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Hit the Slopes: Build Your Own Ski Lift

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Do you like winter sports like sledding or skiing? Check out this winter-themed engineering project to build your own miniature "ski lift." Use it to transport small objects from one place to another, just like a real ski lift transports skiers from the bottom of a mountain to the top.


Areas of Science
Time Required
Short (2-5 days)
Material Availability
Readily available
Very Low (under $20)
No issues
Ben Finio, PhD, Science Buddies


Design and build your own model ski lift to transport an object from a start area to a finish area.


If you have ever been sledding, you know how much work it is to keep walking back up a big hill. It is even more work to walk all the way up a mountain; that is why, if you have ever been skiing, you probably rode a ski lift. A ski lift, like the one in Figure 1 below, transports skiers from the bottom of a mountain up to the top so they can ski back down.

Photo from the chair of a ski lift
Figure 1. Ski lifts make it much easier for skiers to get to the top of a mountain. Imagine having to walk all the way up instead!

Ski lifts make use of a type of simple machine called a pulley. A pulley is a wheel with a rope wrapped around it. Sometimes pulleys are used to help lift heavy objects vertically off the ground. Other times pulleys are used to transport things horizontally over long distances or across rough terrain (see Figure 2, below). They can also be used to move objects diagonally (a combination of horizontal and vertical movement) like with a ski lift. A pulley typically uses a wheel because it helps reduce friction, or the force that opposes motion between two surfaces that are sliding against each other. Friction can also generate heat and cause materials to wear down quickly.

Two diagrams show a weight being lifted by a pulley on the left and a weight being moved between two pulleys on the right
Figure 2. Pulleys can be used for different purposes. (Left) If you pull on the rope (blue arrow), the weight will lift up off the ground (black arrow). (Right) If you spin the pulleys (blue arrows), the weight will move horizontally (black arrow). A ski lift is more similar to the setup on the right, but it usually travels up a hill instead of over flat ground.

In this project, you will design and build a miniature model ski lift from ordinary materials you already have around your home. A model is a smaller version of something scientists and engineers build for testing purposes. For example, engineers build smaller models of cars, airplanes, and bridges to help them with their designs. Your goal will be to transport a cargo item from one point to another; however, Science Buddies will not provide an exact template or instructions to build your ski lift. This is an engineering design project, which means can think creatively about how to solve the problem, then design, test, and improve your own solution.

Terms and Concepts



Materials and Equipment

The list of materials below is just a suggestion to help get you started with the project. Since this is an open-ended engineering design project, you can use any other materials you can think of.

Experimental Procedure

Note: This engineering project is best described by the engineering design process, as opposed to the scientific method. You might want to ask your teacher whether it's acceptable to follow the engineering design process for your project before you begin. You can learn more about the engineering design process in the Science Buddies Engineering Design Process Guide.

Challenge Overview

The goal of this project is to build a model ski lift device that can transport a small cargo item horizontally from a start area to a finish area (many real ski lift also go vertically up the side of a mountain, but you will start out with a flat surface). The catch is that the human operator can only touch the device in the start area. This makes a pulley system very useful for transporting the items horizontally.

Build a Ski Lift from Office Supplies
This video introduces the project and shows an example ski lift.

Since this is an engineering project, you need to specify your design requirements. Here are the basic requirements for the project, but you can add your own requirements if you want:

  • The device must safely transport an item from the start area to a box in the finish area a certain distance away.
  • The operator can only load, touch, and handle the device from the start area.
  • The cargo item cannot fall out of the device or touch the ground before it reaches the box in the finish area.

The following sections in the Procedure will walk you through how you can design, build, and test your model ski lift.

Designing Your Ski Lift

Once you have defined your design requirements, you need to start designing your ski lift. The design phase is an important part of the engineering design process. There is no fixed procedure for this section; you get to come up with your own design! If you are new to the engineering design process, here are some suggested steps to get you started:

  1. Re-watch the video above and look closely at how the example device operates.
  2. Think about how you could build a simplified "pulley" system using string. While real-world pulley systems use wheels to help reduce friction, in this project it might be okay if you just have string sliding over a smooth, round surface, like a pencil or paper clip. The example video above shows string looped around two paper clips.
  3. Think about how you will be able to operate the device while only touching it on one end. Will you be able to pull on the string in one place, causing the entire pulley system to move?
  4. Think about how you can automatically drop the cargo item into the box in the finish area. Remember, you are not allowed to touch any part of your ski lift, or your cargo item, outside of the start area. The example video above shows a "chair" that is designed to tip sideways when it bumps into the box, causing the item to fall out and land in the box.
  5. Make a sketch of your design on paper before you start building. Make a list of the materials you will need to use, and label the different parts on your sketch. Figure 3, below, shows an example sketch.
Photo of a sketch that uses household items to build a model ski lift
Figure 3. An example sketch for a ski lift design.

Figures 4–7, below, show some close-up pictures of the ski lift from the example video. You can use these pictures as inspiration for your design, but remember, you should come up with your own original design!

Two plastic cups, pencils, tapes, and string are used to create a model ski lift

A model of a ski lift is built on a tabletop. Two upside down plastic cups are taped to the top of a table and a pencil is taped to the bottom of each cup. Paperclips attach to each pencil and a loop of string is held by each paperclip. A small paper chair is attached to the loop of string and can now be moved across the gap between cups by pulling on one side of the loop of string. A box is placed on the side of one of the plastic cups to represent an end point for the paper chair to travel to.

Figure 4. For the example model ski lift shown in the video above, the entire setup looks like this. The ski lift is designed to transport a small object from the start area (on the right) to the box in the finish area (on the left).

Photo of an upside down cup taped to a tabletop and a pencil taped to the bottom of the cup
Figure 5. The supports at either end of the ski lift are made from plastic cups, wooden pencils, and tape. The plastic cups are taped to the tabletop so they do not fall over.

String is wrapped around a paperclip that is taped to a pencil which is taped to an upside down cup
Figure 6. The string is wrapped around a paper clip at either end to form a simple pulley system. Even though the pulleys do not actually have wheels, the paper clips are very smooth, so the string can slide over them with very little friction.

A mini binder clip falls from a paper chair that is attached to a simple string pulley
Figure 7. The "chair" that carries the cargo item (a mini binder clip) is designed so that when it bumps into the box at the end, it tips over and spills the cargo out.

Building Your Ski Lift

Once you are done designing your ski lift, it is time to start building! Again, there is no fixed procedure for this section. How you build your ski lift will depend on the design you came up with and the materials you decided to use. Once you think your ski lift is ready, move on to the next section to begin testing.

Optional: If you have a digital camera or smartphone, take pictures of your ski lift. This will help you document your design process, which will be useful when you make your project display board.

Testing Your Ski Lift

Now it is time to test your ski lift, and possibly redesign it or make improvements, depending on how well it worked. Engineering projects rarely work perfectly on the first try! The process of redesigning and improving an engineering project is called iteration, which is an important part of the engineering design process. Here is a suggested procedure for testing your ski lift:

  1. Load your cargo item into your ski lift's "chair." Make sure you only handle the ski lift and cargo item inside the start area for your design. Do not touch parts that are outside of the start area.
  2. Operate your ski lift to transport the device toward the finish area. Pay close attention to how the device operates:
    1. Do any parts of the pulley system or supporting structures seem weak or wobbly? Do any pieces fall off?
    2. Does your cargo stay safely in the chair as it is being transported, or does it fall out?
    3. Does your automatic unloading device work as intended? Does the cargo fall into the box into the finish area? Does it miss the box? Does it remain stuck in the chair entirely?
  3. Repeat step 2 a few times until you are comfortable operating your ski lift. Do you see some of the same problems occur with each test? Do the results change if you are more careful operating the device?
  4. Depending on what problems you encounter while testing your ski lift, your next steps may vary. Write down your observations and ideas in your lab notebook. For example:
    1. If your support structures are too weak, how can you make them stronger?
    2. If your pulley system gets stuck, how can you make it operate more smoothly?
    3. If your chair does not successfully unload the cargo into the box, how can you modify its design?
  5. Based on your observations and ideas from step 4, make changes to the design and construction of your ski lift. You may need to add materials, or completely redo part or all of your ski lift, depending on how well it works. Remember that this is alright! There is no "right" answer to an engineering design project.
    1. Optional: If you have a digital camera or smartphone, take pictures of your modifications and a video of your ski lift when it is in operation. This will help you document the different iterations of your design process.
  6. Repeat steps 1–5 as many times as necessary, until your ski lift meets all of your design requirements. Now, think about the design process you went through:
    1. How many iterations did it take before you reached your final solution?
    2. Did you have to make major changes or do a total redesign of your ski lift, or did you only make small changes and fixes?
    3. If you took pictures, compare the first picture of your ski lift to the last picture. How much did your ski lift change?
  7. Optional: Quantify your ski lift's performance. For example, use a stopwatch to time how long it takes you to transport one cargo item from start to finish. Or, see how many items you can transport in one minute.
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Do you have specific questions about your science project? Our team of volunteer scientists can help. Our Experts won't do the work for you, but they will make suggestions, offer guidance, and help you troubleshoot.


  • Try to think of a completely different way that you could transport a small item from a starting area to a small container a short distance away. What about building a catapult or a slingshot? How about a car that drives the item to its destination? What about a conveyor belt? The options are endless. Watch this video to see three totally different approaches to getting a ping-pong ball into a glass from across the room: http://youtu.be/uHnF9aXOQb0. Can you build several different machines and find out which one is the most accurate?
  • Make the ski lift challenge more difficult by increasing the elevation of the finish area. Put your target box on top of a stack of textbooks to raise its height.
  • Add an electric motor to your ski lift to fully automate its operation.
  • Design a ski lift that stores potential energy somehow (for example, from stretched rubber bands or raised weights), and use that energy to automatically move the string in your pulley system so you do not have to pull the string by hand.


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General citation information is provided here. Be sure to check the formatting, including capitalization, for the method you are using and update your citation, as needed.

MLA Style

Finio, Ben. "Hit the Slopes: Build Your Own Ski Lift." Science Buddies, 25 May 2023, https://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project-ideas/Phys_p100/physics/ski-lift-legos. Accessed 28 May 2023.

APA Style

Finio, B. (2023, May 25). Hit the Slopes: Build Your Own Ski Lift. Retrieved from https://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project-ideas/Phys_p100/physics/ski-lift-legos

Last edit date: 2023-05-25
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