Fair Woodworking

January 13, 2012

Ladders for Santa?

Normally you would see topics like this before Christmas, but I just wasn’t able to write about it in time. So now, with the off chance the Mayans are right, I’ll share it now.

As I mentioned before, I took part in a Christmas Toy drive put on by the local Woodworking Association. The toys I made were Jacob’s Ladders.

I wrote about them a while ago along with the troubles I was having.

It’s a toy that I haven’t used since I was a little kid, and I don’t remember if they worked flawlessly or not.

I can say that not all of these do.

The first thing that hit me about this project was that it was not on of my usual one off projects. This was going to require a bit of an assembly line mentality, and no power tool snobbery.


I’m in the home reno business and one of the perks is that we salvage a lot of old well dried wood. Especially Birch and Maple stair treads. Usually they are laminated but for smaller work it’s great free hardwood.

My goal was to make as many ladders as one 36″ tread would provide for.

Since this was a toy I hadn’t seen since I was a kid, I had no idea how to lace the ribbon. After a quick search on the web I had some general instructions, but they were not clear enough that I felt I knew what to do.

My first prototype was made out of plywood and strips of newspaper taped on for ribbon. It was crude, but it worked well enough to confirm that I’d strung the ribbon in the correct pattern.

My second prototype was with the birch tread material and the ribbon I’d planned to use. It looked nice enough, but was laced so tight it wouldn’t work. I pulled it all apart and re laced it looser. Now the motions worked fine, but it would get hung up half way through.

As I studied the motion it appeared that the three ribbons not only needed a little bit of slack, they all needed precisely the same amount of slack.


I’d like to say I solved this problem, but I didn’t. I did get to the point that they worked fairly well, buy not flawlessly. For that reason, I’m not going to show how I laced them.

In the end, I made 16 acceptable ladders. 15 were for the toy drive and one I kept for R&D.

The one that I kept was toured around to any friends I have with children during the holidays. I was interested to see what the Nintendo generation would think of the traditional toy. What I found out was that most people of any age could hardly figure out how to work it.

Its not a toy for kids that are hard on their toys, and is best for kids with a mechanical, imaginative approach.

I’m a total geek, so I can kill hours playing with them.


After sawing the stair tread into strips,


I used the LAJ to remove the mill marks. It’s way, way too long for this process, and absolutely the WRONG plane for the job,

but at the time I didn’t have any shorter planes set up for that kind of cut. (I do now, but now is too late). I finished up with my smoothing plane, a much more appropriate plane, but it when set up for a fine shaving, it would have taken forever to finish. Now I have a second smoother that is set for a slightly more aggressive cut so I don’t have to settle for using the jack. The jack is a great plane, but less than ideal in this application.

After smoothing, I chamfered the edges with a block plane.

Does this block plane make my hands look fat?


With the strips chopped into little blocks, I decided to put a fairly heavy bevel on the ends. I think it helped them work just a little better. A scrap piece of lumber cut to a 45 helped get the angle right. Again, I can’t say enough about my Hotdog attachment. Each bevel required 15 passes to complete. Each block has 8 beveled edges. Each ladder uses 6 blocks. I made 16 ladders. That’s 11,520 passes with the shooting plane. I could hardly move my left thumb it was so sore from holding the blocks in place, but my right hand was completely at home on the hotdog attachment. In this configuration it is the most comfortable plane I own!


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