Intro: Rockin' Elephant
An heirloom rocking toy for young children built from angle-sawn plywood.
The wide, ribbon-like exposed plies of the plywood stock are created using a simple technique long-favored by woodturners and furniture builders but not often seen in playthings. It's a perfect project for using small leftover plywood scraps.
The painted illustrations on each side represent the last strongholds of the elephant- Africa and The Indian Subcontinent.
Note: I used standard thickness nine-ply Baltic birch and childsafe finishes for this project. While solid stock makes an acceptable substitute, lower-quality plywoods are too flimsy (and the plies too “gappy”) for a safe and attractive result. All dimensions are shown as thickness x width x length (or height). Project dimensions: 4” x 7-1/4” x 10”
(1) Elephant 1/2” (12 mm) x 7-1/4” x 10-1/4”
(2) Sides Approx. 1-3/4" x 6” diameter (the sides are comprised of a "sandwich" of five plywood pieces total).
HARDWARE AND SUPPLIES
1” nails and rubber bands to temporarily secure the various parts before glueup
Sandpaper grits from 80 to 220
Wood glue Childsafe paints and clear coat (suggestions for safe finishes can be found online here:
India ink and a pen to add details
Note: while hand tools alone can certainly be used, I recommend several power tools below:
Scroll saw (or fret saw or coping saw)
Sanders of choice (I use a stationary belt & disc sander)
Rasps and needle files
3/8” power drill and 1/8” drill bit
Clamps (and/or a workbench vise)
Crosscut panel saw (or bandsaw)
Note: Power tool techniques are sometimes photographed with safety accessories removed to clarify the process. Always operate power tools with all requisite safety accessories in place, including personal hearing, dust and eye protection.
Video music credit with permission: The Green Orbs: Splashing Around
Step 1: Let's Rock
Print the Elephant pattern on 8-1/2” x 11” paper and cut it out using a razor knife. The correct image size is listed in the Cut List above.
Step 2: Transfer the Pattern
Transfer the Elephant pattern to a face of your 1/2” plywood stock. Note: I used my compass set at 3” radius to scribe the circle shape directly onto the wood, it’s more accurate than relying on your pattern’s cutout!
Step 3: Saw the Elephant Figure
Saw out the Elephant pattern’s outline. I used my scrollsaw; a jigsaw fitted with a scrolling blade or a coping saw or fretsaw will also work. Use suitable backing material as needed to prevent tearout. Note: I roughed out the shape to remove waste before sawing to the line.
Step 4: Complete the Figure's Sawing
I used a 1/8” bit to bore the interior of the pattern before inserting the blade for the scrollsaw cut.
Step 5: Let's Glue This
For the pair of Sides I first built up a glued stack of five 1/2" plywood pieces each 6-1/4” square. The purpose of the Sides is to provide the counterweight to keep the Elephant on top! Note: solid stock will work for the Sides just as well, although I used plywood to reveal the interesting character of the sawn plywood pieces.
Yeah, I use a fork to spread the glue. It works better for me than a roller, and cleans up easily too. Square the stack as you go. I used my bench clamp to crunch the stack and completed the squeeze with a pair of cam clamps. Trim any glue remnants. I also lightly sanded the four edges to flatten them.
Step 6: Sawing the Sides Apart
To separate the stack into two Sides, first pencil matching angles corner-to corner on opposite edges of the stack, then connect the lines across the other two edges. Note: I allowed a 1/4” standoff from each edge for the layouts to avoid shattering a thinner edge while sawing and sanding.
Clamp the stack with one of the angled layouts on top and use a panel saw to begin separating the two Sides to the mid-point of the stack. Check your layouts to keep your saw line on track. Note: a rip-tooth panel saw will provide a faster and cleaner cut, but isn’t necessary. And if you have a bandsaw with an adjustable table and a fence to make this cut in one pass… go for it!
Flip the stack 180º towards you in the vise, clamp and begin a second cut to separate the two Planet Sides, maintaining an accurate cut. Note: inserting thin (saw-width) wood scraps into the kerf you made during the first saw cut before clamping will keep the stack square for the second cut.
Step 7: Rough-sand the Sides
Rough-sand the two sawn faces of the Sides (these will be the visible outer faces on your completed project). I used my stationary belt sander.
Step 8: Lay Out the Sides for Sawing to a Circular Shape
Temporarily re-align and attach the matched faces of the Sides (re-forming the rectangular solid shape) with a couple of 1” nails. Lay out a 6”- diameter circle on the top face. Clamp your workpiece and saw the shapes out- I used my jigsaw. Note: don’t saw quite to the line- you’ll sand to the line in the next step.
Step 9: Sand the Sides to the Line
Now sand the fastened Sides to the 6” diameter line. You can do this any way you prefer but for accuracy, I used my stationary disk sander.
Note the image of the simple circle jig I built. Use extreme caution, a firm grip and eye protection. Adjustable circle jigs are nice, but I typically fabricate one from scrap for each project- it takes only a few minutes. First install a 1/4" x 1” dowel 1/2" deep in a scrap of flat stock, centered 2-1/2" from an edge of the scrap (solid arrow). Bore a 17/64” hole 3/4” deep centered in a face of the fastened Sides assembly. Set the assembly’s centerhole on the dowel and clamp the jig to the sanding table, adjusting it so that the edge of the assembly contacts the disc, and rotate the assembly towards the disc rotation. Another few clamp adjustments as you need to remove increments from the assembly (turning the sander off between adjustments of course) will result in an excellent result.
Step 10: Balancing Act!
Using strong rubber bands, temporarily fasten the two Sides to the Elephant (sandwiched between) with the thin Side edges on top. Set the toy upright and rock it slightly forward and backward. Your goal is to slightly adjust the pair of Sides fore and aft until the Elephant rests comfortably on top and the three parts are aligned. Pencil registration marks across the base of the three pieces (as layouts for gluing up later) and remove the rubber bands.
Step 11: Rasping and More Sanding (sigh...)
Sand the three parts to 220 grit (avoid sanding the circular edges of the center piece which will be glued between the Sides in the next step). I rounded over all the outside edges 1/8” for little fingers at play. Note: rasps and needle files are big timesavers prior to sanding small parts. I don’t like time spent sanding when there are easy and efficient ways to avoid it. A hot low-angle shoplight (or working outside in angled daylight) really pops the sawmarks needing attention
Step 12: Let's Glue This 2.0
Glue and clamp the three parts together using the registration marks as your guide. When dry, remove any glue remnants and touch up any discrepancies between the three parts with files and sandpaper to 220-grit.
Step 13: Shaping for Rock 'n Roll
To create the toy's rocking motion, reshape a portion of the bottom of the circular base of the assembly as indicated by the dashed “Line of arc” in the photos below. I suggest you sand the assembly in 1/16” increments, trying out the balance and rocking motion until you’re happy with the result. Note: the more wood you remove, the longer the Rockin’ Elephant will tend to rock back and forth… just don’t get carried away with wood removal or the circular “planet” below the Elephant figure will end up looking more like a flat tire! I used my stationary belt sander for this process then hand sanded to 220-grit. The second shot below shows the sanding nearly completed to my layout. Spend a few extra minutes here assuring that your elephant rocks evenly back and forth as nobody likes a tipsy elephant ;^D
Step 14: Finishing Up
To seal the Rockin’ Elephant use any clear childsafe finish, sanding lightly between coats. Here’s where you’ll really appreciate the wide, ribbon-like exposed plies of your stock!
Step 15: Continent and Sub-continent
Use the pattern as a guide to sketch the outlines onto the opposite sides of the assembly with a sharp pencil and then paint in the shapes with several coats. Add a few details to the elephant- eyes and ears, tusks, whatever- with India ink or paint. Then add another couple of topcoats for protection.
You're done. Let your kiddos rock on!