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.


  1. Sir, congratulations on your efforts. Throughout history the nay-sayers have tried to hinder and obfuscate men of vision. It is our role to explore the boundaries of the world and it's possiblities. May you long continue in your quest for knowledge.
    (I carve my wooden helicopters from a hazel stick but I'll make a few of yours too - bbq skewers make good dowel)
    Steve Tomlin

  2. That is ace. Very impressed. x


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.