Introduction: A Traditional Jacob's Ladder

A traditional wood-and-ribbon children's toy. Good for elementary school-age kids to do with parental assistance. Though you can find store-bought versions of these lots of places, this submission was inspired by a visit to Foxfire in Black Rock Mountain, Georgia. These instructions are really far more detailed than many people might need for such a simple thing, but if you are like me, detailed instructions save a dozen missteps, so here they are.

Step 1: Gather Materials & Tools

General Remarks:

First you have to choose what dimensions you would like for your Jacob's Ladder. There is a great deal of flexibility here: you can make a wide and very long Jacob's Ladder, or a thin and/or short one. The size and length of the board and ribbon needed vary accordingly. However, for a project that, say, a 9-year-old can do with a parent, the following specifications may offer the best combination of workability and aesthetic appeal. A thinner board (say, 'lattice board') than what we have used is possible but makes hammering the brads in particularly hard for a child (or a clumsy adult like me).


1) 1/2 x 2 inch wood board, length of 24 inches or more

(I found this at Lowe's grouped under 'Molding,' not in the raw lumber aisle. It is labeled as 'S4S', whatever that is. So-called 'lattice board' is, I think, 1/4 inch thick -- too thin for easy use.)

2) small nails/brads

(They have to be small enough not to pose a splitting problem going down the thinnest dimension of the board. I found that 3/4" x 17 'wire nails' did nicely. You do want the nail to have a head, not just a straight brad, and the head should be flat to offer a flush profile.)

3) 9 feet or so of 3/8"-wide cloth/polyester ribbon

(You can get this at a craft store, e.g., Michael's. Go wild with the colors -- you can use up to 3 different colors in one Jacob's Ladder.)


1) small hammer
2) ruler, straight-edge, and pencil
3) hacksaw or power-saw
4) scissors
5) sandpaper (perhaps coarse and fine)

Step 2: Prepare the Blocks

Using ruler, straight-edge, and pencil, mark off 3" segments of the board. You can make as many blocks as you want, but the ribbon and board materials listed earlier allow for 8 3" segments.

Saw each block off. If you are a hack like me, you won't get these to be perfectly equal lengths. This project is pretty tolerant of such errors, but do your best to make them equal lengths and cut at 90 degrees.

Your blocks will no doubt have shaggy ends from the sawing. Use sandpaper and smooth the ends off. Do not round the ends -- you want to have nice square corners and flat block ends, though some slippage here is no big deal.

Step 3: Prepare the Ribbons

Lay the blocks end to end as in the picture, leaving about 1/2" spaces in between. If you have used 8 blocks with the dimensions I suggested earlier, the layout is 28" long. You need to cut three ribbon lengths that long, or a bit longer to provide some room for error. (It will be easy to trim off the excess later.)

Step 4: Nail the Ribbons to the First Block

Now comes the one really important part of this operation: putting the ribbons on the blocks in the right configuration.

The second picture below show what you want your first block to end up like: two ribbons attached to one edge at top and bottom; the third ribbon attached to the *other* edge in the middle. I am going to call the pair of ribbons at top and bottom 'blue,' since that is what they are in the picture, whereas I'll call the middle one 'red.'

To start, hammer the two blue ribbons into one edge of the block as shown in the next picture. Make sure all your nails/brads henceforth are flush with the edges -- but keep in mind that overkill can break your block. Now you see why we are working with 1/2" board. It would be too difficult to keep the nails from going diagonally through the side of the block if we used much thinner board.

Flip the board to the other edge, as shown in the third picture below, and hammer the red ribbon into the middle of the edge, so that it folds across the same top of the block that the two blue ribbons do.

Step 5: Add the Second Block

Take your completed first block and lay out it as in the picture below, with the three ribbons stretched across the same side. Put your next block right on top of the first one once it is laid out like that. Now cross the ribbons back over the top of the second block, as in the second picture below.

Turn the blocks on one edge and hammer the blue ribbons in on the edge you are facing. Then flip to the other edge and hammer in the red ribbon.

BUT WAIT! VERY IMPORTANT You, like me, may have the impulse to overtighten bolts, ribbons, etc. Do not indulge that impulse here. Before you hammer in the second block's ribbons, make sure there is enough loosey-goosey space. The slack in the second picture below is a good cue. You can scoot the ribbon with your nail to make a bit of slack before you hammer it in. A 1/4" would be enough, I think, though I just went by feel. If there is not enough slack, the whole creation will stick without flipping properly. Try to make the ribbons have an equal amount of slack, though.

Step 6: Add the Rest of the Blocks

Repeat step 5 on all the other blocks. Remember: keep some slack in each ribbon before you nail it down. When you are done with the last one, trim off the excess ribbon.

Step 7: Play!

Just hold up one end block and flip it back and forth and you will see the others cascading down.