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


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