Sundials - World's Oldest Clocks

North American Sundial Society

OpenSCAD logoLook for the new menu tab:3D Printing Tips.  Starting this December (2019) NASS begins a series of tutorials using OpenSCAD and other software for designing and printing 3D objects.  As you might guess, we'll focus on creating sundials and other shadow casting objects.  Download your copy of OpenSCAD at and join our tutorials.  If you want even more detail on 3D sundials, join NASS and receive The Compendium with Bill Gottesman, Steve Lelievre, Bob Kellogg and others writing in the regular column "3D Design and Printing Sundials."

The goal of our first program is to create the dial base.  We'll define the dial base parametrically using three parameters for size: dial_btm, dial_top and dial_hght.  This allows for the diameter of the base bottom and top to create tapered sides and base  height.

Normally we think of making a cylinder using an OpenSCAD function called cylinder(h, d) where h is the height and d is the diameter. There is an extension of parameters such that the cylinder can be tapered using cylinder(h,d1,d2) where d1 is the base diameter and d2 is the top diameter.

But suppose that we want to make the sundial base in the shape of a hexagon or octagon.  We rely on a special OpenSCAD variable $\( \)fa that sets the minimum angle of our solid.  Two or three degrees on the edge makes a nice circle, 45 degrees for each side makes an octagon and 60 degrees for each side makes a hexagon. It makes sense that we could invoke the cylinder functionfor a tapered hexagon as:


We'd like to invoke "if" statements to decide which shape to make.  The code takes the form of

            if(shape=="hexagon") { make our tapered cylinder look like a hexagon }

Part 1 Sundial Base

The "if" statements (as well as "for") statements in OpenSCAD are handled a bit different than normal code.  Whatever happens within the "if" or "for" statement stays within it.  Variables can't leak out. Therefore we must build the sundial base within each selection of the choices "circular", "hexagon", or "octagon".   Thinking of terms of modular procedures, we can invoke a module called "sundial_base" that takes the appropriate parameters to create one of these three base shapes.

In the attached exemplar code, the size variables of the base (dial_btm, dial_top, dial_hght) from the main program are used directly within the "if" statement as well as within the sundial_base module. The hierarchy of variable scope allows these mainl variables to "fall" into these subservient functions and procedures.  However, within each "if" statement we need to set local paramaters to properly create the desired shape.  So within each "if" statement we create two variables to (1) set minimum segment angle and (2) rotate the base such that the hexagon or octagon has a flat side parallel to the x-axis.

The necessary rotation of the sundial base shows another peculiarity of the OpenSCAD code.  In mathematics one writes the translation or rotation operator (a matrix) to the left of the object being changed.  OpenSCAD does this by writing the operator on the lines before the object.  And there is a subtle use of the ";" symbol to indicate the end of operation:

     rotate([xturn,yturn,zturn])          //Note that there is no ";"
     cylinder(\)fa,h,d1,d2);               //Specifically ending with ";"

Download the OpenSCAD code from the attachment below.


In this tutorial we will draw the time line markers on the face of our sundial. These lines are called hour lines even if we divide the hours into smaller units of half or quarter hours.  We know a couple of things before we start: the hour lines radiate outward from the base of the gnomon (we'll discuss making the gnomon in the next tutorial).  The 6am-6pm hour lines are perpendicular to the 12-noon line, which is aligned north-south. 

If we imagine the sun's travel across the sky, we can describe its motion as the number of hours before or after the local noon meridian (the north-south line in the sky that goes directly overhead). The sun's position is known as the hour angle (HA).  We need HA in our equations as degrees, not hours. Accepting that there are 360/24 = 15 degrees in an hour of time our equations for hour angle becomes:

             Before noon    HA = 15*(hour-12)         e.g. hour = 10am   gives   HA = -30

             After noon      HA = 15*hour              e.g. hour =  3pm   gives   HA = +45

The equation to translate hour angle (HA) into the sundial hour line angle (theta)is

       tan(theta) = tan(HA)*sin(lat)        where lat = dial's latitude

or      theta  = arctan(tan(HA)*sin(lat))

To insure that we have no ambiguities in determining theta, we can use the computer function arctan2 to determine the arc tangent using the sine and cosine ratio:

       theta  = arctan2(sin(HA)*sin(lat),cos(HA))

To implement this in OpenSCAD, we make a long, slender "cube" (its technical name is really rectangular cuboid, but "cube" sufficies even if the sides are unequal) that is oriented toward north (y-axis) and centered on the origin (0,0).   Lwidth, Llength, and Lhght will be the width, length and height of the hour line.  Once this cube is created, because it is centered on (0,0), we move it one half its length north and raising it one half its height.  That sets the base of our slender cube at the origin.   Finally we rotate it by the hour line angle theta.  All of this is put into a loop using a for statement to step from the first to the last hour line in 15 degree increments:

       first = 15*(minHA - 12);
       last  = 15*(maxHA);
       // loop through the hour angles       
            //compute the hour line angle
            theta = atan2(sin(lat)*sin(HA),cos(HA));
            //instantiate the hour line at angle theta using a slender cube
            //translate the hour line to have its base at (0,0)

Technically the hour lines are in the right position, but they are  a bit "raw".  So we need to trim them.  The easiest way is to create a donut mask and then intersect the mask with the hour lines.  Here is a simple module to construct the donut mask using a ring size of Din, Dout, and Dhght representing the ring's inner and outer diameter and height;

      module donut_mask(Din, Dout, Dhght){

Note that the donut mask uses a "cut-out" inner cylinder that is taller than the outer cylinder.  This is to insure that no face pieces remain in the center. The intersection of the hour lines and the donut mask is straightforward.  As with procedures above, we use parametric variables such as dial_top (the diameter of the dial), and the hour line dimension Lwidth, Llength, and Lhght. The result is:

          theta = atan2(sin(lat)*sin(HA),cos(HA));
               donut_mask(Din, Dout, Lhght);

Part 2 Hour Line Intersection with Donut Mask

Figure 1. (a) raw hour lines, (b) donut mask, (c) intersection of hour lines and mask

Are we done?  We've designed a dial with the gnomon foot in the middle of the dial.  This to me is artistically unbalanced as the southern part of the dial is totally vacant.  So let's offset the gnomon and the center of the hour lines by a distance called Loffset to the south of the dial, expanding the useable area of the dial.  For example I prefer Loffset to be about a quarter of the dial's diameter.  The above code needs only one additional line:

          theta = atan2(sin(lat)*sin(HA),cos(HA));
               donut_mask(Din, Dout, Lhght);

 Part 2 Centered and Off Centered Hour Lines

Figure 2. (a) centered hour lines & gnomon foot, (b) offset hour lines & gnomon foot

Download the OpenSCAD code from the attachment below that includes both Part 1 and Part 2 tutorials.

Part 3 Fig.1 Simple GnomonIn the March 2020 issue of The Compendium (Vol. 27-1) from NASS I discussed how to make a simple triangle gnomon.  We'll extend this tutorial to add a rounded tip and then examine how to make a gnomon with an underneath cut-back for a more pleasing shape.

The fundamental triangle has a base b, height h, and hypotenuse z.  To make the triangle proportions for the sundial latitude \(\phi\), we observe that the hypotenuse must point to the north (or south) celestial pole. As shown in (Fig. 1) :

    \(h =b*tan\phi \)
    \(z = \frac{ b}{cos\phi} \)

We'll start out making the gnomon in a self-contained OpenSCAD module that at first simply creates the gnomon in the x-y plane.  Here's the code:

lat    = 40;        //example dial is set at 40 deg north
b      = 35;        //gnomon base 35mm for 3D dial size of 75mm
gwidth = 2;         //gnomon width in mm
gnomon(lat,b,gwidth);                   //main procedure call
module gnomon(lat,b,gwidth){
      h  =  b*tan(lat);                 //height of  gnomon
      gpoly = [[0,0],[b,0],[0,h]];      //simple triangle [x,y] points
      // extrude gnomon in xy plane
      linear_extrude(height = gwidth, convexity=3)
      polygon(gpoly);                   //make polygon from points

Part 3 Fig.2 Gnomon with Rounded Tip

In the full code, we'll rotate and translate the gnomon so that it sits on top of the sundial we've designed inthe previous tutorials.  But first, let's improve the gnomon with a rounded tip.  From Fig. 2 we see that the rounding circle is centered on a bisected line from the apex and is tangent to both triangle's vertical and hypotenuse sides.  We've labeled the tangent distance from the apex as h' on these sides. If we specify the rounding circle's radius r we see that the apex triangle half-angle \(\xi\) can be derived from the sum of angles equal to 180 degrees.  Rearranging we get:

    \(\xi = \frac{90 - \phi}{2} \)
Next, we use the apex triangle and trigonometric identities to determine the tangent distance h' from the apex:

    \( h' = \frac{r}{tan\xi} \)

The x-y tangent coordinate on the vertical side of the triangle is [0,h-h'].  The x-y tangent coordinate on the hypotenuse is a bit more complicated, giving [b -   (z-h')* cos\(\phi\), (z-h')*sin\(\phi\)].  These points help create a 4-point polygon to which we add the rounding cylinder:

lat    = 40;        //example dial is set at 40 deg north
base   = 35;        //gnomon base 35mm for 3D dial size of 75mm
gwidth = 2;         //gnomon width in mm
gradi  = 3;         //radius of the rounding circle
gnomon(lat,base,gwidth,gradi);                //main procedure call
module gnomon(lat,b,w,gradi){
      h  =  b*tan(lat);                       //height of  gnomon
      z  =  b / cos(lat);                     //hypotenuse
      xi = (90 - lat)/2;                      //half apex angle
      hp = gradi / tan(xi);                   //tangent distance
      ho = h - hp;                            //lower vertical distance
      zo = z - hp;                            //lower hypotenuse distance
      zx = b - zo*cos(lat);                   //x-tangent point on hypotenuse
      zy = zo*sin(lat);                       //y-tangent point on hypotenuse
      cx = gradi;                             //x-tangent point on vertical
      cy = ho;                                //y-tangent point on vertical
      gpoly = [[0,0],[b,0],[zx,zy],[0,ho]];   //4-point polygon
      // extrude gnomon in xy plane
      linear_extrude(height = w, convexity=3)
      polygon(gpoly);                         //make polygon from points
      // add cylinder
      cylinder(r = gradi,h = w);

Part 3 Fig.3 Gnomon with Set BackNow let's go even further by using a setback of the base where we move the vertical portion of the triangle back underneath the hypotenuse.  The setback rotates the exact point of tangency with the rounding circle, so that we need a little more trignometry.  In Fig. 3 the new gnomon setback line is L.  To determine L we use the circle center to setback distance R as well as determining the apex angles alpha and beta:

    \( R=\sqrt{(b'-r)^2+(h-h')^2}\)

The length R and rounding circle radius give the apex angle \(\beta\):

    \(\beta = acos(\frac{r}{R})\)  and   \(L = R*sin\beta \)

All that remains is finding \(\alpha\).  We see that the side L is actually part of two triangles.  One is the rLR triangle with apex angle \(\beta\) and the other triangle is made from the setback b' and angle 90-\(\alpha\).  Two equations can be formed which after some algebra reduces to:

Part 3 Fig.4 Sundial with Gnomon    \(\frac{ (b'-r) - r*cos\alpha} {L}  = -sin\alpha\)
    \(\frac{ (h-h') - L*cos\alpha} {r } =  sin\alpha\)

Adding them together and rearranging

   \(cos\alpha = \frac{r*(r-b') + L*(h-h')  } {r^2 + L^2  }\)

With \(\alpha\) the indented tangent point is easily found as

    \(tx = r - r*cos\alpha\)
    \(ty = h' - r*sin\alpha\)

Pick up the attached OpenSCAD tutorial file and see the full code to attach either the simple, rounded, or setback gnomon onto you dial.  In the next tutorial, we'll add hour numbers to the dial.

Download this file (Sundials Part 3 - Add Gnomon.scad)Sundials Part 3 - Add Gnomon.scad[ ]8 kB

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