I’ll warn you right up front: this push mower makes lots of noise, but it was fun to build and kids love it. That said, in my experience, noise is exactly what all kids like in a good plaything. As they push it across the floor, the noisemaker blocks swing back and forth, knocking on the dowels, making a rhythmic “clack-clack-clack” sound. Its unique character draws lots of attention. Young visitors, as well as the young-at-heart, often want to have a look, a push and a listen.
The curves, the wheels, the contrasting wood colours and the complex appearance of the mechanism all work together to make it a nice project. And because I’ve used an “old-fashioned” reel mower to cut my lawn for years, it only seemed appropriate to make a push toy in the shape of such a mower for my son.
The biggest piece of lumber you will need for this project is only three feet long–most are under a foot. That means this is a good time to raid your stash of “too good to toss” wood scraps. Using different types of wood for the project's parts dramatically affects the look of your toy. I used maple for the uprights and darker woods for the noisemakers. Using walnut uprights with maple noisemakers would give you a completely different appearance.
When you prepare your wood, leave the upright strips about six inches longer than the finished length to allow for slippage when you laminate them together. The noisemaker dowels should also be left a bit long and trimmed to their final length as part of the building process.
The first step is to build the clamping jig for making the curved uprights. Fasten three pieces of scrap 3/4" particleboard together and transfer the curve to this wood, then cut your stock to shape with a jigsaw.
After you sand this lamination nice and smooth, fasten it to another scrap piece of particleboard to serve as a backing. Lay some waxed paper over the clamping jig to prevent the uprights from sticking to the jig during glue-up.
Next, soak the curved upright strips in warm water for about an hour to increase their flexibility. Take three of these strips and coat them with cold-cure epoxy to make one finished upright. This type of adhesive even cures underwater, making it a good choice for working with wet wood. Polyurethane glue is another excellent water-tolerant adhesive option. Place three strips on your clamping jig, add another layer of waxed paper and three more pieces of wood before clamping everything tightly to the jig. Both uprights will be laminated and curved at the same time using this method.
Once the glue has cured, use an oscillating spindle sander to clean any glue squeeze-out and leftover bits of wax paper from the uprights. Set them aside to allow all the water to dry from the wood.
Next come the wheels. Create a circle template out of 1/4"-thick particleboard, then use this to trace out a circle on your lumber. Cut just outside the layout lines with your jigsaw before using a flush-cutting bit in your table-mounted router to trim around the template, finishing off the wheels. A circle-cutting jig on a bandsaw makes this job even faster.
The wheels need a number of holes drilled into them. On the inside face of each wheel, use a drillpress and a 3/4"-dia. Forstner bit to bore eight holes, all spaced equidistant around the perimeter of the wheel, 1/2" in from the edge. Four of these holes are purely decorative, so you can drill them right through the wood. The other four are 1/2"-deep pockets that receive the dowels the noisemaker blocks ride on. On the outside face of each wheel, drill a 5/8"-dia. hole in the exact centre to a depth of 1/2", to receive the axle pins.
Next come the noisemaker blocks. Again, make a template out of 1/4" particleboard. Use it to trace the shape on the various boards you've selected for the blocks. A 3/4"-dia. pivot hole, centred and 1/4" in from the end, should be drilled at the top of each block now.
The blocks need to swing freely on the dowels, without being too loose. If the blocks don't swing well, fine-tune the holes with sandpaper.
Ease the edges of each of the noisemaker blocks, the edges of the wheels and the inside edges of the decorative holes in the wheels with a 1/8"-dia. roundover bit in your table-mounted router. Finish-sand the parts in the wheel assembly to get ready for glue-up. If you want to apply a finish to the noisemaker blocks, do it now, before assembly.
Dry-fit all the wheel assembly parts to ensure everything fits snugly. You'll need to fine-tune the length of your dowels too. I left an overall gap of 3/16" to allow the noisemakers to swing freely. By “overall gap” I mean this: if you push all the noisemaker blocks tight to one side, there should be a 3/16" gap between the last block and the wheel. While you're working, clamp the two curved uprights together and check how the wheel assembly fits within them. I allowed for a 1/16" gap on either side of the wheel assembly.
The other important reason for dry-fitting the wheel assembly is aesthetics. This is your last chance to decide on how you want the noisemaker blocks arranged. I elected to make them in pairs: one pair each from purpleheart, cherry, walnut and birch. I then mounted them on the dowels in sequence: walnut, cherry, purpleheart, birch; walnut, cherry, purpleheart, birch. If you mentally number the dowels in order around the circumference of the wheel, then dowel No. 1 gets a walnut noisemaker, dowel No. 2 gets a cherry noisemaker, and so on.
Indulge in a bit of creativity to personalize your toy. I made all my noisemakers the same size, but three thicknesses. You could add additional thin blocks, or fewer thick blocks. You could make them all from the same template, as I did, or you could vary the shape. Different materials, shapes and sizes produce different sounds too.
You might wonder at the variation in thickness of the noisemakers. There was no special reason; I chose from the wood I had available. I adjusted the size of the wheel assembly to fit what I had.
Use epoxy to glue the four dowels into one of the wheels, mount the noisemaker blocks, and then glue on the second wheel. This is one toy that will probably get dragged all over the house, so strong joints are essential.
With the wheel assembly complete, turn your attention back to the curved uprights. Clamp them together, mark and cut them to final length, then cut a gentle curve at both ends to soften the look and reduce the number of sharp corners. Next, glue the uprights together where they meet at the top. Once dry, drill four 1/4"-dia. holes, glue in some dowels and chisel them flush. The dowels are both for reinforcement and decoration. I chose bloodwood here, to give a nice sharp visual contrast to the light-coloured maple uprights.
Mounting the crosspiece is rather finicky. First, measure about an inch above the wheels on the uprights, to mark where you want the crosspiece to sit, then trace the curve of the uprights onto the crosspiece board. Also, draw a curve on the crosspiece from side to side to reduce its thickness and visual weight. The board is 2 1/2" wide at the ends and tapers to 1 1/2" wide in the centre. Carefully cut out these curves, then glue and clamp the crosspiece into position with 1/4"-dia. dowels. Glue them in place and chisel flush.
To add handles to the toy, I used some 5 1/8"-long Shaker coat pegs. If you have a lathe, this is a good opportunity to turn an interesting spindle to serve as a handle.
Most ready-made Shaker pegs have a tapered dowel section, which needs to be modified for strength for this project. I adapted mine by trimming the pegs to a cylindrical cross section where they plug into their mounting holes. I secured mine with epoxy.
The final step of the project is to attach the wheel assembly to the uprights. Again, I bought some ready-made wooden project parts and used them in a new way. Stovepipes intended for toy locomotives make great axle pins, or you could turn your own.
Drill a pair of 5/8" holes, one at each of the lower ends of the uprights, about one inch in from the ends. Dry-fit the stovepipes into place, measure and trim the excess “axle” length to ensure a tight fit. Use epoxy to glue the axle pins in place. For finish, I applied Danish oil.
I built this toy a little over six years ago, and it has borne the use well. Our kids still enjoy playing with it. It's my hope that this is one workshop project that will be treasured for years to come and truly become an heirloom.
Because small children are in the habit of getting their hands everywhere, including in their mouths, it's worth taking the time in the workshop to ensure the toys you make for your kids are safe and free of toxins that they might ingest or transfer to their tender skin.
While most workshop projects call for a fair amount of sanding, a thorough sanding job up to a fine-grit paper will ensure that you've removed potential splinters from the toys. You can also make toys safer by carefully rounding off all corners to remove the sharp edges that could cause bruises when toys are stepped on or swung at little brothers. A roundover bit used in your router can make short work of sharp edges.
If your child shows any signs of nut allergies, or if you have a lot of allergies in your family, consider using a basic non-toxic oil finish such as light mineral oil. This will protect the project, although it may not keep it clean. Mineral oil is available at drug stores.
If nut allergies aren't an issue in your family, you might want to apply 100 per cent tung oil or walnut oil to your shop-made toys. Tung oil, which comes from a Chinese nut, dries fully in three to four days, while walnut oil doesn't ever dry fully.
Danish oil is made with a small amount of varnish typically mixed with tung or linseed oil. Many Danish oils are labelled non-toxic, and they're finishes you can just wipe on, then wipe off a few minutes later. -Jessica Ross
|Part||Material||Size (T x W x L*)||Qty.|
|Curved upright strips||maple||3/16" x 1 7/8" x 28"||6|
|Handles||hardwood||1 1/4" x 5 1/8"||2|
|Crosspiece||cherry||7/8" x 2 1/2" x 9 1/4"||1|
|Crosspiece dowels||bloodwood||1/4" dia. x 1 1/2"||4|
|Wheels||birch||7/8" x 6"-dia.||2|
|Noisemaker dowels||maple||3/4"-dia. x 8 3/8"||4|
|Thin noisemakers||purpleheart||3/4" x 2 1/2" x 4"||2|
|Medium noisemakers||cherry and birch||7/8" x 2 1/2" x 4"||4|
|Thick noisemakers||walnut||1" x 2 1/2" x 4"||2|
|Reinforcement dowels||bloodwood||1/4"-dia. x 1"||4|
|Axle pins||hardwood||5/8"-dia. x 2 3/4"||2|
* Length indicates grain direction