Saturday, October 25, 2014

Identifying Wood Samples Through the USDA

Ok - This site is supposed to be just about making toys so please excuse the non-directly toy related post that follows.

For anyone not interested in my ramblings but needs to have some wood identified let me cut to the chase: If you are a US citizen you can submit up to five samples per calendar year to the Center for Wood Anatomy research and they will identify them for you for free.

Seriously. For free.

The mailing address is:
Center for Wood Anatomy Research
USDA Forest Service, Forest Products Laboratory
One Gifford Pinchot Dr.
Madison, WI 53726-2398

All the details can be found here.
The preferred sample size is 1x3x6 but they can work with much smaller samples if needed. 
I sent the two samples above over the summer.
I got answers on my samples after about 6 or 7 weeks.

(Please note - Toy Making Dad is pretty much a small government type but every once in a while, some free cheese tastes awfully good. This is a fantastic service provided by incredibly talented and knowledgeable people who work for us. It really is amazing that this service is available to all of us and when you look at their site and see the depth of knowledge available to us, it is impressive.)

And now my ramblings about the samples I submitted...

I'm mostly interested in making wooden toys. There is something about them. A certain indefinable quality one might say. They have so much character and yes, at times they seem alive in a way that a plastic toy never can. (Although I do think stuffed animals share the same qualities... maybe the whole organic origin piece.)

This shouldn't come as a shock to most of you but there are a lot of different kinds of wood out there because well, there are tens of thousands of species of trees out there. Each variety has different characteristics and you need to take advantage of some of those characteristics (How hard it is, how easy to work it is, its cost and availability etc) and know when to avoid certain species (Is it too soft or brittle. Is it toxic, cursed by wood demons etc) The problem is that for the average dude or dudette weekend work worker, identifying wood can be very difficult. If it didn't come off a clearly labeled shelf, you either have to trust whoever gave it to you or you have to become very familiar with identifying wood on your own. The only way to do that last piece is through experience working with and getting to know a large variety of wood through years of practice.

That or you can cheat and just mail it to the government.

Which is exactly what I did. (See above.)

Well, the whole point of this exercise is that I recently acquired a very modest stash of a couple different types of mystery wood.

Sample 1 - A friend of mine had to have her beautiful hard wood floor ripped up because a small patch of it had been ruined by a leaky fridge. It was an insurance company thing. They couldn't match and replace just part of it so it all had to come out. She had been told it was "Brazilian Walnut." It is very hard and reasonably expensive. She hated to see it all go to waste so I got a big shelf of it in various sizes FOR FREE! (The rest was donated to a charity that will be able to re-use it. Part of my stash will find its way into the claws of a certain fresh water crustacean over at Crawls Backward When Alarmed.) 

So the first thing I find in my research is that "Brazilian Walnut" is basically the "Chilean Sea Bass" of the flooring world. It is more of a brand/marketing name than a species identification. It is a variety of Ipe (pronounced e-pay) - a legendarily hard, durable, blade killing variety of wood.

Each piece has a highly finished side (remember, it is a floor board) and around the back very shallow grooves. Well, the finish gets taken off courtesy of an 80 grit belt on "Bob the Belt Sander" and I begin to practice my hand planing skills on the back to deal with the grooves since I do not have a power planer. (Bob also lent a hand to the backs.) Boys and girls... wear a dust mask and run the vac when sanding this stuff.

Front Before and After

Back Before and After

On a side note - I have A LOT to learn about hand planes. I removed a fair amount of material but also took too many divots out of the wood by being impatient. I have three different hand planes right now and learning to use them on Ipe may be the equivalent of teaching a 16 year old to drive on a Formula One car but hey, I gotta learn. I can read about it or I can do it. All things in time and with practice. I do have to say, it is incredibly satisfying working with hand tools like this. It gives me a taste of why people like Roy Underhill and Chris Schwarz are so passionate about hand tools.

Sample 2 - A week later I was at an architectural recycling and salvage warehouse. Standing out in a pile of trim and miscellaneous boards was the sturdiest board I think I've ever came across. The board was about 7’ long and 5 3/8” wide, and just short of an inch thick. It had grooves cut down both sides. It looks to me like this was a high end exterior decking board that was never installed. I was super impressed with the weight and had NO idea what it was. I took it to the checkout and walked out the door with $2 less in my wallet. Not too shabby.

It has a lighter shade of brown than the "Brazilian Walnut." It has a different feel than the floor boards. It is thicker and does not have the high gloss finish of it the other wood.

These grooves down the sides were the clue that told me this was a high end decking board - there are special fasteners that link the boards with the grooves.

So just to close the loop, I cleaned them up and sent the samples to the Center for Wood Anatomy research and eagerly awaited the reply. Honestly, I was bit like Ralphie in A Christmas Story checking the mailbox every day for his decoder ring. Anyway, the letter arrived and it was a bit anti climatic but fit everything I'd seen:

Sample one (the floor boards) Tabebuia sp (probably T. impetiginosa)
Sample two (the beck board) Tabebuia sp.

In short - both samples were Ipe.

When it comes to wood, I'm pretty much inexperienced with anything except for pine, red oak and a little bit of cherry. I couldn't believe how HEAVY and dense this wood seemed. If you don't know about the Janka Scale, take a moment and check it out. It is used to measure the hardness of wood varieties. The higher the number, the harder the wood.

So for example:
Douglas Fir - 660
Cherry - 950
Red Oak - 1290
Ipe -3680

Yeah... so almost three times as hard as red oak. Time to learn how to sharpen my tools.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Making a Shut the Box Game with a Cigar Box

In short - "Shut the Box" is a very old counting game that is part strategy part luck. Honestly though, mostly luck so it is a great game for kids to play against an adult. Super easy and fast to play, it can even be played solo. It does help kids with quick addition skills and the game only takes a few minutes and stores in its own box. It is used as a bar/pub game in some parts of the world. Fun for all ages, as they say.

First off, I don't smoke but I like cigar boxes and wanted to use one for this project. No doubt the fine folks at "Overly Sensitive Parenting Quarterly" will freak out at the use of a cigar box for a toy but, hey... I could have used the box to make a "Cigar Box Guitar" and then those crazy kids would just use it to make rock and roll music and who knows what that could lead to.

So instead, I'll do the world a favor and make a counting game with it.

Clearly the Normans took their games
 pretty seriously
The game itself may have been played back as far as the 12th century. It seems to have Norman origins but it is now played all over the world. I was first exposed to it through a TV game show in the 1970s called "High Rollers" hosted by a pre-Jeopardy Alex Trebek. The man had incredible hair.

The game is traditionally played in some sort of a box. I'll explain in more detail later exactly how to play but basically, you have tiles numbered 1 through 9 and you roll dice. Add up what you rolled on the dice and knock down an equal sum from the tiles. Keep doing this until you roll a number you can't match or you knock down all the tiles. Knocking them all down is called "Shutting the box" and you automatically win if you do that. Period. Game over. DONE!

So, first things first... I need a box.

A few months ago I popped by the local mega beer/wine store in search of cigar boxes... honest. That's my story and I'm sticking with it. (BTY They also sell their empty wooden wine crates. Noted for future dinosaur builds.) Anyway, I lucked out. Someone had asked for a bunch of wooden cigar boxes to be set aside and then never showed up to claim them. Right place, right time for me and I got them for 50 cents apiece! YEA ME!

Mrs Toy Making Dad claimed
two as soon as I got home

Some now hold bits and Allen wrenches
in my work space

I had some leftover red oak from another project so I cut out the tiles from that stock.
These ended up being 1 7/8" tall by 3/" wide and 3/8" thick. Obviously, these can be pretty much any size you want as long as they will fit in the box and are thick enough to rotate on the dowel or rod you use as the axle.

I rounded the tops into little tombstone shapes using the disk sander on my belt sander. I wrote little numbers on the bottom in the hopes of keeping them in order but a) that really didn't matter and b) after I put the finish on the tiles, I couldn't read the numbers anyway (D'oh!)

The next step was to drill the pivot holes. The holes are 3/16" so that a 1/8" dowel can be used for them to pivot over. I made a quick jig and attached it to my drill press. Having the pivot hole in a consistent location makes the tiles line up level. Also, it's critical that the hole be perpendicular to the tile so that the tiles will lie flat when they are knocked down.


After (Pretty exciting, huh?)

After drilling all the holes I applied a finish and after it dried some pre-cut craft store number. The kind used to label school projects and posters. The finish was a coat of bee's wax and mineral oil that my little one and I had whipped up a few weeks ago for a different project. I know it isn't an indestructible finish, but WOW, it is sooooo easy to use. Non-toxic, no fumes, no gloves, dries super fast. It even has a slight honey smell to it. It is an absolute joy to work with.

I selected the Gispert Robusto box because it was very solid, had the right look and I could make it work with the dimensions I needed. It was also close at hand and not full of Allen wrenches.

I decided on two 1/8" wood dowels for the game. One for the tiles to pivot on and one to act as a ledge/stop when the tiles are knocked down. They make a satisfying "clack" when you tip them down and they hit the bar. The box walls are less than 1/2" thick so I decided to just drill straight through them and glue the dowels in place. I made sure the tiles had room to move, would rest upright and would hit the bar when knocked down. Again, consistency is key here. I need both bars to be level. The bar is a 7/8" lower and 1" forward of the axle dowel.

In using my drill press I found that the table of the press couldn't go low enough to allow me to drill the 1/8" holes in the box. When I moved the table out of the way, then the box was too low. I found that the perfect spacer I had sitting around was of all things, a Price Albert tobacco can! No... I don't smoke. It was from my grandfather's basement.

And no, I don't have Prince Albert in a can. Therefore I don't need to let him out.

So, here's this post's history lesson. The "Prince Albert" on the can was the eldest son of Queen Victoria. his full name being Albert Edward. When he became King in 1902 he chose to go by "Edward VII". He was King of England for eight years, was very popular and from his name we get the term "Edwardian Era."  He was related to a very large percentage of European royalty at the time (some say nearly all) and in fact, both the Kaiser and Tsar who were to clash so disastrously in WW1 were his nephews (the Tsar by marriage.) His son was George V, King of England during WW1. And yes... he is the King Edward of "King Edward Cigars" which I've had some adventures with over the years but won't go into now.

And no... I don't smoke!

Final assembly was threading the axle dowel through one hole, placing a spacer (in this case a small wood wheel), the numbers in sequence and then another spacer. The dowel was glued into place and then so was the stop bar. Last thing, I glued a little green felt on to the inside of the lid so that there was a soft rolling surface for the dice. (BTY - Dollar Store - 10 dice for $1) Total time was just a couple of hours. I built and played with it in the same day. If only all the projects were so easy :)

And now for us visual learners...

How to Play Shut the Box

As should be expected, there are all sorts of variations on the game but basically there are tiles numbered 1 through 9 (or up to 12) in a box or on a playing surface. The first player takes a die or pair of dice and rolls them. The player then chooses which tiles to knock down so that the sum of the knocked down tiles equals the sum of what was rolled. You keep rolling until you roll a number whose sum you can't match with the tiles.

For example... Say I rolled a 9.

I could then knock down any of the following

I then roll again and keep knocking down numbers.
When I roll a number but can't knock anything down, my turn is over.
Then the values on the remaining tiles are totaled up and that is my score and it is the next players turn after all the numbers have been turned upright again.
If I was are able to knock down all of the tiles, I have "Shut the Box" and win the game at that point even without the other person getting a "fair up."

You can play to a certain number - say first person to 50 loses.
Or you can just do each round - low score wins.

Or you can play like my daughter and I like to play where you go until you can't turn down any numbers and when it is the next player's turn, they pick up where the other person left off.
No tiles are ever turned upright and you just keep going until someone "Shuts the Box."

Two good optional rules we use are -
1) Once the 7, 8 and 9 have been knocked down, you can choose to roll just one die.
2) ANYTIME you roll a double you get to go again, even if you couldn't match the sum.

Remember - As soon as someone Shuts the Box, he or she has won. End of game.

But that's okay.

Just play another one... or two... or ten.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Making a Toy Shark

Okay, right off the bat -this is not my design. It comes from the amazing mind of David Wakefield and is in his book "Toymaking Basics" That book is a great one stop shop for getting started making toys and has a few plans (including this shark) at the end. I highly recommend it.

This toy has an odd back-story for me. I think I started it about ohhhhh three or four years ago! Before you freak out, it is actually a very simple plan and can be made entirely with hand tools and knocked out in a few hours. What happened with me is that I used to have all my tools in my parent's basement and would just work an hour here or there when I was visiting or doing some work at their house. So, projects tended to go in fits and starts.

After my parents passed away we sold their house. My tools, and most of this shark, went into storage at a friend's house until our addition was completed and my shop space added.

One of the first things I did in my new space was look at the shark and try to improve him. I had everything cut out but as I was test fitting him, I saw something that I didn't like. The shark's mouth opens as the lower corner of its head is pushed up by pegs on the insides of the front wheels. It works great.


Just like in real life, this shark can't go backwards.
Well, he can but the wheels lock up because the pegs can't move the sharks head from the front. It only works from the rear. My concern was that lots of times kids will move a wheeled toy back and forth rapidly. If the wheels were locking up and being forced, I worried that the pegs would break.

So, I made a test front 1/3 of the the body to experiment with. David Wakefield's plans have the eye sockets slightly larger than axle pegs that form the eyes and are anchored to the body. My thought was to have a solid dowel run from side to side and the hole in the body be more of an oval slot that would allow the head to slide up when being pushed backwards and then pivot up when being pushed forward.

How did it work? Well, I usually save every little scrap experiment but that test ended up in the fireplace. I found that the slot was going to need to be bigger than I though to allow the head to clear the peg.  It might work but it also takes away from the simplicity of the design. What can I say... I gave it a shot. It was worth a try.

So, instead the shark ended up being very straight from the book.  My one change is that I made the eye sockets 1/4" and widened the hole in the body to 5/16". Instead of pegs I used a solid dowel from one end to the other. The head needs to lined up as close to perfect as possible to make sure his (her?) head moves smoothly. Drilling both sides at the same time seems to be a must.

The body was from a 2x6 piece of pine and the sides of the head from my stash of Ikea bed slats. This shot is actually the test body before I tried cutting the slot. At this point it just has a slightly larger hole. (I figured the knot wouldn't matter since this was never going to be part of the finished toy.

Actually, having the kerf intersect the
side of the board allows the sawdust
 to escape and speeds the cut.
I like using the store bought hardwood wheels on a lot of my toys. While I can cut out wheels using my arsenal of hole cutting bits, I don't have a lathe to make them look as good as the pre-made ones. With this toy though, the slab, solid on both sides wheels, were the way to go for me. Just wanted to see how they'd come out. When cutting your own wheels, don't go all the way through. Go deep enough so you are past the 1/2 way point and the pilot bit has passed through the other side. Flip the board, line up the pilot and complete the cut. It makes for a much smoother wheel with no tear out. It is also easier to remove from the bit, which is very hot so look out.

The fins were from a different stash of Ikea bed slats usually reserved for the occasional stegosaurus. I got a nice tight fit on them and I liked how they looked but it made me rethink how I was going to finish the toy. I had originally planned on using Danish oil but I knew the contrasts in the woods would really show and perhaps be a distraction.

After a number of tests and focus groups among the family members, I settled on a two tone grey scheme with gills added on the suggestion of one of my daughters. Craft store acrylics with several coats and then gloss coated with a spray acrylic.

Clementine boxes...

... the onion of frugal woodworkers.

I painted some dowel caps to use as eyes but when I test fitted them, I wasn't happy with the look. It reminded me too much of Quint's quote in Jaws, "Sometimes that shark, he looks right into you. Right into your eyes. You know the thing about a shark, he's got... lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll's eye." YIKES! I'm making a toy not something to scare the poor kid.

I went with friendlier, but not too friendly, googlie eyes. They fit more into the toy vibe I was going for.

So here you go; the finished product. The lighting makes him look more blue than he really is.

It is a great design. Easy to make with hand tools but a drill press really helps. Again, I highly recommend all of Mr Wakefield's books. He sells his amazing, super high quality toys online now and you might want to check his site out. -

Like a nit-wit, I failed to get  a video of the shark in action before I gave him away. Oh well, I guess I'll just have to make another one.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Making a Toy Carousel/Merry-Go-Round

This a fun, very straight forward project that can be adapted all sorts of different ways depending on who you are building this for. Any sort of animals, characters or vehicles could be used.

So the requisite history part...

FYI - Carousels in Europe go clockwise.
Carousels in the US go counter clockwise.
The word origin for carousel is interesting. It comes from the Spanish word carosella (meaning little battle) that was used to describe the battle practice or training games used by cavalry during the Crusades. Once back in Europe demonstrations of those skills included grabbing or lancing rings from horseback. Eventually "simulators" were set up at fairs so that kids could play along. So, that is why they have horses and that is why they have brass rings.

This toy has neither of those. (D'oh!)

And you may ask yourself... Is there a difference between a Merry-Go-Round and a Carousel?
Short answer... nope.
Just multiple names for the same thing like roundabout/traffic circle/rotary or dad/father/automatic daughter embarrasser.
(And you may ask yourself "Where is that large automobile?" or even "Am I right, am I wrong?" - sorry, can't help you other than to say "Same as it ever was..." However, if you ask yourself, "Well, how did I get here?" my guess is The Google or The Bing.)

The plans for this toy come from John R. Nelson Jr's indispensable "American Folk Toys" I highly recommend that book and have built a lot of great toys thanks to it. I've made some changes to the plans in that book for this project and I'll point out the differences as I go along.

The most difficult part of the build is getting the disks cut out. You'll need a total of three of these disks. Two that are 7" in diameter and one that is 5". The 7" disks form the base and the rotating platform. The 5" disk is used as the top of the carousel. The plans called for 3/4" pine but I went with 5/8" since I had a supply on hand.

You can use a coping saw to cut out the disks but I chose to bite the bullet and make a jig to do this with my band saw. Basically, you need a center pivot point so you can rotate the wood blank as the saw blade cuts. The edge of the blade needs to be perpendicular to a line running through the center of the pivot point.
I made a quick video to describe it:

Now you'll have three disks all with a 1/4" hole through the center. Two of the disks need four small holes drilled in them. These are the smaller top disk and one of the other larger disks that will be used as the spinning platform. The strings that will suspend the platform will be strung through these holes.

In drilling the four holes I took advantage of the 1/4" pivot and used it to mount the the two disks together so that the holes would be perfectly aligned. I also made a discrete reference mark on the two disks so I could be sure to align the four holes with the correct corresponding hole once the disks were painted.

I made a slight change in the plans here. I used a 1/4" Forstner bit to countersink the holes on the top part of the top disk and the underside of the platform disk. This allows the knots on the strings to be hidden and to be sure that they don't rub against the base when the platform is spun.

At this point, I tried a little something that ultimately didn't work out but was worth a try. In the plans (and in the way I ultimately made the toy) the four strings are all individual lengths. So that means all four pieces have to end up the exact same length for the toy to hang and spin properly. Four strings = eight knots. Not that big a deal but I decided to try and make it so that it was only two lengths of string, strung as big "U's." That way only the last of the four needed knots would be critical. I carved groves on the bottom of platform so the base of the string U's would be out of the way. In short, it worked but it allowed too much play with the platform and it didn't always stay level. So ditched the idea and the"mistake" is hidden anyway so no harm.

The idea was to make it easier to string
but it allowed too much wiggle.

Mistake #2 - Should have lined
it up with grain. Live and learn.

I painted and finished the disks with spray acrylic at this point because you can't do that once the toy is being assembled.

The plans called for a 5/16" dowel as the center post. I went with 7/16" to add a little more strength to the structure. This probably results in a few less spins each time it is wound up but, that was a trade off I was okay with.

The dowel needs to fit squarely into the base disk and into the top disk. The hole in the platform disk needs to be larger than the dowel to allow it to freely spin around it. I went with a 1/2" hole on the platform. One other bit of advise - Just because the dowel says 7/16" or 1/2"... don't trust it. Measure it and fit it into some test holes in scrap before you drill the holes in the top and base and permanently attach the dowel. Just saying that in addition to quality, there is considerable variation in how the dowels are made and labeled.

Here is the order of assembly I used for the three disks:

1- The dowel needs to extend an inch
or two through the top disk
and then be glued in place.

2- The platform disk is next.
It needs to rotate freely around
the center dowel.

3- The dowel is flush through the
base and glued in place.

4- Check alignment to make sure it is
square and lined up properly.

I used nylon string for this toy because it will hold up to a lot of use without becoming noticeably worn. One trick with working with this is that you need to melt the strings a little before you cut them. If you just cut them, they separate in a way that cotton strings won't. I use a candle and move the string close to it to allow it to melt but not all the way through. The melted part is easy to cut and the string does not fray making it super easy now to thread through the holes.

I made four generous lengths. Tied knots on one end of each string, trimmed it and sealed it with clear nail polish (being in a house with four females occasionally has its benefits.) I then strung them through the platform and out through the top. I also put 1/8" spacers between the base and the platform. That gap is needed for the toy to perform properly once all the knots are tied.

Then it was pretty easy to mark the sting where the knot need to be located. I pulled the platform up a few more inches and tied the knots exactly where needed before trimming and sealing the strings.

Last bit for the top was a ball to attach to the center post and some store bought "buttons" or plugs to fill the holes. I was going for an outside look with the green grass, blue sky, yellow sun and tiny white clouds.
A regular bead with a 7/16" hole
drilled in it and glued in place.

Little wheels on table were used
as spacers and then removed.

Okay. Now the "easy" part - the animals. I used the patterns from the book for all the animals except I swapped out the camel for a zebra. I made one of these about 10 years ago for my brother's kids and I used the camel on that one and he came out great. This merry-go-round was made for a friend's son and his room was decorated in a Africa theme so I thought a zebra would be more appropriate. I found one on clip art and sized him (or her) to roughly match the camel.

The animals were cut out using a bandsaw although a coping saw would have been fine. I used the same pine that the disks were cut out from for the animals. I did use a base coat of gesso to try and help with the coverage. It seemed to work fine. The giraffe still took 1/2 a dozen coats of craft store acrylic to get the coverage I wanted. Still, I think it helped.

The plans call for 1/4 dowels to go through the animals and into the platform so that it looks like the posts through the animals on a merry-go-round. While it would help secure the animals, I chose not to do it. I prefer the looks of the animals without the posts. They seem more alive. I ended up using super glue to attach them. The wood glue wouldn't adhere to the gloss acrylic finish of the platform disk.

So that was it. Time to take it for a spin. You just rotate the platform around the center dowel and the strings wrap around and then wind an unwind. It will run for about a minute. This is the second one I've built. Now that I have the jig built, I think more are in the near future.

Just Saying...

While we don’t necessarily need more objects, we just might benefit from more making.
- John Dunnigan


About Me

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Regular guy who likes to make stuff who lives with a very patient wife, three daughters and three cats.