Introduction: Pop-up Dragon Toy

Picture of Pop-up Dragon Toy

This amusing toy- sometimes called a "morality toy" when the box is formed in the shape of a forbidden book, with covers, spine and title- requires few hand tools and materials to build. It does however require a power drill and a table saw.

Step 1: The Dragon's Action

Picture of The Dragon's Action
I based my design loosely on a simple souvenir sold at the Hong Kong Pavilion at the New York World's Fair in 1964-65.

Also shown is a more elaborate antique carved example in "forbidden book" form, where the more common snake or viper figure is used. It has a wickedly-sharp spike where my dragon features a softer material. Note the wood "binding" on the bottom of the toy (photo credit: ebay user bubbleking)

Step 2: Tools

Picture of Tools

This project is not difficult but does require careful measurements and attention to the little details.

The suggested tools are pretty basic. A sharp pocketknife or razor knife and some cellophane tape will come in handy as well. The rectangular stock pieces can be sized with a backsaw and crosscut saw rather than a table saw; if anyone can suggest a simple work-around where the tablesaw is not required for grooving (rabbeting) the two side pieces (certainly a rabbeting plane with a 1/8" iron would work), I'm glad to hear it.

Coping saw with fine-toothed blade (a fret saw with it's finer blade options would be even better)
Drill with 1/16" bit (or size 54 wire guage bit). Check that the nail you use for this project will slide freely through the holes bored with your bit choice, if not, use a slightly larger bit.
180-grit sandpaper
Razor knife and cellophane tape (not shown)
Table saw
3/4" flat and No. 4 round paint brushes (or whatever detail brushes you have lying around)

Use your safety equipment. Shots of work on the tablesaw are shown with the blade guard removed for clarity.

Step 3: Materials

Picture of Materials

Here's your cut list:

(2)   1/4" x 2-1/2" x 3-1/2"          Sides     (I used poplar for this project. I don't recommend using balsa or plywood)
(1)   1/4" x 2-/2" x 9/16"              Back End
(1)   1/4" x 2-1/8" x 9/16"            Front End
(1)   1/8" x 11/16" x 3-1/4"         Slide
(1)   1/4" x 1/4" x 1/2"                 Pull
(1)   1/4" x 2-1/8" x 2-5/16"        Dragon figure
(1)   1/2" x 1/2" x 1/2"                 Pivot

Be aware that with any small project like this one the size of the pieces may need slight tweaking, so mock up the assembly to check for accuracy now and then before applying any finish to them.

(1)   1" brass nail                       Pivot nail    (Of the type used for hanging pictures. Any substitute will work as well)
(1)   4" pc. lightweight string      Pivot/slide string     (nylon fishing line would also work here, say 8# or 10#)
(1)   1" pc. fly line or 1" brad     Tongue    (I fish, so I had green fly line around. A 7/8" or 1" brad will work also)

Glue   I use heavy-bodied (high viscosity) cyanoacrylate ("super glue") for the quick setup time, but woodworker's glue will work with clamps)
Oil-based primer   I used Kilz spray.
Oil-based enamel paints   Choose your own colors. I went with green, red and black that I had in the shop.

Step 4: Cutting Out the Larger Rectangular Parts

Picture of Cutting Out the Larger Rectangular Parts

Size the 1/4"-thick Sides, Ends and Pull and the 1/8"-thick Slide using the tablesaw, ripping first and then crosscutting with the miter gauge set for 90 degrees (or use a backsaw and miter box for your crosscuts). Refer to Step 3's Cut List for dimensions.

Now rip a 1/8" deep x +1/8"wide rabbet along one long face of a Side, setting the rabbet back 1/8" from the Side's edge. Repeat with the second Side. The "+1/8" dimension indicates a slightly wider width than 1/8"; test the rabbets to see that the Slide piece will slide along the rabbets easily.

Step 5: Cut the Small Rectangular Parts

Picture of Cut the Small Rectangular Parts

The Pivot is a small cube 1/2" length on each side, with a rabbet centered on one side.

Before cutting it to size, saw a 1/4"-wide rabbet 1/4" deep down the center of 1/2"-wide stock. I made two rips adjusting the sawblade slightly to enlarge the rabbet's width, and tested the fit of the 1/4" thick Dragon figure stock until it fit neatly for gluing. (If you own a dado set, the 1/4" blade(s) may work for you).

To cut the cube to size, lay out two squared 1/2" lines lines at the corner on the face of the rabbeted stock and cut with your saw.

Shown in the last photo is the grooved and sanded Pivot test-fitted onto the tail end of the Dragon figure (see next Step), resting on top of a Side piece. Also sanded Pull sawn to width and length from 1/4" stock, resting on top of the Slide.

Step 6: Lay Out and Cut the Dragon Figure

Picture of Lay Out and Cut the Dragon Figure

The figure is sawn from 1/4" stock, clamped on top of a waste piece to avoid breaking the figure in the narrower areas.

To download a .pdf file of the figure, click hereand scroll to "Dragon figure download"

To lay out the figure on your stock, either transfer it using carbon paper (or graphic transfer paper, a better option), or cut out the figure and trace the outline. Here's a source fortransfer paper which is cheap, smudge-resistant and erasable (scroll down for the product).

I make release cuts with the coping saw (removing sections of wood close to the layout) as I  go, which keeps me from trying to make "sharp turns" following the layout (see the third photo, area around the figure's forehead).

To avoid snapping the figure, re-position the clamped stock often to keep the area you are sawing as close to your work surface as possible.

It's also easier to sand the sawn edges while the figure is nearly completed but still held in the clamps, rather than holding the figure in hand.

Step 7: Sand, Prime and Paint

Picture of Sand, Prime and Paint

After the various parts are sanded with 180-grit and wiped clean, attach the Pivot onto the tail end of the Dragon figure as shown with a couple of drops of glue, fully inserting the tail into the groove.

Prime all parts with a coat of oil-based primer, let dry, sand and wipe clean.

Apply two or more coats of oil-based enamel paint to the parts, letting each coat dry thoroughly and buffing lightly with sandpaper (0000 steel wool would be better, but I was out of it!) between coats. Use your imagination to make this dragon your own.

Assemble the project (next Steps) before applying touch-ups or a final coat to all parts.

Step 8: Assemble the Box

Picture of Assemble the Box

Using thin lines of glue (and clamps if neccesary) attach the Front End and Back End to the short edges of the inside (rabbeted) face of one Side. Align the edge of each End piece with the glue lined short edges and the bottom edge of the Side piece. (Note that the top end of the Front End allows room for the slide to clear it, once the slide is installed).

Now repeat to glue and attach the second Side (opposite to the first Side) to the two Ends, aligning the parts carefully to create a four-piece box open at the top and bottom. Note that the two rabbets should face one another!

Step 9: Bore the Holes

Picture of Bore the Holes

Here you'll drill four different holes for the project.

Set up your drill with the bit.

Lay the box one Side down, with the Front End to the left as shown.

Measure and mark a point one the Side's top face 15/16" from the left edge and 3/4" from the top edge of the Side. (Dimpling the point lightly with the 1" nail will prevent the drill bit from skating and damaging the surface). This is where the 1" nail will loosely secure the Pivot and the Dragon figure.

Carefully bore the hole through the Side, taking care to hold the drill vertical. (A drill press is handy here if you own one). Test the hole with the nail, and if it doesn't slide through easily, enlarge the hole slightly with a larger bit (5/64"/ or 3/32" for example). Be careful not to allow the bit to drop through and mar the other Side piece.

Now drill a 3/8"-deep hole centered at the back of the Dragon figure's mouth (the exact depth is not critical). This will hold the tongue in place.

Then drill two holes in the Pivot.  First set the Dragon figure/Pivot on it's side, on a piece of scrap wood.

The first hole is drilled squarely through the center of the Pivot. (Measure and mark the spot. The hole must be bored straight through the Pivot, or the Dragon figure will not pop up properly-aligned from the box). The nail will pass first through the Side's bore hole, then  through this hole and be driven into the opposite Side piece to secure it.

Bore a second hole at the "back" face of the Pivot, as shown in the fourth photograph. Make the hole about 1/8" deep, centered just above the tail piece of the Dragon figure. This is where the string will fasten to the Pivot. (The drill bit can be angled slightly to make the hole).

Step 10: Attach the String and Tongue

Picture of Attach the String and Tongue

Now add a drop of glue to one end of the bit of fly line (or the point of the brad or whatever you're using for the tongue) and insert firmly into the hole in the Dragon figure's mouth. Let dry.

Put a drop of glue in the second hole you bored into the Pivot. Using the nail, force one end of the string securely into the second hole. Allow the glue to set up.

Step 11: Touch Up the Paint, Insert the Dragon Figure

Picture of Touch Up the Paint, Insert the Dragon Figure

If needed, touch up or recoat any areas of the box or figure that were marred during the previous several steps and let the paint dry completely. (I used this opportunity to paint the two rabbets, which I'd missed the first time around!).

Begin assembly by laying the box down flat on one Side with the nail bore hole visible on the upper Side.

Insert the Dragon figure inside the box. Slide the nail through the Side's hole and through the Pivot's hole. Holding the Dragon figure by it's head and looking inside the box at the pivot's position, adjust the nail's point against the bottom Side until it is perpendicular (straight up and down) to the plane of the Side's inside faces.

Now tap the nail's head (don't drive it in yet) so the nail'spoint is temporarily secured in the bottom Side. Set the box upright, fish the string out of the box's open top and check the action of the Dragon figure by pulling gently on the string to raise the figure up and down. The figure should be roughly centered in the box as it pops out; if it leans badly one way or another, lay the box back down, pull the nail's point out and adjust it's location slightly. This is more easily done than described!

When you're satisfied, secure the nail firml with your hammer.

Step 12: Attach the String and the Pull to the Slide

Picture of Attach the String and the Pull to the Slide

Almost done...

After puzzling over how to precisely adjust the length of the string to allow room for the Dragon to pop out beyond the inside end of the slide when the slide is pulled out, I came up with a solution. (Grab a roll of cellophane tape).

First, pull the string through the top of the box, draping it over the top of the Front End. Place the Slide about halfwayinto the two rabbets in the Sides. Pull the string out until the Dragon about halfway out of the box, and temporarily secure the string to the bottom face of the slide with a piece of tape.

The goal is to have the Dragon's tongue and mouth just clear the end of the Slide by about 1/4" as the Slide is pulled out. (See third photo).

Adjust the tape location until the Dragon pops in and out neatly. Holding the string in place, remove the tape and use drops of glue to secure the string to the Slide's bottom until the glue dries. (A small clamp or rubber band is helpful if you're using slower-set glue). Trim any excess line.

Finally, set the project upright one last time. Pull the Slide out until the Dragon is fully-extended. Use a drop or two of glue to fasten the Pull to the Slide's top surface so the tongue will strike the finger using the Pull. (Ensure that the Pull is centered so that it won't strike either top edge of the Sides.

You're ready to play "snake bite" on your buddies.

PS- why the open bottom of the project? You can fill it with a 1/4" x 9/16" x 3" piece of poplar if you wish, but I like revealing the guts of the trick to anyone interested. Enjoy!


Artmudgoofy made it! (author)2015-04-26

this was such a fun project but i actually used PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride) board it was 1/4 thick. i added 2 open stickers and an arrow. for the bottom where the string gets taped i actually cut a groove out and then added crazy glue, it made the thread harden and stick better. i haven't decorated it but i like the outcoming yay!!

nanoBorg88 (author)2013-05-14

I made this today in a small matchbox!, thanks for the idea!

playfulplans (author)nanoBorg882013-05-14

Wow.. excellent work! Thanks for the photo.

Win Guy (author)2011-05-07

Not to pop your bubble, but they have this at my local oriental shop for $2.95 - Thanks for the 'ible, though! Win Guy

Denger (author)2011-03-23

I had seen plans for a toy like this many years ago in a woodworking magazine, and I've been looking for the plans ever since. Thank you for sharing this!

playfulplans (author)Denger2011-03-24

Wow... I'd love to see those plans, for sure. I collect clips from old woodworking and crafts magazines from the 40's through the 60's but have never seen that one.

The mechanism is simple, but requires careful attention to details. Of course there are any number of variations on the same basic mechanism. Thx Denger.

Denger (author)playfulplans2011-03-29

I think the plans I remember had appeared in Fine Woodworking, Wood or some such magazine back in the early 1980s.  It may have been called a "surprise box" (?).  As I recall it, that design was fundamentally the same as yours, (even featuring the dragon, with only slight cosmetic differences).

playfulplans (author)Denger2011-03-29


I find the snake version seems to be generally the most common I've seen in the US.

I was so happy to purchase the 1960's World's Fair dragon version on eBay for a few bucks.

Unfortunately I damaged (broke!) the neck of the dragon figure while dismantling to map out the mechanism. Should not be a difficult repair though!

Thx Denger.

Goodhart (author)2011-03-13

I like this a lot. Not just the idea of doing this "in this way" but the mechanism gives me lot of ideas (almost none of which will come to fruition because of time), and because of the splendid detail of the ible itself. Thanks for sharing, and looking forward to more.

playfulplans (author)Goodhart2011-03-13

Many thanks Goodhart... from a newbie to a true pro...

Goodhart (author)playfulplans2011-03-14

Well, I probably won't "come into my own" until I am able to retire from an 8-10 hour a day job, but thank you. I do try with my limited resources :-)

squirrelMLM (author)2011-03-12

Just built it! But I probably spent half an hour longer than I should have:

Couple things:

1. I didn't have a table saw (I'm only 14 years old lol) to make the grooves, so what I did is I took a piece of 1/8 inch plywood the size of one of the sides and cut a second piece into a 1/8 x 1/8 x 3-1/2 piece and a 1/8 x 2-1/4 x 3-1/2 piece. I glued those pieces onto the first original side piece so that there is a 1/8 inch gap in between, making a groove. (hard to explain, see picture)

2. I found that when I drilled the 1/16 inch hole in the center of the dragon, it didn't turn on the nail very well, so I ended up making a 7/64 bit I had, and it turned perfectly.

3. I had to cut a sort of V into the center of the top of the "front end" piece because the string that I had glued onto the bottom of the slide kept crashing into the front end, which stopped the dragon from rising properly.

Overall, a great instructable!

Goodhart (author)squirrelMLM2011-03-13

1. Yes, I was thinking along the same lines because, even though I am 52, I still don't own a table saw (I barely own a hand circular saw LOL). I was trying to think of a way to build a jig, so I could use the ancient hand router I have, but the idea of your way takes less time and effort (always an incentive LOL).

playfulplans (author)squirrelMLM2011-03-13

Wow- excellent work!!!

1. Great idea.

2. You're so right- as I mentioned, the exact size of the bit will depend on the diameter of the nail you use... I think just going with the 7/64th" should be in the plan in the first place...

3. The V would work... my front end piece allowed like 1/16" space for the thin string so it wasn't a problem.

Show us a photo or two!!

Thanks squirreMLM.

Ratfink (author)2011-03-07

I made one years ago, the mechanics are more or less the same as this one. I built a box approximately 4" x 6", with knob that slides the door open. I used a realistic looking mouse(a cat toy) instead of a dragon, and used a stiff copper wire as the mount. I scared my sister in-law out of a chair with it!!!

playfulplans (author)Ratfink2011-03-09


and gotta love the Rat Fink.

Huge fan of Big Daddy Roth since middle school in '67.

Bubbler (author)2011-03-06

I have one of these toys, but it is a snake, and the maker inserted fine copper wire for a forked tongue, which can actually prick a small child on the finger. I could never figure out the mechanism without pulling it apart, so thanks for this Instructable.

playfulplans (author)Bubbler2011-03-07

Glad to do it.

Honestly, i had to remove the paper label "bottom" from the World's Fair example shown above to figure it out myself... at least it's an easy fix to fasten the label back on!

Mark Rehorst (author)2011-03-06

This is great! You could modify this by adding one of those electric shockers from a gag pen or lighter. One electrode is the side the box (it would need to be metal), the other is the dragon's tongue. A switch can be arranged to send power to the shocker when you start to open the door. I'd also add a spring to automatically reclose the door when you let go of the box.

You probably couldn't tell the exact source of the shock so maybe just put the two electrodes on the side of the box (fingers touch one contact, thumb the other) and have power turn on when the dragon is all the way out of the box.

Awesome concept.

In high school we did the "shocking" thing with our chemistry professor where he had the box with the crank and each of us in turn got our hands wet and held the wires in our hands, seeing how much juice we could take... pretty sadistic!

The element of surprise you suggest would be a lot better!

rbormann (author)2011-03-06

I seen one of this when I was really young (long time ago...) and the woodworker that did it explained me that it was made for a psychology lab that was interested in the measurement of reaction under sudden stress. And it was just like yours, but with one single difference. The snake, not a dragon, came out all of a sudden because of an elastic band that was used to pull out the snake. Even if you pulled the cover slowly, the snake would come out quickly, right after the elastic band was taut enough to pull the snake out. That was really uncontrollable and snap like. Sorry for the english, I´m a brazilian portuguese native speaker.
Nice instructable!
I like it very much.!

playfulplans (author)rbormann2011-03-06

Wow, very interesting.. I like the rubber band idea!

aznbenn (author)2011-03-05

Hm... is there any way this could be modified to make it a toothpick holder? like have some way for the dragon to hold toothpicks in its mouth...

srilyk (author)aznbenn2011-03-06

It would be incredibly complicated - you'd basically be doing what a clip-fed gun does with bullets - only with toothpicks. But it sure would be neat!

playfulplans (author)aznbenn2011-03-06

Ha... but I haven't a clue as to how...

Minifig666 (author)2011-03-06

Only afterwards do you realise the dragon wad laced with a deadly neurotoxin...
Nice project, for assassinations.

playfulplans (author)Minifig6662011-03-06

Could be...

I imagine the pointy end on that snake in Step 1 would seriously put the hurt on you, with or w/o a neuro...

lobo0x7 (author)2011-03-06

neat instructable.

there is a way to avoid the table saw for the groove: use and old drawer, wooden box or anything that has allready the channel for the slide. Many drawers has the bottom part living in such slots.

i also tryied with a knife and a metal ruler and it is not so dificult to carve it if the wood is not too hard. if you have a nice thin enough file for finnishing the slot you are all set.

but i picked up last night an old, nice wooden drawer with slots in both sides in the street and it will be just perfect for my dragon box.


playfulplans (author)lobo0x72011-03-06

Interesting idea. If the groove is wider than 1/8" you can certainly adjust your wood thickness for the Slide part.

Thanks lobo0x7!

playfulplans (author)2011-03-05

AndyGadget, thanks. What was I thinking?

Added action vid to Step 2: The dragon's action

Thanks all for your encouragement, this is my first Instructible after lurking for a while!

More to come, Kev

AndyGadget (author)playfulplans2011-03-05


brunoip (author)2011-03-05

Awesome, I have to make one of these.

Biggsy (author)2011-03-05

Kev this is a fantastic I'ble thanks for sharing, can't wait what else you come up with!

High Five for you!

AndyGadget (author)2011-03-05

I love this - It has an old-fashioned charm to it.
(Any chance of a video of it working?)

dragonsniper (author)2011-03-05


zack247 (author)2011-03-05

these are really cool, i remember my parents having one of these, i never could figure it out.
Great instructable!

About This Instructable



Bio: Author of woodworking plan titles since 1994 featuring plaything designs for adult builders. The All-New Woodworking for Kids (Sterling Publishing, Division of Barnes & Noble), a ... More »
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