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Grandpa's Workshop: Reflections on Woodworking Gifts for the Kids

A conversation between Bob Rummer, Ken Rummer, Don Burnham and Jane Benson

Grandpa's Workshop

Bob : We come from an unusual family. A brother and a sister married a sister and a brother and we ended up with "double cousins". There weren't any other siblings to confuse the issue so it is just the seven of us cousins (three on one side and four on the other--five boys and two girls). At Christmas time Grandpas were busy in the shop.

Grandpa's Workshop

As I think about that, how does a Grandpa approach Christmas time and presents? How can you try to treat all your grandkids fairly? Do you just make multiple copies of everything? Do you try and knock it out of the park with an heirloom every Christmas?

Over time, Grandpa R came up with some creative ways to deal with this. Ken and I think there are some tips here as we all approach Christmas.

1. Little Things Can Be Memorable. Early on I think Grandpa was just excited to be able to make fun projects for the grandkids. He always had his pocketknife at work carving things.

Ken : Remember the rubber-band powered tanks made out of a wood spool and an ice cream stick? A little pocket knife work added notches to the edges of the spool for better traction. At some point he even let me do the notches in the spool with a pocketknife, one of my first pocket knife efforts. My problem was the hard maple spool and limited hand strength. It was tough going getting those notches cut. Especially when what I really wanted was to see the tank work.

Grandpa's Workshop

Bob : That was featured in the November 1959 issue of Popular Mechanics in an article titled, "12 Gifts to Make for Christmas." When I look back at those old Popular Mechanics (you can find them all online now in Google books) you can see where our Grandpas got some of their inspiration. I can still sit and read them from cover to cover. Lots of those weekend projects make great toys and gifts. Unless kids have changed so much from the 1950's?

2. Don't Bite Off More than You Can Chew OR December Only Has 24 Days Before Christmas

Ken : One Grandpa Lesson I think I learned along the way: Don't set out to build toy cranes for all the grandsons with fully operational rigging and a working electro-magnetic pickup, and then get only one finished for Christmas. I think I am still envious of a particular cousin, the one who received the only completed Grandpa crane that year. But I am trying my best to let it go and move on. It's only been, what, 50 years now?

Cousin Don : The crane was made for me. It had a clam shovel design. Grandpa pieced it together out of an assortment of things he had in his garage and basement. He also used a couple of large sewing spools for the operating "cables". That crane is still around somewhere in a basement.

Bob : I actually repeated that exact project. I built a "Mike Mulligan" steam shovel for Ken's son. I never made another even though we ended up with four more boys in the family. I learned it is hard to make a project a second time when you aren't working from a pattern.

Ken : Maybe it's because all the problems are solved by then, or maybe because all the best parts and pieces are used up, or maybe it's because the clock always runs faster toward Christmas. It was a very cool steam shovel, though.

It worked out better for the girls. They got Play Refrigerators—with hand-sanded, white paint finishes in multiple coats that simulated metal. If I remember, they were about three feet tall—the refrigerators, not the granddaughters.

Bob : That one was in the November 1961 Popular Mechanics—"Kiddie Kitchens." I am beginning to suspect something here. Maybe the lesson is to check your handyman magazines in November for Christmas gift ideas. There is also probably a reason that they don't put Christmas projects in the August issue.

Cousin Jane : I got a refrigerator and stove that grandpa built. The refrigerator was heavy because there was a chunk of concrete in the bottom. There were racks in the refrigerator and shelves on the door just like a real one. The stove had knobs (they actually turned) for turning on the burners and a knob for turning on the oven. There were magnets to keep the doors shut. There was a drawer under the stove to put pans and kitchen stuff.

3. Make Copies for Everyone. Later on Grandpa R got interested in dollhouse furniture. He found that he could make seven pie safes (one for each of us) if they were only 6" tall. The collection grew to include: a four-poster bed, dining table and chairs, dresser, couch, side chair, cradle, grandfather clock, and washstand. The washstand was a copy of a full-sized piece that they had in the upstairs bathroom.

Grandpa's Workshop Grandpa's Workshop

Cousin Jane : That piece of doll furniture sitting on my shelf brings back memories of the claw-foot tub and black-and-white tile floor.

Bob : The dollhouse furniture brought out lots of creativity in Grandpa. He figured out how to cut thin stock on his tablesaw, he learned how to turn small pieces using the drill press as a vertical lathe, he made small candlesticks using a toothpick, a piece of thread, and a button.

Grandpa's Workshop

4. The Heirlooms are Special. There were two projects that were really special and were identified from the get-go as family heirlooms. Grandpa R enjoyed clocks and clockworks. He played with models of escapements and pendulums. Eventually he decided he wanted to build a masterwork mantel clock. He made two—one for our side of the family and one for the cousins. Mom and Aunt Janet got to select the style for each.

Ken : Our family's was made out of cherry with a chiming movement and little turned spires, like a cathedral. Looking back, I wonder how he got all those odd miters so tight.

Bob : There was a prototype of Mom's clock case left in his shop. He built a trial version out of plywood to make sure he had all the angles and assembly worked out before he built one in cherry. Comes back to the earlier point about having the patience to build something twice.

Grandpa R also made a couple of heirloom cradles (one for each side of the family) as we started having children. His idea was that we would pass the cradle around as needed. Part of the idea was that each generation would use the object—"You were rocked in the same cradle as your grandfather."

This became a problem as we spread out from Alabama to Washington State. Heirlooms are meant to passed down through the generations but it doesn't work so well if you are passing them around every few years and across a thousand miles.

There are lots of ways that Grandpa projects and Christmas presents become special. It might be the memories of simple fun playing with a toy, it might be dollhouse furniture that can bring back a whole houseful of family time. It might be a simple cutting board that is made from a piece of wood that came from the old kitchen at the family farm. The heirloom masterworks can bring in the appreciation of the skill and investment of time that are displayed in the final project. As a woodworker I can see Grandpa at work in the shop when I look at the mantel clock.

Ken : I think you might be on to something there with the "becoming special." Maybe heirlooms don't start out being heirlooms. Maybe they only become heirlooms when someone in a following generation chooses to use them and value them and move them and save them from the garage sale. Maybe the builder can't make something an heirloom, even if that is the builder's hope and intention. Maybe it's up to the next generation to decide. All of our special Grandpa projects have a story—a story that we share with the next generation. "Remember that Christmas when..."

We would love feedback from you, our readers, on this topic. What handmade gifts did you get from your woodworking grandparents as kids? Do you make gifts for your own kids and grandkids? CLICK HERE to go to our blog and contribute your own thoughts.

Bob Rummer lives in Lawrence, Kansas and is trying to get a mission-style rocker done by Christmas. His brother, Ken Rummer, calls Corning, Iowa home and has a Christmas deadline for his projects, but he hesitates to say which Christmas.

They share their shopcraft heritage with their Burnham cousins. Don Burnham is a commercial pilot and lives in Wenatchee, Washington. He still has the Grandpa Crane. Cousin Jane Benson is the youngest in the family and benefitted from all the practice the Grandpas had with the rest of us. She lives in Seattle and shares Grandpa stories with her son.

Bob and Ken can be reached directly via email at
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