handling it. The metal type also determines the color of the top and how shiny it will be.
Ease of machining. Different metals have different characteristics when they are machined on a lathe. Some are easy to cut, while others are more difficult. This is referred to as the metal’s machinability. Machinability depends on the physical properties of the metal, such as hardness and toughness.
Durability. A high-quality metal spinning top is durable and stands the test of time. Metals vary in their durability properties, so spinning tops made from different metals vary in their durability, as well. Certain metals are resistant to corrosion. Some are harder, tougher, and stronger than others.
Cost. Finally, cost plays a large role in the choice of metals used for a spinning top. Like any raw materials, metals vary greatly in price. This depends on supply and demand. The cost factor also considers the cost of the machining process in producing the top. A top that takes a long time to design and machine will cost more than a simple, mass-produced top. Special tooling used during the machining process can also add to the cost.
So, what materials can be used to make metal spinning tops?
The tried and true materials for metal spinning tops
The most common metals used for spin tops are aluminum, stainless steel, and brass. These score highly on all four of the factors described above – they are durable, relatively easy to machine, affordable, and produce tops with an appealing look and feel.
Aluminum shows up in our everyday lives all the time. Soda cans, kitchen utensils, foils, and building decorations are all commonly made from aluminum.
Aluminum is easy to come by, cheap, light weight, non-corrosive, and non-toxic. It is also easily machined. It is one of the most malleable and ductile metals available.
I usually use aluminum for the inside core of the tops I made. Aluminum is light weight, so it can be used with a heavier metal (such as stainless steel) to distribute the bulk of the weight toward the outside of the top.
Like aluminum, stainless steel is used in a huge variety of products that we use on a daily basis. Mugs and water bottles, pots and pans, trash cans, and knives are frequently made from stainless steel. It also has scores of industrial applications, such as aerospace components, surgical tools, and architecture.
Stainless steel is not actually a single type of metal; rather, it is a group of iron-based alloys containing chromium and other elements. The differences in the exact composition determines the properties of the resulting stainless steel material.
A common type of stainless steel known as 303 stainless is a chromium-nickel stainless steel modified by the addition of phosphorus and sulphur or selenium. I use 303 stainless steel more than any other type because it is easy to machine.
304 stainless steel, on the other hand, does not cut well on a lathe, as it doesn’t have the sulphur component of 303 stainless.
Other types of stainless steel that make for good spinning tops are 316 and 17-4 stainless steel. These are more difficult to machine than 303 stainless steel, but easier than 304.
Aside from the body of the spinning top, stainless steel is a great material for tip of a top. The properties of the tip on which a spinning top balances are important in determining how long the top will spin for. I like to use a hardened and ground stainless steel ball bearing for Scovie tops because these have a very high strength-to-weight ratio.
Brass is another material that is wonderful for metal spinning tops. The most obvious difference between brass and aluminum and stainless steel is its color. Its light golden color makes a beautiful top by itself and can also create an attractive contrast when used along with another metal in a multi-material top.
Brass makes for a great spinning top due to more than just the way it looks. It is one of the easiest metals to machine. As an alloy of copper and zinc, it is also highly durable, resistant to corrosion, and has a low coefficient of friction. Though it is more expensive than aluminum, it weighs a lot more, so it is a cost-effective option.
A top that is made from an aluminum core and a brass body has both the right weight distribution for a long-lasting spin and the visual appeal that makes you want to display it.
Fancier metal spinning tops
While aluminum, stainless steel, and brass are my go-to metals for spinning tops, these are far from the only metals that can be used.
Titanium is aptly named after the Titans of Greek mythology. It is strong, hard, and shiny. Like aluminum and stainless steel, it shows up frequently in kitchen supplies and other everyday items, as well as industrial applications. It is also used to make jewelry and joint replacements, as it is both non-toxic and connects well with bone.
The same properties that make titanium good for all these applications make it suitable for spinning tops. However, it is more expensive than aluminum, stainless, and brass, so it’s not one of my preferred materials for most of the metal tops I design.
Tungsten is a lovely silvery-white material that is very hard and has excellent corrosion resistance. Unfortunately, it is expensive and difficult to machine. It is used in spinning tops mainly for the novelty.
Copper is similar to brass in many ways. However, it is somewhat more difficult to machine than brass and is more expensive. It also has poor wear characteristics. Why is it for metal spinning tops, then? The way it looks! The reddish brown color of copper is a contrast to the color of all the other materials described here. Copper is a way to add some visual differentiation to a spinning top.
Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin. It has an excellent surface finish and doesn’t easily corrode. It is used in sculptures, musical instruments, and other applications that require a combination of good physical properties and visual appeal. It is a candidate material for spinning tops for these same reasons.
Precious and unique metals
Precious and rare metals are also sometimes used to make spinning tops. These are more costly, but make for visually interesting, high-end tops that are great keepsake gifts and display pieces. A top made from a precious metal is essentially like a piece of jewelry that you spin instead of wear.
These metals include gold, platinum, tellurium, and beryllium. They also include unique alloys that are specifically make to be resistant to corrosion and oxidation while simultaneously having good strength, heat resistance, and ability to undergo stress.
Titanium alloys such as Mokuti and Timascus are machined and heat anodized to produce an interesting blend of colors throughout the material. These produce tops with a lovely, upscale look.
Other unique alloys include Greek Asocloy, which is a chromium-nickel-tungsten alloy, and Zircuti, a wear-resistant zirconium-titanium blend.
In summary, metal spinning tops can be made from a wide variety of metals. The choice of metals depends on several factors, including those that affect the machining process, the cost, and the desired look, feel, and function of the top.
Check out Scovie’s selection of metal spinning tops!