Whittle a Propeller Toy

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A child demonstrates how to launch the propeller toy. 
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Diagram shows parts and assembly relationships for the propeller toy.

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.

Now you’re ready to begin whittling! In order to give the
prop-up its lofting ability, you’ll need to carve the wood
into a characteristic propeller shape. With the block
positioned so that the long edge is facing you and
the inch-wide surface is on top, imagine the right-hand
five-inch segment of the blade sloping up and away
from you … while the left-hand portion slants up
toward you. Sound difficult? It’s actually very
easy to do.

Beginning at the middle line (which you just drew) and
working toward one tip of the piece of wood, whittle from
the top of one edge to the bottom of the opposite side.
Then turn the wood upside down and repeat the process on
the underside of the carved piece, forming a diagonal

Next, shape the other five-inch segment in the same manner,
but angle that section in the opposite direction.
Both sides of the propeller should be made as thin as
possible, otherwise the blade will be too heavy and the
prop won’t fly. You’ll also want to streamline the
spinner further by tapering the edges of the blade and
rounding off the corners and sanding the
whittled wood to give your aircraft a smooth surface.

At this point, all your tiny helicopter lacks is a
launching stick. Measure the propeller again to find the
exact midpoint, and mark this spot. Then simply carve (or
drill) a hole large enough to allow your launching stick to
fit snugly in the center of the blade. (You can use any
thin, wooden cylindrical rod for this part. I find a
nine-inch “all-day sucker” stick ideal for the task, but a
pencil will serve the same purpose.) Apply glue to one end
of the rod, insert that tip in the propeller’s hole, and let the adhesive dry.

You’re done! To test the propeller toy, hold the toy so that the
blade is on top and give the rod a whirling flip
between your palms. If you’ve launched the hand-hewn rocket
correctly, the toy will spiral high above your head. (If,
however, the airplane dive bombs to your feet,
simply twirl the stick in the opposite direction
on the next takeoff.)

The handmade helicopter can be flown indoors, but I
prefer to launch my prop-up outside, where it can soar as
high as 50 feet in the air. And I’ve found that by
releasing it at a slight tilt, the airborne toy can be
flown from person to person … and can even be caught by
the stick, with a little practice!

Once you begin piloting this aircraft, you’ll probably find
that all the potential woodcarvers in your family —
young and old alike — will want to join in the fun!