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.


  1. Hi! I'm doing a presentation on the history of toys, and we have two of these. I was wondering if you know the history behind them? Where they originated and when, if they were used as a toy initially or as something else? I'd appreciate any help! Thanks:)

  2. Hey Chessy35 - I honestly do not know much about the history of this toy's origin. John R. Nelson, the author whose plans I originally followed, would be a good source to check with. His book contained a lot of history but nothing specific about the acrobat toy. He teaches at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. You might want to drop him a line -

    I did see this flippy acrobat online.
    It was listed as being Australian and built in the 1890s. It looks to be handmade.

    Another book that had a similar toy is "Easy to Make Old-Fashioned Toys" (aka The Historian's Toybox) by E.F. & A.B Provenzo. It has "wrestlers"
    jointed the same way who appear to fight when a string is pulled. The illustration shows two strings being pulled in a way that would probably work like the flippy acrobat. According to the authors, this toy dates back to the 12th Century.

    Hope this helps a little. Let me know if you find out more.

    (BTY – I think that the “whimmydiddle” was used as a magic wand or a divining rod before it became a child’s toy. Also as a primitive (and fake) lie detector.)

  3. Really neat. Thank you. I'm going to make one for each of my kids for xmas. I think I'll paste their profile pics on it to make it look like them


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.