Archive for the ‘Carving and Sculpture’ Category

Toy Castle

January 11, 2017

This wooden castle is another in a long line of wooden toys built for nephews and nieces. This one is for a nine-year-old for Christmas. The big challenges for this one were that first, it needed to have a fairly small footprint and second, I wanted to be sure that small hands could access every part of it.


The solutions were to go more vertical to keep the footprint size small, and to have walls in several places that swing out on hinges to allow access to the inner-sanctum and the keep in particular.


castle closed from the side


castle open from the side


castle closed from the back


castle open from the back

…did I mention the dungeon? A good place to keep the domesticated dragons, or prisoners.

Wooden Toy Saber Jet

February 14, 2013

Well the winter holidays have come and gone again and as usual I have been making toys. I have not written about toy making (or anything else) in a while and I wanted to put up a post or two on this subject.

For me, the hardest part of making toys, and in some ways the best part, is figuring out what to make in the first place. In this case I have a five-year-old nephew who has always got pictures of planes around and before the holidays, he was showing me one of a Saber jet from the 1950s. So that is what I set out to make him.

It is a pretty simple toy. Other than the wheels there are no moving parts, but it does have an interesting shape, and capturing and interesting shape is always a fun challenge in a toy. I want to create toys that a child is drawn to and toys that a child wants to touch and hold. So for me, there is always an element of toy making that is sculptural. I am drawn to shapes that echo those found in nature, and shapes that explain visually the purpose of the object. Put in simpler terms, I like a ship to look like a ship, a toy plane to look like it could really fly, and even a toy fire truck to look like it could rush off at any minute to put out a fire.

Toys that get broken through handling don’t bother me, toys that sit on a shelf and are never used do.

Saber jet

Another challenge is to figure out how much detail to include.  I like to leave some details to the imagination and I like to have some details that balance the shape and texture of the wood.

First ideas for a unit insignia

With toy airplanes I have a lot of fun with insignia. Coming up with nose-art or unit insignia is always a challenge and a fun one. If you have

read my post “the whole bear thing” then you know that most of my toys are flown, driven, or sailed by bears. So with insignia I try to mix in something bear-like, or that a bear would like, and I also usually play with numbers that reflect either the child’s age, or in some cases a birth date.

The finished insignia

In this case the unit is the 5th Ursus, with the constellation ursus major on the tail, and group number VF 56. The child in question is five, thus

the unit number, but he is almost six (which he will tell you given any opportunity) so the unit group designation VF-56.

Mixed mediums. This is basically a wooden toy, and I like my toys to be obviously hand made, however, there are always exceptions that prove the rule. This is one of those exceptions a clear canopy over the cockpit is a key design element of the saber and how it looks. Without one, the plane looks wrong.

I have said many times on this site that it is not a how-to blog. But I thought I would break with that

Vacuum jig

tradition to explain how I mold the plexi for toys. In this case we have a fairly simple “bubble” type of canopy. To get the shape right I use a vacuum jig that I made several years ago. The jig is fairly simple, a small table with a hole in the middle of it is set up and an edge made of self-stick foam insulation is put around the outside edge. In the middle of the table a piece of plastic plumbing pipe with a right angle bend in it is set up like a drain in a sink. Now fold up a piece of old wire window screen and place it over the hole. Add a shopvac, a metal spoon, and you are ready to make a canopy.

Vacuum jig with the plumbing pipe in place

The method is fairly simple, make a wooden mold of what you want the canopy to look like. Make the mold smaller than you want the finished canopy to be in every dimension except height, in this one dimension you want the mold to be taller than the finished cockpit canopy so you can make adjustments.

To make the actual canopy, plug the shopvac into your vacuum table and turn it on so that the

Mold on the vacuum jig and shopvac running

vacuum is pulling air down through the window screen. When you have that set up and running take a piece of plexiglass or acrylic sheeting and using a heat gun or a propane torch slowly heat up the center of the plastic in a well ventilated area. If you have any questions about what kind of gasses might be released by heating the plastic, WEAR A RESPIRATOR.

Vacuum at work

The trick with this method is to heat the plastic slowly, if you heat it too fast, you will get air bubbles in the plastic and it will ruin the canopy, so go slowly, but get the plastic hot, hot enough so that it starts to sag in the middle. When you have got the plastic hot enough that it is sagging in the middle, carefully place the hot plastic over the mold and push down so that you get a seal between the edge of the plastic and the foam rim of the vacuum table. The vacuum will pull the plastic down over the mold. If it does not do a perfect job grab the spoon and use the rounded side of the

The canopy ready to cut out

spoon to push down and help shape the plastic where it is needed. Allow the plastic to cool and cut out the canopy. It is pretty simple, but I would advise getting enough plastic to make several tries in case your first effort does not work out.

I attached this canopy with thickened epoxy because I wanted a smooth transition between the plastic and the wood.

That’s it—end of lesson. Have fun, I certainly did.

Winter is here!

January 7, 2011

Winter is certainly here, and you never know what it will bring…

Run little snowmen! Run!

The B25

December 18, 2008

Just to follow up the last toy posts about the corsair, here are some pictures of a more complicated toy plane built for an eight-year-old.

Like the Corsair toy, a crew of bears flies the B-25, “Bearfoot Bomber”. Unlike the Corsair, it has quite a few moving parts, including, retractable landing gear and Bombay doors that open. However, the design and execution follows the same process described in the posts about the Corsair toy. I started with drawings done actual size, and built the body of the aircraft and the wing/engines as separate units that do not get glued together until quite near the end of the assembly process.

Drawings for the B 25

The other challenge of the B25 is that the acrylic canopies for top-turret gunner, the nose of the aircraft, and the cockpit are shapes that are more complex to mold. I ended up making several attempts at each shape before I got results that met my needs.

lots of complex plexiglass

lots of complex plexiglass

Landing gear up!

Landing gear up!

Close up of one of the B 25 crew

Close up of one of the B 25 crew

Wooden Corsair #2

December 7, 2008

In the last post, we glued, cut and turned the body of the corsair. In this post, I will concentrate on the wings and landing gear:

The wings will be made of two pieces of polar glued together. They will go through five steps; The pieces will be glued together, they will be squared up, drilled for the landing gear, cut on the band saw, and finish-shaped.

Here is the rough “blank” of wood with the rectangular holes for the landing gear. The landing gear are in the background and are made up from commercially made wooden wheels glued and pegged to uprights.

The rough shape is cut on a band-saw.

The wings are shaped with knife, plane and sandpaper.

The landing gear is glued in.

Now you can see how the wing and body go together:

Creative stump removal

October 28, 2008

If you have never dug out the stump of a large tree by hand, then you have missed out on the true pioneer experience. There are few jobs that are more miserable and that are harder on your tools and your body.

When I was building the Wheelhouse there was a large double birch tree quite near the building. I went to great lengths to protect the tree and the roots. Despite this, the tree came down in an ice storm several years later. The stump was too large and too near the building to ignore and it looked like a back-breaker to remove. After considering my options, I decided to take the approach that “obstacles can be opportunities”. So, I turned the stump into a planter.

A couple of hours with a chainsaw and a chisel and mallet and I had carved a face on each of the two stumps. I cut a shallow bowl in the top of each head and drilled a couple of holes to allow water to drain out of the bowls. Then, I filled the bowl with potting soil and transplanted some myrtle that was growing locally. The myrtle grew out like hair and what had been an ugly stump became a piece of sculpture and a planter.

stump planter

stump planter

It has been many years now since I carved these faces and the stumps are rotting away, one is almost completely gone and the other is in advanced decay. The carvings have become echoes of what they once were. I no longer make a concerted effort to plant anything in them because nature has taken them over. They have evolved into something that looks like fragmentary ruins of some sort of Viking settlement. Accented with moss, a favorite hangout for woodpeckers, they have acquired a value different and more complex than the one that I originally intended.

I had hoped that by making the stumps into planters, the constant exposure to dirt and water would accelerate the process of decay so that the stump could be more easily removed. What I did not anticipate was that the process of decomposition would actually add something to the sculptures. Now, I find, I will miss them when they are finally gone.

New Wooden Toy

August 23, 2007

On the last cruise with children on the boat, we developed another version of the paddle-bear toy (see related post). We were on a rare sand beach in Maine and found a few cedar shingles. I was trying to think of what we could make with them. One of the kids was already talking about the paddle bears, and I thought: surfboard, yeah, that would work. One of the kids found a black rock that was curved like an Orca fin and we set that in the back of the board to hold the back down and to stabilize the board. Then I made a surfer bear that locks into the board using a large dovetail like the paddle bear. There is no question that surfer bear is an old fashioned long board kind of guy (if the bear is too big he will just fall over).
             There does need to be a fin of some sort of heavy material on the surf board in order to keep the board upright and to hold the back of the surf board down. We also discovered that the cedar shingle got waterlogged very quickly, which made it difficult to do further testing. The concept is fun, I have limited data on how well the paddle bear may actually surf. The prototype only caught one wave before he got too waterlogged to go on.

Surfer Bear Prototype

             Further testing: I have made four surfboards out of shingles of differing sizes and shapes. The boards have been painted with hot wax, to keep them from getting waterlogged. I have also made three different size surfer-bears, and a collection of fins for the surfboards out of different materials. Three toy experts (my nephews and niece) will do clinical testing of the different combinations of boards, paddlers, and fins, in the breaking surf of long island sound. There will also be some pool testing, in part as a control, and in order to observe the differences between salt water and fresh water surfing.
             I will post the results next week. Cowabunga!

Art or Pollution?

July 24, 2007

I think most of us who cruise are hoping to find that perfect unspoiled and secluded spot to drop anchor for the night. It is a reality that with so many of us using the seas either commercially or recreationally, evidence of the presence of humans can be found on even the most remote shorelines.
            While on a recent cruise in Maine waters, we anchored at a privately owned island. The owners of this island generously allow the public to land on, and explore, all but a small section of the island.  We rowed to a lovely sandy beach, tied off the tender, and began to walk the granite shoreline. As we walked, or rock-hopped the evidence of “civilization” lay everywhere; smashed lobster traps, lobster buoys in various stages of disintegration by the scores. Bits of pot warp, and old planks, and bits of fiberglass that may have been a boat at one time, littered the shore. Our discoveries were interesting, but also discouraging. Then, we stumbled upon the edifice shown in the photograph below:

Stone Arch

            My reaction was; “Cool”. However, I am aware that there are those who view such a sculpture as a form of graffiti, environmentally insensitive, and inappropriate to a “wilderness” setting.
            To my mind such spontaneous acts of creativity is the antithesis of the ruined plastic loberstering gear that had washed up on the same shore. To be confronted by the byproduct of an industry that has, due to economic pressures, moved away from biodegradable materials, leaves one kind of impression. The re-arrangement of found materials in a non permanent way to create temporary art seems, to me anyway, to represent the opposite values to an industry that accepts the loss of non-biodegradable material into the sea as an acceptable byproduct of fishing.
            I am not trying to trash the lobster fishery. In many ways, I think the self-regulation and the arguments over sustainability that have been going on for the last quarter century within the lobster fishery are a model that other fisheries could learn a lot from. 
            What I do find annoying are the “leave-no-trace” purists who would categorize the sculpture we discovered as a form of vandalism and who disassemble such ephemeral works of creativity. I would rather see the effort put into developing biodegradable lobster buoys.
            Meanwhile to the unknown sculptor I say; rock on.

Snow: A creative medium

March 15, 2007

I have always loved working in snow. However, as a child, I was never content with the formulaic Igloossnowman built with three snowballs. Igloos, elaborate snow forts, one that even had a spiral staircase leading up to a battlement, graced our yard. When I was leading winter climbing trips I spent many winter evenings in a snow shelter or igloo rather than endure the flapping and cold of camping in a tent. I used to make my own snow saws out of quarter inch aluminum; some were quite elaborate like the snow sawssamurai snow saw in the background of this photo.
           As just one example of what can be done with snow as a creative medium I offer the Triumphal Arch.


Triumphal Snow Arch

           Built in honor of the tenth anniversary of SOLO, we put it together over about five hours. It rained the following night, saturating the snow-structure, and then the temperature dropped. The resulting frozen arch could support the weight of some of the builders, as the photograph shows, and survived for the next several months.
           An extreme example of working with frozen elements as a creative medium is the ice hotel built each year in Sweden.
           I am not suggesting that the rest of us go to such lengths, but the next time you go out to build a snowman, try something a little more imaginative; like a stegosaurus.

A Second Carved Doorway

February 3, 2007

While designing the doorway for SOLO I found that I was personally most drawn to the compositions of the Old Norse and those, which are lumped, into the category of Hiberno-Saxon Art. Two years later when I started to develop the design for the Celtic Wheelhouse, it was clear that another carved doorway was going to be central to the design.

Original sketch for Wheelhouse Door

           In the previous post, I said that part of what I find so intriguing about the creative process is how people react to your work. I think this becomes particularly fascinating when the work in question is architecture because there is the reaction to the exterior, and the reaction to the interior. This creates a terrific opportunity to have the viewer also react to the transition from exterior to interior space. Taking advantage of this opportunity is something that builders have been doing for centuries.
           In the case of the doorway for the Wheelhouse, I wanted to capitalize on the transitional element because there was yet another part to the equation: optical illusion. Because of the way the human eye perceives volume, a cylinder of a certain size looks larger from the inside than it does on the outside.

Circle and Square

This is true with a structure the size of the Wheelhouse, and since the building is dug into the side of a hill, the exterior volume appears smaller still. The actual size of the building only becomes apparent from the inside, and comes as a surprise.
           What I wanted to do by creating an elaborately carved doorway was to place a visual distraction between that first assessment of the size of the building and the realization of the actual size of the building. A dramatic pause, if you will, between the deliberately misleading premise and the interior surprise. Other than stylistic influences, I wanted the carving to be deeper in relief than the carving than I had done on the doorjamb at SOLO, and I wanted some elements of the carving to overlap and extend into the actual opening of the door. My intention was to hold the eye longer in order to create that visual distraction.

The Doorway of the Wheelhouse

           All this might sound quite complex and elaborate; in fact, it is nothing more than simple stagecraft designed to add to the drama of an already dramatic space.