Posts Tagged ‘making wooden toys’

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 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.

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.

Wooden Tank Toy

December 30, 2008

In line with the last few posts, here is  another wooden toy; the “Grizzly” tank. Wooden treads glued to cloth backing rotate on eight sets of wheels. The tank commander is removable. This was a Christmas gift for an eight-year-old boy.

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

Corsair #4

December 16, 2008

Finishing the toy: At this stage, and before I do anything else, I am going to give the toy several coats of varnish. You can use anything you like. Personally, I am more in favor of old-fashioned oil base varnish. My reasons have to do with longevity and wear. Simply put I have never had any other product hold up as well. An alternative is Tung oil, which works well too, but has a lasting odor that some children will not like.

Again, I will repeat that this is just my experience, but I have had very poor results with poly-products. I have used both water-based, and oil based poly and what I have found is that they do not bond well enough to the wood to hold up to constant play. The result is that they chip, crack and peel, and that makes me nervous because I don’t want the little ones eating chips of anything that comes off a toy.

Varnished toy

Once the varnishing is complete, painted details can be added. I paint on insignia, nose art, and any other decorations. In this case, my nephew is only two, so I am keeping it simple. However, if the child is a little older, the decoration is an area where you can personalize a toy, giving it a name, or insignia that have a special meaning to the child in question.

The last two pieces of the project are the propeller disk and the canopy, both of which will be molded from acrylic that is one-eighth of an inch thick.

The acrylic pieces can be a challenge. The propeller is just a disk of clear acrylic, drilled on the drill press and cut out on the band-saw. However, even such a simple piece must be carefully drilled and cut to avoid blistering and cracks. The cockpit canopy is made by carefully and slowly heating a piece of acrylic and shaping it over a poplar form. In some cases I will use a vacuum jig to help form the canopy, but I have to point out here that complex shapes are hard to achieve and it takes practice to get good results, so the simpler the design and the easier it is to execute, the better your chances of success. If you want to know more about shaping acrylic, or plastics, go to “you tube” and type in vacuum molding.

I glue on acrylic parts using two part marine epoxy that has been slightly thickened. The resulting paste will be stronger than either the acrylic or the wood, and it will not be as prone to run or drip.

The finished toy:

The completed toy

The completed toy

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:

Wooden Corsair #1

December 4, 2008

This is not a “how to” site, but I have had a number of requests for a step-by-step explanation for making a simple wooden toy. To that end, I am going to walk you through my process for making a simple wheeled toy. Before I start, let me make a couple of disclaimers: One is that I cannot stress safety enough. Whether it means wearing safety glasses and a dust mask, or simply being careful near any kind of tool with a blade—toy making is not fun if you get hurt. Second, I do not usually work from measured drawings. I know that frustrates some wood workers, but I sketch things out at actual size and design almost entirely by eye looking most closely at proportions.

This is a toy for my youngest nephew and is an airplane pull-toy, specifically: a F4U Corsair.

The first step I take is to sketch out the toy actual size. This allows me to think out how much wood the project will take and what the dimensions of rough stock will need to be. It is also where I start thinking through the construction process. The corsair will be very simple; fixed wings, fixed landing gear, and other than the wheels, no moving parts.

As I draw out the dimensions, I have decided that I will turn the body of the aircraft on the lathe. I will make the wings and landing gear as one unit, and I will make the tail and cockpit as a third unit.

The toy will be varnished wood, with a clear canopy over the cockpit, and a bear as the pilot. If you don’t know why a bear is flying a Corsair you need to read “the whole bear thing”.

The cockpit canopy and the propeller are the only non-wooden parts. Both will be made of clear acrylic.

The rest of this post will concentrate on the body of the aircraft.

The body is made up of several pieces of poplar glued together for the lathe. Once dry, the piece will go through four steps before going to the late. First I will pre drill what will be the front of the plane with a one-and-a-quarter inch diameter hole that is about a quarter-inch deep. Next I will drill an eighth-inch diameter pilot hole in the center of the inch-and-a-quarter hole. The 1/8″ hole will allow me to center the piece on the lathe more easily and will also serve as a pilot hole for a larger hole that will be drilled much later on when it is time to attach the propeller. The next two steps involve making cuts that will allow for easier assembly later.

While the block is still rectangular, I will cut out the notch where the wing will attach, and I will make the long cut in the upper body where the cockpit, after cockpit, and tail will attach. I want to make these cuts now because the rectangular block will present 90-degree angles to the saw making the alignment of pieces later automatic and easy. The last step before the body is put on the late is to take off the corners of the piece and make it eight sided. Thus the piece looks like this:

On the lathe, I will turn the cowling, and the basic shape of the body.

The body of the aircraft on the lathe

The body of the aircraft on the lathe

another shot on the lathe

another shot on the lathe

There we have the first piece:

Wood for Toys

December 1, 2008

I did not get around to posting much material on this site last month, and since the holidays are coming, I am going to try to put up a short series of posts on making wooden toys. This first one is limited to materials.

I am often asked what kind of wood I like best for making wooden toys and the answer surprises a lot of people. Poplar. Most wood-workers pass poplar by. It has a strange greenish color and if you ask about it at the lumberyard, the most often repeated assessment you get is that it is a great wood to use if you are going to paint it. Since most carpenters HATE to paint, the discussion often ends there. However, for making toys, poplar has some wonderful properties.

Most of the toys that I make have pieces that are complex in shape. Poplar has a close dense grain that is not prone to splitting, which makes it a good candidate for complex shapes. Additionally the grain is generally very straight and has less tendency towards knots than other species. Technically a soft-hardwood, Poplar stands up to hard use better than a softwood like pine, but is much easier to shape than a hardwood like maple or oak. I do use hard maple, ash, or oak for parts that will be repeatedly stressed, and I use select pine for carving pilots, drivers, or other figures, but poplar does the bulk of the work. It is comparatively light for having such a dense grain, which translates to; less prone to break when dropped on the floor. Other undeniable virtues are that it is readily available, fast growing, and a common species that is relatively inexpensive. All of which make it an ideal material for toy making.

If I can go back to the paint issue for a moment, poplar does have an unusual color, but I leave it bright under several coats of varnish or tung oil on a regular basis. One of the reasons for this is that varnish dulls the more unusual greenish tones in the wood, the other is that over time, varnished poplar turns a beautiful golden brown. Toys that might have looked a bit pale and raw when new turn into beautiful heirlooms over time. It does not take that much time either, a couple of years can make significant transformation. A decade can transform a toy made of poplar from a pale loved plaything to a thing of beauty worthy of a special place of admiration.

New Poplar

New Poplar