Archive for the ‘Wooden Toys’ 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.

Boats for HMS Unicorn

January 9, 2015

A year ago when I built the toy ship HMS Unicorn for one of my nephews, I did not know how well it would survive either the interest or the rough handling of a seven-year-old. As it turns out, the Unicorn is still much adored and other than the loss of the horn of the figurehead and the unraveling of one of the anchor rodes, it has survived and is in excellent shape. When I saw the nephew in question early in December he brought out the Unicorn and began to ask all kinds of questions about how 18th Century ships functioned. As we talked it became very clear that HMS Unicorn was in desperate need of ships boats.

“Cutting out expeditions” need ships boats, that house is full of wooden toy ships just begging to be cut out. The sailors need to be able to get to and from the shore, the crew of bears aboard Unicorn has not had shore leave in a year…anyway, it was time to remedy the situation.

As with almost all the toys I make I started with rough sketches drawn to actual size and then shaped the hulls for the ships cutter and jolly boat based on those sketches.

The boats themselves were not that challenging to make, but the crews took a little time. Templates helped speed up the repetitive process of carving the crews for both boats.

The idea was to have each rower positioned such that an oar could either be shipped with the loom in the rowing position,

or the oar could be removed and set in the “oars up” position for coming along side.

The cutter has an officer and coxswain and the jolly boat has a midshipmen in charge. “Away all boats!”

HMS Unicorn

January 22, 2014

While I have been doing a lot of writing in the last eight months or so, it has been for a book and not this blog. It is time, however, to add to the wooden toy category.

I visited with a six-year-old nephew just after Thanksgiving and he was completely obsessed with building a version of HMS Unicorn from one of the TINTIN books.

Since I was only visiting for a few days, there was not time to even start on this project, but it certainly made it easy to figure out what to make him for his Christmas gift.

This will be mostly a photo post, but here are a few particulars and some of the decisions that I needed to make.

First, it appears that the Unicorn in the books is a frigate, a 38, if I remember correctly, and that would be both too much work and too big a toy. So, I went with a 14 gun brig—essentially a sloop of war. This allowed me to keep the scale appropriate for small hands to play with and also make this a project that was manageable over a three-week period.

As I have said before on this site, I like to sketch out ideas in scale and work from there.

Another consideration is that no matter how careful he is, at some point either my nephew or one of his friends, or siblings is going to drop, knock over, or step on this toy, so it had to be built solidly enough to survive.

Starboard side showing the main chains. The wood for the main chains are mortised in to the side of the hull with the grain running across the center line so they won’t break off.

The wood is poplar, a choice that I have had good luck with over the years, inexpensive, readily available, easy to work, and stable.

The guns for the Unicorn have barrels turned on the lathe of and simple carriages made from a piece of “U” channel stock that I made up. To save time the carriages have no wheels, so I suppose they could be technically carronades.

Guns fresh from the lathe, gun ports, and capstan, which turns.


I was concerned with the possibility of the masts getting broken off, so the masts are made of thick hardwood dowels and much thought went into how to stay the masts to support them.

In the end I chose to go with the most obvious solution, which is basically how they would be stayed on a real vessel. The dead-eyes took the most time to make, but I could not think of a better way to tighten the stays, and once into production mode, took less time than you might think. The lanyards and dead-eyes made it easy to tighten the stays and make the rig very sturdy.

The wheel took a ridiculously large amount of time to make, but is a key feature so I felt it was worth the three hours invested into it.

Helmsman and wheel with the rigging started.

On the other hand, the figurehead took little time and is also a great detail.

Unicorn has anchors that may be fished and catted over the rail or deployed.

Anchors fished and catted

The rigging took about seven hours spread over a week of evenings and two long sessions in the shop over a weekend.

Sails were made from an old pillowcase that had just the right amount of wear and yellowing to look like canvas. The edges of the sails were sewn so that they would not fray and to make  them less likely to tear, the vertical seams were drawn with a pencil and straight-edge. The actual cutting and stitching of the sails only took a few hours, but bending them on was a more involved task and took more time.

I chose to leave off most of the sheets so that it would be easier for small hands to reach in and play with objects on the deck. Only the masts are rigidly attached to the hull, all other spars are lashed to eyebolts so that they can move. This has two advantages, one being that sails can be trimmed to approximate tacking, running, and heaving-to, the other is that if dropped, or knocked down, the spars and sails twist and move rather than break and tear.

Unicorn caries a compliment of two officers and four crew members, all bears. These pictures were taken before the crew had been varnished.

Lieutenant and captain

Hand going aloft

All deck crew have holes drilled in the bottom of their feet so that they can be set on pegs that stick up in strategic places on decks and in the tops. This way crew can be moved around and set on pegs, but don’t fall over when Unicorn moves.

So there you have it, the good sloop Unicorn.

Wooden Toy Car

April 8, 2013

I have been tied up with a bunch of other projects for the last six months or so and this blog has suffered as a result, but it is time to make up for that. First a toy post:

I have a nephew who just turned six. For some reason he likes old cars. I mean really old cars, as in from the 1920s. So for his birthday he got the touring car below.

The doors and trunk open, and close and the car came with a bear driver and a bear passenger. If you are new to this site you might want to read  “the whole bear thing” for an explanation.

The hood ornament is a bear, and as with the saber jet in the last post, a little acrylic for a windshield adds something to a toy which is otherwise made entirely of wood.

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.

Another Toy Plane

March 22, 2012

One of the more pleasant distractions in life is the making of toys for nephews and nieces. I have written about this before on this blog, but the truth is that when a birthday comes around for one of the younger ones, I never know what I am going to do, I think I won’t come up with any ideas, and that I will never get anything done in time. What I try to do to come up with an idea is to think about that last conversation I had with that child in question, and to recall what we were doing together at the time. It always seems like something that child said, did, or asked about gives me an idea for a toy.


Case in point: I have a nephew who turned five this week. When I realized his birthday was just around the corner I began to stress over what to make. I could not think of anything. Then I started thinking about the time we spent together just after Christmas. I suddenly remembered playing on the floor with him with a bunch of wooden boats and fire trucks that I had made him, and he quite suddenly started asking me about a toy biplane that I had made for his older brother when he was little. He seemed fixated with the plane (which he is not allowed to touch) and I was a little surprised at the time because it is a rather simple toy, and not one of my more elaborate efforts. Once I recalled the conversation, however, I knew what I was going to make him.

The plane is an Albatross D-series fighter dating from World War I. The toy is made of varnished poplar. All parts are glued and doweled together for strength. It has a plexi-propeller disk, a design which I have found holds up better and is less prone to getting broken than a wooden propeller blade that turns on a spinner. A bear flies the plane, and the insignia on the fuselage is made up, but loosely based on the bear symbol of the city of Bern Switzerland.

More Wooden Toys…

January 4, 2012

Happy New Year.

Having now survived the rather frantic run up to the holidays, I can share a few more wooden toys that I made to give to family.

I have four-year-old nephew who is a fireman (at least that is what he tells me). He goes everywhere in turnout gear and helmet, and is often talking on a plastic handheld VHF radio—I believe it is a toy, at least no one has answered him yet on it. Clearly a fire truck was in order:

As with most of my toys, the crew for the truck is made up of bears.

Another nephew has a fascination with the Trojan Wars. This year I made him a toy acropolis. Admittedly it is from a later period than the actual Mycenean, but I could not resist the challenge of making an early Doric temple. And the truth is that at least half the fun of making toys is trying to come up with ideas that are fresh and unusual.

Over the years this nephew has acquired quite a collection of Greek and Trojan toys. Some of the collection can bee seen here.

The Trojan Horse was in another room, and it turned out that several squads of Greeks were hiding in the hull of a toy arc, given to a different nephew…sneaky.

Another Toy Lobster Boat

December 31, 2010

With the holidays here, I have made additions to the toy fleets of my nephews. Here is another toy lobster boat. This one an evolution between the Hampton type and the Razor Case type, with a torpedo stern. More typical of the 1920s, it is a simple but elegant craft, simple enough for a singe bear to handle. As with the toy razor Case, it comes with traps.

Since available working waterfront is always an issues for lobstermen, or lobsterbears, another related toy is the dock that goes with the two toy lobster boats. It provides a place for the two boats to tie up, stack traps and bait barrels, and store extra gear.

Toy Lobster Boat

December 7, 2010

Well it is toy-making season again and the pictures below are of a type of lobster boat called a “razor case”. This design can still be see occasionally Down East, but are a leftover from the pre-WWII era.

Toy Razor Case

The razor case was narrower than modern lobster boats and had more of a spoon bow than the hollow entry common today, but they required less power to drive them. Typically they carry a riding sail on the afterdeck to keep them headed into wind and swell while hauling. I decided to leave the sail off the toy since it would be more in the way of little hands setting traps than anything else. The half-round, lath, traps took nearly as much time as the boat, but you can’t fish without traps.

making traps

Parts are parts, another toy post

January 15, 2010

Since the last few posts here were about toys I thought I would write a little something about toy making.

Part of the creative process for me, is the ability to combine new ideas with efficient methods of construction. For example I can make, and have made, wooden wheels for toys, but manufactured wooden wheels are readily available in a number of sizes, they are inexpensive, and I would rather spend the time that I would need to make wheels on the toy design and on other parts of the toy that cannot be bought. Of course the easiest way to think out a project using manufactured parts is to have a store of parts to draw upon. Being able to reach into a bin and pick up a part of a given size and see how it would fit the design that you are working on is an enormous advantage to the toy maker and designer.

toy parts as part of the design process

When it comes to toy making, and conventional manufactured wood parts, I have inherited a huge inventory—literally. Several years ago now, an elderly friend who also made toys willed me his toy parts when he died. I was touched because I did not really know the man all that well. When his son called me to ask if I could come see the parts and pick out those that I wanted, I was tempted to say I would take the lot. A little voice in the back of my head told me that I should look first. I am glad I did.

Apparently, my friend Phil did not believe in half measures; if he needed a couple of two-inch wheels, he ordered a gross. When I visited his shop, I found an entire wall, eight feet high and fifteen feet long, covered with boxes, all full of wooden toy parts—thousands of them.

I ended up taking enough parts to last me for the next ten years or so, which ended up barely making a dent in Phil’s collection. I put the word out and amateur toy-makers started appearing to pick through the supply. A surprising number of people benefited from Phil’s toy-part collection, and now, whenever I start a toy project I think of Phil as I root though an embarrassment of riches.