Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Flippy Acrobat

 A couple of weeks ago, my youngest (a five year old) came home from school and told me "Nicole's party is in five days. You need to make her something. It needs to be blue." Well, Princess gets what Princess wants so time to get to work.

Without a doubt, the toy I have made the largest number of is flippy acrobats. When I first saw the plans for this toy, I thought the toys were too good to be true. They only consisted of a few pieces. They could be made out of inexpensive wood. They required only simple tools (my first dozen or so were made with a hand drill and a coping saw) and they had the promise of being action toys. They didn't just look nice, they did something. Wow. Too good to be true...right? Wrong. These little guys are all that and more.

The original plans (and the pattern for the one built in this post) come from John R. Nelson, Jr's book American Folk Toys. It is full of history, useful techniques, great photos and easy to follow directions. From that book I've also built the climbing bear, Jacob's ladder, carousel and Whimmydiddle (which I had been introduced to as "gee-haw whammy stick" in 5th grade. But more on that another day.) Again, they were easy to build, look great and are all action toys. If you are interested in building or just learning about folk toys, pick up a copy of this book. I simply can't recommend it highly enough.

I've used wood from clementine boxes for all the flippy acrobats I have built. It takes a little effort to break the boxes down, but as a ...ummm... frugal person it is worth it. If anyone calls you cheap, tell them that you are just being "green" and recycling (Be sure to act smug when you say it.) Look for clear 1/8" plywood bottoms and side.
For best results don't use already painted on wood for toy parts that will show. It has a tendency to show through the acrylic paint that I use.Ancient Sicilian craftsmen  knew to use all parts of the clementine box...especially the bottom.

I've made this toy as bears, monkeys, dogs, cartoon characters, football players, skeletons (for a little Day of the Dead action) and some pretty odd but funny choices as well (the Kaiser, Captain Ahab, Ernest Hemmingway.) You are only limited by your imagination and a couple of simple guidelines.

Trace or print a couple of photocopies of the patten. (This came straight from American Folk Toys so I won't reproduce it here. I'll post a couple of my own patterns later... I promise! In the meantime... buy a copy of American Folk Toys! )

Rough cut the paper patterns for the body, arms and legs. Leave some space around the outside to help you guide your cut later. You can use double face tape to hold the patterns to the wood or lately I've started using spray adhesive. Spray the wood and let it get tacky for about five minutes before you put the pattern on. It will be easier to remove later.

Cut or acquire two 1/2"x1/2" 12" long sticks that will make the uprights for your acrobat. The wood can be wider but don't go overboard. You want it have a good feel in a child's hands. You can rip these sticks yourself but I've used 1/2" hardwood dowels (both round and square) from hardware/craft stores. Just look for straight solid ones. Drill  a 1/4" hole about 5" up from the bottom of each stick, centered on the stick and about 1/4" deep. Next drill two 1/16" holes 1/4" from the top and about 1/16" in from each side. These holes go straight through to the other side. Remember, you're making a toy, not parts for a nuclear reactor.

You'll save a lot of time by cutting your arms and legs two at a time (the toy's that is, not your own.). Just double face tape another piece from the same piece of plywood under your original. You'll get great results with a coping saw or a scroll saw if you have one. After they are cut out, drill 1/16" holes all the way through the parts. These holes will be where the arms and legs will pivot through the torso and the string will pass through the hands.

Have a piece of waste wood to make for a cleaner exit hole as you drill through the parts.You'll also need a 2" piece of 1/4" hardwood dowel (shown above.)

Total time from for gluing, cutting, drilling, taking fuzzy pictures and filling oneself with smug self-satisfaction... about an hour.

Cleanup and sand your parts. I use "Goo Gone" to clean the adhesive off. The stuff works great(I do wish it smelled better though ... just saying.) Then the fun part. Start painting. I use craft store acrylics because:

They come in an amazing variety of colors (including the specified blue!)
They are water soluble so cleanup is a snap
They dry quickly
Non-toxic (needless to say a must in toy making)
and ummm... well... They are CHEAP!

The paint dries so quickly that multiple coats are a piece of cake and any mistakes are easily covered. The acrylics I use are flat so you are going to want to give the parts a protective coat. In the past I've used spray polyurethane but I've recently starting using spray acrylic that dries much faster between coats.

Okay final assembly. Glue the 2" dowel into the 1/4" holes in the long sticks. Make sure they are lined up correctly and clamp the assembly while it dries overnight.

Next attach the arms and legs to the torso by bending a small piece of wire first as an "L". Then pass it through the holes and bend the other end down so that you have made a "U". Make sure that the arms and legs swing freely.

Use nylon mason line for the string. The string will fray like crazy when you cut it so here is a tip that I swear I learned when I was a kid while making rosaries for missionaries. (Seriously, no foolin'!) Use clear nail polish on the string and let it dry before you cut it. This will hold it together as you sting it through the 1/16" holes in the sticks and hands of the toy.

The wire goes through the holes and is then bent into a "U". (Sorry for the fuzzy picture but you can see the finished uprights and a box of Red Hots in the background.)
The string pattern is easier than you'd think. It crosses over at each stick and one strand wraps over the other through the middle. 

After you finish treading the string, tie it in a secure knot. Give the knot and a bit of the excess string a good coat of clear nail polish and then after it dries, cut off the excess. You are all done.

Give the bottom of the stick a gentle squeeze and release and watch the acrobat start to swing. You'll get the hang of it really quickly and you acrobat will really start to move.

When I post my own plans I'll include a more detailed explanation of the string threading pattern and some of the things to consider when you make your own.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Making a Spoked Wheel (Part 3)

Part 1|Part 2|Part 3

I've made the hubs of my spoked wheels using a jig with a peg on a board that allows me to cut a circle using a bandsaw with a thin blade. If you are careful (which you always have to be) it is a pretty fast and easy way to make tiny "doughnuts" (mmmmm doughnuts....) However, I have to admit, it is really easy to allow your fingers to get too close to the blade, and that is a really bad idea.

I've recently found that you can buy 3/4" or even better yet 5/8" hole saws and just cut hubs using them. Use a pilot bit the same size as the hole on your previous disk and you can cut use that piece of waste. The disk will still have the radial holes drilled in it, so just use the same sort of jig with the 1/8 dowels to keep it in place. 
Okay, time for the spokes so one more jig. All you need is a thin disk cut with your 2" hole saw and a dowel the size of your axel hole (in this case 1/4".)
  • Glue the disk to the dowel (or is it the dowel to the disk?) and make sure the disk and dowel are perpendicular while they dry.
  • After your jig dries, clamp the rim to the disk and place the hub over the dowel and push it flush with the disk.
  • Push 1/8" dowels through the radial holes of the rim and glue the ends to the hub. (You may need to sand the dowels slightly or run a 1/8" drill bit through the holes quickly to widen them a bit or make the hole more "true.")

The jig guarantees that the axel hole of the hub will be at the center of the wheel.
A snug fit is good because the spokes are glued to the hub and not in the holes of the rim. You can go back and put some glue on the spokes on the inside of the rim if you want.

After the spokes dry, remove the wheel from the jig and cut off the excess dowels.

Sand the wheel and take a moment to revel in the fact that you have stuck it to the man and made your own spoked wheel rather than just buying one.

If your pirate ship should happen to need a new helm, you can always stop a this point.
The finished wheel next to a "pirate" cannon. In the same way that spoked wheel aren't right for the pirate cannon, solid wheels wouldn't be a good match for a field artillery piece.

So there you go. It took far longer to record and photograph the process than it did to make the wheel. Just a couple more words:

Remember, you're building little toy wheels, not components for the Space Shuttle. Don't expect perfection.

I probably should have mentioned to make at least two wheels at a time. (Wheels tend to be needed in even numbers for some reason.)

The bronze and green cannon shown in the first post on this topic was a heavily modified $1 craft store kit that will have its own post one day. This latest wheel is destined for a future toy of this local landmark:

Making a Spoked Wheel
Part 1|Part 2|Part 3

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Making a Spoked Wheel (Part 2)

Part 1|Part 2|Part 3

So, now you have the disk with spoke lines drawn on it. What you want to do next is drill radial 1/8 holes along the side of the disk towards the center.

Sounds complicated, but it really isn't. Piece of cake actually (mmmm cake...) You just need to make a simple jig.
  1. Drill a 1/4 " hole (or one the same diameter as your axle hole) in a board that is wider than your disk.
  2. Put a piece of the correct size dowel in the hole, pop your disk on to the dowel and then turn the board on its side so that your disk will be parallel to your drill bit.
  3. Secure your new jig to your workbench or drill press. You want your drill bit to be centered on the thickness of your disk and be directly in line with the center of your dowel (which will be used as a pivot for your disk.)
Honestly, it took more time to type that than it will for anyone to make it. You'll end up with something that looks like this:

The drill bit needs to be centered on the pivot dowel.
The bit needs to centered on the thickness of the disk as well.

Now the easy part. Using a 1/8" drill bit, line up one of your spoke marks and drill your first hole into the disk. You want to be sure that it will be at least as deep as you want your rim to be wide. Also not so deep that you'll leave holes in the hub of your wheel if you use the inside of this disk to make the hub. For this example, I drilled between 1/4 and 1/2" deep.

After you drill your first hole, simply rotate your disk until you line up your next spoke line. Drill that hole and repeat rotating and drilling until you have all six holes drilled.

Okay, entering the homestretch. Your next jig is simple as well. This is what going to allow you to cut out the rim with a minimum of hassle.
  1. Use your hole saw to cut a hole in a board the same thickness as your blank disk. (This gives you another wheel blank as well.)
  2. Trim the board up so that you have about 1/2" on the top and bottom of the hole but enough wood left and right of the hole so that you will have plenty of clamping space.
  3. Draw a line directly though the center of the hole and then turn you jig on its side.
  4. Drill a hole just slightly larger than 1/8 (3/16, 5/32 etc depending on what you have on hand) on the top of your jig, lined up with the center line you drew and all the way through the 1/2" margin of wood. Repeat this for the bottom.
  5. Place the disk with the drilled spoke holes into your jig and then use 1/8" dowels through the top and bottom to secure it to your jig. (Because the holes in the jig are just a little bigger it will be easy to move the dowels in and out of the jig but they will seat firmly into the disk.)
  6. Put your smaller diameter hole saw (for me 1 1/2")  into your drill. Line up your jig so that the pilot bit on your hole saw lines up directly with the hole in the center of your disk and clamp it securely. (The hole is slightly larger than your disk so you have the ability to adjust it slightly up and down to line up correctly.)
  7. After you are lined up, drill half way through disk. flip the jig over, line it up and secure it again and then finish your cut.
The cutting of your rim will look like this:

Lined up for your first cut. Keep your hands away from holding anything near the hole saw. The dowels keep the blank from spinning in place.
Flip it, line it up, secure it and finsh the cut. Let the blade cool before touching it.

What you end up with. The perspective is a little off on this photo but the rim is actually 3/16ths all the way around.

Making a Spoked Wheel
Part 1|Part 2|Part 3

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Making a Spoked Wheel (Part 1)

Part 1|Part 2|Part 3

I know, I know, you can buy wood toy wheels pretty cheaply. Nothing wrong with that. I use pre-made wheels all the time because they look good and get the job done. However, sometimes, they simply don't have the look I need for a particular toy. Case in point - the Spoked Wheel.

You can buy spoked wheels like this online or in just about any craft store for anywhere between $.50 and $2.00 apiece. (Wait a minute.. $2.00 apiece??!!!! That's crazy talk! Why, a man should be able to buy a new suit for $1.50... $1.75 if they throw in a tie.) They look fine if you are making a MG or Model T but I have something else in mind.

Namely, a toy cannon. (Got a problem with kids playing with artillery? Hey your choice. Use the spoked wheels to make a wagon. But, you might want to avoid this site in the future because there are toy tanks and yikes, a toy bombsight in the queue. Besides, what happens when the wagon gets attacked by dinosaurs? You'll probably need the cannon at that point.)

My spoked wheels have all been made from wine crate wood. (Don't judge me. I just... um.. happened to find this wood at a beer/wine store.) 3/8" has been the right thickness for the scale I'm shooting for and it has been easy to work with. So far, no broken wheels. If you have a bunch of Brazilian Mahogany laying around to make toys with ...well, have someone on your household staff follow these direction to make your wheels.

If you wanna make wheels, you really need to get a couple of hole saws. They are inexpensive (I got these at a Black and Decker outlet store for about $1 each) and can be used a lot in toymaking. The two sizes I'm using here are 2" (which results in a 1 7/8" disk) and 1 1/2" (which gives you a 1 3/8" disk.) As a bonus these have interchangeable pilot drill bits in them which lets you pick the size of you axle hole. (If I had a nickel for everytime I've been called an axle hole...)  So here is what I did:
  1. Make sure there is waste wood under your wheel wood and securely clamp your board to your work bench or better yet, drill press. Be sure it doesn't move at all. The hole saws really generate a lot of torque. Be absolutely sure your hands are not anywhere near the saw blade or could slip into or near them if your board does slip.
  2. Use the 2" saw to drill almost all the way through the board. 
  3. Now flip your board over. Secure it again. Line up you pilot bit and finish the cut.
  4. Because you didn't cut all the way through, you will get a much smoother disk and it will be easier to remove from the saw.  Trust me on this one, let it cool before you grab the disk.The saw can get pretty hot especially if you are working with hardwoods. .
  5. Now, put your middle school geometry to work. Break out the protractor and draw your spoke lines. (For six spokes that is one every 60 degrees.)

The hole saws can be seen in the bottom right of the photo along with my high precision $.10 green plastic protractor. What can I say? The right tool for the right job.

Making a Spoked Wheel
Part 1|Part 2|Part 3

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Getting started

I've been making wooden toys for about 12 years. I'm not a craftsman. I didn't take shop when I was in school. I've never had a job where I worked with my hands unless you include typing and using a mouse as working with your hands. I don't have a wood shop with all the cool stuff you see on New Yankee Workshop. I wish I did, but seeing as how I have a day job and am insanely cheap when it comes to spending on my hobbies, that doesn't look to be in the cards any time soon.

So, anything you see on this site can be done by anyone willing to try. You don't need special tools beyond what you probably already have and as to the skills, well you get them through trying.

I was going to start this site with a paragraph or two on how handmade toys, especially handmade wooden toys take on a life of their own. The care and attention you put into crafting them for someone you love really turns them into something special. Well, that's all true but there will time enough for that later.

The point of this site is about doing, not talking about doing. So, let's start making stuff.

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.