"Build this unusual version of Nikola Tesla's most famous experiment!"
by Tony van Roon (VA3AVR)
Nikola Tesla, considered by some to be the greatest inventor of the
electrical age, is today best remembered for his fascinating power-transmission experiments, using his famous Tesla
Coil. In his original experiment, he was able to transmit electrical energy without wires to light incandescent
lamps locate over 25 miles away.
Today, most similar circuits--like the Tesla Coil described in this article--are used for educational and
experimental purposes. Unlike many of the modern versions, our circuit feeds AC to a power transformer capable of
outputting about 3KV/AC at 20 milliamps. The output of the transformer is sent to a primary coil, and is
magnetically coupled to a secondary with a top capacitance. And if the primary coil is properly tuned, a spectacular
high-frequency, high-voltage output is produced at the secondary coil.
Figure 1 shows the schematic diagram of the Tesla Coil circuit. The circuit consists of
little more than a few coils, a step-up power transformer, and a capacitor. Power from an AC wall receptacle is fed
to transformer T1 (a small neon-sign transformer) which steps the voltage up to about 3000-volts AC.
The stepped-up output of T1 is fed through L1 and L2 across C1, causing it to charge until enough power is stored in
the unit to produce an arc across the spark gap. The spark gap--which momentarily connects C1 and L3 in
parallel--determines the amount of current transferred between C1 and L3.
The arcing across the spark gap sends a series of high voltage pulses through L3, giving a sort of oscillating effect.
The energy fed through L3 is transferred to L4 via the magnetic coupling between the two coils. (Because of the turns
ratio that exists between L3 and L4, an even higher voltage is produced across L4)> Coil L4 steps up the voltage,
which collects on the top-capacitance sphere where it causes an avalanche breakdown of the surrounding air, giving off
a luminous discharge.
In order to get maximum output from the Tesla Coil, certain conditions must be met. First of all, the primary and
secondary resonant frequencies must be made equal by tuning the primary coil, L3. That's accomplished by tapping L3
at points along the coil with a clip.
In addition, the setting of the spark gap greatly effects the output of the Tesla Coil. Our Tesla Coil is designed
to use either a stationary spark gap or an optional rotary spark gap; both of which must be adjusted for maximum
output. (We'll discuss the rotary spark gap a little later.)
If L3 and L4 are coupled too close, coil efficiency is reduced; over-coupling prevents the circuit from resonating at
maximum efficiency. That also causes a breakdown between L3 and L4, which can produce arcing between the two coils.
By increasing the coupling between L3 and L4, the amount of energy increases in L4 until a "critical coupling" is
In addition, the Q of the coils is very important
(the Q of a coil is equal to its inductive reactance divided by its resistance). The lower the Q, the higher the
efficiency of the coil. The primary coil was made from a few turns of aluminum grounding wire (so its resistance
is very low). The secondary has many more turns of fine magnet wire, which by its very nature exhibits a higher
resistance than does the wire used in the primary coil(L3).
Rotary Spark Gap:
The rotary spark gap is a simple add-on circuit for the Tesla Coil, consisting of a variable DC power supply, and a
small, 5000-rpm dc motor. The circuit allows you to vary the output of the Tesla Coil by adjusting the rotating speed
of the motor. A rotary spark gap because the stationary gap could cut out, requiring that the gap be re-adjusted.
Figure 2 shows the schematic diagram of the rotary spark gap, which is assembled as a
separate unit. The circuit is made up of a 12-volt power transformer, a bridge rectifier, a 4700uF capacitor, and a
12-volt dc motor. Power is delivered to the circuit via a 115-volt AC line cord, and fed to transformer T2 (a
12-volt, 700mA unit), which provide a 12-volt AC output. The output of the transformer is fed to BR1 (a 1-amp,
100-PIV, full-wave bridge rectifier,), which converts the AC input to provide 12-volts DC for the operation of the
The output of the rectifier is fed to the base of transistor Q1, which along with Q2 forms a Darlington pair. The
output of Q1, which controls the bias presented to the base of Q2, is controlled by potentiometer R2. Potentiometer
R2 is used to adjust the base bias on Q1, thereby varying the current through Q2, which in turn varies the rotating
speed of the motor.
The rotary spark gap has a stationary post (two screws) mounted on a small square of perfboard, which face a rotor
(another perfboard square on which four screws are mounted and electrically connected with bus wire). The stationary
posts and the rotor posts are positioned as close as possible. The movement of the rotor makes and breaks the gap
giving maximum impulse power, and will not cut out if the stationary and rotor posts are set properly.
The rotary spark gap is connected to the Tesla Coil through separate wire and banana jacks (J4 and J5). When the
circuit is powered up, the current that normally travels through the stationary spark gap on the Tesla Coil is
re-routed through the the rotary gap via J4 and returned to the Tesla Coil via J5. To make the connections plug PL1
into J1, PL2 into J4, and PL3--which in Fig. 1 is used to connect the output of the stationary spark gap to L3--into
The author's prototype of the Tesla Coil was built into a large plastic enclosure; because of the high voltages
involved, it is imperative that you avoid metal enclosures. Because the circuit consists of very few parts, its
components can easily be hard-wired together within the housing, using Fig. 1 as a guide. There is nothing
particularly critical about the layout of the circuit. Just be sure to maintain adequate spacing between the
individual components and wires.
Start by drilling holes in the enclosure to pass wires through and for the panel mounted components. In the author's
prototype, three sides of the enclosure were out fitted with appropriate sized holes. A 1/8-inch hole was drilled in
one side of the enclosure, through which a ground wire connects to L3.
On another side of the enclosure, holes were drilled to accommodate a dowel rod (which is part of the stationary
spark gap), a fuse holder, and the power cord. On the third side, three holes were drilled for banana jacks.
It will also be necessary to drill holes in the bottom of the enclosure suitable for T1's mounting hardware.
Begin assembly by mounting the power transformer on the bottom of the enclosure. Next connect a 10-uH AC filter choke
in series with each of T1's secondary leads, and then connect the free ends of each coil across C1 (see Fig. 1).
Note: In the author's prototype, C1 is really two 0.12uF/2500Volt AC capacitors that were wired in series to create
C1 (giving the capacitor an effective rating of 0.006uF at 5KV-AC). If you use the same scheme, keep the connecting
leads between the capacitors as short as possible. After connecting the capacitors together, cover the gap between
the two units with non-conductive tape, and connect the jerry-rigged unit in the circuit as shown.
Stationary Spark Gap:
The stationary gap can be made from two 3/16-inch carriage bolts (see Fig. 3). One bolt is
stationary and the other one is adjustable so that it can be used to vary the spark gap. A 1/2-inch wooden dowel is
attached to the bolt that is to be adjustable, allowing adjustments to the gap to be made from outside the project's
The wooden dowel is very important; one does not want to adjust the gap by touching metal (or any other conductive
device), since the gap is adjusted with the Tesla Coil in operation.
The bolts that form the spark gap are supported by two "L" brackets mounted on top of ceramic spacers so that they face
each other (see Fig. 3). The stationary post of the spark gap is connected to J3, and the movable bolt is connected to
Parts List for the Tesla Coil:
L1,L2 = 10uH, AC-line filter choke
L3 = 6 turns, #10 aluminum grounding wire (see text)
L4 = 348 turns, #24 magnet wire (see text)
T1 = 3KV, 20mA, neon-sign transformer
C1 = 0.006uF, 5000WVDC ceramic capacitor (see text)
F1 = 10 amp fuse, slow-blow
J1-J3 = Banana jacks
PL1-PL3 = Banana plug
PL4 = 3-conductor AC power plug with line cord
Misc = Metal output sphere, plastic or wooden enclosure, "L" brackets, wire,
solder, wood, hardware, etc.
Parts List for the Rotary Spark Gap:
Q1 = TIP41, NPN silicon power transistor
Q2 = 2N3055 NPN silicon power transistor
BR1 = 1 amp, 100-PIV, full-wave bridge rectifier
MOT1 = 12 volt, 5000RPM, DC motor
T2 = 12 volt, 700mA, step-down power transformer
R1 = 1000 ohm, 1/4 watt, 5%, resistor
R2 = 10,000 ohm potentiometer, linear
J4,J5 = Banana jack
PL5 = 2 conductor AC power plug with line cord
Misc = Perfboard materials, plastic or wooden enclosure, wood, wire, solder,
The Primary Coil:
The original primary coil (L3) was made from 6 turns of #16 aluminum grounding wire in a pancake style winding.
However, to give the unit a somewhat unusual look, the original (more-or-less round) primary coil was replaced with a
square version made from heavier #10 aluminum grounding wire. The coil was formed on four 6-position, twin-turnscrew
type barrier blocks, which were mounted to the top of the enclosure near the edges, and bus wire was then connected to
the barrier blocks to form the coil. Note: The wires do not have to be fed through the barrier strips because of the
twin-turnscrew arrangement. The wire can be cut to the proper size and screwed into the terminal strip to form the
The inner dimensions of L3 should be about 6-inches square. When making the coil be careful that you do not form wire
loops, instead of the continuous coil illustrated in Fig. 4. When you are finished with
the coil, there should be one unoccupied screw terminal at the center and another at the outer rim of the coil. The
unoccupied terminal at the outer rim of L3 is connected to ground via a wire that's brought out through a hole in the
enclosure. The unoccupied terminal at the center of the coil is left floating.
The Secondary Coil:
To fabricate the secondary coil (L4), the author wound about 348 turns of #24 magnet wire onto an 8-1/2 inch length
of 3-1/2 inch diameter PVC tubing. That works out to be about 48 turns per inch, covering 7-1/4 inches on the
PVC tubing. The coil was wound by hand using a simple jig--which consists of little more than a stand for the wire and
another for the coil form. When winding the secondary coil, try to keep the windings as even as possible without
overlapping any turns.
After the coil has been wound, apply clear varnish or polystyrene (Q-DOPE) to hold the coil windings in place, and to
help insulate the coil. Next drill a small hole in the center of the Tesla Coil enclosure lid, and thread the lower
lead of L4 through the hole and connect it to the ground end of L3 (as shown in Fig. 1) and mount L4 in the center of
L3 (see Fig. 4). The secondary coil is then secured in place with glue.
As an added measure of protection, you can also place clear plexiglass 4-inch OD (outside diameter) tubing over the
secondary as a second layer of insulation. You might also seal the insulating tube and place mineral oil in it,
thereby further increasing the tubing's insulating properties, but that's not necessary for this type of Tesla Coil.
The Output Sphere:
The output sphere--a 1-1/4 inch steel ball on top of a plastic spacer--also serves as the top capacitance. An important
point here is that the surface area represents the capacitance not the inner area of the ball. It matters not if you
use a solid ball or a hollow ball; they will both work equally well as long as their surface areas are equal. The size
of the sphere effects the secondary's resonant frequency, so if you use a larger sphere, it will be necessary to retune
the primary coil for maximum output. A bigger sphere collects more energy, causing it to give off a higher output.
So experimenting with the top capacitance is highly recommended.
The Rotary Gap:
The rotary spark gap is not necessary to the operation of the Tesla Coil. So, if you do not wish to build the optional
rotary gap, skip this section.
The rotor of the rotary spark gap is made from a small perfboard square on which four #6 screws are mounted and
electrically connected through bare bus-bar wire. The stationary post consists of another perfboard square (of equal
size), containing two #6 screws that are NOT tied together electrically. The screws of the stationary post are
instead taken out of J4 and J5. Perfboard is specified because the holes in perfboard make it easy to align the
screws on the rotor with those on the stationary post.
The first step in building the rotary gap is to build and mount the electric motor support. In the author's
prototype (Fig. 5), the motor mount was made from small blocks of wood assembled in a "U"
shape. A wooden mount is also used to secure the stationary wood post in place.
The distance between the rotor screws and the stationary post screws must be as small as possible without touching in
order for the unit to function properly. After mounting the motor mount in the enclosure, place the motor in the mount
and secure it in position with epoxy.
Next assemble the motor controller circuitry on a piece of perfboard, using Fig. 2 as a guide. Note that T2, R2, J4,
and J5 aren't mounted to the perfboard, but instead are mounted to the rotary-gap enclosure. Once the controller
board is assembled check your work for wiring errors. If all checks out, solder wires to the appropriate points on
the board for connection to the off-board components. Set the board to the side for now; it will be installed in a
Mount the off-board components on some convenient spot on the enclosure. Mount R2 so that you'll have easy access to
its wiper. Jack J4 and J5 can be mounted in any desirable location. Before mounting T2, make sure that the
transformer leads are long enough to connect to the perfboard assembly.
After mounting T2 in the enclosure, mount the perfboard assembly on the enclosure using standoffs, and then complete
the wiring between the perfboard assembly and the off-board components. With that done, plug in the line cord and
rotate the wiper of R2, making sure that as you do, the motor speed increases and decreases. If the circuit does not
operate as described, it will be necessary to re-check your work, correct any errors found, and try it again. If
everything checks out, the rotary spark gap is complete.
The most important part of using the Tesla Coil is safety. Never tune (adjust the tap on L3) the Tesla Coil
when power is applied to the circuit. Use a phenolic plastic box or a wooden box to house the Tesla Coil and the
rotary gap--avoid metal enclosures like the plague. In addition, it is recommended that you use one hand
only while working with high-voltage (put the other hand on your back and
stick it under your belt), and wear rubber soled shoes to reduce the potential of shock hazard.
The power transformer, capacitor C1, and coils L3 and L4 must be properly grounded. Your must us a 3-conductor AC
power cord that is grounded (earth grounded) in the Tesla Coil itself. Do NOT touch the Tesla Coil while it
is in operation. However, if you want to show-off your creation, a fluorescent lamp may be placed near L4 to
demonstrate the ionizing power of the Tesla Coil.
Only use properly rated components. Do not use an overrated power transformer. A 3KV transformer with a 2KV AC
capacitor is out of the question. An overrated capacitor (for instance, a 6KV AC unit) is fine in the circuit.
Remember the capacitors are AC rated not DC rated!
The rotary gap will work well with this unit, but may not work well with a larger unit. A larger unit will require
that the rotary gap be redesigned. You must also protect your eyes: Do not stare at the stationary or rotary spark
gaps; doing so can cause eye damage.
PLEASE, please be careful. Carelessness, dreaming, or acting cocky may turn out to be a
shocking and possibly lethal experience!
Operating the Tesla Coil:
With the unit completely assembled, make sure that all the components are properly installed and oriented. If you are
using the stationary gap, start with a gap distance of about 1/4 inch and tune L3 at any point on the third turn from
ground. At that point turn the power on; you should get an output at the sphere. Adjust the spark gap for maximum
Tune L3 for maximum output, by changing the position of the alligator clip WITH THE POWER OFF! Tuning L3 and
adjust the spark gap greatly effects the output of the Tesla Coil. If you place a grounded wire near the output
sphere, you should get 3 to 4 inch sparks.
If you are using a rotary gap, make sure that the screws on the rotor and the screws on the stationary post are as
close as possible. Remember, the speed of the motor effects the output, so adjust the motor speed with the variable
There should be no arcing anywhere. All arcing must be corrected or you'll burn out those turns in the secondary.
If L3 is too close to L4, arcing can occur. You may place a 4-inch OD plexiglass tubing over the secondary coil to
help prevent arcing between L3 and L4.
Be aware that corona discharge (a bluish-purple ionization of the air around the Tesla Coil) can cause breakdown along
the secondary coil, and loss of power at the output of the sphere. Proper insulation of L4 will limit corona discharge.
You may also notice an output at the top of the secondary coil coming out of the sides. That will take away from the
output at the sphere, you could place several layers of tape (TURN OFF THE POWER FIRST!) around the upper-portion
of L4, until the output from the sides of the Tesla Coil is reduced.
In operation, the Tesla Coil emits ozone gas, which in large quantities can be dangerous. So use the Tesla Coil in a
well ventilated room, and do not operate it for periods of 3 to 5 minutes at a time.
In addition, the Tesla Coil emits a fair amount of RFI (Radio Frequency Interference). Coils L1 and L2 help to limit
the amount of high-voltage kickback introduced to the AC power line, and help to prevent the high voltage kickback from
damaging the power transformer. Even with such precautions, RFI will still be generated at the spark gap and the
output of the Tesla Coil. RFI will effect both AM radio and Television reception. That's why you should not operate
your Tesla Coil for more than a few minutes.
The Tesla Coil is an excellent introduction to high-voltage, high frequency, and tuned circuits. And after building
this one, you may wish to build a larger unit. The author does not recommend building a larger unit untill you've
learned enough about such circuits, and the safety precautions that must be followed when using them.
I can't stress enough to adhere to the safety precautions and always remember to work with this unit with one hand
tied to the back. It is the only way to prevent touching other metal parts instinctively with the other hand if you
get 'spooked' or if something goes wrong. So, create your own method to keep one hand secured at your back when
working with lethal high voltage apparatus like this one. I also suggest, if possible, to have another
person present to act if something does go wrong. Murphy's Law definately applies here! And remember your shoes.
Only dry rubber or dry cork soles. Nikola Tesla himself only used thick cork soles.
The photograph above is the "van de Graaff" generator that was operated at Round Hill, Massaschusetts by M.I.T.
Thanks Peter Linder for the correction. See link for the complete article:
[van de Graaff Generator]
Copyright and credits:
This article originally was written by Vincent Vollono and the editors of "Electronics Now" and "Popular
Electronics" magazines and published by Gernsback Publishing, 1992(Gernsback Publishing is no longer in business).
Editor's note and Disclaimer:
This device is presented here for educational and experimental purposes only as part of our High-Voltage Projects.
Build and/or use at your own risk. The Sentex Corporation of Cambridge Ontario, host of "Tony's Website", or Tony
van Roon himself, cannot be held liable or responsible or will accept any type of liability in any event, in case
of injury or even death by building and/or using or misuse of this device or any other high-voltage device posted
on this web site. By accessing, reading, and/or printing this article you agree to be solely responsible as stated
in the above disclaimer.
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