Highland Woodworking Wood News Online, No. 183, November 2020 Welcome to Highland Woodworking - Fine Tools & Education Learn more about Highland Woodworking View our current woodworking classes and seminars Woodworking articles and solutions Subscribe to Wood News
Stories from Grandpa's Workshop
Calling All Toymakers
By Bob Rummer

Click on any picture to see a larger version.

Figure 1. Time to open the toyshop

It's a snowy day in Colorado, the pumpkins and candy are put away and woodworkers turn to thinking about Christmas projects. While we may have lots of different presents in mind this year, woodworkers and Christmas are synonymous with toys. Woodworking clubs like the Apple Country Woodcrafters in North Carolina are starting toybuilding projects to bring some holiday happiness to children. This year, more than others, Saint Nicholaus may need a little extra help.

I have shared before about some of the toys that were made by my Grandpas and my Dad. While they all did serious woodworking, I suspect that toymaking brought a special twinkle to their eyes around Christmas. Let me offer a couple of observations on toymaking using Grandpa Rummer as an example.

First, Grandpa made toys that were things he remembered from childhood. Using a lathe, he made spinning tops from oak. These weren't polite little spinners. Grandpa used a steel screw to add a sharp tip that would stand up to hard play on concrete. When you gave it a sharp toss and pulled the string it seemed like it could drill through the sidewalk. While the toy was so simple, it came with stories from Grandpa about competing with his friends for "keepsies" in top battles in the ring at school. Highland offers at least 3 books with pointers on turning toys (Richard Raffan, Michael Cullen, and Mark Baker). Grandpa also made some other classic toys like marble targets (he told me about shooters and cat's eyes and taws) and rubberband-powered boats. Making and sharing toys from our own childhood is a powerful way to connect across generations.

Figure 2. A classic marble hole game, the big hole scores 5 points,
the smallest 15

Grandpa also liked mechanical things. He was always sharing how things work with the grandkids. I remember a clock model with swinging weights that wrapped around a post, then unwrapped and rotated 180 to wrap up again. It was fascinating to watch and led to conversations about clock movements and pendulums and periodic motion. He made "do-nothing" machines and told me how the handle actually moved in an ellipse. He made a toy crane with a working electromagnet. When ceramic magnets came out, he made toys that showed magnetic levitation using disc magnets centered on a post and seemingly floating in air. Grandpa would have enjoyed books like Gizmos and Gadgets or Animated Animal Toys. But most of all he enjoyed using toys to teach. I learned basic statics and dynamics in his workshop without even knowing it.

Figure 3. Grandpa's plans for a do-nothing machine also known
as the Trammel of Archimedes.

Finally, Grandpa really liked to make wooden puzzles like you will find in Brian Menold's book. Can you put all the pieces back in the tray? Can you get the ring off the peg? Puzzles challenge us with seemingly impossible tasks and engage a lot of mental activity. Many puzzles exercise a key woodworking skill — spatial intelligence. This is the ability to picture shapes in your head and mentally manipulate them. Research shows that spatial ability is predictive of math and reading achievement. Spatial ability is also improved through training and exercise, like puzzle-solving. I thought I was just having fun with Grandpa's puzzles!

Figure 4. A variation of the Eureka or Wit's End puzzle that seems
physically impossible to solve.

Toymaking will seldom challenge your woodworking skills. The finish doesn't have to be flawless and you probably won't be getting compliments on your joinery technique. However, the joy and play that you will create through toys is priceless. In many folk and fairytales, the Toymaker is a character gifted with the ability to bring magic to childhood. Think of Herr Drosselmeyer in the Nutcracker or Geppetto or Santa's elves. When we can use our woodworking to put a smile on a child's face it is truly magic.

Bob's column was inspiration for this month's woodworking poll. We want to know what kind of toys you like to make as gifts for the holidays? Click here to answer this month's poll.

You can find a variety of Toy Making Books and Plans available on Highland Woodworking's website.

Bob Rummer lives in Colorado and is a part-time woodworker. He can be reached directly via email at rummersohne@gmail.com. You can see his shop and some of his work at www.JRummerSons.com.

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