Making a Compass

portable compass showing all points of the compassThis science experiment teaches us how to make our own magnetized ‘needles’.We can then use our magnetized needles to make compasses.

Fun science experiments-What compass will you make?

You can either make a ‘wet’ compass that floats on water or a ‘dry’ compass that is suspended in a cup.

  • Watch the video below to find out how to make a ‘wet’ compass

No matter what type of compass you make you will have to ‘magnetize’ your nail (or needle) properly first. Be patient as it can take up to 10 minutes before your nail will become completely magnetized!

  • Why is it important that your nail should be well ‘magnetized’?

What metals can be used to make a magnet?

You will have to use a nail containing large quantities of iron, nickel or cobalt, but not one made out of copper, aluminium, silver or gold!

wet compass needle in a cork floating in a dish

In fact there are far more metals that are non magnetic than magnetic.

In reality most nails that you use will have a large amount of iron in them. The more iron (cobalt or nickel) your nail contains, the stronger the magnet you will be able to make.

Remember that when you place your magnetized nail in a bowl of water it moves around until it aligns itself in a north-south direction. One end (the north pole) will point to the earth’s north pole and the other end (south pole) will point to the earth’s south from space with magnetic north and south poles superimposed on a compass needle

Interesting projects

  • Write instructions for making a compass. Measure how effective your compass is; does your ‘north’ point in the same direction as other peoples’ north? What about if you compare your ‘north’ to the north of a factory-made compass? Do they both point in the same direction?
  • Draw a treasure map using points of the compass. You can find instructions that tell you how to do this at
  • Using a compass, map out directions to a well known landmark in your school. (could be the tree at the top of the field!)  Remember to record what direction you are traveling in and how many paces you have to take before changing direction.( eg  15 paces north, 10 paces east, 5 paces south…etc) Keep everything simple and remember to keep the size of each pace you take the same. Would a friend be able to navigate to the tree by following your instructions?
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