Saturday, April 30, 2011

Making a Tumble Down the Ladder Toy

This is one of those toys that is so simple that at first glance, you almost can't believe it works as was well as it does. The peg falls/walks down the ladder, rung by rung, flipping from side to side, powered by gravity. When properly made, it is almost impossible for it not to work.

In doing some cleaning a few weeks back (or more precisely, procrastinating enough that Mrs. Toy Making Dad was doing some cleaning) the ladder part of this toy showed up, with a broken rung or two, on my desk. Several years ago, I had seen plans for this toy in a since forgotten library book. I had built the ladder but put it aside when I got frustrated with trying the make the peg without a drill press or band saw. (I now call that period the "Dark Ages.") I decided after ten years (but with no plans) it was time to finish the toy up.

"When made properly", hmmm, there's the rub eh? Okay. There are two equally important parts to the toy and each has to be made pretty precisely. (I know, "Hey, knucklehead... something is either precise or it isn't" Well, you'll see...)

The Ladder - The sides of the ladder are 12" long by 3/4" wide and 5/16" thick. There is a 1/8" slot routed down the full length of each side. That slot is only 1/8" deep. Although I had built a serviceable jig "back in the day" to make this, future ones will be made with my new router table. The ladder needs to have each rung be the same width, be level and be spaced equidistant. The rungs here are 1/8" wood from... you'll never guess... Clementine boxes!!! Each one is 3/16" tall, by 1/8" thick and 2 1/2" wide. They are glued into the slot starting 1/2" down and are spaced 1 3/8" on center down the length of the ladder leaving the last 2 3/4" of the length free of rungs. (The peg needs space to fall from the last rung.)

The Peg - The second part of the toy is the peg. The secret to how the toy works is that the peg can only fall off of one rung when it is lined up directly over the rung below it. Ultimately, the correct peg ended up being 1 5/8" long by 1" wide cut from a piece of 3/4" thick wood. Drilling on the sides, I made two 1/4" holes, 1/4" on center from the middle of the peg. I then cut a channel just over 1/8" wide from the ends to the holes and then cut angles from the edges to the slots

My first attempt is shown on the left; the correct on the right. The incorrectly made one had holes that were too big and it lacked defined slots. The slots are what prevent the peg from flying off before it can line up with the rung below it. Without them, the toy will not work. The one on the right needed some tuning up with a rat tail file and sand paper to work to get it working smoothly. Just take your time and remember that you can always take more off, but you can never put more back on.

The last thing was the base for the ladder to fit into. I took a 3/4" thick piece of bed slat and cut it 2 3/4" wide by 4 1/8" long. I then drilled two 3/4" holes 3" apart on center. Green paint and spray acrylic to finish it. The 1/2" ladder sides slip in perfectly.

I really like this type of toy and as is usual with me and these sorts of things, there is a bit of history behind it. The first one of these toys I ever had, I purchased in a public market in San Antonio. These markets have stalls with all manner of crafts from Mexico. Now, this toy isn't uniquely Mexican, but the way the tumble peg was decorated, was distinctly Mexican. It had Loteria cards (sort of Mexican bingo) on each side of the peg. This made it fun to see which image would end up showing once the peg reached the bottom.

I see this toy sold fairly often with monkeys decorating it, but I decided to go back to the Loteria images for this one. I found some downloadable images that worked perfectly on the site of a neat soap making supply store called Bramble Berry. (They have a lot of interesting ideas and supplies there.) The images are a free download from their site. It includes a devil and a woman so I felt like that was a fun contrast. I just resized them to fit the pegs, printed them, glued them to the pegs and used a gloss acrylic spray to seal them.

The toy in action:

So here is the final product. It doesn't tumble perfectly every time but it does most of the time. Just like the Sliding Tumble Peg Toy, the fact that it hangs up sometimes actually makes it more fun. It builds a little suspense.

Ten years in the making but only a few hours in the finishing. Totally worth it.


  1. What a cute toy! I'm glad that you were able to use our images for a new purpose. I think Raven likes them ;)

  2. Hi! I just thought you should know people from Costa Rica (me)is grateful for this blog and gladly impressed! It's so sad you haven't post lately... but at least I can enjoy (and make something similar to)your previos toy making posts!! Thanks a lot!

  3. Mariana,

    Thanks for the kind words. I'm in between shop spaces for the next few months but hope to have a nice set-up by the end of the year. In the meantime, I'm storing up a bunch of ideas.

    If you have pictures of any Costa Rican folk toys that you would like to pass along, I'm always interested in new (old) toys. Just email me at toymakingdad(the circle letter at symbol thingy)

    Thanks again and take it easy.


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.