I had occasion to visit a wonderful museum called the Oriental Institute on the University of Chicago campus a couple of years ago. They have a vast collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts (mummies anyone ?) including some 4000 year old furniture. Dry Egyptian climate really favors wood preservation since wood rotting fungi depend on moisture. The picture below shows the joinery used by an ancient craftsman in making a bed. Its’ mortice and tenon joinery is similar to what you see today, but it is secured with not so common leather lashings. (I suspect the leather in the picture is not very old, though the placement of the holes sure indicate that lashing was used originally.) Modern homes have climates favorable for wood longevity and I wonder if any of my toys will be around in 100 years. 4000 years is too long to think about.
A person walking in the woods or along the shore is apt to pick up a stick, break it to length, snap off the twigs, tidy the bark. This is basic woodworking….This is the first tool. But naked wood isn’t much more durable then flesh. Few ancient artifacts of wood have survived, which is probably why the Stone Age is considered so important. But the Wood Age must have come first, and is still with us. Wood is our favorite material, so much so that we try to make acres of plastic laminate look just like it.
Fine Woodworking Biennial Design Book – 1977
Five Train Engines were made today and show their fresh Walnut Oil finish in the picture above. They are made from Walnut, Beech, Cherry, Ash and Birch. Walnut oil is a traditional wood finish, used for centuries, and has the advantage of being a drying oil. This means that it avoids the mess and possible rancidity of other vegetable oils and it has the added advantage of being safe to touch and taste. I usually make toys in small groups; groups large enough to gain some efficiency, but small enough to avoid boredom. So my smaller toys are born in single digit litters and the larger toys as twins or triplets. And while they arrive at your door newly born they are fully ready to play.
Two engine chassis in rough form made from American Beech wood. You can see 23 other train cars at my website.
The best friend on earth of man is the tree. When we use the tree respectfully and economically, we have one of the greatest resources on the earth.
Frank Lloyd Wright
This picture shows how I make the boilers on my train locomotives. It isn’t difficult but does take a very sharp band saw blade to rip thru 4 inches of White Ash long grain. Significant operator care helps to prevent blood stains on the wood. They are so time consuming to remove. 😉
I use a 4 tooth per inch, hook style blade. The hook shaped teeth almost draw the wood into the blade lessening the feed pressure I have to exert. A routed, bored and sanded boiler can be partially seen in the lower left of the above picture. An older bandsaw is pictured below showing fewer guards and covers than modern tools.
“Apparently the new high-tech Star Wars toys will be in stores any day now. The toys can talk and are interactive, so they can be easily distinguished from Star Wars fans.”
— Conan O’Brien
I found this cute video on Youtube. His train sure looks familiar to me. I love how he demonstrates his counting skills at 2 minutes, 30 seconds. Delightful.
“I don’t remember who said this, but there really are places in the heart you don’t even know exist until you love a child.”
Anne Lamott, Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year
Making the parts to some of my toys gets pretty tricky. One part I made last week was for my train’s caboose. The walnut cupola atop the cherry caboose requires a precise angle to fit nicely. While a table saw can be used for this part I prefer to use my router as it seems safer and more precise. I use a straight bit mounted in my router table and add a couple of auxiliary fences to guide the stock as I slide it over the bit with push sticks. I think the attached “pictures are worth a thousand words” as they say. Getting the stock to the proper angle for machining involves tacking a couple of thin strips (the walnut strips shown in the left of the photo) along the main fence. Some experimentation is necessary to find what strip thickness results in the proper angle.
It has ever since been a pleasure to me to see good workmen handle their tools; and it has been useful to me, having learnt so much by it as to be able to do little jobs myself in my house when a workman could not readily be got, and to construct little machines for my experiments, while the intention of making the experiment was fresh and warm in my mind.
The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin 1757
I found this book in a local bookshop. What fun! The cover picture says it all though I also linked to a short video below. I suspect the ideas would work for moms and grandparents too. Check your library.
short video about the book at
“So, please, oh please, we beg, we pray, go throw your TV set away, and in its place you can install, a lovely bookcase on the wall.”
― Roald Dahl
“In addition to being safe, toys for young children need to match their stages of development and emerging abilities. Many safe and appropriate play materials are free items typically found at home. Cardboard boxes, plastic bowls and lids, collections of plastic bottle caps, and other “treasures” can be used in more than one way by children of different ages. As you read the following lists of suggested toys for children of different ages, keep in mind that each child develops at an individual pace. Items on one list—as long as they are safe—can be good choices for children who are younger and older than the suggested age range.”
Much more at the National Association for the Education of Young Children at http://www.naeyc.org/toys
King Agesilaus was excessively fond of his children. Once when they were very small, he bestrode a stick, and was playing horse with them in the house, and when he was spied doing this by one of his friends, he entreated him not to tell anyone until he himself should be a father of children.
Plutarch, 46–120 AD