Anyone looking for versatile, modern and inexpensive furniture has to look no further than PlyDesign (Storey Publishing, 2012) by Philip Schmidt. Schmidt, a former carpenter, offers toys, games and furnishings suited for everyone. Each design is crafted using plywood, or a number of other readily available sheet materials. The following excerpt is a simple kidnetic crib mobile.
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Designed by Christie Murata, adapted by Kathy and Philip Schmidt
Delighted, fixated, entranced, giddy, zoned out, amused, bewitched... any of these enviable states of mind fairly describes a baby caught in the spell of a mobile. And the best kind of mobile is moved by the silent forces of air and gravity (not a wind-up model that spins in one direction while playing off-key snippets of Mozart). The traditional mobile shown here is a simple adaptation of one of the designer’s more elaborate originals, pieces that require considerable skill with a scroll saw, not to mention an artist’s attention to detail. This version lets you use cookie cutters to draw the mobile figures and a jigsaw to cut them out. But don’t worry — a quick Internet search yields thousands of different cookie cutters for sale, so your own mobile will be anything but, you know, cookie-cutter.
• Seven (or more) cookie cutters
• 1/4" Baltic birch plywood (quantity as needed; see note following tool list)
• Finish nail or brad
• Foam core or scrap wood
• Craft paint
• One 40" length 1/4"-diam. birch dowel
• Seven (or more) 1/2" screw eyes
• Superglue or white glue (optional)
• Strong, lightweight string
• Fishing swivel
• One small metal washer or ring
• Mechanical pencil
• Jigsaw with ultra-fine-tooth wood blade
• Drill with 1⁄16" straight bit
• Sandpaper (100 to 220 grit) with sanding block
Note: Thin birch and Baltic birch plywood are commonly available in small pieces at craft stores (in sizes such as 12" x 24") and woodworking retailers (24" x 30" is common). For this project, the material should be relatively flat and have at least one good face (without patches).
As mentioned, cookie cutters are available in a vast range of shapes and sizes. Since they’re made for fragile cookies, the shapes and contours tend be simple enough; just keep in mind when choosing cutters, that you will be cutting the shapes out of thin plywood. You can find cool and unusual cookie cutters at specialty kitchen stores or from online retailers. Choose at least seven different characters; you can follow a specific theme or just pick a random collection.
1. Cut out the shapes.
Place each cookie cutter on 1/4" plywood stock. Holding it down firmly, trace around the outside of the cutter with a mechanical pencil (which has a very fine point).
Cut out the figure with a jigsaw and a very fine, or “clean,” blade. A narrow blade with 20 tpi (teeth per inch) works well with minimal splintering. A “scroll” blade is another option. The finer the blade, the more maneuverable it will be. To cut tight curves and tricky details, make relief cuts as needed. A relief cut is roughly perpendicular to the cutting line, and it allows the waste to fall away, freeing up the blade to approach the cut at a more direct angle; see the drawing of relief cuts at right.
As you cut, try to keep the figure attached to the stock for as long as possible; once you cut it free, a small piece can be difficult to secure by hand and is likely to bring your fingers close to the saw blade. For this same reason, it’s best to trace and cut the pieces one at a time. If you try to save material by fitting them closely together (as you might when cutting rolled-out cookie dough), you’ll end up having to cut each piece free from the stock prematurely.
2. Find the balance point.
To ensure that the figures will hang level (facedown), you have to install the screw eyes as close as possible to each figure’s center — not the center of its area, but the center of its weight. A simple balancing jig will help you find the weight center and mark it for locating the screw eye. Make the jig by pushing a small finish nail or brad up through a piece of foam core or scrap wood so the nail stands plumb with its point up.
To find the weight centers, place each figure with its back side on the nail point, and move the figure around until it balances itself (or nearly so). Then press the figure onto the nail to mark the back side with a small hole.
Drill a shallow (about 1/8") pilot hole at the mark, using a 1⁄16" bit, being very careful not to drill through to the front face of the figure. Repeat the process with the remaining figures.
3. Sand and paint the figures.
Sand the edges and faces of each figure. Use coarse sandpaper to shape edges, keeping the strokes parallel to the edge to prevent splintering. A flat sanding block helps shape straight edges and gradual convex curves. For detail sanding, wrap the sandpaper around a bit of dowel or a pencil, using it like a file. Use fine paper to smooth the edges and face veneers.
Decorate the figures with paint. The blonde plywood provides a nice background for painted details. The figures shown here were painted with acrylic craft paint in squeezable bottles with decorator tips. Let the paint dry completely.
4. Cut the dowels.
Using the jigsaw, cut six pieces of 1/4" dowel as follows (or as desired):
• 1 at 10 1/2"
• 1 at 7 1/2"
• 1 at 7"
• 2 at 5"
• 1 at 4 1/4"
These pieces are the balancing rods that will suspend the mobile figures. If you have more than seven figures, cut as many additional rods as you need. You can also change the length and configuration of the rods; anything will work, as long as the pieces are balanced and can move freely.
5. Assemble the mobile.
Assembling a mobile is a study in trial and error. Since every piece is counterbalanced by another, each tiny adjustment changes their weight relationship. The two factors that affect the balance are the relative weights of the pieces and the positions of the strings on the rods. The lengths of the strings have little effect on the balance.
First install the screw eyes. Using pliers for a good grip, carefully drive the threaded end of a screw eye into the pilot hole in the back of each figure, going in only about 1/8". Push in as you turn to engage the threads and prevent stripping the hole. If this does happen, just install the eye with a little glue and let it dry undisturbed.
Because each mobile is unique, there are no standard dimensions or layout guidelines for assembly. As an example, the mobile shown here is detailed in the mobile assembly drawing.
Start the assembly by cutting a length of string about 3 feet long and tying a fishing swivel to one end; this allows the mobile to spin without twisting the string. Tie a small washer or other type of ring to the free end of the swivel; this is for hanging the mobile.
Lay out the dowels and figures in the desired configuration, then start tying them off one by one. You can work from the top down or from the bottom up, whichever you prefer. First tie off the figures near the end of their supporting rods; most of the figures will be in pairs on a short rod. Then find the approximate balancing point of each rod with figure pairs, and loosely tie a string at this point. Again, you can adjust the length of any string throughout the assembly. To hang a single figure from a rod, counterbalance it with another rod.
As you work, move the strings sideways on the rods as needed to achieve balance. When all is properly balanced and all of the elements can rotate freely without touching one another, tie off the strings with strong knots, and trim the excess. If the string is slippery and doesn’t grip the dowels well, affix it with a small drop of superglue or white glue.
Excerpted from PlyDesign © Phillip Schmidt, photos © Lightbox Images Photography by Thomas Cooper, illustrations © Peter Sherratt, used with permission from Storey Publishing. Buy this book from our store: PlyDesign.
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