Cool, Your Jets!

April 8, 2013 — 6 Comments

I’d love to get my son, Ray, interested in woodworking. Some of this stems from my desire to provide an alternative to the allure of superheroes on luminescent screens. But as I’ve mentioned previously, a lot of it is the hope that I can teach him that with just a little determination and practice, he can shape his world rather than just purchase one off the shelf (as many people do). I’d like to think that I’m not shoving the hobby in his face, but rather enticing him, picking out shop projects that I think Ray would appreciate, both as an end-product he enjoys using as well as a manufacturing process he connects with.

My last attempt at this was a pair of F–15 fighter jets, which we finished in February of 2012:

Ray's F-15

These jets are as friggin’ awesome as I am modest. They look great, have detachable wheels that click when inserted into the body thanks to some rare-earth magnets. And there are two of them so Ray and a friend can fly them around, engaging in aerial dogfights or embarking on stealth sorties, such as carpet-bombing the “LEGO Terrorist-Harboring Peasant Village” playset we got him when he was 2.

I figured if Ray found the process of making these jets similar enough to assembling something with LEGOs (which he loves and is very good at), it’d be something within grasp and rewarding enough for him to want more. So I involved him extensively first in the project selection process, then as an observer in some of the rough shaping stage (tablesaw, bandsaw, handplanes), and eventually let him use the spokeshave for a bit. But in reality, I fabricated all the parts in a few short-but-sporadic late-night sessions in the shop. Then, in a session lasting the better part of a weekend, he used a brace and handrill, gimlets, some hide glue, a hammer and nails, and some sandpaper and shellac to assemble and finish his toys.

Ray Assembles his F-15

He loved coming out of the woodshop with something he could say he built with me. I had a blast in the shop with him and still enjoy watching him and his friends play with these (though these particular toys are transitioning out of fancy I’m afraid). We’ve had to fix the wings a few times (thank you, hide glue), but I think the project as a whole was a success as far as he was concerned.

Unfortunately, work (and its evil comrade, work travel) picked up shortly after this, so whatever momentum I had coming out of making the jets with Ray vanished like a contrail…like a Ghost rider requesting a flyby.

A few takeaways from that project:

  • It took more time than I had. I think the parts came together quickly in terms of shoptime, but I think it was well over a month for me to get enough shoptime to finish them. That’s a long runway (sorry) from project selection to results, perhaps especially for Ray. I’d like to find simpler, quicker-to-finish projects. Projects that I could realize very easily should his schedule and my schedule just happen to coincide one weekend.
  • My general approach—center his participation around assembly—was right on. He loved figuring out which part went where and other than general tool and safety guidance, I was able to step back and make assembly his to own. Or p0wn, if you will.
  • That said, utimately my main issue with the project was that in the end, I’m not confident that the jets are any different a toy for him than something he puts together with LEGOs. I’m not sure why I feel this way; some of it perhaps is because the jets are really quite nice. Perhaps too nice. Though they have some flaws, they don’t register to me (or to a lot of people) as homemade toys. Hell, many of the toys I made for myself as a kid were made out of paper towel rolls, leftover snap-together model parts, and Elmer’s glue. They were definitely…distinct. And I loved those toys for that. The jets—they’re nice enough for them to compete with plastic toys that have motors and sounds. And on that score maybe they fall short.

I’m posting this for two reasons. One, just this past weekend I attempted another project with Ray: a Japanese box which crossed my radar thanks to Wilbur Pan:

Japanese Box

More on that project in an upcoming post (preview of the results in the photo above).

Two, I’m definitely soliciting suggestions for projects and approaches to woodworking with kids. What age is appropriate for them to handle tools with edges? Machinery? I’m sure this differs somewhat from child to child but it’s a topic on which I would love to gather anecdotes, both good and bad.

Update: I’ve gotten several requests to hand over the secret plans for the plans to these jets. You’ll find them in the book, The Great All-American Wooden Toy Book. It’s a good, inexpensive book with projects at all levels of ambition.

6 responses to Cool, Your Jets!

  1. Hi! I don’t have much to suggest, but I recently made pencil boxes with my niece and nephew. It was pretty easy and only took a couple hours. We don’t have kiddos around so I am definitely envious of your little shop buddy! Keep up the good work!

  2. “Kub Kars” were the projects I first cut my teeth on with Dad. Simple and goal oriented (make it faster!). Basic cutting, sanding, assembly and finishing in one or two shop sessions.
    http://www.scoutscan.com/kubkars/kubkardesigns.pdf

    If Dad gets particularly ambitious he could build a track…
    http://www.rahul.net/mcgrew/derby/track/

  3. I have 2 kids that are “interested” in woodworking as well (8 &10), but they often lose interest when I over complicate their expectations of making something “Now” to be in-line with what I want them to learn (like sawing 1000 straight lines to develop that essential skill) Both kids are quite different in their methods, so find what works for your son. My son (8) loves hammering type activities, but also likes the spokeshave. My daughter (10) likes jigsaw type work and turning “spindles” a bit on a pen lathe. In both cases, I trust them with different tools based on their aptitude demonstrated over considerable time. There’s no way my son should be messing around chisels, and my daughter is reduced to tears using a western saw.

    “Projects” they have both enjoyed:
    scrap 1X. material and a box of 1″ roofing nails, tell them to make a plaque with their name (or Mom’s) in nails. (This will keep them in the shop for a long time, but out of your hair)
    scrap 1X. draw their name in connected bubble letters and let them work away with a coping saw (have a few spare blades at the ready) after that let them make another for a friend/loved one.

    When I was a kid (~8), my dad showed me how to cut a (balsa or pine) wood paddle boat using a coping saw. A “U”ish shaped boat body, an egg crate jointed (tall half-lap) paddle wheel and a rubber band. A very good project that after 1-2 I could do completely on my own without any help (and teach/amaze my friends). Of course they were awful joints not straight cuts etc, but was something fun I could do independently and then go put in the tub or creek and play with in a very short order, (This probably contributes to my mad coping saw skillz and desire to use one for almost all joinery) I should get the kids on that for the backyard pool this summer.

    That Japanese box looks like a great project and can’t wait to hear more about Ray’s experience with this.

  4. I couldn’t agree more with your statement, “These jets are as friggin’ awesome as I am modest.” I’ve been flying the F-15 for the past eleven years and I’m still in awe of its beauty. I must say that your son’s workmanship does the original justice – I hope it gets plenty of hours in the air. I haven’t seen a blog post yet (or ever) that combines my two hobbies as well as this one.

    I have a two-year-old son and both of us, it seems, are anxiously waiting for him to get old enough to really work together in the shop. You and the other commenters have great points that I will take to heart as he gets older. As he starts to pick up Legos and stack scraps in the shop, I realize that finding the thin line between engaging and frustrating is rather difficult. I have noticed that his level of interest varies from day to day and even from hour to hour. If he loses interest quickly, he may be willing to come back to the project later with more enthusiasm… or he may just feel like watching Yo Gabba Gabba. As long as I accept the fact that the lowest common denominator sets the schedule, we both have more fun – even if an afternoon project takes a week or more.

    My current workshop consists of only hand tools (I live in an apartment in Korea) which are housed in a small, but comfortable, room enclosed on two sides by huge sliding glass walls (it’s a pretty strange apartment). This room coveniently located right next to the kitchen and living room. I’m able to sanitize the shop of its more dangerous tools when he wants to help, and since he’s always able to see what’s going on – even when the doors are closed – he is still involved to some degree with whatever I’m doing. It’s a perfect setup for us now – one that I hope I’m able to replicate wherever our next workshop may be.

    Thanks for the post. I look forward to reading more about your woodworking endeavors with your kids.

    • Grunt, thank you for your comment and for flying those F-15s. Your comment made my day.

      I’m grateful that my kid has a longer attention span than most, but this is really only true as long as what he’s doing has his attention.

      If you do have an opportunity to make one of these jets, I’m sure your son would totally dig it. If getting the book is difficult from where you are, I’d be happy to send you mine.

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