Sunday, December 31, 2017

Making Toy Grasshoppers

These grasshoppers (and ones like them) have been a real go to gift for me over the last few years. Simple to make and really satisfying to finish. You can knock a few of them out over a weekend and are a great project that doesn't require any special tools or complicated techniques and jigs.

So before I share a few tips, here is my backstory with this toy.

The first one I saw was when I was in college. There was a Christmas craft show set up in the Student Union Building and I purchased one for my niece. I really liked how the legs moved and the classic look it had. (This was during the time I thought I'd never want anything to do with wood working or power tools...aka my "Idiot Years.")

So fast forward 20 something years and I acquire odds and ends of tools, a little experience and a mini library of toy making books. One of them is Jim Makowicki's Making Heirloom Toys. It is a great book with easy to follow illustrations. One of the plans is for this grasshopper. All of my grasshopper are pretty much straight forward from those plans. I highly recommend that you pick up a copy if you want to make some of these.

I'm not going to include a plan here since I've followed Makiwicki's plans for all the ones I have made. If you want to make one and don't have or aren't going to get the book, give this video and download on the Wood Whisper site a look. It is a little different but the same basic idea.

I do a couple of things differently than Mr Makiwicki does. Namely:
  • No antennae 
  • No pull string.
  • For the through holes in the legs, I use a 15/64" bit
  • For the stopped holes in the leg, wheel and body, I use a 7/32" bit
I changed the hole sizes to be a better fit for the pegs I use. The lack of antennae and string are because I like to keep it 100% wood. That's just me.

The "through" holes need to be loose enough to allow the leg to pivot around the peg. The others holes are "stops" that the peg needs to seat firmly and be glued into. My latest batch of pegs needed to be trimmed to length but fit nicely in the leg holes. I found that making a die and checking the pegs beforehand was a big help. If the peg is a little thick, forcing it into and back out of the proper sizing hole saved a lot of sanding and hassle.

The pegs and wheels are purchased from Woodworks Ltd. The pegs are about a nickle apiece and are solid. YES, I could make them but they wouldn't be as nice or as cost effective.

As with making all toys (and maybe all woodworking for that matter) the big time sink is in setups and not so much in cutting. After I made my first one of these I realized that going forward it was silly not to make at least two at a time whenever I was making them. Besides only having one setup on the drill-press and bandsaw, it also lets you get into a rhythm.

So, I've probably made and given away eight or ten of these over the last few years. Several of them to charity auctions. The first few I did I just used a piece of construction 2x4 for the body and painted it with craft store acrylics and then coated with spray gloss acrylic. They come out nice and really have that toy "vibe" about them.

Since I lack imagination, my painted grasshoppers have always been green. In my non-creative skull, grasshoppers are like tanks. They need to be green... or camouflaged. Otherwise, we are just living in Cloud Cuckoo Land.

Over time when I got some nicer wood (in this case maple for the body and red oak for the legs) I finished them with mineral oil and beeswax. I love working with that stuff. Besides the fact that I whipped up a 1/2 quart or so of the stuff for next to nothing, I love that it is non-toxic, actually smells nice (almost like honey if you ask me) and is super forgiving.

Here it is half applied to a piece of maple. You can see the warmth it adds. However, it isn't a stain. The oil penetrates and preserves the wood but it isn't going to protect the way a hardcore finish will. The trade-off of a great look, feel, added safety and ease of use all make it a good choice for me. Lots of places to find the formula and safety tips on the web but I found mine on a Wood Toymaker video link here.

The eyes are 1" dowels. Since I don't have a lathe,  I "turn" them using my stationary belt sander. I'll take a long length of 1" dowel, hold it it at angle against the belt sander and keep spinning it in my hands while changing the angle slightly. Keep you hands away from the belt and have the dowel facing "down stream" so it won't catch on the belt. It only take a minute of so and you have a rounded-ish end. I usually finish the rounding with a palm sander. Then you just cut it to length. I've experiment with Danish Oil, black paint and just the beeswax and mineral oil finish on the unpainted grasshoppers. All seem fine. Whatever works.

Speaking of works... here are a couple of them being tested out:

So there you go. Again, these are easy to make and make wonderful gifts. I recommend picking up a copy of Jim Makowicki's Making Heirloom Toys but if you search for plans on the internet, they can be found along with design ideas if you want to give creating a design of your own a shot.

Last tip - It never hurts to have another set of eyes (and paws) to make sure everything is coming together properly. All those parts aren't gonna knock themselves on to the floor.


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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.