Introduction: 3 Foot Tall Wooden Nutcracker Hearth Decoration
I started building a large wooden nutcracker quite a while ago. I wanted a big hearth decoration to put out around the holidays. I never intended to make a "how-to" out of it. I did, however, take several videos during the process to document what I was doing. While the videos don't set out to be "how-tos", they do show several of the steps better than photos could.
Then, I found Instructables.
I realized that Instructables is the perfect place to document how I built this nutcracker, from idea to finished product. This may not be the best instruction manual for how to build a nutcracker, but it's the path that I took to get it done.
So, look at each step, watch the videos, read the prose, and take what you need from it. I strongly recommend reading this all the way through before you start. This project is a design-as-you-build project for me. I learned a lot along the way. Hopefully, you can learn a bit from my experience.
This project requires basic woodworking skills. I don't give instructions or techniques for using power tools. In my build, I used a lathe, bandsaw, drill press, belt sander, cordless drill, and several hand tools. These tools can be very dangerous, especially if not used properly! Please follow the manufacturer's instructions. Don't forget to use proper safety equipment!
I used a CAD program called Sketchup. Sketchup is a free, 3D drawing program that has countless uses in woodworking. I don't go into detail on how to use Sketchup. That is outside the scope of this post. There are plenty of excellent tutorials available. I post measured drawings in PDF format where they are required. You don't need to have any familiarity with Sketchup to print and use these.
You don't need make an exact copy of my nutcracker, but go out and make something wonderful!
Step 1: Scaling and Material Choice
The first thing to do when making something big from something small, is to take precise measurements and scale them up. I used a set of fractional calipers to take measurements accurate to 1/32". I took these measurements and drew a scale drawing with one of my favorite tools, Sketchup.
Once I had the drawing in Sketchup, scaling it up was quite easy. Simply use the Scale tool to drag the nutcracker up to the size you want. I scaled up to just over 36 inches. When I did this, I found that the nutcracker was wider than I wanted him to be. He was around 8 inches wide. I wanted him closer to 6 inches, so I slimmed him down using the side anchor points on the scaling tool.
I then used the dimension tool to put dimensions on the drawing at every point that was reasonable. I realized that some of the dimensions measured to an accuracy of 1/64". I adjusted those so that the most precise dimension I had to measure while making the nutcracker was to 1/16".
You can see the finished product of this effort in the attached drawing.
Step 2: Glue Up the Blanks
This guy is going to be pretty big, so you need some big hunks of wood. I wanted to use some decent wood, and I had these pieces of reclaimed mahogany on hand, so I used them. You could just as easily glue up some 2x8 lumber, just watch out for knots.
Make your blanks a bit longer than necessary. You can always cut them down. It's tough to get the ends lined up perfectly. If you measure your pieces exactly, prior to glue-up, you may end up having to cut some off and have short blanks.
Make sure sure to leave enough extra length on the legs and the head to accommodate the joinery.
Step 3: Turning Time
Time to make some wood chips!
Round off the blanks. Rough in the dimensions. Measure and mark out specific points using the drawing as reference. Turn between these reference marks, like any other spindle project. For the most part, the exact shape and dimensions are not crucial. You do want both legs and both arms to be the same, so spend some time making them match.
An outside caliper is very handy for this job, as it lets you quickly and easily measure the diameter of your work.
Step 4: Make Some Leg Holes
Next up is fitting the legs to the body. This is done by drilling socket holes in the bottom of the body, and turning a tenon on the top of the leg to fit in the hole.
Start by laying out the drill holes. This is where you need to chose where the front and back of the nutcracker will be. If there are any imperfections you want to hide on the back, make sure your layout supports that. I decided that I wanted the "mouth" opening to be perpendicular to the glue joints that laminate the body together. That dictated the leg holes.
Having a center finder helps here. Layouts on a cylinder can be tricky. Measure wherever you can, and as often as you can. Step back and take a look at it, more than once! Make sure everything looks good and you are happy with the layout before drilling those holes. You can't easily fix it if you mess up at this point.
Once you've measured, and triple checked your layout, drill those holes. I used a paddle bit and a hand held drill. My drill press isn't large enough to accommodate a piece this long. Luckily, I have a bench vice large enough to hold the body while drilling. If you use the method I did, try to hold the drill as straight as possible.
With the holes cut, you can now custom fit the leg tenons to the holes.
In the video, I go through the whole layout and drilling process I used.
Step 5: Cut the Slot for the Nutcracker Mechanism
Well, first, build the nutcracker arm. You can see from the first video the arm that I made. I also show a jig I made to "mock-up" the action of the arm. There are angles and clearances to take into consideration, so I thought it best to use a mock-up instead of trying to do all that trigonometry. It mostly worked out for me, I only had to fudge a little on the arm itself once it was done. I'm not at all worried about that, as it's well hidden.
Once the dimensions of the "mouth" slot are known, it's time to cut that slot out. This had me worried for quite a while. I wasn't sure how well it was going to go. It seemed much worse than it actually was. It turned out to be quite easy once I got going.
I did a lot of prep work for this cut. As you can see in the second video, I built a jig. I squared the body to the jig, to make sure the the mouth was perpendicular to the legs. I don't have any dimensions for this jig. I built it in-place to fit the body. I didn't measure a single piece. One thing to keep in mind when building this sort of jig, make sure you don't rely on anything in the front side (top of the body) to be structural that will be cut off. The main reason I built the jig was to hold the body from rolling around while I was making the cut.
I did a lot of layout work to get the center point on the top set. In the end, once I had the body mounted in the jig, I used a square on the bench, resting against each side of the body, and measured between them. Divide that measurement in half, and that's the center. Measure and mark from each side to ensure your math is correct. Do that at the top and bottom of the slot (remember this thing is tapered, so the math will be different at the bottom from the top).
Now, measure the width of your nutcracker arm, leave room for clearance, divide it in half, and mark that far away from the center line on both sides. These are your cut lines.
Finally, cut the piece in the middle out. In the second video, I explain how the cut is made.
Now that the cut is made, it's time to drill the hole for the dowel that will hold the nutcracker mechanism together. As an added bonus, we'll use this dowel to hold the arms as well. The second video explains the entire layout process.
Once the mechanism is all set and functional, time to cut a groove in the head to fit around the nutcracker arm. This is easy to layout. Simply take out the arm, and put the head on. Line the head up exactly how you want it to be. Then simply draw lines on the head tenon at the edges of the groove in the body.
I mounted the head in the same jig I used to cut the body, lined up the lines from the previous step vertically, using a square, and cut the groove. This cut is much less critical, as it is entirely hidden in the body. Just make sure not to cut too deep. You don't want to cut into the face!
Step 6: Arms, and Nose, and Feet, Oh My!
We are nearing the home stretch!
The arms mount to the body by attaching to the ends of the dowel the nutcracker mechanism pivots on. In the video, I describe how I set up and drilled the holes.
Now it's time to make the feet. You can draw them by hand, but I prefer to use Sketchup to lay them out. Then print them to scale, glue them to a piece of wood, and cut them out. I used a piece of 1x4 or 1x6 I had laying around. Once they are cut out, finish them up by sanding the edges to the lines, and drill the hole. Watch the video for details.
Now mount the feet between the bottoms of the legs and the base plate, screwing through the hole.
Finally, cut out a nose. I freehand sketched a nose on a piece of wood, contouring it to match the face. Glue it on and you are good to go.
Step 7: Finishing Up
You can finish your nutcracker however you like. I'm going to paint mine, but I haven't decided on colors yet. You could use paint or stain. You could leave it raw wood. It really depends on your preference and design taste.
I hope you've enjoyed this build. It was an adventure for me.