Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Making a Toy Helicopter out of Coffee Stirrers

I drink my coffee black. True, there are times I feel that I'm missing out on a whole world of fun and flavor. On the other hand, my coffee is always the way I like it. That tradeoff seems worth it. Anyway, The other day at work, I'm heating up my 37th or 38th cup of the morning in our office kitchenette when I looked over at the pile of coffee adulterates next to the sink. Next to the four kinds of artificial sweeteners (what a country!) there was a cup full of wood coffee stirrers. "Hmmmm, free wood..." I think to myself.

Well, I'm pretty sure you are familiar with these little guys. Most people think their use is limited to stirring beverages and making the occasional scaled down popsicle-stick pagoda. Well, most people aren't insanely cheap, toy obsessed, perpetual 12 year old boys. I, however, am.

Honestly, I think the stirrers are made from wood that doesn't quite make the cut for toothpicks or matchsticks. They aren't real uniform or strong but they are plentiful. Their quantity is their quality. Holding a few of the stirrers in my hand I fanned them out and started thinking about some possibilities. I looked at them from the side and the idea of a propeller immediately came to mind.

About 20 years ago my sister gave me a toy wooden helicopter. I still have it. It consists of a carved prop with a dowel down the center. You spin it in your hands and then give it one big push with your right hand and it flies several feet in the air. This is actually a really old folk toy and lots of toy making books out there have plans for carving your own. I decide to try and make one from the stirrers.

(A bit of honesty here. This is actually the second wood helicopter I've built. A couple of years ago I made one out of... you'll never guess... clementine box wood! But that is another story.)

So beginningat the beginning, I took a bunch of stirrers and sorted through them to find seven or eight "good" ones. (Again, a relative term when applied to these guys.) I need six for the propeller but I found out early on that these split easily when you are drilling them so a few extra will almost certainly be needed.

The sticks are 7 1/2" long, 1/4" wide and oddly enough... about 1/20" thick (I'm guessing they are really metric. Just saying.) I taped the best ones together and marked the midpoint. I used my hand drill and a 1/16" bit to drill a pilot hole. I then used a 1/8" bit to finish the hole through the middle of the sticks. Honestly, a few cracked and split a bit, but no worries. I had a few extra and there is glue on them anyway. (I used the drill press on the second one I made and it was a much easier. Right tool for the right job, I guess...)

Now the easy part. Just insert a 1/8" dowel through the center hole and push one of the stirrers about an inch down. Hold the dowel so its top is pointed at your nose and you are looking down at the 1/4" wide stirrer. Put some glue on the surface of left side of the top part and the right hand side of the bottom part. (You are gluing the surfaces of the stirrers, not the thin sides.) Now insert the dowel through another stirrer and press that stirrer on top of the first one. Be sure to overlap half of its width of the first stirrer. The top will overlap the left and the bottom the right. You'll repeat this process of gluing and placing each stirrer until you use all six.

With the "pitch" of the prop this way, the surfaces will fly up if you launch it by pushing off with your right hand. If you really want to make a left handed coffee stirrer helicopter (and who am I to judge you if that is your dream) just glue the top to the right and bottom to the left to change the pitch. As you assemble each layer, press them together and use clothes pins as mini clamps until the glue dries. You can do a two or three layers at a time this way.

In all honestly, you could probably just glue the dowel in place now and take it for a "spin." However, not being someone who is willing to leave well enough alone and being someone who just got a WHICKED COOL belt and disk sander, I felt the need to round off the edges and smooth it a bit and then finish it up by hand.

The first stirrer is farthest to the left.
The last one, farthest to the right.
Not perfect, but that really isn't the point.

So now, in the spirit of complete honesty, I have to admit that at first, it didn't work. When I tried to fly it the propeller was clearly generating thrust, but it went every direction but up when I launched it. RATS!

One of my daughters very nicely tried to explain to me that maybe coffee stirrers simply weren't made to be toy helicopter parts. However, I wasn't willing to accept defeat so easily. For centuries humans had dreamt of coffee stirrer power flight and I wasn't gonna let some silly thing like physics get in the way. So, after thinking though it, I realized that the problem wasn't the propeller. The problem was the central dowel. It wasn't long and or heavy enough. I dare say, I had a lateral stability problem. I swapped out the dowel for a longer one  (about 8" long) and it immediately flew like a champ. (Note to the Nobel Committee - When you cut the check, "Toy Making" is two words.)

The dowel could probably be a little shorter, I'll tweak up the design in the coming weeks, but as it is, it's fine. It flies higher and is much lighter than my other two wooden helicopters. This was a simple toy to make and it would be hard to imagine a less expensive one. I might see about cranking out a half dozen of these "dragonflies" some afternoon.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Building a Simple Pinball Game

When I was young, my friend Paul had a Japanese Pachinko machine. If you've never seen one of these in action, you are missing out. Little metal balls plinking back and forth down a maze of little pins. It is really something to see. Think of it as the love child of a modern pinball machine and the "Plinko" game from "The Price is Right" that grew up to be a slot machine. Anyway, it is fascinating to watch and fun to play with.

I really liked that sound and feel and always wanted one. Once I grew up, I found out that stuff like that COSTS MONEY! (Who knew?) So for Christmas about seven or eight years ago, I decided to make something similar for my daughters.

Before I share how I made mine - time to put that BA in History to use and share a little pinball history.

It all started because French soldiers brought a game called Bagatelle to America during the Revolutionary war. It caught on and stayed a part of the new country. Basically, think of it as a mini pool table with more holes. It has wood pegs blocking the holes to make it more difficult. Here is an old political cartoon with President Lincoln at a bagatelle table. (Jeeze, it must have taken cartoonists weeks to make these drawing. Makes you wonder if their editors were ever like, "This is great stuff, but the war ended six years ago so it isn't quite as topical as we'd like...) 

Eventually smaller tabletop bagatelles (begatellei? bagatelleum?) became popular as a saloon or parlor game. Metal pins replaced the wood pegs and it became more of a gravity game with a ball pushed to the top of the board and it finding its way through a maze of pins to various holes. In 1871 the patent was granted for the first plunger for launching the ball (replacing the stick) and pinball was born.
Pinball machines honestly have a bit of a shady past. They had a bad reputation partially because they were seen as games of chance and not games of skill. (The "flipper" didn't even come around until after WW2.) Free game tokens could be traded back in for cash, so they were in effect slot machines. Seeing as how those are illegal in most places, so were pinball machines. In fact, they were illegal in NY City well into the 1970s.

Study your notes on this. There will be a quiz on it next Thursday followed by everyone having to watch The Who's Tommy and pretend like they liked it.

Now on to making one.

This was one of my "proof of concept/leap of faith" toys. I knew what I wanted at the end and knew what I had on hand to make it. When you make stuff like this just take your time and think a little ahead. You'll do fine.

I had a piece of 1/2" thick plywood that was 11" wide by 17" long. Most interior/furniture plywood will have at least one smooth side. Just be sure you are using a smooth side as the playing surface. Next I did my measurements. One thing is that you want to minimize stuck marbles. The average size of the marbles I have lying around is 1/2" so I knew the space between pins needed to be at last that wide. I also knew that I don't want any marbles to have a path to just fall straight through without some plinking around. So... I set up a pattern starting 1" down the board and marked each point with a pencil where the pins/nails would be in rows with offset columns. Each nail in the row is one inch from the next nail. The next row was one inch down and then offset by 1/2" with pins one inch apart. I then had a strip of 1/2" wood as my depth guide and just started tapping in the nails one at a time until I finished 1" from the bottom. It ended up looking like this:

168 3/4" brads each driven in 1/4".
I know... I'm freakin nuts!

Honestly, you'd be surprised how fast this went. One thing that made it easy was that I was just working on a flat piece of board at this point. I had not attached the sides or bottom yet.

Next came the sides and bottoms. I had some 3/8" thick by 1 5/8" wide strips that I used for the frame on three sides. Across the top I used a piece of 1/4" thick x 1/2" wide trim to cover the end of the plywood. No fancy joinery here. I just used end buts, a little glue and few brass nails to hold it in place. Then I laid out the scoring area by cutting pieces of the 1/2" trim and gluing them on edge one inch apart across the bottom. Printed numbers on paper glued to spots finished this off.

I wanted this to be played anywhere so I added an adjustable leg to the back that lets you set the angle that you are playing at. I drilled a 1/4" hole into a 2 3/4" piece of the side/bottom wood. I then glued it off center on the back of the board. After it had dried, using a thumb screw, washers and a butterfly nut, I attached a 17" piece of that wood that I had rounded off its top.

The higher the angle the faster the ball drops. At the lower angle the balls are less likely to leave the table while falling. You can drop pennies and dimes as well and they are fun to watch, but they tend to get stuck on the 1/4" dividers at the bottom. (So maybe use thinner dividers or no nails directly over the holes.)

So there you go. Here it is in action.

We've played it as just highest score with each marble, high score with five marbles or "first one to twenty." It has held up pretty well over the years. Just the occasional nail straightening or the support arm being re-glued.

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.