The Invention Studio prototyping instructors had a Secret Santa gift exchange, and we had to make something based on our person's interests. Because my recipient loved space, I made him an adorable wooden rocket desk toy. I wanted to give it a "realistic" see-through acrylic window, using an acrylic rod inlay in the blank. If you finish the rocket well enough, people will think that there's just a hole in it... that is, until they go to pick it up!
assorted scrap wood with a 2x2" cross section
wood lathe & lathe tools
Step 1: Ideate!
I drew a LOT of different shapes of rockets. While this isn't necessarily a key part of building the project, doing a bunch of quick sketches can help you collect your thoughts. It also gives people a chance to give you feedback before you spend a lot of time making a thing.
After I made some quick thumbnail sketches, I had my friends pick which one they thought was the cutest. I scaled up the drawing of their favorite.
Step 2: Glue Together a Blank.
I used my scaled up drawing as a reference when cutting the different layers of my blank.
Individual slices of wood were cut using the wood shop's bandsaw, and, after each cut, I sanded the rough sawn edges down smoothly using the disk sander in our shop.
I used 4 different types of scrap wood from a bunch of previous projects to make my blank. Redheart for the rocket cap, maple for the white body, mahogany for the accent line, and walnut for the booster. (The mahogany and the walnut were too similar in color, so they didn't delineate very well in the finished product.) It was pretty important that I kept all of the wood grains aligned for a spindle blank, rather than a bowl blank. This means that all of the wood grains ran parallel to the intended axis of rotation for the blank.
Using a liberal amount of wood glue, I glued and clamped each layer one by one, giving each layer 30 minutes to cure before I added on a new layer. After gluing all of the layers together, I let the whole thing set overnight.
Step 3: Drill Out a Hole for the Window.
Having ordered a half inch acrylic rod, I drilled a half inch diameter hole in my wooden blank, assuming that I would be able to take advantage of a press fit when inserting the rod.
I chucked the blank in the drill press and went at it.
Step 4: Glue the Acrylic Rod Into Your Wooden Blank.
First, you'll need to cut a piece of the acrylic rod down to size. I cut it slightly longer than the total width of my blank, so that I could have roughly a 1/8" overlap on either side.
To get a good adhesion of the glue to the acrylic rod's surface, you'll want to scuff up the length of the rod using a piece of coarse grit sandpaper. Then, you should deposit a line of wood glue on the acrylic rod.
As you insert the acrylic rod into your wood blank, you'll want to spin the acrylic to cover both of the surfaces with glue. Because I counted on a press fit, I had to use a mallet to get the rod fully into the blank.
Wait for the blank to dry before doing any more work with the blank - very important. I'd give it a day to cure, or else you might get surprised on the lathe later.
Step 5: Turn the Blank to Shape.
Chuck the rocket blank in your wood lathe. I stabilized mine using a live center in the tailstock, and I got the blank as close to centered on the lathe as I could by locating the center of the bottom of the blank.
Move the tool rest as close to your blank as possible. Test for interference by manually turning your blank on the lathe, and adjust the location of the tool rest if the blank hits it.
Using a roughing gouge, turn the blank at a relatively slow speed. You're going to need to stabilize the gouge on the tool rest, as you turn the square cross-section into a rounded one. The different textures of the different woods in the blank may be difficult to manage; some woods are prone to chunking out while you are turning them, and that was the case with my walnut.
Once your blank is rounded over, use whatever lathe tools you want to turn your blank down to approximate your intended shape. In my case, I used a smaller roughing gouge and a round nose scraper to shape the blank. If you are new to wood lathing, you should take a look at this Make article where they discuss the different types of lathe tools. You can also bump the speed up slightly. This also is the time when you'll start to deal with the acrylic rod. It'll have a different texture when you're turning than the other sections of your blank, but it handles just fine.
If you lathe away so much material that you start to see a noticeable gap between the tool rest and the surface of your work, stop the lathe and adjust your tool rest up to the new edge of your blank.
Step 6: Sand the Rocket Body Down Smooth.
Once you get the shape very close to what you want, you'll want to sand down the rocket body. This will remove material, and you can count on coarse sandpaper to help you refine the shape of the rocket. During this process, make sure that you don't press down too hard while sanding, or else the rocket will break off of the lathe.
Take an assortment of sandpaper, ranging from coarse grit to fine grit. I used 60, 120, 220, 320, and finally 400.
Turn your lathe up to a higher speed. Starting with a strip of the coarsest grit sandpaper you have, you'll want to hold either side of the strip under the rocket as you sand the full length, smoothing away any of the lines or marks left by your lathe tools. You may have to stop your lathe and check the rocket for a consistent finish.
Once you've got a consistent coarse grit finish, you'll switch to the next finest strip of sandpaper. Use this sandpaper to smooth out any marks left by the coarser sandpaper until you achieve a consistent finish.
Repeat until you get down to the finest grit of sandpaper. It is incredibly important that you get down to a super fine, consistent finish, or else the acrylic won't clear up in the next step.
Step 7: Do a Super Glue Finish and Remove the Rocket From the Lathe.
I've used CA (or super) glue finishes for wooden pens, and it's a viable method of finishing off a project. One important property of super glue is that if you drop it onto a cloudy, smoothly-sanded clear plastic surface, it will clear up the plastic again. I learned this after watching my friends systematically destroy a pair of safety glasses.
Either way, the super glue is what will make the little window in your rocket ship clear again, and it also adds a smooth, shiny, durable coating.
While your rocket is still on the lathe, you'll want to wipe off any sawdust/chips/residue from the surface of the rocket, using some paper towels. I do this by turning on the lathe - keeping it at the same speed I used for sanding - and lightly pressing a clean section of the paper towel to the surface of the rocket, and making passes along the length of the rocket. If I pull away the paper towel, and see a lot of dust, I'll repeat the process until I'm fairly sure that the piece is clean.
Drop some super glue on a clean piece of paper towel. While the lathe is on, run the paper towel along the length of the rocket to apply the super glue until you coat the whole thing. The goal is to apply a thin, complete coat, and it may take a little practice before you can execute it well. Keep the lathe spinning for a few minutes after you finish applying the super glue. This allows the glue to set up and dry.
Turn off the lathe and remove the remainder of the blank from your setup. Be careful handling the finished piece, in case the glue hasn't fully dried. If you touch the super glue before it has dried, you'll add a finger print to the finish permanently.
Trim off the piece of the blank that was chucked in the lathe, and then sand down the remaining stem to complete the shape of the rocket. Apply a thin coat of superglue to the top of the rocket.
Step 8: Cut Out the Fins.
I cut a 1/4" thick piece of stock from one of my leftover pieces of redheart, drew out a rough shape of one fin, and cut that shape out on the scroll saw.
After some careful sanding, I was able to fit the curvature of the fin to the rocket body.
I traced the finalized fin on the remainder of my 1/4" thick slice 3 more times, then cut those out on the scroll saw. I sanded the remaining 3 fins to match the first one.
Unfortunately, I have no images of this process.
Step 9: Glue on and Finish the Fins.
If I had to redo this project, I would choose a different method than what I'm about to describe:
Taking my fitted fins, I carefully, one-at-a-time, glued each fin onto the rocket body, using CA glue. Aligning and straightening the fins proved difficult and unwieldy, and I was never quite sure when the glue would decide to cure. Also, until I got three of the fins attached, it had difficulty balancing. After I attached the fins, I coated them with a thin layer of super glue to get them to match the aesthetic of the redheart cap.
Instead, I would recommend cutting a slot in the bottom of the rocket body, and placing tabbed fin cutouts into the slots at the bottom of the rocket. It makes alignment, shaping, and glue-up way easier. If you do this method, I would recommend finishing the fins before you attach them, using a quick polyurethane coat to avoid cloudiness that can be associated with super glue finishes that aren't applied in a thin coat.
Step 10: (Optional) Make a Cute Box!
Since this project was for a Secret Santa gift exchange, I made a cute galaxy themed box to package the rocket in. This step is entirely optional, but was really well received. I'd highly recommend it if you make this for a gift.