Latest Posts

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Is that a traffic cone on your gnome's head or is he just glad to see me?

In clearing off the digital camera I noticed some of my weirder projects from the last year or so and I just wanted to share some of the oddness. It is only semi-toy related but as I accelerate my journey from eclectic tinkerer through to eccentric old man, I feel it may be worth a post.

In short - as an allegedly semi-handy guy who makes some weird stuff, I for some reason get asked to make a lot of weird stuff for people. Funny how that works out.

These are "Bronze Medals" for an Office Olympics I helped organize over the summer. The little plastic medallions had "Yo Gabba Gabba "stickers on them before I hit them with the metallic spray paint. (The medallions were in the discount bin at the Party Store which is odd since Yo Gabba Gabba is basically timeless. It will always be good advice to not bite your friends.)

 Bottom of a clementine box as my spraying surface. Each medallion was sitting on a plastic soda cap. Oddly enough, this was the second time in eight years I had done this.

I gave myself a Silver Medal for the performance because I probably should have peeled the stickers off before painting them. Oh well, Gold in 2020!

This one is sorta bittersweet. I've made a couple of toy boats and want to make more but these weren't intended to float. They were for a funeral. (YIKES! Way to bring us down Toy Making Dad!)

A colleague at work asked if I could make centerpieces for the memorial service of the brother of  a long time friend of hers. It took me about an hour and a half to make the prototype but maybe only 2 or 3 hours to make ten of them. I actually made templates and it was easy to see how things like jigs and design simplicity are key to "mass" production.

The bases were 1x4 pine with a small cabin cut from the same wood and shaped on the beltsander. Masts are oak dowels. The finish is beeswax and mineral oil.

He had been an avid sailor and the family placed a sail on each mast with details about his life and a quote printed on it. Guests seated at the tables got to bring the boats home as a keepsake.  They were very well received. The colleague's friend ended up paying me twice what I asked for making them. Toys make people happy even in sad times.

One other weird bit about "mass" producing these boats...
My eyes see this:

But my History degree sees this:

Okay, and now about the gnome. The Risk Management Team in my office was putting on a "Safety Month" for our organization and they wanted a mascot. I have NO idea how the idea started but someone suggested a garden gnome with a traffic cone on his head.


So my buddy Bill hands me a gnome and a little plastic traffic cone and says "Hey, toy-man. Can you cut off his hat and glue the cone on?"

Well, the short answer is "Yes" but as a wise freshwater crustacean once told me, "Why make it simple when you can make it complex?" Besides... I know I was told it was okay to cut his old hat off but I'd much prefer to fix things and not break perfectly fine things. (Also, not that I'm a gnome guy...but he seems alive and I don't want some weird woodlands curse coming down on me.)

So I cut a square of 1/2" MDF to be the base of the cone. I then took a hole saw that was pretty close to the diameter of the hat and got to drilling.

Once it was done, I then kept doing trial fits to see what still needed to be removed. I used a rotary tool to taper the hole and custom fit it to his head.


So I painted the base black with some gloss black latex paint and then proudly brought it back into the office to show we had achieved cone-headedness without destruction. Bill thought it looked great but the team felt that the hat HAD to be orange to be a "real" traffic cone.


So I picked up four different shades of orange from the craft store and settled on... well "Orange" and four or five coats later, viola! A non-broken gnome wearing a traffic cone for a hat.

I had Teddy perform a "Cat-Scan" to make sure it was safe before returning it to the Risk Management team.

Alright, back to toy making.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Organizing My Small Shop

Clean your room well; for good spirits will not live where there is dirt.  There is no dirt in heaven.
(Attributed to Mother Ann of the Shakers.)

I'm a slob. Always have been... always will be.
(Attributed to Toy Making Dad of the Sitters Around)

As a kid, Oscar Madison was pretty much my hero.
No fooling, my room was hit by lightning when I lived with my parents. Initially my mom didn't realize it had been hit since the normal mess wasn't all that different than how the room normally looked. What with a bookcase blown off the wall and a couple of holes in said wall.

As I often remind her even though she knew what she was getting into... my wife still married me.

Here is a shot of shop last month... not my proudest moment.
I had to finally say, enough is enough and start squaring things away.
I couldn't get anything done. It was time to declutter and put things where they belonged. If they didn't have a space, it was time to make a space.

So let me start at the beginning...

I've had my shop space for about three years now and I always knew it would be a work in progress. It was the result of us putting a modest addition on our modest house.

It shares a room with a washer and dryer as well as a cat box (or two) and a utility tub. The space that is pretty permanently mine is a "L" that runs about 9 feet down one wall, 10 feet across the back wall (including the door and window) and then 7 feet up the next wall to the washer and dryer.

Since I didn't used to have ANY space, I really shouldn't complain about the space I do have. However, it's funny how many times I've wished I had just one more inch to get something to fit just right. Still, all things considered, space really isn't an issue. I build toys not pianos.

My first build was a long tool bench, 2x4s and screws with a plywood and hardboard top. In the event of an earthquake or rocket attack, it is a designated shelter spot in the house. It is solid. (Here is the post and the general plans.)

I have a tool cabinet that I inherited from my parents and it fit perfectly into the middle section (almost as if the middle section had been designed around it... just saying.) I labeled the drawers and have stuck to putting sockets and hammers and rulers back where they belong after each use. It has saved me dozens of hours. The mini fridge didn't last long. It went off to college soon after this photo was taken.

I added a wall mounted drop leaf table that I got from Ikea for like 166 or 250 Krona. I use it as an assembly and painting table. I've found that I've left it upright the whole time it has been there but a) I use it a lot and b) it's nice to know I could fold it down if needed.

Here is a rare shot of it cleaned off. The box for the shop vac may have to go at some point. I was trying to muffle the sound as recommended in some shop guides but it really doesn't fit that well thanks to the nature of the hose. Another project for another day.

On to the shop organization and lessons learned.

First off, there is only so much floor space so you gotta start hanging stuff on the walls. Thank's to a brother who was formerly in the retail beverage business, I was able to acquire a fair number of wooden wine crates. I've used some of the wood for toys (it is mostly 3/8" thick) but I've turned others into shelving. They are sturdy and they class up the establishment.

It seems that I've moved them all half a dozen times over the last three years. In general, I've come to what should have been an obvious conclusion -  put the stuff you need close by and don't waste any wall space. (DUH!) Compared to my first attempts, that wall is now much "tighter" and practical.

I had planned on building a Roubo style workbench that would have made Chris Schwarz himself weep but alas... I purchased the Harbor Freight bench instead.  I suck. The mind is willing but the body and wallet are weak. I think it was about $120 (On sale! Wow, how lucky was I to find something from Harbor Freight on sale, right?) It suits my needs for now although it is not sturdy enough to be used for planing. Well... at least not yet. I have some thoughts on that for another day.

The workbench is too long to fit in the space without blocking the aisle in the shop, so one end is tucked into one of the bays in the tool bench. (The floor of the bay has been removed.) It's not ideal but it gives me all the work surface I need and at some point the space may be reconfigured. Moving that power strip there has made things much easier when I'm using the rotary tool or palm sander.

An early get for my shop space was a used stationary belt-sander. Next to my drill press, I'd say it is my most used tool in the shop. We'll, actually looking at that picture, it is literally next to my drill press.

The drill press and sander both sit on the bottom base of an Ikea two piece cabinet that gave us 20 good years of service. (It may have been a Splurk or Rehnikl but I'm sure it wasn't a Jork.) The base is very sturdy and gave me some needed storage behind doors. The height on the drill press is fine but the sander was a bit low.

A log time ago I had made stackable crates as a shoe rack for our closet and after about 18 years of service, it was time for them to be replaced. They were still pretty sturdy so I cannibalized one and made the other into a very solid shelf into which I could fit little plastic bins.

The bins were salvaged from a piece of kid's furniture no longer needed to house Happy Meal toys from 350 movies we never saw. So the shelf raised the belt-sander just enough to make working on it more comfortable and gave me three "drawers" to house my drill bits and hole saws. Win-Win.

As an aside... check out the difference between a 1x3 furring strip sold now (on the left) and one sold in about 1998 (on the right). Sort of makes you think, huh?

With the doors removed from the top half of the Ikea cabinet, it really formed a nice hutch. I raised it a bit by making a big "C" out of 2x8s and setting it on top of that. Extra shelves have been easy to add and it sits on top of the tool bench and almost reaches the ceiling.

You can see the Western edge of  "The Great Wall of Clementine Boxes" as well as my growing toy making library in that photo but here is the rest of the wall. There are still more clementine boxes on another shelf across the room and in the closet of our computer room... and on my desk at work but I swear I can stop saving them at any point.

The wall mounted little plastic bins are pretty much invaluable. I did get smart and made labels with the exact dimensions and part numbers for the pre-made wheels and specific parts I use.

It sounds stupid but the little labels really help around the shop. You can see things at a glance without opening cigar boxes and drawers to look for your priceless Allen wrench collection. As a bonus you get a a zillion of them for just a few bucks. You can even send them through your printer. Just saying.

The latest addition to the shop has been another wine crate wall shelf but this one has a sliding lid. Once I mounted it on its side, it turned it into a cabinet. I also added a pencil and marker holder under it and my clamps in another wine case above it.

I picked up some sheets of self adhesive dry erase paper and turned the door into a white board for notes and quick scribbles. (Robert Neville must have dropped by...) It's great because I can pull it completely out and use it at the workbench to work numbers and do rough sketches.

My shop is as clean as it has ever been. As each surface was cleared my tabby supervisor came in to supervise and comment on my work. This time it passed the smell test and nothing had to be knocked on the floor to test for gravity levels in the shop.

As I suspect it is the case with all weekend tinkerers, it isn't just my experience and tools that will change over time but so will my storage and work surfaces. They will all be a constant work in progress and that's not a bad thing.


Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Fixing a Toy Carousel/Merry-Go-Round (aka Giraffe Surgery)

I learned a few things with the last carousel I had built.  I had done a few smart and few not so smart things. The best thing I had done was cut out multiple disks for future carousels when I had my jig set up. When I went to make the next one, all I had to do was reach on the shelf and half my cutting was already done. I had also swapped out the camel from  the plans in John R. Nelson Jr's amazing "American Folk Toys" and had replaced him (her?) with a zebra. That was the transition to saying "Hey, I can put any sorts of critters on this that I want!"

I had made a series of rookie mistake in cutting out the giraffe and in how I glued the animals in place. I simply didn't allow for how the grain ran in the wood for the giraffe. Specifically in its legs. If the grain had run vertically the legs would have been much stronger, however it ran horizontally which made them far too brittle. I know... Woodworking 101, Day 1. Now, in fairness to me, that's the way the grain is shown on the plans and maybe that makes it less likely to have his snout break off but because I don't run a pole through the animals bodies to make it look like a Merry-Go-Round animal, it means the legs are pretty easy to snap along the grain. Which is exactly what happened... twice.

So I briefly discussed "putting him down" and replacing him with another animal since no way would a giraffe make it the wild with one, let alone two, broken legs. However, the owner's mom made it clear that the patient had to live. I try to keep my toys as close to 100% wood as I can so I went with very carefully drilling 1/8" holes through the legs and then inserting dowels to complete the surgery. It was touch and go there but the patient never said a word and the procedure was a success.

Now for the second mistake. Initially several of the animals had come off of the spinning base and I think it was because I had used spray acrylic on the base BEFORE I glued the animals in place. (As a certain Crawfish reminded me.. it is called wood glue for a reason.) Okay. So I left the surgical implants in a bit long so that they could become pegs to insert in the base. Then I made a little template out of some scrap clementine box wood and drilled 1/8" holes so I could line up the pegs with the holes.

I made sure that I wasn't going to drill too deeply into the base by using a flag/tag of masking tape that is just a little bit longer than the pegs.

Then I drilled one hole in the base and pegged it in place so that the next hole would be the correct distance. This worked surprisingly well... almost too well... if that was a possibility. Which it isn't.

Last step was to trim the pegs up a bit so they would fit in nice and smooth. I also scrapped the acrylic off where the feet and pegs will be glued down to be sure there would be good adhesion. All fixed and truly "better than ever."

Ultimately, this ended up improving the toy for me. On the next one I built, I pegged all the animals to the base using the same method and it was very easy and resulted in a stronger toy.

Necessity is the mother of invention but I guess failure is the father of improvement.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Making a Wooden Curtiss Goshawk (Legends of the Air Kit)

As I've said on numerous occasions...I'm a sucker for $1 Store wooden toy kits, especially airplanes. It's fun to try and turn them into something that that is immediately recognizable as a particular plane and give them some fun historical detailing.

While you come to expect the sub $5 arc welder, 20' band saw or 3,000 ton industrial press from Harbor Freight, you might be surprised to know that they also sell little wooden airplane kits for under $2. The line is called "Legends of the Air." They are made in Taiwan and the pieces are punched from 1/8"sheets of plywood not balsa wood and they are not puzzles as the HF site says.

There are six kits in the line. Four are WW1 aircraft. Two of those are Allied - a SPAD and a Nieuport, and two are German - a Fokker Triplane and an Albatros. The other two kits in the series are interwar biplanes - the Bristol Bulldog and this model, the Curtiss Goshawk.

So this is actually the Curtiss F11C Goshawk that was made for the US Navy in the 1930s. The Navy only had a few dozen of them in service. There was another more widely produced version of the actual aircraft and it had retractable landing gear, not the fixed "spatted" gear on this model. A little bit of an odd choice as a "Legend of the Air" but still reasonably cool.

So I started on this model over a year ago. I had finished the Fokker Triplane from this series and was ready to tackle this one. Over the course of a weekend little one and I painted parts and glued parts up following the "directions" included. The instructions consist of an exploded view of the numbered parts. It is an exercise in patience and clairvoyance to put them together.

I covered a bunch of this when I wrote up the Fokker build but these kits really aren't for unsupervised construction by the "Age 6+" crowd. Besides the issues with the instructions, the wood is fairly stiff and you are going to need to use rubber bands and or clamps to hold the pieces in place while it is gluing up. I even boiled some pieces to make them bendable. Speaking of glue... not for one minute did I think about using the white glue that came with the kit. I went right to my wood glue.

So after some initial work, it all went into a clementine box with the intention of being pulled out the next weekend for completion. Well, something, or a lot of things, must have come up. Quite a few weekends went by and the box sort of bounced around in different places throughout the house for a year before making its way to my work bench a couple of weeks ago.

Only one piece was missing; a vertical strut. I was able to trace out a pattern on a scrap piece of the 1/8" plywood all the pieces were punched out of. That trick is something that I learned to do when I built my first balsa wood and tissue airplane from way back in the day. (A Guillow's Hawker Hurricane, thank you very much.)   You certainly can't do that with plastic models if you break or lose a piece.

In my book a toy airplane has to have a spinning propeller. Unfortunately, these kits are not designed with that in mind but where there's a will, there's a way.  This one took a little figuring to get to a way. Basically I assembled the cowling and then drilled a 3/16" hole through the center. I assembled the prop but drilled a shallow 1/8" hole in the back of the spacer so I could put a piece of 1/8" dowel to use as the shaft. I also made a small nut with a 1/8" hole in it to place at the end of the opposite end of the shaft.

I then used a forstner bit around the back of the cowling to make a hole deep and wide enough that I could put a disk on the end of the shaft that would allow the shaft to spin freely once the assembled engine was glued to the fuselage.

Hole deep enough to allow
nut to spin freely.

Wood nut cut from scrap
and glued to shaft.

The wing roots needed to be trimmed up a bit to fit into their slots on the fuselage. Again, this is one of those things that will be a little tough on the 11 year olds who work on the kit but dad can lend a hand. Just remember the woodworking truism... You can always remove more wood but you can't add any back on. Take off a little at a time and keep checking the fit.

I paint as much as I can before I assemble things because sometimes it is awfully hard to get the paint in there with parts in the way. I made a mistake in initially painting the struts black so I repainted them silver and then took my time and glued them up carefully. Take your time. No rush. Make sure everything lines up. With the outside struts in place, I fit the small ones on the fuselage. They needed to be trimmed up to fit in their slots the same way the wings did.

US planes from this era are often called "Yellow Wings" because... well... THEY HAD YELLOW WINGS! They also tended to have red and white tail stripes and brightly colored cowlings and markings. It's a very classy look and a big part of the reason for this was to make them highly visible for search and rescue efforts. It was also a bit of a bold confident statement but the idea was never to go into combat like this. I went with the blue stripes and cowling on this so that it would look like a Goshawk that was assigned to the USS Saratoga. Blue painter's tape gave me great lines for what I needed. After I glued the top wing in place and let it dry, I put the single rear struts in place on each side.

I probably glued the landing gear a bit higher into the fuselage than the plans called for but it seemed to match the scale better that the picture on the box. I also think it will make the landing gear less fragile. I had temporary shims wedged in while the gear dried. I made sure the wheels were level and the angle was the same on each side. After they dried, I added the external fuel tank... which had two different size teardrop sides... weird.

Last thing was I printed out some US 1930's roundels with a color printer on regular paper. I carefully cut out and glued the roundels in place and then sprayed the whole toy with several coats of clear gloss acrylic. (We stopped using those roundels early in WW2 because the red dots could be confused in the heat of battle with the markings on Japanese aircraft.)

There you go. I like how it came out and it makes me want to make more "Yellow Wings" era themed toys.

Again... these Legends of the Air kits have poor instructions and some questionable fits but are really fun to turn into a neat looking little toy. Now to make a toy aircraft carrier for it to land on...

Just Saying...

While we don’t necessarily need more objects, we just might benefit from more making.
- John Dunnigan


About Me

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