The big day finally came! It was nothing like how we planned and involved a long hard labor with a trip to the nicu. All of that is behind us now though and everyone is home safe and recovering. Right before he was born I took a piece of the family wood and engraved a name plate for above his room entrance.
He had a rough start, but is already gearing up to be a space commander some day! He is our biggest project yet. As such, there probably won’t be any posts for the next few months.
A helping tower is like a step stool you use in the kitchen with a child. It gets them up to a height to be able to help out with basic cooking tasks. Unlike a basic step stool, this has sides and a back so they can be kept in place, and not easily fall off. There are a million different examples online, but most all of them are bulky (by necessity) and end up being a bit of an albatross in the kitchen. I wanted a folding one that could be packed away easily. It took a lot of prototyping, but I did it.
I normally jump into projects, but this one was a very slow methodical trial and error build over nearly 2 months. A broken AC and baby tasks stretched that out a bit. The front frame of the device consists of two permanent uprights with an upper and lower stretcher. To those uprights, a set of folding sides are attached. The right upright is thinner so that the two fold over each other in an overlapping pattern.
The middle stretcher will hold the step and let it swing into place. I needed a strong stop that would support the step and draw the sides into the step. I used a dovetail bit on the bottom of the step to make a slightly angled groove. The stops had the same angle in reverse. Now, the more weight put on the step, the tighter it will draw the sides in.
The seat can fold up and the sides fold in. Everything is compact and easy to deploy. The stops are only 1/2″ thick and don’t interfere with the fold up.
It needed some kind of back to keep people from falling off backwards. A simple swing arm accomplished this task. It was narrow enough so as not to interfere with the unit’s ability to pack up. This had all the rough mechanics I wanted, but was narrower and not as deep as I felt it should be. Also I wanted the step portion to be adjustable as the child grows. On to the next prototypes.
I am going to use dowel nuts and binding screws to make something that was strong, but could be removed and reassembled. It would take a number of holes drilled in the right places to make that work. I planned the sizes of the parts and printed out drill guides that would hold brass tubes to act as drill bushings. The brass won’t last forever, but is easy to cut and insert, and helps keep the hand drilling accurate.
First up I clamped the jig in place and used a transfer punch to mark the centers of where the barrel nuts will go. This makes drilling on the drill press easy.
Next to accommodate the bolts, I need to drill a long hole end-on to meetup with the cross holes. This can’t vary much and the parts are too long to use the drill press, thus the drill jig idea.
With both sets of holes accurately drilled, the nuts and bolts will meet up in the correct spots.
With the folding and adjusting mechanics worked out I could move on to the real thing. I selected 1×3 pine for the uprights and spreaders. The step spreader got its holes drilled with the above jigs, and the other two spreaders received a set of fair curves thanks to my new drawing bows.
Part of the assembly folding out and being stable is having the sides only fold out 90 degrees. They must positively stop when they reach the right angle. I do this by firmly clamping the sides and uprights together and routing a small pocket for the hinges. This 3d print has a center-line mark on it and is perfectly spaced to make a tight mortise for the hinges. The result is a flush hinge and sides that do not swing out past where you need them.
I assembled the step and determined how high it could go when folded up. Too high and the step hits the top spreader. Marking those places I could make a row of holes that would allow the step assembly to adjust as needed. The sides and uprights got a set of holes placed every 2 inches.
To lighten the structure and add something fun, I printed a series of shape templates. Double sticky tape holds them down, and a plunge router cuts them out quickly. I made 8 unique shapes and it really adds a lot.
I put the center spreader in at the top most position and marked where the stops should be. Each one has two t-nuts hammered in place. Bolts go in from the outside to hold those securely. Now to adjust the height you have 8 bolts to remove. 4 from the stops, and 4 from the folding step. The final unit is light, compact when folded, looks decent (even though most of it is plywood), and should have enough room for any kid small enough to need it. The swinging back stop is made with another set of dowel nuts and binding screws. Everything got a coat of shellac as basic protection.
As a final bonus, I was able to cut the shapes out carefully enough that they all survived in tact. I rounded the edges and shellacked them as well.
I want to be able to re-create this again in the future. Here is a rough parts list with sizes. Dowel nuts and binding screws are both 1/4-20s.
My first wee walker was pretty popular with kids of the co-worker I gave it two and didn’t need any revisions after the second version. I wanted one for us, and I had two co-workers that were having kids soon. That calls for a batch run!
The MDF templates I made earlier came in handy. I could use them to do rough dimensioning of the plywood, and it let me efficiently nest parts together in some cases. I didn’t use them on the router table, but opted to free hand cut everything on the bandsaw. I was going to have to bandsaw the basic shape anyways, so all it took was a little extra care to cut up to the line. Power sanders took care of the rest. These aren’t very complex shapes.
Cutting wheels this big is kind of a pain. A 4 inch hole saw requires a lot of torque, and getting the sawdust out cleanly on 3/4″ plywood means constantly pulling the bit out and cleaning it. I might 3D print the wheels next time. 30% infill ought to be kid proof right?
I changed up the paint scheme a little from last time, adding black to the wheels and a stripe of black on the sides. I left the handles bare wood. This looks pretty nice on them, and isn’t too much work.
Everything is coming together with roundovers and pilot holes being drilled.
This round of building went well, with only a few minor errors. I made the holding area a lot deeper front to back, and that might be a mistake. It had the arms really close to the wheels, and might lead to kids kicking the back plate when walking. I don’t think it will be a major issue, but will want to have a shorter storage area in the next version. I’ll have to start calling myself kilted santa’s workshop.
The baby goods continue. I saw this one as part of a way to give kids something to help work on standing when young, and an acceptable indoor outlet for climbing urges when they get to be toddlers. It folds up pretty easily, because we wont be using it for a while and I don’t need big furniture taking up space. It has colored rungs, and three ramps that can sit on any rung to make them more or less inclined. One is a slide, one a rock climbing wall with 3D printed climb features, and the other has rungs stuck down to make crawling up easier.
I used poplar for the sides of the climbing structure. I rounded the ends and drilled spots for each rung.
Once again trying to make everything a different color took a lot longer and was more tedious than I had originally thought. Still, every rung is different and it looks great!
To attach rungs to the climbing ramp front I flattened them by hand. I was going to make some kind of sled to go through the planer, but I would have to adjust the planer multiple times for each rung, and they didn’t get pulled through well. By hand ended up being the easiest. I used a combo square as a depth gauge to know when to stop removing material.
I attached two rungs to the back of each ramp so they would fit around the ones on the climber. They probably won’t do a good job on the highest rungs, but it holds really well on any of the lower ones.
Those two mounting rungs are where I made my only big mistake on this project. While finishing all the ramps I noticed an orientation issue. I used a forstner bit to drill recesses for the t-nuts that all those climbers attach to. The side with all the big holes should be the back, but I put the mounting rungs on the other side. I could rip them off, but it would really tear up the plywood surface. I glued and nailed them down. Instead I just lived with it. The holes are ugly, but sanded well enough to not be a hazard.
I rounded over the edges of the sides, finished them all individually and assembled the two halves. To hold the two segments together I shaped a triangular piece of plywood. It screws fixed to one side while using a set of screws as a hinge on the other. A bolt and t-nut allow it to be locked in the open position. Removed, it pivots around the one set of screws and folds up.
Our little guy will be battle testing this design eventually. Maybe there will be an update in a year or two where he has figured out how to collapse it from jumping or something. Successful designs will have to get a #BabyProof update.
Our household bookcase is already pretty full with regular adult stuff. A new kid will require more book space. I always like those ones that would face all the covers forward. They of course sell for a lot, but with a bit of plywood I can make my own. Final product first, so you can see where we are going.
Our small collection of baby books ready to go! The only thing I would do different next time would be to make each pocket shallower. Lots of kids books are only 4 or 5 inches high, so they get half obscured.
I wanted to make a locking rabbet joint to hold the bottoms of each shelf on to the back. I used a slot bit on my router table and had numerous issues. This plywood tears really badly without any kind of support around the small diameter slot cutter. Those Jagged edges are really nasty and will be a pain to deal with. Good thing I cut a spare shelf to experiment with.
The other problem I was having was that my joint didn’t seat up very tightly across the wide shelf. I re-did it twice and still had odd gaps. I started looking at my router table and found the source. That is a straight level on the table, and the red arrow is pointing to a very large gap where the flashlight beam is shining through.
The router table is made of MDF, and the center plate that attaches to the router is plastic. Both had sagged after 10 years of weight and humidity. No wonder my cut wasn’t straight, my table isn’t flat! I will have to fix that later. I setup the tablesaw with a 1/4″ dado blade and cut all the joints. I hate having my table saw tied up for doing joinery, but it did make the cuts a lot cleaner than the router did.
With that solved I assembled all 5 shelves. Each one has pocket holes in the base so it can screw into the shelf in front of it, and more pocket holes along the sides to screw into the uprights. I finished all the shelves and cut out the two outside uprights that everything else would screw to. Other than the locking rabbet to attach the back and bottoms of each shelf everything else is pocket holes. Not glamorous, but effective.
For finishing I decided to try my hand at spraying shellac. I broke out shellac for the first time in a while on the stacking block project, but picked up a compact HVLP spray gun to try this out with. I reduced the shellac down to a 1lb cut and sprayed away. I didn’t have the gun setup right the first round and wasted a lot of finish. The second time I got it tuned in and was able to apply a few coats in a very short amount of time.
The shellac is dry to the touch in a few minutes, and with a little buffing, the next coat is ready to go on. Once the solvent evaporates it is set. Each successive layer will re-desolve the previous a little, so it always sticks. Not the most durable finish, but kid friendly and easy to repair.
Some big changes are coming to the household. We have a tiny kilt coming soon! He will be born in September, so it is time to start making some toys and baby/toddler furniture. The nature of this blog will probably still mostly focus on my projects, but it might eventually include collaborations between me and the offspring. How old do you have to be to start learning to use power tools? 4 or 5 maybe?
Until then, I have a lot of time in the shop now, due to the pandemic. I won’t once the baby comes, so let’s get started on a bunch of stash busting projects and make some toys and furniture. My first project is something simple. A stacking block game. I found a board of poplar that would suffice. Each block is about 1/2″ smaller than the previous. They get a hole drilled in the center and all the edges rounded over.
I bought a variety of craft paints to make these and other projects more colorful and appealing to kids. Truth be told, this was the hardest part. Painting everything with multiple coats, cleaning the sponges, keeping the paints separated and whatnot.
I wrote a little note on the bottom of the block set base, but the spray coat of shellac I threw on there mostly blurred it away. As it turns out, even the industrial sharpies are susceptible to ethel alcohol. Next time I will have to spray lacquer over any ink-work to preserve it before using shellac. My wonderful wife’s grandfather would always write notes on the things he built, so I am going to take up the tradition. The wood, paint and shellac is all kid friendly and benign should someone start using these as teething devices.