The days leading up to Christmas usually find me making a few gifts for loved ones. Among them, toys have a special place. I thought I’d share a few toys of the wood carved variety that might inspire some ideas for a future holiday gift.
Fifteen years ago, when my children were very young, they loved the movie Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. For a few years back then, I carved them each a character based on the movie. As you can see in the top photo, they’re still hanging in there, although some little parts are missing. Clarisse’s bow and Yukon’s pick might show up one day at the bottom of a drawer somewhere. A little wear and tear is a good thing.
“You’ve got to know when to hold ’em…”
The nice thing with toys is that there’s no pressure. I’m no expert figure carver, and you don’t have to be either. Just have fun and make something that will give a kid a thrill. Celebrate whimsy and quirkiness and have a blast. So what that your Abominable Snow Monster looks like Kenny Rogers with a bouffant?! You can’t get that at Amazon.
I gave most of these very simple articulated arms or legs. Just leave a flat area as a bearing surface where the limb joins the body. By using a wood screw the tension can be easily adjusted. Simple acrylic craft paints come in little bottles for less than a dollar a piece and work great for toys, and they dry very fast for that last-minute paint job.
Any subject can be carved. Just grab a chunk of wood and start in. Many of the carved toys still hanging around serve as reminders of our kids’ passing interests. This brief slideshow has a few examples:
The best thing that ever happened to television, nearly 40 years ago, is the Woodwright’s Shop with Roy Underhill. Roy’s show and his books were, and are, incredibly inspiring to me. And meeting him in person at last year’s Greenwood fest knocked me off my feet. Watching him entertain with his box of handmade toys was one of the most special moments.
A kid at heart, Roy loves toys and has featured them in many episodes of his show. About ten years ago, a couple episodes inspired me to make two action toys for my kids. I don’t remember which season or episode number, but one featured a woman who made little figures called limberjacks that could be used in musical/theatrical performances.
I made a couple, one representing each of my kids. The joints are meant to be very loose, so that there’s lots of free movement when they dance or run. I used brass escutcheon pins at the joints and just the most basic carving. These are more about movement than details. Although I did like the touch of the flopping ponytail on my daughter’s limberjack. Here are a few details:
The joints should be loose to allow for free action.
The brass escutcheon pins are snipped and filed flush on the inside.
Flicking a flexible board like this cedar shingle makes the limberjack dance a sort of Highland jig. Jiggling the stick makes the arms go round.
Roy had another episode that included a balancing toy that fascinated me. A little wooden man seemed to be riding a unicycle on a tightrope, his little legs rotating faster and faster. I made two, one inspired by our golden retriever, Sam, the other by our cat, Mavis.
The concept can be adapted to different methods and materials, but here are some details about how I went about making these ones:
I just used spare parts I had around. These wood screws pass through the part closest to the head, then the threads bite into the back piece, whether the other leg or the body. I filed off the point of the screw protruding through the leg.
The wheel is just carved out and a gouge is used for the groove that rides on the string. The forks are part of the body. The axle and pedal crank are one piece of wire, bent as the pieces are assembled.
Anything relatively heavy can be used for weight. Oddly enough, I had a round bar of copper from somewhere. I sawed it into four pieces and drilled a mortise for the balance arms. Washers, nuts, etc. would work fine as well.
The balance arms are riven oak, about 1/4″ diameter.
The only thing more fun than playing with them is making them. Peace on Earth, good will to you all.