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Sunday, April 26, 2015

My Island of Misfit (Prototype) Toys

Charlie in the Box – “My name is all wrong. No child wants to play with a Charlie-In-The-Box, so I had to come here.”
Hermey – “Where's "here’

We're on the island of misfit toys…

Yes. His name is Hermey. Not Herbie. He was a gift from a friend last Christmas and now he hangs out and watches over my shop. True he turned his back on his toy making heritage to study dentistry but while you can take the elf out of the shop... you never can really take the shop out of the elf.

Speaking of my shop... I knew it was time to clean my shop when there was no place for my cat to sit when I was trying to work. I could see that he was getting quite frustrated at not being able to get in my way or use his "Purr-Rays" to hypnotize me into doing whatever he wants. In fact, it may have been his idea for me to start cleaning up.

For years I had been in the habit of holding on to every little scrap of wood or doo-dad I had worked on. In a bit of irony, now that I have a bunch of space for good stuff, I really don't have space for a bunch of junk. For the first time I could remember I started throwing stuff out or putting it into the "burn bucket" for our fire-pit.

But before I clean, let me digress....

The sources for my toys are pretty varied. I get an awful lot of plans from books and more than a few ideas off the interwebs. Sometimes they are a mix and match where I change a plan just a little to match my tastes/interests or to make it special for the person receiving the toy. Sometimes though, I just get an idea and tinker with it a bit and see where it takes me.

Ideas like the WW1 British and German tanks, this dump truck and the bomb sight were proofs of concept (proof of concepts?) that just kept going until I had a finished product. However, in cleaning up my space I was surprised at all the prototypes and near misses that I had held on to.

Which (finally) leads us to The Island of Misfit (Prototype) Toys.

I was surprised that I had held on to so many of these, but while some did head for the burn box, a lot of these went back on the shelf or in a box.

This bulldozer was  based on David Wakefield's idea in "How to Make Animated Toys"
I got distracted working how to make a little driver bounce up and down and never got back to finishing this. Blade was too clumsy anyway. Some day.

Torpedo launcher. When I was a kid my buddy Jack had this plastic naval play-set where torpedoes fired out of the subs.It was pretty cool and it was the inspiration for this. You push the torpedo down the bow tube and it pushes in a plunger that is then locked by upward pressure on the conning tower/periscope. (There is a spring at the rear of the plunger.) Once locked, just push down on the periscope and the torpedo launches. I turned the torpedo on a mini lathe and it would actually shoot several feet. It worked well but I didn't like burying working parts where I couldn't get at them if they needed to be fixed. Proportions are wrong as well unless I was building a mini-sub... hey....that's not a bad idea!

A tank turret where the main gun recoils thanks to a Sotch Yoke. Basically rotational motion is converted to linear motion. The neat thing is this should allow me to rotate the turret and the gun would reciprocate no matter which direction it faced. Pretty cool, huh? Actually needs to be built to a much higher tolerance and the turret would have to be pretty snug in its ring to prevent it from rotating by itself. Still, an idea that I should revisit.

Hard to tell from this picture.... but yes, I was working on a  Katyusha rocket launcher. For the non-History Channel types reading this, the Katyusha is a Soviet truck mounted rocket launcher used most famously in the Second War War (or... if any readers are actually coming from those Russian sites showing in my stats... The Great Patriotic War.) The idea was to pick up a $1 craft store truck and build a rocket launcher on it that really worked because for some reason it sounded exactly like something I would do. Tiny rubber bands provide the force. You pull back on the block, the little dowels retract, you let go of the block, the dowels fly forward and that sends little dowel rockets flying towards entrenched German invaders. Or not. It just didn't work very well. I can still build the truck though.

This one is hard to imagine but the idea is a sort of Gatling gun that shoots soda caps. You're looking part of the feed mechanism. Seriously. Caps fall down a tube, are pulled to the side, drop down and are fired. The feed pulls back grabs another cap and the cycle is repeated. Sorta worked but was going to be too big. I need to revisit it with realistic dimensions. Perhaps the world isn't ready for an automatic bottle cap launcher anyway.

Okay, now on to the Hall of Failed Ramp Walkers.

I love ramp walkers. They are neat gravity folk toys that are just amazing. These toys seem to walk down a ramp on their own. No batteries, springs or rubber bands. Just some physics and woodworking. Actually, they are hard to get just right. It is a mix of balance, friction, gravity etc that has to be just right or the toy will slide or stop walking half way down the ramp. I've managed to build two successful styles of ramp walkers. You can view the videos of a rhino unicorn and the kangaroo pictured on the left.

The Unicorn is based on Lou Ma's ramp walking rhino plan with some cosmetic changes. (That link leads to Dug North's amazing Automata Blog. You should check it out.)

I've actually made four of the kangaroos. The plans came from Wombat Morrison's Instructable. It is great plan. It works every time.

Anyway.... For the two that worked, there are four that didn't. Here was first ramp walker attempt; a duck. Somewhere I have a very poor quality cell phone video of it walking down a ramp. Since I had to tape assorted washers and nickles to it rear end to make it walk, I knew that it wasn't right. One of my daughters has a duck "thing" so I will get it right at some point.

I wanted to make the unicorn based on a horse but I couldn't find a pattern. I'd seen plastic ones that used to be used as cereal premiums but not a wood one. I gave this a shot to try and work out the mechanics. Needless to say... it didn't work.

So I decided that what  I need was a more flexible prototype model. Something I could try multiple variations on until I got it down right. So I tried this piece of modern day engineering and much to my surprise... it didn't work.

After I had built several kangaroos and the rhino, I got a better sense for how the ramp walkers need to work. I decided to try my hand at designing something from scratch. I applied all my new found expertise and put it into this prototype ramp walking gorilla and surprisingly enough... it didn't work. Close though... he will be revisited.

Last of the non-working ramp walkers is this bird based on one of Lou Ma's designs. I simply couldn't get it to work properly. I think he is salvageable but not a high priority. He (she?) has been spared from the burn bucket for the time being.

The entire time I was cleaning things, the cat was keeping tabs on me. As each little space was cleared, he'd claim it as his own and command me to do his bidding. I had no choice but to obey.

The last two prototypes are still under development. The first is a string climbing orangutan. Again, it is based on a Lou Ma idea but modified by me. This guy works, but not as smoothly as I would want. Arms are too angular to look natural but there is still hope for him. He'll  live on the Kennedy Assassination shelf for the time being.

And now, the latest prototype/proof of concept. I've seen plans for railroad hand truck toys where men on each side pump the handles up and down. Pretty cool but what if instead of people, it was penguins?!!! I know! Crazy cool huh? Got the idea from a grocery store display. Anyway, it works. I need to make convincing penguins and use the measurements I figured out on this to make a real one.

Teddy and Hermy supervised me through to the end. On the table under them you can see a partially completed frog who is actually on top of ANOTHER prototype piece: the Spinosaurus that I started five years ago and shelved.

In a perfect world, I would have closed this post with a picture of my clean shop but.... well it was clean for a day or two and then I re-clutterfied it. I guess it shows that I'm at least using the space... just saying.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Identifying Wood Samples Through the USDA

Ok - This site is supposed to be just about making toys so please excuse the non-directly toy related post that follows.

For anyone not interested in my ramblings but needs to have some wood identified let me cut to the chase: If you are a US citizen you can submit up to five samples per calendar year to the Center for Wood Anatomy research and they will identify them for you for free.

Seriously. For free.

The mailing address is:
Center for Wood Anatomy Research
USDA Forest Service, Forest Products Laboratory
One Gifford Pinchot Dr.
Madison, WI 53726-2398

All the details can be found here.
The preferred sample size is 1x3x6 but they can work with much smaller samples if needed. 
I sent the two samples above over the summer.
I got answers on my samples after about 6 or 7 weeks.

(Please note - Toy Making Dad is pretty much a small government type but every once in a while, some free cheese tastes awfully good. This is a fantastic service provided by incredibly talented and knowledgeable people who work for us. It really is amazing that this service is available to all of us and when you look at their site and see the depth of knowledge available to us, it is impressive.)

And now my ramblings about the samples I submitted...

I'm mostly interested in making wooden toys. There is something about them. A certain indefinable quality one might say. They have so much character and yes, at times they seem alive in a way that a plastic toy never can. (Although I do think stuffed animals share the same qualities... maybe the whole organic origin piece.)

This shouldn't come as a shock to most of you but there are a lot of different kinds of wood out there because well, there are tens of thousands of species of trees out there. Each variety has different characteristics and you need to take advantage of some of those characteristics (How hard it is, how easy to work it is, its cost and availability etc) and know when to avoid certain species (Is it too soft or brittle. Is it toxic, cursed by wood demons etc) The problem is that for the average dude or dudette weekend work worker, identifying wood can be very difficult. If it didn't come off a clearly labeled shelf, you either have to trust whoever gave it to you or you have to become very familiar with identifying wood on your own. The only way to do that last piece is through experience working with and getting to know a large variety of wood through years of practice.

That or you can cheat and just mail it to the government.

Which is exactly what I did. (See above.)

Well, the whole point of this exercise is that I recently acquired a very modest stash of a couple different types of mystery wood.

Sample 1 - A friend of mine had to have her beautiful hard wood floor ripped up because a small patch of it had been ruined by a leaky fridge. It was an insurance company thing. They couldn't match and replace just part of it so it all had to come out. She had been told it was "Brazilian Walnut." It is very hard and reasonably expensive. She hated to see it all go to waste so I got a big shelf of it in various sizes FOR FREE! (The rest was donated to a charity that will be able to re-use it. Part of my stash will find its way into the claws of a certain fresh water crustacean over at Crawls Backward When Alarmed.) 

So the first thing I find in my research is that "Brazilian Walnut" is basically the "Chilean Sea Bass" of the flooring world. It is more of a brand/marketing name than a species identification. It is a variety of Ipe (pronounced e-pay) - a legendarily hard, durable, blade killing variety of wood.

Each piece has a highly finished side (remember, it is a floor board) and around the back very shallow grooves. Well, the finish gets taken off courtesy of an 80 grit belt on "Bob the Belt Sander" and I begin to practice my hand planing skills on the back to deal with the grooves since I do not have a power planer. (Bob also lent a hand to the backs.) Boys and girls... wear a dust mask and run the vac when sanding this stuff.

Front Before and After

Back Before and After

On a side note - I have A LOT to learn about hand planes. I removed a fair amount of material but also took too many divots out of the wood by being impatient. I have three different hand planes right now and learning to use them on Ipe may be the equivalent of teaching a 16 year old to drive on a Formula One car but hey, I gotta learn. I can read about it or I can do it. All things in time and with practice. I do have to say, it is incredibly satisfying working with hand tools like this. It gives me a taste of why people like Roy Underhill and Chris Schwarz are so passionate about hand tools.

Sample 2 - A week later I was at an architectural recycling and salvage warehouse. Standing out in a pile of trim and miscellaneous boards was the sturdiest board I think I've ever came across. The board was about 7’ long and 5 3/8” wide, and just short of an inch thick. It had grooves cut down both sides. It looks to me like this was a high end exterior decking board that was never installed. I was super impressed with the weight and had NO idea what it was. I took it to the checkout and walked out the door with $2 less in my wallet. Not too shabby.

It has a lighter shade of brown than the "Brazilian Walnut." It has a different feel than the floor boards. It is thicker and does not have the high gloss finish of it the other wood.

These grooves down the sides were the clue that told me this was a high end decking board - there are special fasteners that link the boards with the grooves.

So just to close the loop, I cleaned them up and sent the samples to the Center for Wood Anatomy research and eagerly awaited the reply. Honestly, I was bit like Ralphie in A Christmas Story checking the mailbox every day for his decoder ring. Anyway, the letter arrived and it was a bit anti climatic but fit everything I'd seen:

Sample one (the floor boards) Tabebuia sp (probably T. impetiginosa)
Sample two (the beck board) Tabebuia sp.

In short - both samples were Ipe.

When it comes to wood, I'm pretty much inexperienced with anything except for pine, red oak and a little bit of cherry. I couldn't believe how HEAVY and dense this wood seemed. If you don't know about the Janka Scale, take a moment and check it out. It is used to measure the hardness of wood varieties. The higher the number, the harder the wood.

So for example:
Douglas Fir - 660
Cherry - 950
Red Oak - 1290
Ipe -3680

Yeah... so almost three times as hard as red oak. Time to learn how to sharpen my tools.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Making a Shut the Box Game with a Cigar Box

In short - "Shut the Box" is a very old counting game that is part strategy part luck. Honestly though, mostly luck so it is a great game for kids to play against an adult. Super easy and fast to play, it can even be played solo. It does help kids with quick addition skills and the game only takes a few minutes and stores in its own box. It is used as a bar/pub game in some parts of the world. Fun for all ages, as they say.

First off, I don't smoke but I like cigar boxes and wanted to use one for this project. No doubt the fine folks at "Overly Sensitive Parenting Quarterly" will freak out at the use of a cigar box for a toy but, hey... I could have used the box to make a "Cigar Box Guitar" and then those crazy kids would just use it to make rock and roll music and who knows what that could lead to.

So instead, I'll do the world a favor and make a counting game with it.

Clearly the Normans took their games
 pretty seriously
The game itself may have been played back as far as the 12th century. It seems to have Norman origins but it is now played all over the world. I was first exposed to it through a TV game show in the 1970s called "High Rollers" hosted by a pre-Jeopardy Alex Trebek. The man had incredible hair.

The game is traditionally played in some sort of a box. I'll explain in more detail later exactly how to play but basically, you have tiles numbered 1 through 9 and you roll dice. Add up what you rolled on the dice and knock down an equal sum from the tiles. Keep doing this until you roll a number you can't match or you knock down all the tiles. Knocking them all down is called "Shutting the box" and you automatically win if you do that. Period. Game over. DONE!

So, first things first... I need a box.

A few months ago I popped by the local mega beer/wine store in search of cigar boxes... honest. That's my story and I'm sticking with it. (BTY They also sell their empty wooden wine crates. Noted for future dinosaur builds.) Anyway, I lucked out. Someone had asked for a bunch of wooden cigar boxes to be set aside and then never showed up to claim them. Right place, right time for me and I got them for 50 cents apiece! YEA ME!

Mrs Toy Making Dad claimed
two as soon as I got home

Some now hold bits and Allen wrenches
in my work space

I had some leftover red oak from another project so I cut out the tiles from that stock.
These ended up being 1 7/8" tall by 3/" wide and 3/8" thick. Obviously, these can be pretty much any size you want as long as they will fit in the box and are thick enough to rotate on the dowel or rod you use as the axle.

I rounded the tops into little tombstone shapes using the disk sander on my belt sander. I wrote little numbers on the bottom in the hopes of keeping them in order but a) that really didn't matter and b) after I put the finish on the tiles, I couldn't read the numbers anyway (D'oh!)

The next step was to drill the pivot holes. The holes are 3/16" so that a 1/8" dowel can be used for them to pivot over. I made a quick jig and attached it to my drill press. Having the pivot hole in a consistent location makes the tiles line up level. Also, it's critical that the hole be perpendicular to the tile so that the tiles will lie flat when they are knocked down.


After (Pretty exciting, huh?)

After drilling all the holes I applied a finish and after it dried some pre-cut craft store number. The kind used to label school projects and posters. The finish was a coat of bee's wax and mineral oil that my little one and I had whipped up a few weeks ago for a different project. I know it isn't an indestructible finish, but WOW, it is sooooo easy to use. Non-toxic, no fumes, no gloves, dries super fast. It even has a slight honey smell to it. It is an absolute joy to work with.

I selected the Gispert Robusto box because it was very solid, had the right look and I could make it work with the dimensions I needed. It was also close at hand and not full of Allen wrenches.

I decided on two 1/8" wood dowels for the game. One for the tiles to pivot on and one to act as a ledge/stop when the tiles are knocked down. They make a satisfying "clack" when you tip them down and they hit the bar. The box walls are less than 1/2" thick so I decided to just drill straight through them and glue the dowels in place. I made sure the tiles had room to move, would rest upright and would hit the bar when knocked down. Again, consistency is key here. I need both bars to be level. The bar is a 7/8" lower and 1" forward of the axle dowel.

In using my drill press I found that the table of the press couldn't go low enough to allow me to drill the 1/8" holes in the box. When I moved the table out of the way, then the box was too low. I found that the perfect spacer I had sitting around was of all things, a Price Albert tobacco can! No... I don't smoke. It was from my grandfather's basement.

And no, I don't have Prince Albert in a can. Therefore I don't need to let him out.

So, here's this post's history lesson. The "Prince Albert" on the can was the eldest son of Queen Victoria. his full name being Albert Edward. When he became King in 1902 he chose to go by "Edward VII". He was King of England for eight years, was very popular and from his name we get the term "Edwardian Era."  He was related to a very large percentage of European royalty at the time (some say nearly all) and in fact, both the Kaiser and Tsar who were to clash so disastrously in WW1 were his nephews (the Tsar by marriage.) His son was George V, King of England during WW1. And yes... he is the King Edward of "King Edward Cigars" which I've had some adventures with over the years but won't go into now.

And no... I don't smoke!

Final assembly was threading the axle dowel through one hole, placing a spacer (in this case a small wood wheel), the numbers in sequence and then another spacer. The dowel was glued into place and then so was the stop bar. Last thing, I glued a little green felt on to the inside of the lid so that there was a soft rolling surface for the dice. (BTY - Dollar Store - 10 dice for $1) Total time was just a couple of hours. I built and played with it in the same day. If only all the projects were so easy :)

And now for us visual learners...

How to Play Shut the Box

As should be expected, there are all sorts of variations on the game but basically there are tiles numbered 1 through 9 (or up to 12) in a box or on a playing surface. The first player takes a die or pair of dice and rolls them. The player then chooses which tiles to knock down so that the sum of the knocked down tiles equals the sum of what was rolled. You keep rolling until you roll a number whose sum you can't match with the tiles.

For example... Say I rolled a 9.

I could then knock down any of the following

I then roll again and keep knocking down numbers.
When I roll a number but can't knock anything down, my turn is over.
Then the values on the remaining tiles are totaled up and that is my score and it is the next players turn after all the numbers have been turned upright again.
If I was are able to knock down all of the tiles, I have "Shut the Box" and win the game at that point even without the other person getting a "fair up."

You can play to a certain number - say first person to 50 loses.
Or you can just do each round - low score wins.

Or you can play like my daughter and I like to play where you go until you can't turn down any numbers and when it is the next player's turn, they pick up where the other person left off.
No tiles are ever turned upright and you just keep going until someone "Shuts the Box."

Two good optional rules we use are -
1) Once the 7, 8 and 9 have been knocked down, you can choose to roll just one die.
2) ANYTIME you roll a double you get to go again, even if you couldn't match the sum.

Remember - As soon as someone Shuts the Box, he or she has won. End of game.

But that's okay.

Just play another one... or two... or ten.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Making a Toy Shark

Okay, right off the bat -this is not my design. It comes from the amazing mind of David Wakefield and is in his book "Toymaking Basics" That book is a great one stop shop for getting started making toys and has a few plans (including this shark) at the end. I highly recommend it.

This toy has an odd back-story for me. I think I started it about ohhhhh three or four years ago! Before you freak out, it is actually a very simple plan and can be made entirely with hand tools and knocked out in a few hours. What happened with me is that I used to have all my tools in my parent's basement and would just work an hour here or there when I was visiting or doing some work at their house. So, projects tended to go in fits and starts.

After my parents passed away we sold their house. My tools, and most of this shark, went into storage at a friend's house until our addition was completed and my shop space added.

One of the first things I did in my new space was look at the shark and try to improve him. I had everything cut out but as I was test fitting him, I saw something that I didn't like. The shark's mouth opens as the lower corner of its head is pushed up by pegs on the insides of the front wheels. It works great.


Just like in real life, this shark can't go backwards.
Well, he can but the wheels lock up because the pegs can't move the sharks head from the front. It only works from the rear. My concern was that lots of times kids will move a wheeled toy back and forth rapidly. If the wheels were locking up and being forced, I worried that the pegs would break.

So, I made a test front 1/3 of the the body to experiment with. David Wakefield's plans have the eye sockets slightly larger than axle pegs that form the eyes and are anchored to the body. My thought was to have a solid dowel run from side to side and the hole in the body be more of an oval slot that would allow the head to slide up when being pushed backwards and then pivot up when being pushed forward.

How did it work? Well, I usually save every little scrap experiment but that test ended up in the fireplace. I found that the slot was going to need to be bigger than I though to allow the head to clear the peg.  It might work but it also takes away from the simplicity of the design. What can I say... I gave it a shot. It was worth a try.

So, instead the shark ended up being very straight from the book.  My one change is that I made the eye sockets 1/4" and widened the hole in the body to 5/16". Instead of pegs I used a solid dowel from one end to the other. The head needs to lined up as close to perfect as possible to make sure his (her?) head moves smoothly. Drilling both sides at the same time seems to be a must.

The body was from a 2x6 piece of pine and the sides of the head from my stash of Ikea bed slats. This shot is actually the test body before I tried cutting the slot. At this point it just has a slightly larger hole. (I figured the knot wouldn't matter since this was never going to be part of the finished toy.

Actually, having the kerf intersect the
side of the board allows the sawdust
 to escape and speeds the cut.
I like using the store bought hardwood wheels on a lot of my toys. While I can cut out wheels using my arsenal of hole cutting bits, I don't have a lathe to make them look as good as the pre-made ones. With this toy though, the slab, solid on both sides wheels, were the way to go for me. Just wanted to see how they'd come out. When cutting your own wheels, don't go all the way through. Go deep enough so you are past the 1/2 way point and the pilot bit has passed through the other side. Flip the board, line up the pilot and complete the cut. It makes for a much smoother wheel with no tear out. It is also easier to remove from the bit, which is very hot so look out.

The fins were from a different stash of Ikea bed slats usually reserved for the occasional stegosaurus. I got a nice tight fit on them and I liked how they looked but it made me rethink how I was going to finish the toy. I had originally planned on using Danish oil but I knew the contrasts in the woods would really show and perhaps be a distraction.

After a number of tests and focus groups among the family members, I settled on a two tone grey scheme with gills added on the suggestion of one of my daughters. Craft store acrylics with several coats and then gloss coated with a spray acrylic.

Clementine boxes...

... the onion of frugal woodworkers.

I painted some dowel caps to use as eyes but when I test fitted them, I wasn't happy with the look. It reminded me too much of Quint's quote in Jaws, "Sometimes that shark, he looks right into you. Right into your eyes. You know the thing about a shark, he's got... lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll's eye." YIKES! I'm making a toy not something to scare the poor kid.

I went with friendlier, but not too friendly, googlie eyes. They fit more into the toy vibe I was going for.

So here you go; the finished product. The lighting makes him look more blue than he really is.

It is a great design. Easy to make with hand tools but a drill press really helps. Again, I highly recommend all of Mr Wakefield's books. He sells his amazing, super high quality toys online now and you might want to check his site out. -

Like a nit-wit, I failed to get  a video of the shark in action before I gave him away. Oh well, I guess I'll just have to make another one.

Just Saying...

While we don’t necessarily need more objects, we just might benefit from more making.
- John Dunnigan


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Regular guy who likes to make stuff who lives with a very patient wife, three daughters and three cats.