Wednesday, September 26, 2012

White Russian Cossack Toy

This toy has turned into a bit of an onion for me. Layers upon layers of history, hope, disappointment, redemption, un-redemption (de-demptification?), resignation, and finally..closure. Anyway, I'll begin at the beginning.

A few months ago, a colleague brought her nine year old son to work as part of "Take Your Child to Work" Day. (I asked my wife if her office did "Take Your Man-Child to Work Day" but she refused to answer.) Anyway, seeing as how I am basically a nine year old boy as well, we hit it off. I showed him some pictures of my toys and he said the appropriately flattering things to make me want to make him a toy. (The kid is going to be a master manipulator one day. Just saying.)

I'm in a bit of a bind about all things toy making right now. My house is under renovation with an addition under construction (which will include my first honest to gosh real workshop! Look out world.) As a result almost all of my tools are in storage at a friend's house. What I do have on hand are hidden under piles of displaced kitchen utensils, paperwork and just stuff. I also don't have any place to work. Other than that... all set!

I did have a coping saw, my drill, some sandpaper and a Swiss Army knife. If I had a pair of hockey tickets, three AA batteries and the services of MacGyver, I could have made a satellite transmitter. Lacking those, I decided to focus on a toy that I could make just by hand. Sort of turn back the clock on myself and see how'd I do without a drill press, band saw, or belt sander. Kicking it old school.

So, what to make? Well, I had seen plans for a "Horse with Moving Rider" that I wanted to try in Ken Folk's "Folk Toys" The toy has a classy look and a simple action. There were a couple of things I wanted to change though. Most of the pattern called for 1/4" thick wood. I changed the body of the rider and horse to 1/2" and switched the reins from metal to 1/8" plywood from... you'll never guess... clementine box wood! (I still feel funny about having metal parts on my toys.)

The other thing I wanted to change was the subject. In the plans the rider has a classy 19th Century Guard/Light Cavalry vibe about him but I decided to change that. The kid I was making this for was born in Siberia and I have a family connecting to the White Russian Army during the Russian Civil War. So, a little research turned up a unit of Siberian Cossacks who fought on the side of the Whites (as opposed to the Reds) during the war.

Did I mention that just about all my wood is in storage as well? All I have on hand is a couple of boards from the Ikea's dented bin, a smoked salmon box (given to me after someone else had eaten all the lox... sigh) and of course, a few million clementine boxes.

Ron Hickman invented the Workmate
after using a chair as a work surface.
Just saying...
Almost from the start there were issues. I forgot how you need things like, oh, I don't know, horizontal surfaces to work on when you are cutting and drilling stuff. I have no workbench and my Workmate has finally given up the ghost. I resorted to using the arms of an Adirondack chair I had built about 15 years ago. I got it done, but a lot of lessons needed to be re-learned from my earlier toy making days. The main thing I took away was that technology had allowed me to become sloppy. You need to take your time and cut as accurately as possible the first time because if you didn't have a band saw and belt sander to clean up your mistakes, you'll spend a lot more time on the project. I miss my electricity, but clearly there is joy to be taken in taking your time and working with hand tools.

The lox box wood provided the arms of the Cossack and the legs and sides of the horse. I needed to orient the printed sides so that they would face inward on the completed toy. So a bit of sweat, a few choice words and a nick or two on the arm on my chair and the hand on my arm and presto - assorted Cossack pieces.

I then started mucking with the design to give him more heft.
I wanted him to have a Cossack hat - dare I say a papaha (your vocabulary word for the day) and for his torso to actually rest on the horse and match up closer with the legs that I decided to cut out instead of just paint on the horse. For all three of those additions, I cut the pieces out of 1/8" clementine box wood.

I should have glued the hat and sides on first and then cut out the bodies. Not doing so led to some time consuming tweaks and hand sanding. Live and learn.

All in all, cutting the pieces went about as well as could be expected but I wasn't entirely happy with the cuts. A bit too much splintering on the plywood arms and horse sides, but not awful.

I then started assembly and all was not well. There wasn't a good fit on some of the the pieces. The way the toy works is that the rider's body is a long pole that extends through a hole in the horse's body. Then underneath the horse a cam moves a lever up and down that causes the rider to bounce up and down as the toy is pushed. Should have been simple, but the peg really needs to be smaller in order to move freely in the hole of the horse's body. Also, I did need to re-cut the lever because at 1/2" thick, there was no way it was going to move as freely as I would have liked without hours of sanding. So I made it 1/4" thick and that was too small so I shimmed it out with... yes... clementine box wood and some coffee stirrers. At this point I was pretty sure I was under some sort of Cossack Curse.

Ultimately though, my biggest problem was really an issue with the basic concept of this toy.

Once I made the toy thicker, I crossed a line between making the rider in profile vs making him "realistic." I was moving more from toy towards doll or model and that is not what I wanted. At 1/4" thick, the profile approach was fine but once he became better proportioned and I added his hat and jacket I ran into problems. Specifically with his head. His nose stretched across his whole face. It just didn't look right especially as I added more details to him. Discouraged, I put the toy aside for several weeks.

Early paint job.
Clearly the lad needs some sun.
The nose and mouth were
clearly wrong for the toy.

Luckily, I filled part of this time exiled from the shop with recording PBS woodworking shows. One of them is Rick Bütz's woodcarving show and I got some priceless pointers on starting to carve and whittle. (Chief among them- sharp knives are safer and a lot of little cuts, not a few big cuts, are definitely the way to go.) Newly inspired, I went to work on the Cossack's head and gave him a proper nose and a little definition to his face. Not perfect but seeing as how the first time I tried to carve a little bear five years ago I ended up with a carved thumb and  something that looked like a pig, I considered this quite the leap forward. If you've never seen Rick Bütz's show or books, they are definitely worth checking out. I highly recommend them.

So better, but still not right. He looked far too fresh faced to be a Cossack. So I painted a beard of sorts on him. (Honestly, this toy took so long to make, he could have grown his own beard.... if he was actually alive... and not made of wood.) I also gave him a slight scar on his left cheek to toughen him up a bit. He is a Cossack after all.

Since his reins were not bent metal, I'd worked on the spacing of his arms to give enough clearance so they could move without any problem. The reigns are glued to an 1/8" dowel that serves as a bit in a hole right behind the horse's mouth. I drilled the hole slightly large than 1/8" so that it could rotate freely. The other ends of the reins are glued to 1/8" dowels that pivot in the rider's hands. Again, through slightly larger holes.

I moved to final assembly and attached the wheels, reins, and a saber. As with the arms, 1/32" balsa spacers make sure I'm leaving enough space for the moving parts to move freely. I could use washers, but again, I'm staying clear of metal on my wooden toys right now. I then tweaked up the paint and sprayed him with a gloss acrylic finish.



Never again...

Oh who am I kidding? I love this guy! We've been through a lot. If he wasn't a Cossack, I'd give him a hug.

Here is a quick video of him in action:


  1. Nice. Good scroll work and fix for the nose and mouth. :^)

  2. Hola, hermoso trabajo.
    Yo tambien soy un papá aficionado a fabricar juguetes para mi hija e hijo .¿Es posible compartir algún plano de dinosaurio? Yo Soy de Chile y no encuentro estos libros que tu usas. Sería un gran favor. Muchas gracias.
    Mi correo es o en facebook por adolfo vasquez elmes

  3. Always remember:Give a man a fish,and he eats for a day,TEACH a man to build a complicated toy,and he learns to drink AND swear! You sir are an ARTEEST!I love the way you write and present, as well as photograph!Great,FUN blog for us other 12 year old mad scienteeests,NYAHAAHAAHAAHAAHAA!

  4. Love this! Come this spring, something I def. want to try! :)


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.