The secret of how Magna-Tiles work

Like many kids, my children love Magna-Tiles.  For those not familiar with them, they are transparent plastic squares and triangles with magnets embedded around the edges.  When two Magna-Tiles are placed edge-to-edge, the magnets stick together, allowing you to build structures just placing them next each other.

What’s really great about them is that the magnetic attraction is perfect for beginning builders.  Because pieces naturally stick together, you don’t need much precision to place pieces correctly (as opposed to Legos, which need to be perfectly aligned), and they can defy gravity in a way that blocks cannot.

My two-year-old son building with Magna-Tiles

My two-year-old son building with Magna-Tiles

I’m one of those people who always wants to understand how things work, and there is something about the Magna-Tiles that bothers me – they never seem to repel each other when you build with them.  Magnets are polarized, with a “North” side and a “South” side.  If you pick up two regular magnets, the north and south sides will stick together, but you can’t connect two Norths or two Souths.  I see this most often with my kids’ wooden train sets, where the cars are connected with magnets.  To connect two cars, they have to be oriented with the North/South polarity matching.  If one is facing the wrong way, they push away from each other rather than sticking.

Magna-Tiles don’t seem to suffer from this problem.  I can rotate the pieces in any orientation or flip them over, and they always stick.  Shouldn’t there be “correct” and “incorrect” alignment?  If they stick together one way, which means the North/South poles are matched correctly, shouldn’t flipping the piece around cause it to be incorrect?

I tried googling this and have found some other people who are as puzzled as I am but no clear explanation.

The other day, it finally dawned on me how they must work, so I figured I would share for other curious parents.

The first part of the secret to the Magna-Tiles is that the North-South direction is not along the edges, but rather in the Z-axis.  If you lay a Magna-Tile flat, think of the four edges as the four directions.  The poles of the magnets, however, are in the up and down direction, not out along one of the sides, as I had originally assumed.

The second part of the secret is that each Magna-Tile has two magnets on a side, and these magnets are oriented in opposite directions.  So, if the one on the left has North pointing up, the one on the right has North pointing down.  This continues around all four edges of the Magna-Tiles, with each magnet having the opposite North/South alignment of the ones on either side.

I’ve tried to illustrate with this crude diagram.  As you can tell, my background is in software engineering, not graphic design:

The magnetic poles are aligned along the "Z-Axis", and each magnet alternates the North/South direction of the poles

The magnetic poles are aligned along the “Z-Axis”, and each magnet alternates the North/South direction of the poles

Because of the alternating pattern with two magnets per edge, there is no way to place two Magna-Tiles next to each other such that the magnets are facing the opposite direction.  Regardless of whether you rotate it or flip it around, you always have the configuration of magnets and polarity.

And, most crucially, if you place two tiles next to each other, the adjacent magnets have poles facing opposite directions in the Z-axis, which means they will stick together.  In other words, the left tile’s north side touches the right tile’s south side, and vice versa.  And so they stick.

The only way to make two Magna-Tiles repel each other is to place them misaligned, with  the top half of one touching the bottom half of the other one.  Then you will find the magnets repelling each other.  However, since this is not a normal way to attach Magna-Tiles when building a structure, it doesn’t happen much in practice.

I hope this explanation makes sense.  If  not, try playing around with some Magna-Tiles while keeping in mind that the North-South is facing up and down on the Z-axis, not the X-Y axis of the Magna-Tile itself, and you will see what I mean.

Happy building.

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18 Responses to The secret of how Magna-Tiles work

  1. Brad Lichtenstein says:

    Orientation of the axis is largely irrelevant, as long as the two magnets on each side are oppositely aligned. I would guess you get better adhesion if aligned along the long axis.

    Similarly, there exist slightly smaller trains whose coupler magnets are aligned sideways, allowing coupling to either end of any other car. I suspect these are the same trains whose track has, at each end, both a male & female bit, so the track can also be connected any which way without need of special adapters.

    • Brad Lichtenstein says:

      You’re right, z axis it must be – which is why they can stack like pancakes. And why they stick even at a 90 degree (or any any arbitrary) angle, as long as they don’t fully overlap along the shared edge.

  2. Raphus cucullatus says:

    Oops. You are right. Rip offs do not work the same way as the real thing. Odd that the real thing does not use the improved mechanism of rotating magnets.

    • That’s not an improvement. No moving parts means that it is far more durable. The knock offs are choosing a simpler manufacturing process but at the expense of the lifetime length of the product.

  3. Robert says:

    Interesting. I always wondered myself how they stick. How do they control which way they install them in the tiles? You would think there is room for error as square tiles have eight magnets.

    • I’m guessing that there are magnets built into the assembly area so that as soon as they drop the magnets in, they automatically orient the correct way before they get sealed in.

  4. Robert says:

    Regardless, my kids love them. We also bought some from another manufacturer called Metro Mags and they seem to work well with the Magnatiles. They are less expensive…but still not cheap. However, my kids spend hours playing with them, so its a great investment.

  5. mistermgr says:

    Thanks for posting this! My brain was hurting trying to figure it out.

  6. L says:

    Ha! My 7 yr old and I have been driving our selves batty trying to work it all out, and in the end the Z-axis answer is so obvious (as answers often are in hindsight!). Thanks for helping us sleep tonight!!

  7. Aron Gross says:

    Hi Mr Rothman
    I am wondering what would happen if a child or an adult would step on the tiles or if an hard object would fall on it, what would prevent the tiles from braking ? Also did you ever heard of magna-tiles that would open and the magnets would fall out?
    Thanks Aron

  8. Thanks for the explanation….

  9. You have just solved this for me. I kept flipping a square tile with a triangle trying to hypothesize different polarity orientations, always disproving each hypothesis. I even considered polity along the x axis (going from the outside of the tile inward), but couldn’t justify that one. The z axis is a solid explanation (or maybe I can understand it since my background too is in Spftware Engineering). Brilliant. Mystery solved.

  10. elyknowles says:

    Thanks so much! I was wondering the same thing but I left it alone when people wouldn’t understand my question or even worse why I was asking it in the first place lol.
    I have my own daycare and I often make toys for the children, for over a year now the children of all ages absolutely love the magna tiles and have completely forgot about the wooden blocks so I figured why don’t I make some magnetic blocks, I found a couple diy videos and it seems fairly simple until I saw the guy stick the magnets into a hole in the blocks. At the end they stick together but I was left wondering which magnetic pole goes into the hole? And if so wouldn’t that make it repell each other when they come close to each other, I asked the questions and haven’t heard back so I’m left with trying to get those magnets and see what happens but thank you so much for the time to explain magna tiles.

  11. Ian Mathieson says:

    Thanks for writing this! We have another set called mibote and they seem to work by have cylindrical magnets that Are allowed to rotate freely. It’s tough to see the rotation but what’s interesting is when you stack 5 together it forces the polarity to one direction and if try to combine with 5 others they will repel. Seems like this is because the forced polarity of the stack is stronger than when they combine.

    Anyways thanks for posting!

  12. Tsuri Bernstein, PhD says:

    Here is a patent that explains in gory detail how the Magna Tiles work. Somewhat arcane language but interesting

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