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Whittle a Propeller Toy

A propeller toy is a simple but fun device. You can one carve yourself and play with indoors or outdoors, alone or with friends.

| March/April 1981

  • 068 propeller toy - photo
    A child demonstrates how to launch the propeller toy. 
  • 068 propeller toy - diagram
    Diagram shows parts and assembly relationships for the propeller toy.

  • 068 propeller toy - photo
  • 068 propeller toy - diagram

Way back in 1920 — when I was but a whippersnapper and aviation was just entering its adolescence — one of the now legendary "barnstormers" flew a World War I surplus biplane (a model officially called the JN4, but more affectionately known as the "Jenny") above the one-block-long downtown section of our small Oklahoma town. Then he leveled off the aircraft and eased the man-made bird onto a nearby pasture.

Airplanes were real novelties in those days, and by the time I arrived at the landing site, the pilot had already collected a good bit of cash from the more affluent (and braver) members of the community for rides in the flying machine. Being up in neither bucks nor courage, however, I was content merely to study the plane from a distance. I was fascinated with the propeller, and after some close inspection I decided to construct my own "aircraft" modeled on that curved blade.

My first propeller toy (or prop-up, as I call it) was just rough-whittled out of a piece of scrap lumber, but it shot straight up in the air for a good 50 feet when "launched"! In fact, I use the same design today to make the old-fashioned homemade "helicopters" because the toy is simple to build, it's constructed from readily available items, and — most important — it works!  

All you'll need to fashion this easy-to-put-together hand-hewn rocket are a piece of lightweight wood, a pocketknife, a cylindrical wooden rod roughly the thickness of a pencil, some glue, and a marker. The toy is made up of only two glue-assembled parts: a propeller blade and a launching stick.

In order to construct the propeller, you'll first need to find a rectangular scrap of lightweight (but heavier than balsa) lumber. I generally use white pine. Because the blade's shape determines how well the aircraft will fly, it's important that the wood be of the proper dimensions. The width of the whittled blade should be a little more than twice its thickness, and the length must be at least ten times the width. A propeller toy that is 3/8" X 1 " X 10" will work very well. (You can vary the size of your blade, but be certain to maintain the approximate thickness-to-width-to-length ratio of the foregoing figures.)

Once you've located a suitable wood scrap, measure it lengthwise and mark the midpoint on both sides. Then draw a line completely around the middle of the propeller, connecting the two dots in the process. This line divides the propeller into two five-inch-long segments.

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