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Two Marble Drop Toys


November 2006

Getting Started

Sometimes, things just come together quickly, from idea, to finishing.

I was all finished with my Christmas woodworking projects. Early even! It wasn't even December yet! But then I happened across a photo on a forum of a classic style marble drop toy.

Almost immediately, I knew that I had to build one for my nephew. Or niece. Whichever. Well... ONE of them was going to get it. It is a simple project, and I knew I could put it together quickly. I didn't have a project on the go right now, so getting some time in the shop was also not a problem.

Let me stop a moment to talk about chokeability. My kids have never, ever, had a problem with swallowing things. Seems almost strange, considering how often they would stick things in their mouths and chew on them. But for whatever reason, they never made the jump to actually trying to swallow things. So I've never worried that much about small toys.

However, this was not for my children, so I made sure to first check with the parents to see how their kids were with small toys. Also, I sized this to fit larger 1" diameter marbles. It will still work with smaller marbles.

(unfortunately, those larger marbles are hard to come by. You can buy a bag of "regular" sized marbles for a buck at the dollar store. But each bag only has one of the large marbles in it. Sigh. Good thing my wife had a huge pile of marbles left over from her childhood.)

I happened to have some leftover thin ash from a previous project. I had resawed some 4/4 ash to make some thin stock, and had a bunch of leftover 3" wide, by (almost) 3/8" thick stock. I planed this down to 1/4" thick to make up the marble tracks.

Next, I ripped the ash into 1/2" wide strips (for the track bottoms) and 11/16" strips (for the track sides). I then glued and clamped the sides strips to the bottoms and ended up with two 56-57" long track "blanks" to start off this project.

Next Step, the two towers...

Classic Style

For the towers, I pulled out some thin walnut scraps. I really like working with contrasting, but complementary, wood species. The Dark walnut would give a nice contrast to the pale ash.

The uprights are made much like the marble tracks, but with a thicker base, in order to give someplace to hold the screws that attach it to the bottom. The towers are wider than the tracks, so that the track can be fit inside the tower track. This should give a nice secure gluing surface.

The body of the towers is 5/8" thick, by 1-1-2" wide, by 10" tall. The tower sides are 1/4" thick, by 1-1/2" wide, also by 10" tall. Glue on just one of the tower sides to each tower. The other tower side will be attached later, after the marble tracks are in place. This makes it easier to fit in the tracks and glue them securely.

The base is another piece of walnut, about 3" by 13" by 3/8" thick. Mark the positions for the towers, 10" apart and centered, and glue and screw in from below. Use a 10" wide piece of scrap plywood to hold the towers parallel and plumb while fastening.

The next step is to layout and install the marble tracks. Most of the tracks are 10" long, give or take a quarter inch. I cut each one to fit. Pick a layout that you like. I varied the angle, so some tracks are steeper than others. Five tracks fit in this project. The top four all need a 1" hole drilled at the end to allow the marble to drop through. The bottom one does not need a hole, but I cut the walls of the track shorter for the last 3 inches, to make it easier to extract the marbles later.

Once the tracks have been glued into place, the remaining tower walls can also be glued into place, to finish off the construction.

And this is a bit backwards, but... the tracks were finish sanded back when they were just one long blank. In that way the ends just needed a bit of touch up with sand paper as they were cut down to length. Ditto for the towers and the base. So once the project was assembled, a little touch up sanding was all that was needed.

For simplicity, you can't beat the Lee Valley beeswax salad bowl finish. This pleasant-smelling mix of beeswax and mineral oil is easy to apply, and completely safe. Not that I expect you to start chopping celery on this project, but you never know what kids will start chewing on. Actually, that's not true. You DO know what kids will chew on: everything that they can fit in their mouths.

The end result is a gorgeous classic toy.

Free Style

Now the problem is that the first track was so easy to build, and there still was half the marble track blank still just sitting there...

So I couldn't make just one.

But I didn't want to make the same thing. This resulted in a LOT of head scratching and blank staring as I worked out how to proceed.

I still wanted to keep it fairly simple. I was not going to build one of those elaborate marble constructs that has track switches, spirals, loops and so on. For one thing, I only had so much time. For another, I only had so much track.

So this is what happened. I started with a top and bottom out of some more small walnut off-cuts. Both were cut to 5-1/2" square, by 1" thick. Then four pieces of oak were cut 1" by 1" by 14" tall. These were the uprights. They were drilled with a pocket hole jig at each end. Layouts were marked on the top and bottom such that the four uprights would be spaced in a square, with exactly enough room between them to fit the marble track in between them in either direction.

The top and bottom were next run through the router table, equipped with a roundover bit, to ease all the edges. And finally, just for fun, a starting hole was drilled on an angle through the top. This would be the start of the track.

After sanding smooth, the uprights were fastened to the top and bottom. The pocket holes were plugged with oak plugs and chiseled and sanded smooth.

Then the fun began, coming up with new ways to move the marbles around the piece. The problem... er.. the challenge was that the uprights were already installed, so gluing track inbetween them proved tricky, and practically impossible. Instead I had to go through some contortions to get counter-sunk screws inserted in very tight quarters, to keep things tight and strong. A compressor and air-nailer might have helped here, but even that would probably not fit into some of those tight spots.

Finishing with the beeswax finish, was unfortunately out of the question, as there were too many tight spots. Spraying would have been good, but I do not have the equipment for spraying finish. Instead I resorted to brushing shellac. It does the job nicely, but I would have preferred keeping the ash lighter.


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