Lab: Switches

Originally written on July 18, 2014 by Benedetta Piantella Simeonidis
Last modified on September 1, 2016 by Benedetta Piantella Simeonidis


In this lab you will learn about different types of switches and their terminology. You’ll use switches and pushbuttons frequently in physical computing projects, and it’s helpful to be aware of the terminology used in describing them when shopping for them or trying to understand tutorials that use them.

Switches and pushbuttons. There are countless types of switches and pushbuttons for every purpose.

Switch Terminology

There are two common types of digital inputs: switches and pushbuttons. A switch is a mechanism that brings two pieces of metal together using some form of lever action. Think of everyday household light switches.  A pushbutton brings two pieces of metal together when you push down on it. Think of elevator buttons.

Switches and pushbuttons can be normally open, meaning that when the switch is in its normal position (not being touched by a person) the contacts are not touching. Normally closed means that when the switch or pushbutton is in its normal position, the contacts are touching, or closed.

A switch can switch more than one set of contacts. A Single throw switch has only two contacts. The switch is open or closed. Dual Throw switches have three contacts, and switching the switch moves a center contact from one outer contact to  the other outer contact.


Single throw switch, top, and dual throw switch, bottom

Switches can have multiple poles as well. A Single pole switch has only one set of contacts that it closes or opens when it moves. Dual Pole switches have two sets of contacts being controlled by the same mechanism. With a dual pole switch, you can switch two separate circuits with the same mechanism. In a dual pole switch, the mechanism connecting the contacts is an insulator, so that the poles don’t connect. The knife switch in the image below is a dual pole, dual throw switch. When shopping for a switch, you should look for a DPDT switch.


Related video: Switches

Pushbuttons or momentary switches stay closed only as long as you hold them closed. Roller switches are pushbuttons with a lever and a roller attached. They’re useful when you need something to push against the switch gently to close it.


Roller switch

Toggle switches stay closed in one physical position and open in the other. Slide switches are similar to toggle switches.

Toggle Switch

Slide switch

Magnetic switch, and the magnet to switch it

Magnetic snaps

Magnetic switches have two metal leaves in the end that are pulled together when a magnet is brought close to them. They’re useful when you can’t have wires on both sides of the switch mechanism. Magnetic snaps are useful when you’re making a soft circuit and need a fastener on the garment to close a switch.

Whisker switch

Whisker switches are made from a piece of spring steel or piano wire, and a center post. An insulator such as a piece of electrical tape or shrinkwrap holds the two separate. When the wire is touched, the spring bends and touches the metal post, and closes the switch. Solarbotics sells some nice whisker switches.

Tilt switch

Tilt switches contain a metal ball and contacts at one end. When you tilt the switch, the ball touches both contacts, and closes the switch. There are also mercury switches that do the same, but with a ball of mercury inside. Avoid these, since mercury is very poisonous.

Get Creative With Switches

A switch is nothing more than a mechanism to bring two pieces of conductive material together and separate them. You can make a switch from any two conductors and a little creativity.

Consider, for example:
Conductive fabric Wire mesh Copper tape

All you need to do is arrange the two conductors in such a way that they can touch or not touch. Sometimes a spacer layered between the two conductors helps. For example, in this image you see three pieces of conductive fabric. Two of the pieces have non-conductive layers on top of them. When the non-conductive part is sandwiched between the conductive layers, you’ve got a switch that’s pressed by touching. The conductive parts touch when they’re pressed through the holes in the non-conductive part. These two switches would have different sensitivities because the hole-to-material ratio of the non-conductive layer is different.

Soft Switches

Make your own switch. Find a way to turn a closing door into a switch, for example, or to close a switch when a person sits down. Or figure out how to turn a hat into a switch, or a cane, or a zipper. Or perhaps the pieces of a puzzle can be switches. Come up with an everyday activity to which you can add three or four custom switches that, when combined, turn on a light. For example, maybe the light comes on when you close the door, sit down, and open a book. Or when you walk upstairs, put your keys on a side table, and remove your hat. Combine your creativity with switches with what you learned in the electronics lab to make this happen. For more ideas on materials, check out How to Get What You Want. They have an excellent list of conductive materials and instructions.

Arrangements of switches

In planning your switch project, consider what happens when you arrange switches in different ways. For example, try the following circuits.

Three switches in parallel

Three switches in parallel. Any one of the three will turn on the LED.

LabSwitchesParallel_schem LabSwitchesParallel_bb
Switches in parallel schematic Switches in parallel breadboard

Three switches in series

Three switches in series. All three must be on to turn on the LED.

LabSwitchesSerial_schem LabSwitchesSerial_bb
Switches in series schematic Switches in series breadboard
Through a combination of series and parallel switches, you can come up with a variety of combinations that make the light turn on. Depending on where you add the LEDs, you can even have the same switches turn on different LEDs in different combinations. Try a few combinations and see what happens.

Switching a motor

In a simple circuit, a motor is no different than an LED as a load. You can switch it as well. Make sure your power supply can supply the current and amperage that your motor requires and you are good to go.

LabSwitchesMotor_no_LED_schem LabSwitchesMotor_no_LED_bb
Switching a motor schematic Switching a motor breadboard

With a dual pole switch, you could control both a motor and an LED like so:

Switching a motor and an LED with a dual pole switch schematic Switching a motor and an LED with a dual pole switch breadboard