Saturday, April 26, 2014

Homemade Heirloom Wood Toy for Less Than $10

When I was in college, I spent several school breaks visiting my roommate's family in Ohio. One time at Swartzy's parents' house, he showed me some of his old toys. They were mostly wooden and handmade by the Amish (if any Amish are reading this, you can sponsor my blog for a rocking chair and/or a jar of apple butter). Even at that time, I remember thinking that it would be really cool for my kids to have wooden toys like those. And then I thought that it would be even cooler if it were something that I made. More than a decade later, I made this for my daughter when she was 18 months old.

It started with a visit to the local lumberyard. When I say "lumberyard," I am not referring to Lowe's or Home Depot. This was a visit to a lumberyard that has a wide variety of woods in many different sizes. They have a bin at the front of the store with scraps - pieces of wood that are too small for many projects. But these are ideal for most toys, and because they are scraps, they are quite inexpensive. I purchased five different pieces for $1 each. In addition, I used some scraps that I already had in my workshop.

First, I made the base. I cut and sanded the shape that I was looking for and determined where the stackable pieces would be centered. I then drilled 3/4-inch holes, and glued in 6-inch pieces of a 3/4" oak dowel.

Next, for the square pieces, I measured the largest dimensions and cut that square, drilling a 7/8" hole in the center (I wanted it to be easy for my daughter to place on the dowel). I then made the next square 1/2 of an inch smaller, and repeated for the next four squares, with a total of 5 stackable squares.

Next, I made circular pieces using the same method. I used a compass (remember the wonderful instruments from Geometry that we used to poke holes into our shoes? They actually have a real life purpose. Aside from poking holes in shoes). I used a ruler to find the radius of the first circle, and then made each subsequent circle 1/2 of an inch smaller in diameter, for a total of 5 circles. Finding the center was easy, as I had a mark from the point of the compass already in the wood.

I made sure that all of the pieces were sanded smooth. For this particular project, I did not apply any finish, since I knew that my kids would inevitably chew on it. Actually, once everything was smooth, it looked so good that I took a bite. 

Finally, I wanted this to be a pull toy, so I installed wheels. I used wooden knobs from the hardware store (about $.75 each), and used wooden pins to hold them in place. The wooden pins were glued into the base, making sure that the glue did not get on the wheels. I then tied a decorative piece of rope through a small hole in the front, and I had a wonderful toy that has brought my children years of joy!

As a woodworker, this was a fun project because I used many woods that I never would have bought. The platform is made from purple heart, which is normally an expensive wood. But using the scrap allowed me to get away with an expensive looking toy at very little expense. The basic shapes also made this a project that I would recommend for most beginners. It requires nothing more than a drill and bits, a jigsaw (you could use a circular saw if you keep the cuts to squares only), and sandpaper, although an electric sander really speeds the sanding steps up.

With a little time, you will have a project that will be handed down from generation to generation. I would love to hear from you if you have similar projects that you have made for your children or grandchildren, or if you remember a handmade toy that somebody made for you when you were a kid (i.e. I'm looking for new ideas of things to make).

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Ceramic Mosaic: Reduce, Reuse, Repurpose

In 2007 I refloored our house. And by "I" I mean my wife, my mom, and me. We tiled approximately 1000 square feet. It was the first time I had ever installed ceramic tile, and as I cut the pieces that needed to be cut and broke pieces that made me angry, I was left with a pile of ceramic discards that I couldn't quite bring myself to throw away. I looked at the pile, my mom looked at the pile, and inspiration hit.

Pantry floor with mosaic threshold
We had a pantry and a closet that needed to be tiled, and I really didn't want to make all of those cuts. So I decided to free form mosaic floors for each, a la Frank Lloyd Wright. These two closet floors became my favorite part of the entire project, just in front of the mosaic thresholds that my mom and I did. I do believe that the artistic tile work was a significant selling point when we moved.

I still had tile pieces left over, so I kept them. Now let me set the record straight. I am not a pack rat. I do not have closets and closets of junk that I just can't bear to get rid of. I do hold onto things when I have a vision for them, and when I might possibly have a vision for them in the future. Or when someone else might have a vision for them. Don't look in my workshop.

Mosaic transition threshold
In addition to the tile pieces, I had two footstools that didn't fit in our house. My wife and I made the footstools years ago. I built the boxes, and she upholstered them. I wanted to figure out a way to incorporate them in our new house. Then it hit me - I could pull off the cushioned, upholstered tops and make side tables with storage for our patio. I could use the tile pieces left over from the tile project, along with some other broken tiles that were left in our new house, and let my inner mosaic beast out.

So here's what I did after removing the fabric and cushion from the top of the footstools, being left with a bare plywood top.
My mom's piece de resistance

  • Step 1 - Lay out the design with no adhesive. Figure out how the pieces will fit together. Move them around until you get what you're looking for. Break large pieces with a hammer as needed. This is also a great chance to bring kids into the project. Give them the rare thrill to smash tile, as long as they know this is a one time shot and they should not begin to smash tile in the house with a hammer. (Please be sure you are wearing the proper safety equipment, including gloves and eye protection, when smashing pieces of ceramic tile.) 
  • Step 2 - After finding the layout, transfer the pieces off of the plywood and onto the floor, keeping them in order. 
  • Step 3 - Mix up thinset mortar according to package instructions. Spread the thinset onto the plywood with a notched trowel.
  • Step 4 - Transfer your pieces. This is the part that can be frustrating. Due to slight shifts, the pieces will not be exactly the same the second time around. That is okay. The world will not end. Life will continue. Consider this an opportunity to smash more tile to find the tiny pieces to fit into your large spaces that you originally didn't have.
  • Step 5 - After the thinset cures, use a sanded grout to finish the piece. 
  •  Step 6 - (Depending on the piece, you may not need to do this step). With the tabletops, I needed a border, so I used composite lumber, hiding the edges and giving the tops a tie-in to the garden beds in my yard. 
    Mosaic tabletop
    Mosaic tabletop #2

My family put together a lot of puzzles when I was growing up. Inevitably, at least one of us, and more often several of us, would hide a piece, wanting to be the one to put the last piece in the puzzle. Mosaics are kind of like a puzzle with many possible solutions. With no one correct

solution, you can finally be the one to complete the puzzle.

So take that, brothers!

Friday, April 11, 2014

How To Be A Real Lifelong Learner

Most people in education hear the phrase "lifelong learner" on a regular basis. This term refers to the ongoing pursuit of knowledge, and it is something that teachers and administrators hope to instill in every student who comes through the doors of the school. A long time ago I believed that the term referred solely to the pursuit of book knowledge, but I now understand that it refers to intellectual curiosity and openness to new experiences. And this is the environment in which I thrive.

Food is gone and she's still being milked, obviously not happy with me
Enter Pebbles. Pebbles and her friend Lady are cows that I milk regularly. I didn't grow up milking cows. I don't remember ever thinking, "You know what I want to learn to do? I want to learn to milk a cow. And I hope that along with milking comes scooping up cow poop!" But in January, as my wife and I found a new farm to buy our raw milk, I started talking with the farm's owner, Sheri, who also runs The SupUrban Farm. We came up with a plan in which I would help Sheri and Bob on the farm so they could get out of town together every once in a while. In addition to getting delicious milk from Pebbles and Lady, I have the added bonus of catching people by surprise when they find out that I milk cows. It's funny that we are so far removed from our food that we don't think of this as something that people do on a regular basis.

My turtle
But the point is that I learned something new. This was an opportunity that I didn't go looking for. It found me, and I was receptive. I find that I am almost always open to learning new things. An acquaintance recently offered to teach me to work with stained glass. Of course I said yes! I'm no expert, and I've only made a single turtle (which, consequently, would have impressed Michelangelo). But it is a new skill that I would like to continue to develop, and I made a new friend in the process. I think this is what lifelong learning is all about. Adding new skills, new hobbies, new interests, and allowing new people to input into our lives.

Twelve years ago I owned two power tools - a drill and a jigsaw. The drill was a gift from my wife, and the jigsaw was a gift from my father-in-law. That was it. My handy skills were very limited, I had very little experience with building, but my interest was piqued with the gifts of these two tools. I now have shelves and shelves of power tools. I have accumulated these tools over the years as I have developed my skills. As my passion and learning increased, so did my tool collection.

Please note the order of events leading up to my current tool collection. My interest, passion, and skills increased, and then my collection increased. In the past I have sometimes thought that I wanted to start something, bought the supplies, and then realized that either I lacked the sustained interest or the necessary talent to pursue that activity. Lesson learned. I did not go out and buy a cow and milking supplies in order to learn how to milk a cow. But when the opportunity presented itself, I gratefully grabbed onto those udders and milked away.

I encourage you to learn something new today. Listen for opportunities, and when they present themselves, grab onto those udders with both hands (figuratively, but perhaps literally as well).