Introduction: The Magic Propeller

Picture of The Magic Propeller


OK, this is a silly one, and I even have to admit you can find a few toys like this on the internet. A site for teachers describes how to make one using a pencil. But I feel entitled posting this Instructable because I can remember when my dad made one for us kids roughly 60 years ago. My brother and I were completely baffled how he would rub a little dowel on a notched stick and the little wooden propeller at the end would start spinning, and then he would say, "stop and go the other way," and without the slightest perceptible change in anything he was doing, the propeller would obey. And of course we would try and try and fail.

Naturally there was a trick, and for those who have not seen this toy, I will reveal the trick at the end of this Instructable.

You need a few little pieces of scrap wood -- almost any kind will do, and a small brad.

Step 1: Step One

Picture of Step One

I used my table saw to rip a piece of pine to about 5/16th inch square, and cut it to about 12 inches in length.

Starting about three inches from one end, and continuing to about one inch from the other end, I marked one edge, using pencil, with 1/4 inch intervals.

Then, using a small, fairly coarse, square file, I filed notches in one edge.

Since folks are going to be rubbing this stick like crazy, it needs a very good sanding including rounding the edges slightly.

Step 2: Step Two

Picture of Step Two

The propeller is another little piece of wood -- I used a little scrap of maple since it is nice and hard and the hole will likely remain true and clean after drilling. But I bet a little piece of Masonite or Plexiglas would also work fine. Even a soft wood like pine should be OK if you make a nice clean hole and get rid of any little fibers.

The one I cut out is a full 1/8 inch thick, and is 2 3/4 inches long X 5/8 inch wide. These dimensions are not critical.

It is important to drill the hole in the exact center to prevent the propeller from being out-of-balance. I used a #48 drill from my numbered drill set. I did not measure the drill with a caliper, but it is probably about 1/16th inch in diameter. You should use a larger drill or countersink plus a bit of sandpaper to clean-up the edges of the hole -- it must be nice and clean to allow easy rotation. It is a very loose fit on the brad that attaches the propeller to the notched stick.

Step 3: Step Three

Picture of Step Three

I bet the hardest part of this project is finding the perfect little nail to attach the propeller to the notched stick. In spite of a huge collection of nails and screws in my shop, this little baby was elusive. It is about 3/4 inch long, and very thin.

You just drive the nail straight through the hole in the propeller into the end of the notched shaft. Sure, go ahead and try to center the nail on that tiny end, and while you're at it try to get the little devil to go in straight. Good luck! I had to bend mine straight after nailing, but don't tell anyone.

For the rubbing stick, I was looking around for a piece of 1/4 inch dowel, but I only found a few scraps of 3/8 inch material. I cut a piece to about six inches long, smoothed-up the ends, and that seems to work fine.

Step 4: Step Four (secret)

Picture of Step Four (secret)

OK, here is the big secret. Please do not not ask me to explain why this works. For all I know, it really IS magic. In the photo, please note carefully the positions of the fingers when holding the dowel. When rubbing the stick, the index finger (if you are right handed) will be riding up and down on the left side of the notched shaft. Your middle finger will be riding up and down on the right side of the shaft. When you rub the notched stick, if you continuously hold your middle finger against the edge of the shaft (with no pressure from the index finger), the propeller will rotate to the right. If you hold your index finger against the shaft while rubbing, the propeller rotates to the left. No one sees your tiny shift in position to reverse rotation because it continues to sound the same and they are all watching that ridiculous obedient propeller! Have Fun!!


emilolip (author)2012-12-30

My dad does this often and it always puzzled me, now i can finally do it myself!

smartalec (author)2012-01-24

I made one! I used some wood I originally cut to make a bow but never got around to making it. I didn't put as many notches on the handle, but it still works alright.

Great instructable.

courtervideo (author)smartalec2012-01-24

Looks Great!

Dumchicken (author)2011-12-25

it works with heat if you balans a piece of wood pefectly rub you hands together
and put youre hands next to the piece of wood it will spin

Timbersmith (author)2011-11-08

I got one of these from a Navy pilot in the late '60s. He called it a "hooey stick" and when you said "hooey" the propeller would reverse. He also had a "twin engine" hooey that he could reverse the right or left prop on command. I guess carrier duty had long hours of waiting around between missions.

courtervideo (author)Timbersmith2011-11-08

Wow. Can you describe the "twin Engine" one a little better? Never heard of that!

Timbersmith (author)courtervideo2011-11-09

As best I can recall,(40 plus years ago) it was "T" shaped with two short dowel "engines" the same diam. as the main riffled dowel. I don't recall how the parts were attached. I was about nine or ten at the time, but I think the top of the "T" was also a dowel, coped into the top of the main shaft and the sides of the two "engines".

courtervideo (author)Timbersmith2011-11-09

Sounds like something to experiment with. Have you made any of these?

Timbersmith (author)courtervideo2011-11-09

I've only made singles. 7/16" dowel, popcicle sticks, round (chain-saw) file, ruler, saw. You get to use all the tools! Quick and easy. I showed a troop of girl-scouts how to make them and we had a lot of success. Even spacing of the grooves is pretty critical.

fstam2 (author)Timbersmith2011-12-23

Here is a website that shows an example of what the twin engine may have been. This site calls it a Double-Whimmy-Doodle:

nunchucker (author)2011-06-25

Are there any other variables that affect it spining?

courtervideo (author)nunchucker2011-11-08

Sorry I missed this comment a while back. I wish I could be more specific on how these work. As I said below, some of my attempts didn't work at all and others would spin like crazy. The amount of pressure of your fingers on the shaft and how smoothly they slide -- sweaty or sticky being worse -- seems to make a difference.

courtervideo (author)nunchucker2011-06-25

I have made a few that didn't work and I am really not sure why. I think the size of the hole in the propeller with respect to the diameter of the nail, and just how tight -- or far in -- the nail is driven seem to be very important. It needs to be rather loose but not too loose.

instruct39 (author)2011-08-08

cool, i remember these things!

jackerboy (author)2011-03-15

hi i like this and i want to bring this to school to show off but i dont know if i can make this because i dont have any tools and i dont know if i can get the right wood i can deal without the tools i just need to know if the dowel and the stick need to be exect or can i just use some chopsticks i got from a restraunt

courtervideo (author)jackerboy2011-03-15

I have a good feeling about using chopsticks, but you need to make the little notches and drill a hole in the propeller, etc

jackerboy (author)courtervideo2011-03-15

thanks =)

demydewaard (author)2010-10-25

these are great and how easy never thought of that

Puzzledd (author)2010-10-15

What fun! Haven' t seen one of these but I love the idea.
Great explanation:)

courtervideo (author)Puzzledd2010-10-15

Try making one!

Puzzledd (author)courtervideo2010-10-15

I might just do that! I'm not good with woodworking, but this may be within even my ability:)

chabias (author)2010-10-09

My goodness, I haven't seen one of these in ages. I remember my father making what he called an "Idiot Stick" (New York)

courtervideo (author)chabias2010-10-11

Yes, it is amazing how many folks once played with these.

ilpug (author)2010-10-01

my grampa has one of these and its just made from sticks. works great, with no special hand position

courtervideo (author)ilpug2010-10-01

OK. So... Do words make the propeller change direction? What words does Grandpa use? Or maybe it always goes the same way?

courtervideo (author)2010-10-01

I also made one that didn't work. I think the wood I used for the notched shaft was too heavy and thick. The one pictured is light clear pine and just over 1/4 inch square, so it may vibrate more...

courtervideo (author)2010-10-01

I might have made it sound more difficult than it really is -- a lot depends on the grain of the wood right at that spot. The tiny drill would be excellent.

russoliver (author)2010-10-01

Perhaps a small pilot hole would work? You'd need a tiny drill bit, of course.

Sandbar (author)2010-09-30

We called them Arkansas Hooey sticks. I have one in my desk drawer at work that is over 40 yr.s old. I can't tell you the number of peeps that just had to ask, "what is that" and then I go through the whole routine. A lot of fun from a little piece of wood.

courtervideo (author)Sandbar2010-09-30

Thanks for the nice comment. Are you a teacher? Please don't be offended, but have you ever seen a "bullshit grinder?" This is another item my father used to make. It seems there are a number of toys that should be re-introduced to kids today...

Sandbar (author)courtervideo2010-09-30

Not a teacher, I work in the automation machinery field. Have never heard of a Bullshit grinder but I'm interested. It sounds like an extremely useful item.
Seriously, I'd like to know more about it.

zombipotence (author)Sandbar2010-09-30

I google searched it and it seems to be this:

Pretty cool little toy, but there doesn't seem to be a trick involved. I kinda want one.

Right -- no real trick. Come to think about it, my dad probably made these and gave them out as a kind of commentary...

masaya999 (author)2010-10-01

i will do that... and teach my nephews and nieces^^

awoodcarver (author)2010-09-30

Nice clear and easy to follow .... Very neat and brings back memories . We called them Gee Haws ..made them in the late 60's in day camp said Gee and it turned one way and then said Haw for the other ........ I could never get it to turn the other way

courtervideo (author)awoodcarver2010-09-30

I am very glad you made this comment. It does not necessarily follow the rules. When I shot the video, at first it refused to go one way. So I started it going the other way, and then when I switched directions, it cooperated. WTF? There might be more going on here than physics...

Makaaberi (author)2010-09-30

I remember making one of these when I was a kid, but funny thing is, no recollection if it was in school or with grampa. Either or. Will add it to my mental list of things to do with my kids. :D

artinct (author)2010-09-30

We called them whoooie sticks. and every time you said "whooie" the propellor would change direction. We used a half of a popsickle stick for the propellor. Well done.

nosnow (author)2010-09-30

You shouldn't have told the secret... Now my grandkids will know before I tell them when they graduate from High school...

auntwrenny (author)2010-09-30

My parents grew up in the Ozarks and we always called these, "Hooey Sticks". I see that it's the same name they use in Kentucky. They are highly trained sticks that recognize the word "Hooey!" You should use only well educated wood! ;-)

I'm glad you shared this. THere are so many toys like this that I grew up with but I'm afraid they are being forgotten because video games are so popular now. (heavy sigh)

courtervideo (author)auntwrenny2010-09-30

When we have visiting kids, some of whom are certainly video game players, I find they love to get outdoors and play with more active toys as well. Since there has been a bit of interest in this toy, I will try to put up a few others that kids have enjoyed making and using around our place.

auntwrenny (author)courtervideo2010-09-30

Do you know how to make a whistle out of a freshly cut maple branch? My Dad used to do this for us but he's forgotten the tricks and I was too young to notice.

I remember something about slipping the bark off and cutting notches. I also remember that the wood still had to be wet or fresh to do this. I'd love it if I could find someone who knows how to do this.

courtervideo (author)auntwrenny2010-09-30

OK, here is a very similar one to the ones I remember. This site shows all the steps.

courtervideo (author)auntwrenny2010-09-30

I remember making these too. I don't remember the exact cuts but will do a little research.

caribe704 (author)2010-09-30

That was a "Gee-Haw-Whimmy-Diddle" for me, got it when my grandparents drove through the Carolinas on their yearly trek to Florida in the 60's I played for hours with that thing, the "Gee" and "Haw" are directional signals for a plow-horse,
thats all knew but was so entrance to make it change directions, it was my PS3 when I was a kid, well, that and gigging mullet off Mathers Bridge in Indian Harbour Beach Florida...

hoverbored (author)caribe7042010-09-30

I got my first Whimmy-Diddle in North Carolina in the mid-60's. Brought it back to Illinois when on vacation visiting my grandparents. Seems they'd been around awhile, 'cause my grandpa knew how to make it change.

courtervideo (author)caribe7042010-09-30

I bet Indian Harbour Beach was beautiful in those days...

jc3009 (author)2010-09-30

These mountain toys have been made for generations in the Blue Ridge mountains. They are known as "Gee-Haw Whammydiddles" and are made from tree branches (usually maple). Glad to see the "city slickers" version here :).

courtervideo (author)jc30092010-09-30

Haha, I believe the "city-slickers" version actually has a carbon fiber shaft and a titanium propeller.

auntwrenny (author)2010-09-30

I meant to add, my Dad used to use a small piece of thin metal for the propeller. I think I remember him cutting pieces out of old aluminum cans to make the propeller also.

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