Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Making a Toy Top (Version 1)

Tops are a seriously old toy. In Iraq, some tops from 3,500 BC have even been found. (Making them almost as old as my 7th grade teacher was.)

I have always thought tops were neat because of the tremendous speed they operate at from a simple pull or twist. As a kid I had a couple of commercial top toys, but never a wooden one. The two that stand out most are the immortal Battling Tops and a top/gyroscope called a Whizzer.

Epic Battling Tops gladitorial games still take place at my house.My Whizzer eventually spun so fast it vanished into another dimension. (And yes, it really did a zillion tricks.)

In the past I'd made little tops out of... you'll never guess what...clementine box wood! Just a 1/4"dowel and a disk of the 1/8" plywood from a box, powered with just a quick twist of the fingers. They are fun to decorate and work well enough, but I wanted to make something more substantial.  That is where Bob comes in.

In looking for something else I found the general idea for this top at Bob LaFara's site - http://bobscrafts.com/bobstuff/top.htm
This design gets around my main top making obstacle namely: I don't own a full sized lathe.

Seeing as how I was recently named to Forbe's Magazine "Top 500 Cheapest Toy Making Dads in the World", I used a piece of 2x4, an old bed slat and a wine crate for the pieces I cut.
(I know I should use hard wood... but that would cost money! Like $4 or even maybe $5! Why, a new Studebaker should only costs eight bucks. Maybe nine with a full tank of gas.)

I used a 2 1/8" hole saw to cut out a disk from the wine crate wood (it is 5/16" thick.) I then used a 1/4" bit to drill a pilot hole straight through a 2x4 (which we all know is really 1 1/2" thick.)
This pilot hole let me start the cut on one side with the 2 1/8" saw and then after going a little more than half way through the board, I flipped it over and finished the cut.

Be sure the board is securely clamped and keep you hand out of the way.Flip the board half way through and finish the cut from the other side.

Be sure to clamp everything securely and be careful not to touch the bit immediately after you finish. Trust me; it gets very hot, especially after the 2x4 cut.

I took a 1 1/4" hole saw and repeated the process twice on a 3/4" thick bed slat leaving me with two wood cylinders. Take one of these two and re-drill the center hole through it with a 5/16" bit. This will be the "handle" of the top.

 At this point I could have cut another thinner disk with the 1 1/4" saw to be final disk at the top, but I decided to use a store brought 1" toy wheel instead. I think it looks good and it has a slightly raised hub to help the handle spin. It also comes is slightly smaller than the handle, so that helps in holding and releasing it without touching the rest of the top.

Sand the disks smooth, get some glue and a 1/4" hardwood dowel and start final assembly.
The disks in order - 2x4, bed slat, wine crate, bed slat with larger center hole, toy wheel.The dowel is actually straight. The shadow and the angle of the photo make it look this way.

Four of the five disk are then glued to the dowel. The handle is not. Make sure there is a little play between the handle and the pieces above and below it (for a total of about a1/8" gap.) You want this to be free spinning. The dowel can be trimmed to size after the top has been glued, clamped and is finished drying.

Glue the red sections to the dowel running down the center. Do not glue the (green) handle.The second (red) section is what you will wrap the string around. Hold the green, free moving section while you pull the string to start the top spinning.

The dowel should extend about a 1/4" past the bottom of the top and be flush with the top of the top. (Wow, that is an odd sentence.) Shape the end of the dowel into a point. I did this with coarse sandpaper pinched on the dowel while I spun it by hand.

Okay, now you are ready to literally give it a whirl. Wrap two or three feet of string around the second section from the bottom. Hold the handle piece and don't let your fingers touch any other part of the top. Get close to a hard floor. Give the string a quick pull and then let go of the handle. It should look something like this -

I found that the more I sharpend the tip, the better the spin was.

I will paint this guy at some point, but I think the plain wood looks pretty classy for the time being.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Gee-Haw Whammy Stick/Whimmydiddle

I was in 5th grade when I was first introduced to this toy. We had a group of people come in one day and show us some Appalachian crafts. One of the toys was a stick with notches cut along its length. It had a small propeller at the tip which spun when the stick was rubbed along the notches by someone using another stick.  The woman demonstrating it said it was called a "Gee-Haw Whammy Stick" and that name and the simple action of the toy really stuck with me over the years.
Know Your Haws

The propeller can be made to change direction as it is spinning and that is where the name comes from. For the most part (on this side of the pond at least), "Gee" is a command to a plow animal to turn right. "Haw" is the command to turn left. This being a folk toy, the name made sense to people in the days before horse were primarily used for racing or for beer commercials.

I built this one about eight years ago and even though it shows some wear, it has hung in there really well. I used:
  • 10" long 3/8" dowel. This will be your Whammy Stick.
  • 1 3/8" long x 1/8" thick x 3/16" wide piece of...you'll never guess...clementine box wood!  This will be your propeller.
  • 7" long 1/4" rubbing dowel. (3/16" or a pencil would work as well.)
  • A little brass nail.
Cut a series of notches in the Whammy stick. I used a coping saw, but use whatever you are comfortable with. Mine has nine notches that start about 1 1/2" from the front end of the stick. Each notch is about 1/4" wide and doesn't quite go halfway through the stick. Each notch is about 3/4" from center to center. (Okay, you're asking "What gives with all the 'abouts'?" - No worries. This toy is usually made with hardwood twigs and a sharp knife. It really doesn't need to be exact.)

Sand and round off the edges of your propeller. Drill a small hole right through its center. Make sure the hole is larger than the diameter of your nail so that it can spin freely.

Note the authentic rough nature of the notches.    The business end of the toy.
Many have a "dumbbell" shaped prop.

Almost done. Make a small pilot hole in the end of the Whammy stick for the nail. (This will make it easier to get centered and less likely to split when you sink the nail in. Next, thread the nail through the propeller. Make sure it spins freely and then tap the nail into the hole at the end of the stick until it is secure. (But not so deep that it interferes with the propeller.)

Hold the Whammy Stick firmly, pointed away from you. Take the rubbing stick and rub it along the side of the notches. Rubbing on the right side makes the propeller spin to the left. Rubbing on the left makes it spin towards the right. (Remember the whole Gee and Haw thing.) Rubbing down the middle turns it into a cheap rhythm instrument but tends to make the prop just bounce around and never really get going.

So there you go. Start to finish less than 30 minutes.

This is a toy that really is ancient and is very simple to make. I think part of the charm/mystery of it is that it seems to be a cousin to a magic wand or divining rod. A fair number of sources in print and on the internet (as if you can believe ANYTHING you read on the web) makes mention that this little toy has been passed off as a lie detector in the past. You can put a positive spin on that and call it a "truth detector" and try it out on and little ones. Just remember to make it Gee or Haw the way it should depending on the question you ask.

Be sure to leave a little mystery before you tell them how it works.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Wood Woodpecker

The Wood Woodpecker. This was one of those "proof-of-concept" projects that just ended up working well enough that he became an actual toy. He is really simple to make and doesn't take much time to complete.

A good friend and colleague of mine, ummm let's just call her "Martha" (because that is her real name), had this folk toy humming bird on her desk for years. You just give him a little tap and he pecks his way down a 10" pole. The motion is very smooth and the toy is very cute and simple to use. Of course, the first time I saw it I wanted to make one.

The hummingbird is cute but I decided that I liked the pecking action of the toy and wanted to make a woodpecker instead. Afraid that my toy wouldn't be ornithologically correct and I'd lose any chance of ever sitting on the editorial board of "Toy Woodpeckers Quarterly", I searched for some inspiration and came up with this fellow: Picoides pubescens - The Downy Woodpecker. Simple colors and I figured I could make him interesting and fun without spending months to get him to look just right. 

The body on Martha's hummingbird is carved. My carving skills are, how can I put this delicately without hurting my own feelings... well, I stink at it. I tried to carve a little bear once and instead, I really did a number on my thumb. (To add insult to the injury, everyone I showed the finished bear to said, "Oh, is that a pig?" Real nice.) To be safe, I decided to go two dimensional and use my favorite bit of scrap wood that always seems to around - 1/2" pine. (It is the potato of the toy making world. It can be used in just about everything.)

I cut him out with a bandsaw but a coping saw and a little bit of patience would have worked just as well. From head to tail he is 1 3/4" long and 3/4" from beak to back of head. He has a 3/16" hole drilled in his body about a inch down from his head (just a little past his midpoint.) I painted him with acrylics, sealed him with polyurethane and glued on the googly eyes. 

The spring that makes this toy works is 3/16" in diameter and I stretched it slightly to make it...well... springier. As everyone knows I am really cheap and love the idea of reusing found and leftover stuff. This spring was actually one of the few usable pieces that could be salvaged from some obsolete equipment we were getting rid of at my old job. (The funny thing is that those machines originally cost $600 so, in a way that is how much this toy cost. Just, not to me.)

The pole on the hummingbird is smooth but I went with a threaded 12" long 1/8" rod purchased from the local Meglo-Mart. I think the threads help slow him down and it also meant I could attach him to the base using a T-nut. The base is just a block that I had around. It can be any size but mine is 3/4" thick and about 3 1/2" x 4 1/2".
What a T-Nut looks like. Drill a pilot hole in the base and then tap it in.I used a little epoxy to hold the pole in the T-Nut just to be sure it wouldn't wiggle out.

The last thing to do is attach the spring to the bird and to the bead that slides down the pole. I drilled pilot holes and used epoxy to hold it in place. After that dried I put the bird on the pole and then glued another wood bead to the top of the pole so that a) the bird wouldn't take a walk and b) it just finishes it off nicely. The beads are from the craft store and are about 1/2" in diameter. They already had a hole just a bit larger than 1/8" through the center so that worked perfectly.

So, that's that. This toy only took a few dollar and a couple of hours to build but has lasted for years.

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.