Introduction: Giant Wooden Nutcracker

About: I've been a modifier/maker for as long as I can remember. I started with bent nails and "recycled" lumber. Then bicycle mechanics. Dad taught me to weld when I was 10. Plumbing and electric in m…

How to build a 9 foot tall turned wooden nutcracker.

Step 1: Concept, Planning and Materials

So I really wanted a giant (9 ft. tall) genuine wooden working nutcracker: (Who doesn't?) But since I've never actually seen one, I had no choice but to make my own. If you want one too, here's how:

You'll need:

  1. About 80 feet of pine 2x10's
  2. About 18 feet of 6" PVC
  3. About 1 full sheet of 3/4" plywood ( used various pieces that I had on hand)
  4. About 12 feet of 1" black iron pipe and a welder(3/4 pipe would probably work too. I had 1" on hand)
  5. About 20 feet of 1/4" all-thread
  6. About 3 feet of 1/2" all-thread
  7. Various length drywall/all-purpose screws
  8. Half gallon of wood glue
  9. 2 cheap costume wigs for hair
  10. red, black, white and gold paint
  11. masking tape


  • Computer
  • IrfanView
  • table saw
  • band saw (not absolutely required, but really helpful)
  • Router table (not absolutely required, but really helpful)
  • 24" capacity lathe (absolutely required, I made my own. I could make a separate instructable if there's any interest) with turning tools
    • roughing gouge
    • parting tool
    • bowl gouge or similar
  • Drill/driver
  • Various woodworking hand tools
    • giant calipers (made my own)
    • giant compass (made my own)
    • hand and block plane
    • wood chisels
    • crosscut saw
  • small/cheap welder. (MOT welder would work fine)

The first image is the one that I chose for inspiration. I did a Google image search for "Nutcracker" and chose what I thought was the most stereotypical Christmas nutcracker, and one that had a nice straight-on view.

I then resized the image so that the pixel count corresponded to 10 pixels per inch of my final desired size. My desired height was 9 feet, so I resized it such that the image of the nutcracker itself was 1080 pixels high. Then I could select any rectangular region and my image viewer will show me how many pixels that region is, which then equates to inches. I then marked up the image with notes of what size various objects/dimensions are. At that stage I knew I needed 6" PVC and that the body would be about 22" in diameter. I used IrfanView for the resizing and the dimensioning , and it's great at this kind of thing. Whatever size your desired height is, you can use the same strategy.

Then I chose how it would all assemble. I wanted it to be absolutely safe, so I decided to make the base a little larger than scale. And I chose to use steel pipe coming out of the base to provide the rigidity, all the way up the the waistline. And it has turned out to be rock-solid. It's not tippy or wiggly at all. The chest and waist sit on top of the PVC legs and bolt down to the steel pipes. The hat and head bolt down to the"neck" with 1/4" all-thread.

Step 2: The Base

For the base, make a frame of 2x4's in a 27 wide by 29 deep rectangle. Then glued/screw 3/4" cdx plywood onto it. I guesstimated the size, but try to be generous as you want this to be extra stable. As a general rule I'd recommend the base be about 3" wide for every foot tall, and just a little deeper than that in order to accommodate the working of the lever. The feet are a 2-high stack of 2x10s cut to shape, rounded over with a router, and then screwed/glued to the plywood. For this scale the feet are 7.5" wide, 17.5" long, and the toes narrow down to 5.5". Scale yours accordingly. Drill holes into the feet as a snug fit for the steel pipe, so that the pipe can't wiggle around in the hole. For 1" sched 40 pipe, the hole is 1.315". I used a fly cutter to get the hole size just right. Directly beneath the pipe holes will be a 6" square 3/16" steel plate.(1/8" plate would have sufficed.) Weld a 2" long piece of 1/2" all-thread to each plate to stick straight up from the plate. (I drilled and tapped the plate, screwed the all-thread in, and then welded.) Recess the 2x4's to make room for the plate thickness and attach it with screws. Carefully align it so that the all-thread is sticking straight up, aligned exactly in the center of the pipe holes.

We're preparing the way to attach the steel pipes and pvc legs later on, but it's not time to make them just yet.

Now take a short piece of pvc pipe and hold it in place on top of each foot then draw the inner outline of the pipe. Then attach 3 wooden blocks to the top surface of each foot in order to register the pvc pipe into position.

Step 3: Drum Construction

The nutcracker consists of 4 turned "segmented drums".

First a discussion of the overall approach and technique:

The segmented drums are made basically of 2x4's, that are cut to a keystone shape such that when you put the proper number of them in a circle the keystone faces all mate and glue together. It's a lot like how a barrel is made, except we arent' using steel hoops, and barrels aren't glued. It also has a lot in common with how round wooden drums are made, except these are cone-shaped not cylindrical. I found an excellent online resource here for calculating the necessary size and angle to cut the staves. So we'll calculate two different circles, one for each end of the cone we want. The result will be a tapered stave, the same angle on both sides, but wider at one end than the other. (I gave a lot of thought to whether the angle changes a bit due to the two ends being a different angle. I'm pretty sure it does, in theory. But in practice, since the taper of our cone is fairly small, it doesn't seem to matter. So I started just ignoring it.) I created a tablesaw sled to hold the pieces to get accurate reproducible pieces. See the pictures for details.

These segments are all glued in a circle, with size-matched plywood discs "plugging" both ends. The circles help during glue-up to make sure the circle isn't egg-shaped, and they provide the necessary end planes in order to mount the drum in a lathe. Dowels are glued in place drilled through the face of every other segment into the plywood disc. The dowels help bond the whole thing into one piece, and transmit the lathe's turning force to the outer shell.

Finally, there are three support struts running longitudinally between the two end disc's to take the compression load when the end discs are squeezed between the lathe headstock and tailstock. That avoids applying pressure to the joint where the disk meets the shell. See the first few pictures and drawings to get the overall idea.

These pictures are all taken during the last section I made, the hat. But the process is the same for all of them:

  1. Determine the two different diameters you need
  2. Use the online calculator to find out the angles and how many segments you'll need
    1. Depending on your stock, you'll need more or fewer segments. If you're using 2x4's, your largest usable dimensions are 1.5" x about 3.25" (since you have to cut off the rounded edges)
    2. I was getting 3 cuts out of a 9.25" 2x10, so my maximum stock width after accounting for round edges and kerfs was about 3.25".
    3. Plug in the desired diameter (plus .125 extra for "slop") and 1.5" stock thickness into the calculator, and then by trial and error play with the number of segments until you find the fewest number segments that still fits within your maximum stock width.
  3. Cut your segments to length. I added 1/2" for slop.
  4. Set the angle of your tablesaw blade, to within .1 degrees of your target
    1. You can use a digital angle guide
    2. Or preferably, make a cut on a piece of scrap and use a digital protractor to measure the actual cut angle. Adjust as needed to get the angle perfect.
    3. This is by far the trickiest part. The angle really has to be close to perfect. I found the digital protractor to be more accurate.
  5. Using a regular rip fence, make the first angle cut to one side of all your segments. Cut one or two extras for the next step
  6. Set up the "fence" of the sled you've made so that when you put the angle-cut side against it, it cuts the piece to a perfect taper, with the exact desired dimension on both ends. It's a bit of trial and error, so having a couple extra segment blanks is helpful. I got mine to within .01" and called that close enough.
  7. Using the taper sled, cut all your segments.
  8. Using a bandsaw circle jig or other method, cut your two plywood disks. But be sure to draw the circle with a large compass, since you'll need to know the exact center later on.
  9. For dry-fit, put the narrow-end (smaller) disc down on a laminated surface, (you can use whatever surface, but dried wood glue comes off of laminate easily) on top of a 1/4" spacer. We want disks to be in-set in the ends a little bit so that we can cleanly trim the drum to final length on the lathe, and the 1/4" spacer accomplishes that.
    1. Then mark the wide end of all the segments. For glue-up that end will be up.
    2. Make a hoop of baling or other wire about the size of the shell you're creating. lay it down in place.
    3. Then arrange all the segments in a circle, wide end up, pulling up the hoop as you go, using it to corral the segments to get them to stay in place.
      1. This process is frustrating, like herding cats. Strong-willed, bitter cats, who actively hate you in particular.
      2. The wire hoop helps a lot.
    4. Once they're all arranged with the wire hoop holding them loosely in position, tighten up the wire hoop as much as you can while snuggling/arranging the segments to get them to their final position.
    5. Place the larger disc in and get a measurement for how long the three support struts will be. I drilled a hole large enough to stick in a tape measure.
    6. cut and install the three support struts, making sure that they're perpendicular to the face of the discs.
  10. Glue up:

    1. Remove a single segment and lay it aside.
    2. take out the next segment and apply glue to one face of it.
      1. The glue-up is going to take you 30 minutes or more, and that gap is going to be sitting there the whole time. if you glue both faces right now, that glue will be dried out some by the time you get all the way around.
    3. Put that segment into place, with the glued side exposed.
    4. Take out the next segment and apply glue to both faces of it. mate it to the awaiting glued face of the previous segment and take out the next one.
    5. Repeat as necessary until you've gone all the way around.
    6. The whole time use the wire hoop to apply gentle pressure to keep the segments all more-or-less in place.
    7. For the final segment you'll have to apply glue to two segment faces in-place, put glue on the two faces of the final segment, and stick it in place.
    8. I used regular inexpensive polyester cargo ratchet straps as circular clamps, top, bottom, and middle.
    9. With the top and bottom straps in place, snug but not tight, install the larger disc in the top, and tap it gently in to get it level, and to get the shell segments all in place touching the disc evenly.
    10. Then crank down the straps as hard as they'll stand. You'll get glue all over the straps, but the dried glue actually doesn't interfere with the polyester straps very much.
  11. After the glue has dried, drill and install dowels according to the drawing. I doweled through ever other segment, on both ends. In restropect, I think I could have just doweled the driven/spur end.
    1. Note the pictures of the jig I made to make sure I was drilling into the center of the disc edge.
  12. After the dowels are dried you're ready to turn on the lathe
    1. Everything I know about woodturning I learned by watching youtube. Basically:
      1. Chuck the piece up straight
      2. Turn it slowly while it's out of balance
      3. Turn the shell just to round using a roughing chisel
      4. Clean up the ends using a parting tool
      5. Turn any special shapes using whatever gouge or tool is appropriate.
    2. For this project I used a vintage "normal" sized roughing gouge, a large Sorby roughing gouge, a home-made parting tool, a Sorby parting tool (homemade was better) and a Sorby bowl gouge. I got the Sorby tools used, I couldn't afford them new...
  13. It is a real feeling of amazement when you finish your first round drum section, and you created it from scratch. Way cool.
  14. Move the tool rest out of the way and with the lathe running, sand the drum to a smooth finish.
    1. This is probably dangerous. Loose clothing, splinters, etc. Don't actually do it.
    2. But I did. I'm crazy. And it worked great.

Step 4: Hips Section

Create and turn the hips section first. Getting the scale from the dimensioned picture, the hips section should be 15" high, 17" diameter at the belt, and 20.25" diameter at the bottom.

Then drill 1.315" holes in the bottom disc the same distance apart as the pipe holes in the base. Attach 2 sets of 3 wooden blocks to register the top end of the pvc legs.

Step 5: Steel Pipes and PVC Legs

Steel pipes: First, cut the steel pipes to length. I used a pipe cutter to get a nice square end, but you could use a hacksaw if you were careful. The pipes go from 3/16" off of the floor up through the hips section and to the bottom of the chest section. For this scale the pipes are 53.5". Grind the corners off of a 1/2" nut so that it can fit up inside the steel pipe and weld it about 1/4" up inside the bottom end of each pipe, so that you can screw it down onto the all-thread. We want to push it up in there 1/4" in order the clear the welds we left when we welded the all-thread to the plate.

Now cut a 3" piece of 3/8 all-thread and screw a 3/8" nut on one end, creating a long "bolt". Now put that "bolt" through a 1/2" nut and weld it. (We're using the 1/2" nut as a spacer. See the picture for details.) Now grind off enough of the 1/2" nut to fit up inside the pipe, push it up in there and weld it. Now hammer the threads a little bit toward the end of your 3" piece of all-thread, so that when you screw it in it will be locked in place. Don't over-do it, and don't hammer the very end threads. You want it to easily start screwing in and then get snug enough that you need pliers to turn it in some. It should look like the last picture when you're done.

PVC legs length: Screw the pipes into the base and measure the "visible length": the distance from the top face of the foot to the end of the pipe. Now carefully measure the exact distance inside the hips section from the lower face of the top disc to the lower face of the bottom disc, and subtract that from the pipe length. That will be the length of PVC leg pipes. Study the second (exploded view) picture to the get the idea. My legs turned out to be 31.25".

Cut the PVC legs.

Step 6: Chest Section

Create and turn the chest section, according to the dimensions from your drawing. Drill 3/8" holes to bolt in the top of the steel pipes.

I created myself a scale drawing of what the lever would look like inside the chest section, and made it accordingly. Cut it out of 2x10, preferably on a bandsaw. Cut out the front and rear openings and drill for 1/2" all-thread. Take whatever time, thought and methods required to fit the mouth and lever into place. Leave a couple inches of allthread protruding out the sides, the arms will attach to them later on.

Step 7: Head

Create and turn the head section, according to the dimensions from the picture. I'm pretty sure the head was actually a cylinder. Be sure that the finished bottom diameter of the head will match the top diameter of the "neck" on the chest section. I coated the whole head with boiled linseed oil.

Eyes: Lay out where the eyes will be. A lot of modern nutcrackers have the eyes stenciled on. But I found this video that shows the traditional method. Cut a slit to the proper width, and saw out the wedge as close as you can. Clean it up with a chisel, and finish with a small plane. paint the flat area white. For the eyeball, cut out the punk (dome shape) from the bottom of a cola can. Paint the domed side gloss black, then paint a blue ring using a small brush. Finish with a single dot of white for the dazzle. Glue the eyeball dome in place.

Nose: The nose needed to be 2" wide, so I glued two scrap pieces of 2x8 together and then planed down to the desired thickness. Cut it to profile for outer shape, and cut a bit of a curve so it fits tightly to the surface of the face. I used friction-fit dowels to hold it in place.

Facial hair: Draw outline in pencil and paint in gloss black for moustache and eyebrows.

Teeth: I drew the teeth in a CAD program and printed them on a color printer. I glued them on using pva glue and then sprayed them with satin polyurethane. I could have painted them, but it would have been a challenge. Again, IrfanView is an easy way to get something to print at the scale you want.

Hair: The hair is a couple of "vintage glamour" Halloween costume wigs that I found at Kroger. The wigs consist of locks/sections of hair sewn to a netting. I cut them free from the netting and arranged and sewed them on an appropriately shapped piece of black polyester lining that I got from an old suit coat. That makes the hair removable, it's held on by a couple screws at the top. If I ever put the nutcracker outside, I'll paint on black hair and beard.

Step 8: Hat Section

Create and turn the Head section. For this project the head was the largest diameter, about 23" at its widest, right at the capacity of my lathe. If I had it to do over again, I'd make the lathe 25 or 26" in capacity.

The only critical dimension is that the hat band is the appropriate mating size for the top of the head, about 1/2" overhang.

Step 9: Arms and Hands

The arms are the same PVC as the legs. Cut them to the scaled length and drill a 1/2" hole where the arm bolts to the chest. I put a big washer between the arm and chest to minimize paint rub-off from movement. There is a PVC coupling as a shirt cuff. I had one that came from the pipe that I had, and I had to make one. To do that, cut PVC to cuff length, cut a slice into it lengthwise and stretch it over the pipe. Then cut a filler slice and screw it in place. Be sure to put that joint at the inner backside, and it's not noticeable.

The pipes are capped at the top with round plug with a rabbet cut into it on the router table. I left about 3/4" sticking out, and rounded over the exposed edges. Later it will be painted gold, and gives a place to staple on the gold tinsel "epaulets". Drill the center out and hammer in 1/4-20 T-nuts.

The lower ends are capped with wooden discs cut to fit tightly inside the pipe coupling, screwed in place.

The hands are 6.5" wooden balls made using Izzy Swan's ball-making jig/method. First cut appropriately sized circles to glue up in a big sandwich. Use a circle-cutting bandsaw jig if you have one. I used a cad program to figure out how big the circles needed to be, and then made them a little generous. I used screws to join the innermost sandwiches, to keep them from sliding around. But no screws on the outer layers, since they would damage the router bit. (In the pics are some oak balls I had made earlier. They weren't big enough, so I made new ones.)

A length of 1/4-20 all-thread is screwed into the hand ball on one end and into the "shoulder" pipe cap at the other.

Step 10: Paint and Finish

The paint details are as follows: Paint the red base coat first, as well as the white on the legs.

Then mask as necessary and paint all the black. Then mask and paint the white detail on the chest. Lastly, mask and paint on the gold details.

I used latex brush paint for the chest, and spray paint for everything else, with the exception of some acrylic gold brushed on for some final fine details.

Be sure to spray on thin coats, and allow enough time between coats, or else you'll get orange-peeling when you spray. Orange-peeled spray paint is the bane of my very existence. Almost.

Yes, I know it would have been easier to paint the legs if I had simply disassembled them first. Once I'd realized it I was too stubborn to go back.

The final attachment is the head/hat to the chest. I used two pieces of 1/4" all-thread running from the bottom hat disc, down through both head discs and through the top chest disc. I actually drilled the holes out to about 3/8" to mitigate any errors in hole locating.

As pictured, the hat is missing a top dome and brass button cap. My ceilings are 9 feet, and I just didn't have room. If I ever put it outside, I'll glue-up a disc made of 2x10's and turn it to a dome shape on the lathe then install it up on top of the hat. And paint it gloss black.