Archives For woodworking with kids

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.