Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Making a Jacob's Ladder

I saw my first Jacob's Ladder when I was in the 2nd Grade. I was fascinated as it looked like one block of wood was tumbling down through the others to the bottom. The fact that you could do it again and again without reloading or resetting it in any way was just amazing. It seems like an illusion or a Junior Jedi mind trick, but it really has to do with each piece being doubled hinged. As with most classic folk toys, it is pretty simple to make from some easy to find materials.

Without writing a book, just a couple of historical notes: First off, the name Jacob's Ladder is a Bible reference. In the Book of Genesis, Jacob had a dream where he could see Angels ascending and descending a ladder between Heaven and Earth. The phrase has been used for all sorts of things over the years from rope ladders on ships to plants to this wicked cool toy. Secondly, as to stories that it was found in King Tut's Tomb and was one of the only toys Puritan children were allowed to play with on Sundays... well, I think those are good stories and let's just leave it at that.

I first saw how to build one of these in John R. Nelson, Jr's fantastic book American Folk Toys. Over time, I've changed it a bit to match my tastes and what materials I have on hand or have been given (- thanks Jeff) but that doesn't take anything away from the Mr Nelson's indispensable classic.

I started by ripping 2" wide strips of 5/16" thick wine crate wood. (I know, 5/16"??!! Well, it is probably metric and is "actually" 8mm thick.) Nelson's plans call for 3/8" thick wood and I have often used 1/4" because it is so easy to find. Basically, anything in that range is going to work for you. And oh yeah, if have a bandsaw but don't have a rip fence... go out and get yourself one. You'll thank me later.

Next crosscut your 2" wide strips into 3 1/2" lengths. You'll need six of these. Although you could make it longer, don't forget kids will be playing with this and you don't want to make it too heavy or unwieldy. Sand any rough spots.

Okay, let's start building. Put your first piece down and then take three strips of 2' long by 1/2" wide bias tape. It is used in sewing and is easy to find at any fabric or craft store. I like using different colors for the tape on this. You could also use sturdy cloth ribbon if you prefer. The green tapes run left to right (you can see the starting ends hanging over the side); the white tape runs right to left (it has its starting end hanging over the right side. You can see that better in the next photo.)

Next place a block over top of the first block. This will sandwich the tapes between the two blocks.

Pull the tapes back across the second block. The white tape now runs left to right and the green tapes right to left. Now just alternate adding blocks and loosely weaving the tapes back and forth in the same manner until you add your last block. When you get to the last block, don't wrap the ribbons across the face of the block, just leave enough for the tapes to hang over the edges, just like with your first block.

With all the blocks in place and the ribbons laced through the toy, clamp the block together so that it will be easy to work with. This will help keep everything lined up properly for the next step. (The other side of the block has the exact opposite pattern of ribbons.)

I use 1/2" long little nails to secure the tapes to the ends of the block. Two nails for each ribbon. Brass/Zinc nails with a little rounded head work well and look nice. Stay away from headless brads though. (Headless Brad? Wasn't he a character in an 80's slasher movie?) If a nail gives you a tough time and won't go in straight, take it out and try a different one. Also, once you have a nail lined up and started, don't be afraid to sink it with a few firm hits rather than trying to gently tap it in. You are more likely to bend a nail with a lot of little taps.

Other times I've built this toy (especially when I used 1/4" wood) I've marked and pre-drilled very small pilot holes in the ends of the wood before I threaded the bias tape. You can do that, but trying to line up the little nails through the tape and into the holes wasn't a huge advantage over just putting the nails in directly. The nails are so tiny, I haven't had any issues with the wood splitting. Just be sure to keep them clear of the edges as you nail them in.

After you finish all 36 nails, trim off the excess ribbon and you are all set.

Playing with the toy is very simple. Just hold the long sides of one of the blocks and let the rest of the blocks hang down. Now rotate your hand down on the side that has ribbon showing. The next block will seem to tumble away. Now just rotate your hand back the other direction and the tumbling action will happen again.

With a little bit of practice you can get two blocks cascading at the same time. Which looks pretty neat.

I've left most of mine in natural wood but you can also paint them in bright colors and give them a protective finish. You can make one of these in under an hour. They make great gift and they really last. I made my first one almost 10 years ago and it is still going strong.

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.