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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
What Is It?

The Post and Panel System started with the desire to let my son build cool castles out of blocks. But I didn't like that regular blocks fall down so easily. A little kid is going to have a hard time protecting his castle from barbarians, pets and siblings if the only things he can use are gravity and friction! So, unlike regular old blocks, the posts and panels in this set lock together.

In minutes, without any instructions, your kids (or, be honest, you) can create complex and sturdy houses, castles, or farms with courtyards, towers, walls, windows and even swinging doors. If anyone complains your castle is in the way-just move it! It all holds together. And the whole set is scaled to work well with numerous dolls and animals available from wooden toy sellers.


A sample castle built from a full set of posts and panels.
To jump ahead and see this whole castle built piece-by-piece, click here, and scroll to the bottom.
To see a bunch of non-castle things than can be built with this same set, click here.

How Does Assembly Work?
http://static.photobucket.com/player.swf

What Parts Does it Use?
The set is made up of the following basic parts:

  • Short Posts
  • Tall Posts
  • Short Panels
  • Regular Panels
  • Wide Panels

Each post is 1 1/2" square, and has grooves on all four sides. Each panel is 5/8" thick and has a round bead on the right and left edges. Slide a panel bead into a post groove and the two pieces stay locked together. Adding more panels to a post you can create right-angle or straight walls. The posts and panels have enough thickness to stand upright on their own, even in a straight line, but if you add a wall at a right-angle, they become very sturdy.

The posts and panels are all designed to work together to retain right angles and even heights, no matter what combination you choose. For example, each short post and panel are exactly half the height of a tall post or regular panel. The widths of the panels are such that when combined with the necessary posts, they equal the same length. For example, a combination of three posts and two regular panels would be the same length as a two posts and a wide panel. This means no matter what combinations of posts and panels you use to create walls, they will always be able to join at right angles.



To read about how to build more complicated structures, see the next entry, titled (surprisingly) Building Complicated Structures
 

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13,709 Posts
What Is It?

The Post and Panel System started with the desire to let my son build cool castles out of blocks. But I didn't like that regular blocks fall down so easily. A little kid is going to have a hard time protecting his castle from barbarians, pets and siblings if the only things he can use are gravity and friction! So, unlike regular old blocks, the posts and panels in this set lock together.

In minutes, without any instructions, your kids (or, be honest, you) can create complex and sturdy houses, castles, or farms with courtyards, towers, walls, windows and even swinging doors. If anyone complains your castle is in the way-just move it! It all holds together. And the whole set is scaled to work well with numerous dolls and animals available from wooden toy sellers.


A sample castle built from a full set of posts and panels.
To jump ahead and see this whole castle built piece-by-piece, click here, and scroll to the bottom.
To see a bunch of non-castle things than can be built with this same set, click here.

How Does Assembly Work?
http://static.photobucket.com/player.swf

What Parts Does it Use?
The set is made up of the following basic parts:

  • Short Posts
  • Tall Posts
  • Short Panels
  • Regular Panels
  • Wide Panels

Each post is 1 1/2" square, and has grooves on all four sides. Each panel is 5/8" thick and has a round bead on the right and left edges. Slide a panel bead into a post groove and the two pieces stay locked together. Adding more panels to a post you can create right-angle or straight walls. The posts and panels have enough thickness to stand upright on their own, even in a straight line, but if you add a wall at a right-angle, they become very sturdy.

The posts and panels are all designed to work together to retain right angles and even heights, no matter what combination you choose. For example, each short post and panel are exactly half the height of a tall post or regular panel. The widths of the panels are such that when combined with the necessary posts, they equal the same length. For example, a combination of three posts and two regular panels would be the same length as a two posts and a wide panel. This means no matter what combinations of posts and panels you use to create walls, they will always be able to join at right angles.



To read about how to build more complicated structures, see the next entry, titled (surprisingly) Building Complicated Structures
Cool!!

Looks like a lot more fun than Lincoln Logs!
 

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85 Posts
Discussion Starter · #3 ·
Building Complicated Structures

The basic assembly process is simple: Slide a panel's edge bead into a groove in a post-that's it. Incidentally, this basic interaction is so intuitive that my 4 yr old took one look at a post and panel and immediately put them together. Within seconds, he had grabbed two more posts and panels and added them to the wall.

Tall Walls and Towers
However, to build a wall that is taller than a single post, there's a very simple additional trick: Instead of using a tall post and regular panel-which are the same height-you instead mismatch the post and panel. For example, if you start with a short panel and a regular post, the post will extend well above the top of the panel. You can then add a regular panel on top of the short panel, connected to the same post. But this time the panel will extend above the top of the post. Then add another tall post to that panel, and so on. Much like alternating bricks in a wall, the one short panel will offset the remaining posts and panels, interlocking them together. Finish the wall section with a short post on top to even things out. If you do this on four walls, you end up with a tower. Note the short and tall posts and panels alternating in the image below.



Windows and Doorways
But what if you want to have a door opening at the base of that tower? If you simply leave out the bottom panel, the panels above will simply slide down the grooves to fill in the hole. This problem is solved by using Pins to hold up the upper panels.

The pin is simply a piece of dowel that slides into the groove in a post. The next panel added above it will rest on the top of the pin and stay in place. When the rest of the tower is constructed, you'll be left with an open doorway the size of one panel.

http://static.photobucket.com/player.swf

A window can be built the same way, except that the pins are inserted higher up the wall, creating an opening in the middle of the wall instead of at the bottom.

Swinging Doors
This trick is courtesy of my 4yr old son, Owen. The first day they he received the Post and Panel set, he asked me how to build a door. He had immediately constructed a giant garage for his John Deere tractor, and needed a door so that no robbers would get in to steal it. Alas, I hadn't built any hinges, and because the panels and posts fit somewhat snugly, the panels would only pivot about 5 degrees offline. I told him I would have to build some special hinge pieces, but I never got around to it.

A month later, after again asking how to build a door, and again being told Daddy would have to create something to do that, he suddenly announced "I figured it out!" This is what he came up with:

http://static.photobucket.com/player.swf

Start with a regular panel, and attach a short post to the edge. Then place a regular pin in an unused groove in that short post, most likely using the groove opposite the panel. Next, slide another short post onto the top half of the pin, and then attach another regular panel to an unused groove on that second short post. You now have two short posts, held together by a pin, with each post attached to a panel. Because the posts are offset, their corners don't bind and they can pivot. Depending on which panel you attach to your permanent walls, the other panel becomes the door.

When I saw this in action, I almost fell out of my chair! Having designed the pieces, and knowing I had never designed them to pivot, I "knew" it couldn't be done. My son had no preconceived limitations, and so he wasn't bound by them. Fantastic example of thinking outside the box.

A Complete Castle
Here is a quick movie showing the assembly of a full castle, piece by piece…

http://static.photobucket.com/player.swf

Now that you've seen a castle being built, check out all the non-castle things you can build in the next entry, titled Much More Than Castles.
 

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2,833 Posts
Building Complicated Structures

The basic assembly process is simple: Slide a panel's edge bead into a groove in a post-that's it. Incidentally, this basic interaction is so intuitive that my 4 yr old took one look at a post and panel and immediately put them together. Within seconds, he had grabbed two more posts and panels and added them to the wall.

Tall Walls and Towers
However, to build a wall that is taller than a single post, there's a very simple additional trick: Instead of using a tall post and regular panel-which are the same height-you instead mismatch the post and panel. For example, if you start with a short panel and a regular post, the post will extend well above the top of the panel. You can then add a regular panel on top of the short panel, connected to the same post. But this time the panel will extend above the top of the post. Then add another tall post to that panel, and so on. Much like alternating bricks in a wall, the one short panel will offset the remaining posts and panels, interlocking them together. Finish the wall section with a short post on top to even things out. If you do this on four walls, you end up with a tower. Note the short and tall posts and panels alternating in the image below.



Windows and Doorways
But what if you want to have a door opening at the base of that tower? If you simply leave out the bottom panel, the panels above will simply slide down the grooves to fill in the hole. This problem is solved by using Pins to hold up the upper panels.

The pin is simply a piece of dowel that slides into the groove in a post. The next panel added above it will rest on the top of the pin and stay in place. When the rest of the tower is constructed, you'll be left with an open doorway the size of one panel.

http://static.photobucket.com/player.swf

A window can be built the same way, except that the pins are inserted higher up the wall, creating an opening in the middle of the wall instead of at the bottom.

Swinging Doors
This trick is courtesy of my 4yr old son, Owen. The first day they he received the Post and Panel set, he asked me how to build a door. He had immediately constructed a giant garage for his John Deere tractor, and needed a door so that no robbers would get in to steal it. Alas, I hadn't built any hinges, and because the panels and posts fit somewhat snugly, the panels would only pivot about 5 degrees offline. I told him I would have to build some special hinge pieces, but I never got around to it.

A month later, after again asking how to build a door, and again being told Daddy would have to create something to do that, he suddenly announced "I figured it out!" This is what he came up with:

http://static.photobucket.com/player.swf

Start with a regular panel, and attach a short post to the edge. Then place a regular pin in an unused groove in that short post, most likely using the groove opposite the panel. Next, slide another short post onto the top half of the pin, and then attach another regular panel to an unused groove on that second short post. You now have two short posts, held together by a pin, with each post attached to a panel. Because the posts are offset, their corners don't bind and they can pivot. Depending on which panel you attach to your permanent walls, the other panel becomes the door.

When I saw this in action, I almost fell out of my chair! Having designed the pieces, and knowing I had never designed them to pivot, I "knew" it couldn't be done. My son had no preconceived limitations, and so he wasn't bound by them. Fantastic example of thinking outside the box.

A Complete Castle
Here is a quick movie showing the assembly of a full castle, piece by piece…

http://static.photobucket.com/player.swf

Now that you've seen a castle being built, check out all the non-castle things you can build in the next entry, titled Much More Than Castles.
well very cool, kids are wonders aren't they.
 

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85 Posts
Discussion Starter · #5 ·
Building Complicated Structures

The basic assembly process is simple: Slide a panel's edge bead into a groove in a post-that's it. Incidentally, this basic interaction is so intuitive that my 4 yr old took one look at a post and panel and immediately put them together. Within seconds, he had grabbed two more posts and panels and added them to the wall.

Tall Walls and Towers
However, to build a wall that is taller than a single post, there's a very simple additional trick: Instead of using a tall post and regular panel-which are the same height-you instead mismatch the post and panel. For example, if you start with a short panel and a regular post, the post will extend well above the top of the panel. You can then add a regular panel on top of the short panel, connected to the same post. But this time the panel will extend above the top of the post. Then add another tall post to that panel, and so on. Much like alternating bricks in a wall, the one short panel will offset the remaining posts and panels, interlocking them together. Finish the wall section with a short post on top to even things out. If you do this on four walls, you end up with a tower. Note the short and tall posts and panels alternating in the image below.



Windows and Doorways
But what if you want to have a door opening at the base of that tower? If you simply leave out the bottom panel, the panels above will simply slide down the grooves to fill in the hole. This problem is solved by using Pins to hold up the upper panels.

The pin is simply a piece of dowel that slides into the groove in a post. The next panel added above it will rest on the top of the pin and stay in place. When the rest of the tower is constructed, you'll be left with an open doorway the size of one panel.

http://static.photobucket.com/player.swf

A window can be built the same way, except that the pins are inserted higher up the wall, creating an opening in the middle of the wall instead of at the bottom.

Swinging Doors
This trick is courtesy of my 4yr old son, Owen. The first day they he received the Post and Panel set, he asked me how to build a door. He had immediately constructed a giant garage for his John Deere tractor, and needed a door so that no robbers would get in to steal it. Alas, I hadn't built any hinges, and because the panels and posts fit somewhat snugly, the panels would only pivot about 5 degrees offline. I told him I would have to build some special hinge pieces, but I never got around to it.

A month later, after again asking how to build a door, and again being told Daddy would have to create something to do that, he suddenly announced "I figured it out!" This is what he came up with:

http://static.photobucket.com/player.swf

Start with a regular panel, and attach a short post to the edge. Then place a regular pin in an unused groove in that short post, most likely using the groove opposite the panel. Next, slide another short post onto the top half of the pin, and then attach another regular panel to an unused groove on that second short post. You now have two short posts, held together by a pin, with each post attached to a panel. Because the posts are offset, their corners don't bind and they can pivot. Depending on which panel you attach to your permanent walls, the other panel becomes the door.

When I saw this in action, I almost fell out of my chair! Having designed the pieces, and knowing I had never designed them to pivot, I "knew" it couldn't be done. My son had no preconceived limitations, and so he wasn't bound by them. Fantastic example of thinking outside the box.

A Complete Castle
Here is a quick movie showing the assembly of a full castle, piece by piece…

http://static.photobucket.com/player.swf

Now that you've seen a castle being built, check out all the non-castle things you can build in the next entry, titled Much More Than Castles.
I'll some revised and additional photos up soon, and get some video as well. No better feeling than watching kids play with toys you built…
 

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Building Complicated Structures

The basic assembly process is simple: Slide a panel's edge bead into a groove in a post-that's it. Incidentally, this basic interaction is so intuitive that my 4 yr old took one look at a post and panel and immediately put them together. Within seconds, he had grabbed two more posts and panels and added them to the wall.

Tall Walls and Towers
However, to build a wall that is taller than a single post, there's a very simple additional trick: Instead of using a tall post and regular panel-which are the same height-you instead mismatch the post and panel. For example, if you start with a short panel and a regular post, the post will extend well above the top of the panel. You can then add a regular panel on top of the short panel, connected to the same post. But this time the panel will extend above the top of the post. Then add another tall post to that panel, and so on. Much like alternating bricks in a wall, the one short panel will offset the remaining posts and panels, interlocking them together. Finish the wall section with a short post on top to even things out. If you do this on four walls, you end up with a tower. Note the short and tall posts and panels alternating in the image below.



Windows and Doorways
But what if you want to have a door opening at the base of that tower? If you simply leave out the bottom panel, the panels above will simply slide down the grooves to fill in the hole. This problem is solved by using Pins to hold up the upper panels.

The pin is simply a piece of dowel that slides into the groove in a post. The next panel added above it will rest on the top of the pin and stay in place. When the rest of the tower is constructed, you'll be left with an open doorway the size of one panel.

http://static.photobucket.com/player.swf

A window can be built the same way, except that the pins are inserted higher up the wall, creating an opening in the middle of the wall instead of at the bottom.

Swinging Doors
This trick is courtesy of my 4yr old son, Owen. The first day they he received the Post and Panel set, he asked me how to build a door. He had immediately constructed a giant garage for his John Deere tractor, and needed a door so that no robbers would get in to steal it. Alas, I hadn't built any hinges, and because the panels and posts fit somewhat snugly, the panels would only pivot about 5 degrees offline. I told him I would have to build some special hinge pieces, but I never got around to it.

A month later, after again asking how to build a door, and again being told Daddy would have to create something to do that, he suddenly announced "I figured it out!" This is what he came up with:

http://static.photobucket.com/player.swf

Start with a regular panel, and attach a short post to the edge. Then place a regular pin in an unused groove in that short post, most likely using the groove opposite the panel. Next, slide another short post onto the top half of the pin, and then attach another regular panel to an unused groove on that second short post. You now have two short posts, held together by a pin, with each post attached to a panel. Because the posts are offset, their corners don't bind and they can pivot. Depending on which panel you attach to your permanent walls, the other panel becomes the door.

When I saw this in action, I almost fell out of my chair! Having designed the pieces, and knowing I had never designed them to pivot, I "knew" it couldn't be done. My son had no preconceived limitations, and so he wasn't bound by them. Fantastic example of thinking outside the box.

A Complete Castle
Here is a quick movie showing the assembly of a full castle, piece by piece…

http://static.photobucket.com/player.swf

Now that you've seen a castle being built, check out all the non-castle things you can build in the next entry, titled Much More Than Castles.
That is really cool, Pete. I'd like to see more.
Is there a reason you went with a bead rather than a dovetail, say?
 

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Discussion Starter · #7 ·
Building Complicated Structures

The basic assembly process is simple: Slide a panel's edge bead into a groove in a post-that's it. Incidentally, this basic interaction is so intuitive that my 4 yr old took one look at a post and panel and immediately put them together. Within seconds, he had grabbed two more posts and panels and added them to the wall.

Tall Walls and Towers
However, to build a wall that is taller than a single post, there's a very simple additional trick: Instead of using a tall post and regular panel-which are the same height-you instead mismatch the post and panel. For example, if you start with a short panel and a regular post, the post will extend well above the top of the panel. You can then add a regular panel on top of the short panel, connected to the same post. But this time the panel will extend above the top of the post. Then add another tall post to that panel, and so on. Much like alternating bricks in a wall, the one short panel will offset the remaining posts and panels, interlocking them together. Finish the wall section with a short post on top to even things out. If you do this on four walls, you end up with a tower. Note the short and tall posts and panels alternating in the image below.



Windows and Doorways
But what if you want to have a door opening at the base of that tower? If you simply leave out the bottom panel, the panels above will simply slide down the grooves to fill in the hole. This problem is solved by using Pins to hold up the upper panels.

The pin is simply a piece of dowel that slides into the groove in a post. The next panel added above it will rest on the top of the pin and stay in place. When the rest of the tower is constructed, you'll be left with an open doorway the size of one panel.

http://static.photobucket.com/player.swf

A window can be built the same way, except that the pins are inserted higher up the wall, creating an opening in the middle of the wall instead of at the bottom.

Swinging Doors
This trick is courtesy of my 4yr old son, Owen. The first day they he received the Post and Panel set, he asked me how to build a door. He had immediately constructed a giant garage for his John Deere tractor, and needed a door so that no robbers would get in to steal it. Alas, I hadn't built any hinges, and because the panels and posts fit somewhat snugly, the panels would only pivot about 5 degrees offline. I told him I would have to build some special hinge pieces, but I never got around to it.

A month later, after again asking how to build a door, and again being told Daddy would have to create something to do that, he suddenly announced "I figured it out!" This is what he came up with:

http://static.photobucket.com/player.swf

Start with a regular panel, and attach a short post to the edge. Then place a regular pin in an unused groove in that short post, most likely using the groove opposite the panel. Next, slide another short post onto the top half of the pin, and then attach another regular panel to an unused groove on that second short post. You now have two short posts, held together by a pin, with each post attached to a panel. Because the posts are offset, their corners don't bind and they can pivot. Depending on which panel you attach to your permanent walls, the other panel becomes the door.

When I saw this in action, I almost fell out of my chair! Having designed the pieces, and knowing I had never designed them to pivot, I "knew" it couldn't be done. My son had no preconceived limitations, and so he wasn't bound by them. Fantastic example of thinking outside the box.

A Complete Castle
Here is a quick movie showing the assembly of a full castle, piece by piece…

http://static.photobucket.com/player.swf

Now that you've seen a castle being built, check out all the non-castle things you can build in the next entry, titled Much More Than Castles.
Julie, glad you like it.

I did try a dovetail first, in some test pieces, mostly because I had dovetail bits available. But once I had a sample post and panel, I discovered three reasons to go with the bead and groove instead:

1. I wanted to make sure it would be easy for little fingers and hands to assemble. The round groove, with a bead that is just slightly undersized, mean that the panel and post don't have to be perfectly aligned to slide together. If the panel is rotated just a bit from perpendicular to the post face, the pieces can still marry up easily.

2. With a round bead and groove, and the aforementioned "slop", the panels can rotate about 5 degrees to either side before the shoulder of the panel hits the post. That again provides some forgiveness during assembly. If the walls aren't exactly aligned (or even if the wood warps a bit, which it did), you can just pull on the wall and it will flex a bit, allowing you to connect wall sections more easily. A dovetail, with it's straight sides, would fit tightly, and would allow less movement. All the reasons the dovetails are great for furniture made them less than optimal for this.

3. I wanted to avoid corners that could scratch little hands or splinter. As it is, all of the outside corners of the posts took plenty of sanding to knock them all down, and same with the "inside" corners along each groove, and along the panel shoulders. But really, with 4yr-old play, I figured the panels would be dropped and whacked and manhandled, and the dovetail corners would just wear down and/or splinter.

I have more posts planned showing more details, unexpected options that my kids have discovered, and the construction process.
 

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629 Posts
Building Complicated Structures

The basic assembly process is simple: Slide a panel's edge bead into a groove in a post-that's it. Incidentally, this basic interaction is so intuitive that my 4 yr old took one look at a post and panel and immediately put them together. Within seconds, he had grabbed two more posts and panels and added them to the wall.

Tall Walls and Towers
However, to build a wall that is taller than a single post, there's a very simple additional trick: Instead of using a tall post and regular panel-which are the same height-you instead mismatch the post and panel. For example, if you start with a short panel and a regular post, the post will extend well above the top of the panel. You can then add a regular panel on top of the short panel, connected to the same post. But this time the panel will extend above the top of the post. Then add another tall post to that panel, and so on. Much like alternating bricks in a wall, the one short panel will offset the remaining posts and panels, interlocking them together. Finish the wall section with a short post on top to even things out. If you do this on four walls, you end up with a tower. Note the short and tall posts and panels alternating in the image below.



Windows and Doorways
But what if you want to have a door opening at the base of that tower? If you simply leave out the bottom panel, the panels above will simply slide down the grooves to fill in the hole. This problem is solved by using Pins to hold up the upper panels.

The pin is simply a piece of dowel that slides into the groove in a post. The next panel added above it will rest on the top of the pin and stay in place. When the rest of the tower is constructed, you'll be left with an open doorway the size of one panel.

http://static.photobucket.com/player.swf

A window can be built the same way, except that the pins are inserted higher up the wall, creating an opening in the middle of the wall instead of at the bottom.

Swinging Doors
This trick is courtesy of my 4yr old son, Owen. The first day they he received the Post and Panel set, he asked me how to build a door. He had immediately constructed a giant garage for his John Deere tractor, and needed a door so that no robbers would get in to steal it. Alas, I hadn't built any hinges, and because the panels and posts fit somewhat snugly, the panels would only pivot about 5 degrees offline. I told him I would have to build some special hinge pieces, but I never got around to it.

A month later, after again asking how to build a door, and again being told Daddy would have to create something to do that, he suddenly announced "I figured it out!" This is what he came up with:

http://static.photobucket.com/player.swf

Start with a regular panel, and attach a short post to the edge. Then place a regular pin in an unused groove in that short post, most likely using the groove opposite the panel. Next, slide another short post onto the top half of the pin, and then attach another regular panel to an unused groove on that second short post. You now have two short posts, held together by a pin, with each post attached to a panel. Because the posts are offset, their corners don't bind and they can pivot. Depending on which panel you attach to your permanent walls, the other panel becomes the door.

When I saw this in action, I almost fell out of my chair! Having designed the pieces, and knowing I had never designed them to pivot, I "knew" it couldn't be done. My son had no preconceived limitations, and so he wasn't bound by them. Fantastic example of thinking outside the box.

A Complete Castle
Here is a quick movie showing the assembly of a full castle, piece by piece…

http://static.photobucket.com/player.swf

Now that you've seen a castle being built, check out all the non-castle things you can build in the next entry, titled Much More Than Castles.
Thanks for the explanation. I do look forward to seeing more posts.
 

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Discussion Starter · #9 ·
Much More Than Castles

When I started this set, I intended it to be a "castle kit". I considered crenelated tops to the panels to make them look like a "real" castle, I considered building a draw-bridge panel (which my son would still no-doubt love), thought about staining the wood grey to mimic stone, and considered cutting arched windows in some of the panels to look like classic castle windows. In then end, though, I decided to wait on all of that until I saw how he played with it. That's the thing about any open-ended design-you never know how folks will wind up using it.

When I first delivered the entire set on his 4th birthday, he immediately got to work-building a garage! He had just received a John Deere Tractor toy, and it clearly needed a garage. Some wooden animals were added and it was a farm. As soon as the taller walls started going up, my 18 month-old daughter saw it as a hiding place. Very quickly the garage and farm morphed into a four-sided tower with my young daughter hiding inside. The tower got taller and was eventually pushed over onto its side, to become a tube to crawl though. You see where I'm going. The basic set has been used in ways I never imagined.

Here's a quick montage of ideas my kids have come up with, and I'm sure there are more to come. You'll notice very few of these look like "castles"...

http://static.photobucket.com/player.swf

To see more about the basic pieces and how structures are assembled, see the introduction title What Is It?
Or learn more about Building More Complicated Structures
If you're a woodworker yourself, take a look at How to Create the Pieces.
 

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17,103 Posts
Much More Than Castles

When I started this set, I intended it to be a "castle kit". I considered crenelated tops to the panels to make them look like a "real" castle, I considered building a draw-bridge panel (which my son would still no-doubt love), thought about staining the wood grey to mimic stone, and considered cutting arched windows in some of the panels to look like classic castle windows. In then end, though, I decided to wait on all of that until I saw how he played with it. That's the thing about any open-ended design-you never know how folks will wind up using it.

When I first delivered the entire set on his 4th birthday, he immediately got to work-building a garage! He had just received a John Deere Tractor toy, and it clearly needed a garage. Some wooden animals were added and it was a farm. As soon as the taller walls started going up, my 18 month-old daughter saw it as a hiding place. Very quickly the garage and farm morphed into a four-sided tower with my young daughter hiding inside. The tower got taller and was eventually pushed over onto its side, to become a tube to crawl though. You see where I'm going. The basic set has been used in ways I never imagined.

Here's a quick montage of ideas my kids have come up with, and I'm sure there are more to come. You'll notice very few of these look like "castles"...

http://static.photobucket.com/player.swf

To see more about the basic pieces and how structures are assembled, see the introduction title What Is It?
Or learn more about Building More Complicated Structures
If you're a woodworker yourself, take a look at How to Create the Pieces.
Sorry Pete, I couldn't get your video to work.
 

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Discussion Starter · #11 ·
Much More Than Castles

When I started this set, I intended it to be a "castle kit". I considered crenelated tops to the panels to make them look like a "real" castle, I considered building a draw-bridge panel (which my son would still no-doubt love), thought about staining the wood grey to mimic stone, and considered cutting arched windows in some of the panels to look like classic castle windows. In then end, though, I decided to wait on all of that until I saw how he played with it. That's the thing about any open-ended design-you never know how folks will wind up using it.

When I first delivered the entire set on his 4th birthday, he immediately got to work-building a garage! He had just received a John Deere Tractor toy, and it clearly needed a garage. Some wooden animals were added and it was a farm. As soon as the taller walls started going up, my 18 month-old daughter saw it as a hiding place. Very quickly the garage and farm morphed into a four-sided tower with my young daughter hiding inside. The tower got taller and was eventually pushed over onto its side, to become a tube to crawl though. You see where I'm going. The basic set has been used in ways I never imagined.

Here's a quick montage of ideas my kids have come up with, and I'm sure there are more to come. You'll notice very few of these look like "castles"...

http://static.photobucket.com/player.swf

To see more about the basic pieces and how structures are assembled, see the introduction title What Is It?
Or learn more about Building More Complicated Structures
If you're a woodworker yourself, take a look at How to Create the Pieces.
Mike, sorry to hear that. Did you try any of the videos in my previous posts? They are all done, and stored, the same way. And they work for me. I'm not sure what the issue might be. Thanks.
 

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Much More Than Castles

When I started this set, I intended it to be a "castle kit". I considered crenelated tops to the panels to make them look like a "real" castle, I considered building a draw-bridge panel (which my son would still no-doubt love), thought about staining the wood grey to mimic stone, and considered cutting arched windows in some of the panels to look like classic castle windows. In then end, though, I decided to wait on all of that until I saw how he played with it. That's the thing about any open-ended design-you never know how folks will wind up using it.

When I first delivered the entire set on his 4th birthday, he immediately got to work-building a garage! He had just received a John Deere Tractor toy, and it clearly needed a garage. Some wooden animals were added and it was a farm. As soon as the taller walls started going up, my 18 month-old daughter saw it as a hiding place. Very quickly the garage and farm morphed into a four-sided tower with my young daughter hiding inside. The tower got taller and was eventually pushed over onto its side, to become a tube to crawl though. You see where I'm going. The basic set has been used in ways I never imagined.

Here's a quick montage of ideas my kids have come up with, and I'm sure there are more to come. You'll notice very few of these look like "castles"...

http://static.photobucket.com/player.swf

To see more about the basic pieces and how structures are assembled, see the introduction title What Is It?
Or learn more about Building More Complicated Structures
If you're a woodworker yourself, take a look at How to Create the Pieces.
interesting
 

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Discussion Starter · #13 ·
How to Create The Pieces

Everything in this set depends on two things: cutting the beads and cutting the grooves. And those two things both rely on using the right router bits.

Watch the video below for the short and sweet summary. Read the text below for more details.

http://static.photobucket.com/player.swf

The Right Router Bits

There are two bits used for this project-a ball-end bit and a bead profile bit. In this case, both bits have a main diameter of 3/8". Through some testing and some math, I determined that 3/8" grooves and beads gave me enough strength in the narrow parts of the pieces, but also kept the posts and panels to a reasonable size. I tried 1/2" diameter bits, but they required 2 1/4" wide posts, which felt like baseball bats and would have weighed a ton all together. 3/8" was a better way to go.

The ball-end bit was easy enough to find. I used a Whiteside bit, purchased online for around $30. But I couldn't finalize a ball-end purchase until I knew I had a perfectly matching profile bit to match. And that profile bit was very hard to find. In fact, it was impossible.

About 18 months ago, I started my online and catalog search for a bit that would cut half of a "keyhole" profile. It seemed straightforward enough, and a lot of bits looked like they were close. But they all had one problem or another: one would leave a "neck" on the bead that would be far too narrow, another's would be too thick. Some would cut such a deep neck that the bead would be "floating" about 3/8" or more from the rest of the panel, making it quite likely that the entire bead could just be snapped off. I wrote to Amana, Infinity, and other manufacturers and the answer was always the same: We don't have anything like that, and we've never seen another set like it.

Originally, Amana seemed interested. I spoke with Lonnie Bird, Amana's spokesman and a contributor to Fine Woodworking, and sent them detailed specs in a PDF. He said they were interested in producing the set, but after a few months I had heard nothing and started my search again.

The second time around, I also looked at getting a complete custom bit made. I was quoted $120 to $150 for a one-off solid carbide bit. That was a bit more than I wanted to spend, but it was an option. Then I got a great suggestion from the product information expert at Infinity. He said to speak with a sharpening service to see if they could modify an existing bit to match my measurements.

I did a quick search online and found a few firms in the general area that seemed reputable, including one in Canton, Ohio called Cammel Saw Company. I sent an email to the Contact Us address on their site and quickly got a return email from Dennis Cammel. I sent him my PDF specification and had a quick phone call with him, and he said they could do it. They sell high quality Whiteside bits. Dennis made a recommendation on which source bit to start with and said the additional custom sharpening would cost a mere $10.

About a week later, a package arrived in the mail from Cammel Saw with my first set of bits-the 1/2" diameter ball-end and profile bits I mentioned above. After my first attempt I knew I was on the right track. The bits cut perfectly and left a mirror finish. With a little adjustment to my router table fence, to make the bead just a hair narrower than perfectly round, I got two pieces that slid together easily, but with fairly little slop. But the 1/2" set was just too large.

I called Dennis back and asked if he could do the exact same thing, but with 3/8" diameter bits. Again, 10 days later a new set arrived, as perfect as the first. I would highly recommend working with Dennis Cammel and his team at Cammel Saw if you ever have similar needs, and the odds are high that I will also be using him for any regular sharpening I need for bits or blades.

Step By Step

1. Joint or plane the planks to get the desired thickness. I started with 4/4 planks, and planed them down to 5/8"-thin enough to be easy to handle by little hands, but thick enough to stand up to their abuse. And I used 1 3/4" posts, cut from 8/4 boards. I used all ash wood, because ash is hard and durable, and has a high elasticity. It will bend before breaking. There's a reason it used to be the go-to wood for baseball bats. There's a lot of maple used in bats these days, but they always shatter when the break. Not good for a kid's toy.

2. Cut the planks and posts to the right width. The posts are all 1 3/4" on a side, so that's easy at the table saw. The planks were a bit trickier because I had to calculate the right widths so that two narrow planks and a post would be equal to a wide plank. You can make you planks whatever width you like, but it's important to keep that ratio of two narrow planks and one post equals one wide plank so that the structures you create can interchangeably use wide or narrow panels and still fit together.

3. Cut the planks and posts to length. The length of each post and panel is again a matter of choice. I chose 9" lengths for posts and regular panels. That was a good scale for the various dolls and figures we already owned. Much taller than that would use a lot of wood, be getting pretty heavy, and would physically be a bit set to manage. Any smaller wouldn't feel like a castle wall, when placed next to a 6" figure. So 9" worked for me. The small posts and panels are simply half that height so that, again, two small posts are the same as a large post.

4. Cut a test groove in a scrap post. The 1/4" dado worked well with a 3/8" ball-end bit. That would leave a decently wide throat for the neck of the bead to slide through, but still be narrow enough for the ball-end bit to cut a clearly wider groove. It took a little trial and error to get the dado blade depth and the router table ball-end bit depth to work together. The router table had to cut slightly deeper to that the square corners of the dado cuts met the edge of the ball-end bit. Once I had this working, I carefully measured and wrote down the fence positions and bit/blade heights on the test piece. This would prove to be super handy down the road.

5. Cut a test bead on a scrap panel. Once I had a test post, I needed to figure out the right fence and bit height settings to cut a matching bead. My first step was to place the test post on the router table, and raise the profile bit until it seemed to match the shape of the groove. I removed the test piece, moved the fence in to guide the panel and did a test cut. Each time I did a test, I ran the panel across the bit, then flipped it end-for-end and ran it through again. This was to mimic the actual process I would use for the final pieces, and would ensure that as I moved the fence closer and closer, I would always have a symmetrical and centered bead. Eventually, it got close. I would take a pass on each side and then test it in the test post. I'd take a hair more of each side and test again. The micro adjustment knob on my Kreg router table was very useful for this process of sneaking up on the right bead width. When it was right, I once again measured and recorded all the settings on the panel itself.

6. Mass post production. With a matching test post and panel, I could get to work cutting the rest of the pieces. With a stack of 9" posts on a table, I began cutting dozens of dados, checking every once in a while that the fence was still secure and the cuts were all of consistent depth, and were centered on the faces of the posts.

When the dados were all cut, I moved to the router table. Using the test post as a guide, I inserted the ball-end bit again and raised it until I could just slide the test post over the bit. I then slide the fence over until it met the edge of the test post. I removed the test piece, turned on the router, and ran the test piece over the bit again to ensure that no additional wood was being removed. Assured of its setup, I began running the dados over the ball-end bit, one by one, 8 passes per piece (4 in each direction).

With each finished post, I would pick up the test panel and quickly slide it through each groove. Normal human motions will occasionally mean I applied more less pressure against the fence during a given cut. Even a few thousandths of an inch can be felt by the sliding pieces. Every once in a while I got one that faintly stuck in a certain place, so I ran that post over the bit again to clean it up.

7. Mass panel production. With the posts complete, I turned to the panels. Again, I used my sample panel as a guide to quickly get the bit height set. I then set the fence about halfway to its final position and did light passes on both sides of all of the panels. Trying to cut the full profile in one pass would have led to lots of tear out or splintering of the wood and likely would have damaged the bit or the router. Much better to take more, lighter passes.

So after I completed a first pass on both faces, on both sides of all of the panels, I moved the fence to it's final spot and re-ran one panel to ensure a good fit. When I saw that it fit perfectly with the posts, I began re-running all of the panels at their final depth.

8. Cut pieces to final length My source wood for the posts had started as roughly 3' long planks. That worked well to produce four 9" posts per length. So at this point I cut the posts into their 9" and 4.5" final lengths.

The panels had started as 6' to 8' long planks. Since I would be running these planks on edge on the router, I cut them to final length before routing. I wasn't comfortable trying to manage long panels of that width on edge. In hindsight, I should have constructed an add-on fence for the router table to better support panels that wide up on edge.

9. Sanding, sanding, sanding. I realized there were a LOT of edges in these pieces, and since I was building a toy for very young children, I needed to hit every edge to make sure nobody got splinters. I also expected to sand the faces of the planks, but when I began that process I realized the glossy surface left by my new Dewalt 735 planer, when set at high quality cut, was superior to what I would get with 180 grit sandpaper. So I just left the faces alone. Thank goodness for small miracles. I still ended up building myself a quick downdraft box to minimize the dust from all of this close-quarters hand sanding. I also built some specialized sanding tools (wrapping adhesive sandpaper around the pointed tip of a pencil) to get into the nooks at the end of each post.

10. Beeswax Finish. Again, because this was going to be used by little kids and even an infant, I had to make sure the finish was safe. I wasn't too worried about dings and scratches-it's a hardwood toy; it will get dinged, but it will be tough. But I did want to keep the wood from getting too rough, and I wanted a nice feel to the wood. The Salad Bowl finish was perfect. It's a blend of mineral oil and beeswax. You can rub it on with your fingers and it leaves the wood just slightly darker. Two added benefits are that it smells great and natural, and it actually makes the pieces slide together even more easily. With the finish added, the pieces have a smooth, fluid, quiet action. And if I ever need to add more, I can reapply finish in the house and immediately hand the pieces back to my kids to keep playing. No smell, and no waiting necessary.

11. Building the Box. Once I had all of the pieces built, I was finally able to plan out and design a box to store and carry them all. At first I thought of building a typical toy box with a flip up lid, etc. Then it occurred to me to make the box part of the set. By using posts for the corners of the box, with regular grooves cut in the outside faces, the box can become the center of the castle and the walls can be attached and built out from the corners. That meant, once again, I needed to build it so that the height, width and length were all multiples of the narrow panels and post widths, so everything could still meet at a right angle. Fortunately, the math worked out so that I could build a box about 2 wide panels x 1.5 wide panels x 1.5 posts tall. The last feature of the box was to cut permanent "doorways" into the sides. These doorways allow the castle residents to get into and out of the main room. Also, they conveniently double as carrying handles on all four sides of the storage box. I decided to leave the top of the box open to make it easy to see the pieces inside, reach the people or furniture you put into the castle, and eventually to put the pieces back when playtime is over.

I built the box out of 1/2" baltic birch plywood, with each edge reinforced with a strip of solid ash. The corners are joined by simple dados and Titebond woodglue holding the plywood in place. The bottom is another piece of 1/2" plywood resting on 1/2" ledger strips that are glued and screwed into the bottom edges of the sides.

The box is also finished entirely in the Salad Bowl finish.

Wrap Up

At the end of the day, once I had the router bits I needed, the whole project probably consumed about 60 hours of cutting, routing, sanding and finishing. If I had to do it again, I could probably shave a few hours off now that I have good samples to start from. But it's still a manual labor-intensive undertaking. If you had two table saws, and two router tables, and some friends to help with sanding and finishing, you could knock out a whole set in a day. Maybe.

Thanks for reading. I hope you enjoyed the blog.
 

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How to Create The Pieces

Everything in this set depends on two things: cutting the beads and cutting the grooves. And those two things both rely on using the right router bits.

Watch the video below for the short and sweet summary. Read the text below for more details.

http://static.photobucket.com/player.swf

The Right Router Bits

There are two bits used for this project-a ball-end bit and a bead profile bit. In this case, both bits have a main diameter of 3/8". Through some testing and some math, I determined that 3/8" grooves and beads gave me enough strength in the narrow parts of the pieces, but also kept the posts and panels to a reasonable size. I tried 1/2" diameter bits, but they required 2 1/4" wide posts, which felt like baseball bats and would have weighed a ton all together. 3/8" was a better way to go.

The ball-end bit was easy enough to find. I used a Whiteside bit, purchased online for around $30. But I couldn't finalize a ball-end purchase until I knew I had a perfectly matching profile bit to match. And that profile bit was very hard to find. In fact, it was impossible.

About 18 months ago, I started my online and catalog search for a bit that would cut half of a "keyhole" profile. It seemed straightforward enough, and a lot of bits looked like they were close. But they all had one problem or another: one would leave a "neck" on the bead that would be far too narrow, another's would be too thick. Some would cut such a deep neck that the bead would be "floating" about 3/8" or more from the rest of the panel, making it quite likely that the entire bead could just be snapped off. I wrote to Amana, Infinity, and other manufacturers and the answer was always the same: We don't have anything like that, and we've never seen another set like it.

Originally, Amana seemed interested. I spoke with Lonnie Bird, Amana's spokesman and a contributor to Fine Woodworking, and sent them detailed specs in a PDF. He said they were interested in producing the set, but after a few months I had heard nothing and started my search again.

The second time around, I also looked at getting a complete custom bit made. I was quoted $120 to $150 for a one-off solid carbide bit. That was a bit more than I wanted to spend, but it was an option. Then I got a great suggestion from the product information expert at Infinity. He said to speak with a sharpening service to see if they could modify an existing bit to match my measurements.

I did a quick search online and found a few firms in the general area that seemed reputable, including one in Canton, Ohio called Cammel Saw Company. I sent an email to the Contact Us address on their site and quickly got a return email from Dennis Cammel. I sent him my PDF specification and had a quick phone call with him, and he said they could do it. They sell high quality Whiteside bits. Dennis made a recommendation on which source bit to start with and said the additional custom sharpening would cost a mere $10.

About a week later, a package arrived in the mail from Cammel Saw with my first set of bits-the 1/2" diameter ball-end and profile bits I mentioned above. After my first attempt I knew I was on the right track. The bits cut perfectly and left a mirror finish. With a little adjustment to my router table fence, to make the bead just a hair narrower than perfectly round, I got two pieces that slid together easily, but with fairly little slop. But the 1/2" set was just too large.

I called Dennis back and asked if he could do the exact same thing, but with 3/8" diameter bits. Again, 10 days later a new set arrived, as perfect as the first. I would highly recommend working with Dennis Cammel and his team at Cammel Saw if you ever have similar needs, and the odds are high that I will also be using him for any regular sharpening I need for bits or blades.

Step By Step

1. Joint or plane the planks to get the desired thickness. I started with 4/4 planks, and planed them down to 5/8"-thin enough to be easy to handle by little hands, but thick enough to stand up to their abuse. And I used 1 3/4" posts, cut from 8/4 boards. I used all ash wood, because ash is hard and durable, and has a high elasticity. It will bend before breaking. There's a reason it used to be the go-to wood for baseball bats. There's a lot of maple used in bats these days, but they always shatter when the break. Not good for a kid's toy.

2. Cut the planks and posts to the right width. The posts are all 1 3/4" on a side, so that's easy at the table saw. The planks were a bit trickier because I had to calculate the right widths so that two narrow planks and a post would be equal to a wide plank. You can make you planks whatever width you like, but it's important to keep that ratio of two narrow planks and one post equals one wide plank so that the structures you create can interchangeably use wide or narrow panels and still fit together.

3. Cut the planks and posts to length. The length of each post and panel is again a matter of choice. I chose 9" lengths for posts and regular panels. That was a good scale for the various dolls and figures we already owned. Much taller than that would use a lot of wood, be getting pretty heavy, and would physically be a bit set to manage. Any smaller wouldn't feel like a castle wall, when placed next to a 6" figure. So 9" worked for me. The small posts and panels are simply half that height so that, again, two small posts are the same as a large post.

4. Cut a test groove in a scrap post. The 1/4" dado worked well with a 3/8" ball-end bit. That would leave a decently wide throat for the neck of the bead to slide through, but still be narrow enough for the ball-end bit to cut a clearly wider groove. It took a little trial and error to get the dado blade depth and the router table ball-end bit depth to work together. The router table had to cut slightly deeper to that the square corners of the dado cuts met the edge of the ball-end bit. Once I had this working, I carefully measured and wrote down the fence positions and bit/blade heights on the test piece. This would prove to be super handy down the road.

5. Cut a test bead on a scrap panel. Once I had a test post, I needed to figure out the right fence and bit height settings to cut a matching bead. My first step was to place the test post on the router table, and raise the profile bit until it seemed to match the shape of the groove. I removed the test piece, moved the fence in to guide the panel and did a test cut. Each time I did a test, I ran the panel across the bit, then flipped it end-for-end and ran it through again. This was to mimic the actual process I would use for the final pieces, and would ensure that as I moved the fence closer and closer, I would always have a symmetrical and centered bead. Eventually, it got close. I would take a pass on each side and then test it in the test post. I'd take a hair more of each side and test again. The micro adjustment knob on my Kreg router table was very useful for this process of sneaking up on the right bead width. When it was right, I once again measured and recorded all the settings on the panel itself.

6. Mass post production. With a matching test post and panel, I could get to work cutting the rest of the pieces. With a stack of 9" posts on a table, I began cutting dozens of dados, checking every once in a while that the fence was still secure and the cuts were all of consistent depth, and were centered on the faces of the posts.

When the dados were all cut, I moved to the router table. Using the test post as a guide, I inserted the ball-end bit again and raised it until I could just slide the test post over the bit. I then slide the fence over until it met the edge of the test post. I removed the test piece, turned on the router, and ran the test piece over the bit again to ensure that no additional wood was being removed. Assured of its setup, I began running the dados over the ball-end bit, one by one, 8 passes per piece (4 in each direction).

With each finished post, I would pick up the test panel and quickly slide it through each groove. Normal human motions will occasionally mean I applied more less pressure against the fence during a given cut. Even a few thousandths of an inch can be felt by the sliding pieces. Every once in a while I got one that faintly stuck in a certain place, so I ran that post over the bit again to clean it up.

7. Mass panel production. With the posts complete, I turned to the panels. Again, I used my sample panel as a guide to quickly get the bit height set. I then set the fence about halfway to its final position and did light passes on both sides of all of the panels. Trying to cut the full profile in one pass would have led to lots of tear out or splintering of the wood and likely would have damaged the bit or the router. Much better to take more, lighter passes.

So after I completed a first pass on both faces, on both sides of all of the panels, I moved the fence to it's final spot and re-ran one panel to ensure a good fit. When I saw that it fit perfectly with the posts, I began re-running all of the panels at their final depth.

8. Cut pieces to final length My source wood for the posts had started as roughly 3' long planks. That worked well to produce four 9" posts per length. So at this point I cut the posts into their 9" and 4.5" final lengths.

The panels had started as 6' to 8' long planks. Since I would be running these planks on edge on the router, I cut them to final length before routing. I wasn't comfortable trying to manage long panels of that width on edge. In hindsight, I should have constructed an add-on fence for the router table to better support panels that wide up on edge.

9. Sanding, sanding, sanding. I realized there were a LOT of edges in these pieces, and since I was building a toy for very young children, I needed to hit every edge to make sure nobody got splinters. I also expected to sand the faces of the planks, but when I began that process I realized the glossy surface left by my new Dewalt 735 planer, when set at high quality cut, was superior to what I would get with 180 grit sandpaper. So I just left the faces alone. Thank goodness for small miracles. I still ended up building myself a quick downdraft box to minimize the dust from all of this close-quarters hand sanding. I also built some specialized sanding tools (wrapping adhesive sandpaper around the pointed tip of a pencil) to get into the nooks at the end of each post.

10. Beeswax Finish. Again, because this was going to be used by little kids and even an infant, I had to make sure the finish was safe. I wasn't too worried about dings and scratches-it's a hardwood toy; it will get dinged, but it will be tough. But I did want to keep the wood from getting too rough, and I wanted a nice feel to the wood. The Salad Bowl finish was perfect. It's a blend of mineral oil and beeswax. You can rub it on with your fingers and it leaves the wood just slightly darker. Two added benefits are that it smells great and natural, and it actually makes the pieces slide together even more easily. With the finish added, the pieces have a smooth, fluid, quiet action. And if I ever need to add more, I can reapply finish in the house and immediately hand the pieces back to my kids to keep playing. No smell, and no waiting necessary.

11. Building the Box. Once I had all of the pieces built, I was finally able to plan out and design a box to store and carry them all. At first I thought of building a typical toy box with a flip up lid, etc. Then it occurred to me to make the box part of the set. By using posts for the corners of the box, with regular grooves cut in the outside faces, the box can become the center of the castle and the walls can be attached and built out from the corners. That meant, once again, I needed to build it so that the height, width and length were all multiples of the narrow panels and post widths, so everything could still meet at a right angle. Fortunately, the math worked out so that I could build a box about 2 wide panels x 1.5 wide panels x 1.5 posts tall. The last feature of the box was to cut permanent "doorways" into the sides. These doorways allow the castle residents to get into and out of the main room. Also, they conveniently double as carrying handles on all four sides of the storage box. I decided to leave the top of the box open to make it easy to see the pieces inside, reach the people or furniture you put into the castle, and eventually to put the pieces back when playtime is over.

I built the box out of 1/2" baltic birch plywood, with each edge reinforced with a strip of solid ash. The corners are joined by simple dados and Titebond woodglue holding the plywood in place. The bottom is another piece of 1/2" plywood resting on 1/2" ledger strips that are glued and screwed into the bottom edges of the sides.

The box is also finished entirely in the Salad Bowl finish.

Wrap Up

At the end of the day, once I had the router bits I needed, the whole project probably consumed about 60 hours of cutting, routing, sanding and finishing. If I had to do it again, I could probably shave a few hours off now that I have good samples to start from. But it's still a manual labor-intensive undertaking. If you had two table saws, and two router tables, and some friends to help with sanding and finishing, you could knock out a whole set in a day. Maybe.

Thanks for reading. I hope you enjoyed the blog.
Hi Pete.

Loved this project. One suggestion though. Make some "half small" posts so a hinge will have four posts instead of two. Much more stable.
Now all you need to design is a roof. :)
 

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Discussion Starter · #15 ·
How to Create The Pieces

Everything in this set depends on two things: cutting the beads and cutting the grooves. And those two things both rely on using the right router bits.

Watch the video below for the short and sweet summary. Read the text below for more details.

http://static.photobucket.com/player.swf

The Right Router Bits

There are two bits used for this project-a ball-end bit and a bead profile bit. In this case, both bits have a main diameter of 3/8". Through some testing and some math, I determined that 3/8" grooves and beads gave me enough strength in the narrow parts of the pieces, but also kept the posts and panels to a reasonable size. I tried 1/2" diameter bits, but they required 2 1/4" wide posts, which felt like baseball bats and would have weighed a ton all together. 3/8" was a better way to go.

The ball-end bit was easy enough to find. I used a Whiteside bit, purchased online for around $30. But I couldn't finalize a ball-end purchase until I knew I had a perfectly matching profile bit to match. And that profile bit was very hard to find. In fact, it was impossible.

About 18 months ago, I started my online and catalog search for a bit that would cut half of a "keyhole" profile. It seemed straightforward enough, and a lot of bits looked like they were close. But they all had one problem or another: one would leave a "neck" on the bead that would be far too narrow, another's would be too thick. Some would cut such a deep neck that the bead would be "floating" about 3/8" or more from the rest of the panel, making it quite likely that the entire bead could just be snapped off. I wrote to Amana, Infinity, and other manufacturers and the answer was always the same: We don't have anything like that, and we've never seen another set like it.

Originally, Amana seemed interested. I spoke with Lonnie Bird, Amana's spokesman and a contributor to Fine Woodworking, and sent them detailed specs in a PDF. He said they were interested in producing the set, but after a few months I had heard nothing and started my search again.

The second time around, I also looked at getting a complete custom bit made. I was quoted $120 to $150 for a one-off solid carbide bit. That was a bit more than I wanted to spend, but it was an option. Then I got a great suggestion from the product information expert at Infinity. He said to speak with a sharpening service to see if they could modify an existing bit to match my measurements.

I did a quick search online and found a few firms in the general area that seemed reputable, including one in Canton, Ohio called Cammel Saw Company. I sent an email to the Contact Us address on their site and quickly got a return email from Dennis Cammel. I sent him my PDF specification and had a quick phone call with him, and he said they could do it. They sell high quality Whiteside bits. Dennis made a recommendation on which source bit to start with and said the additional custom sharpening would cost a mere $10.

About a week later, a package arrived in the mail from Cammel Saw with my first set of bits-the 1/2" diameter ball-end and profile bits I mentioned above. After my first attempt I knew I was on the right track. The bits cut perfectly and left a mirror finish. With a little adjustment to my router table fence, to make the bead just a hair narrower than perfectly round, I got two pieces that slid together easily, but with fairly little slop. But the 1/2" set was just too large.

I called Dennis back and asked if he could do the exact same thing, but with 3/8" diameter bits. Again, 10 days later a new set arrived, as perfect as the first. I would highly recommend working with Dennis Cammel and his team at Cammel Saw if you ever have similar needs, and the odds are high that I will also be using him for any regular sharpening I need for bits or blades.

Step By Step

1. Joint or plane the planks to get the desired thickness. I started with 4/4 planks, and planed them down to 5/8"-thin enough to be easy to handle by little hands, but thick enough to stand up to their abuse. And I used 1 3/4" posts, cut from 8/4 boards. I used all ash wood, because ash is hard and durable, and has a high elasticity. It will bend before breaking. There's a reason it used to be the go-to wood for baseball bats. There's a lot of maple used in bats these days, but they always shatter when the break. Not good for a kid's toy.

2. Cut the planks and posts to the right width. The posts are all 1 3/4" on a side, so that's easy at the table saw. The planks were a bit trickier because I had to calculate the right widths so that two narrow planks and a post would be equal to a wide plank. You can make you planks whatever width you like, but it's important to keep that ratio of two narrow planks and one post equals one wide plank so that the structures you create can interchangeably use wide or narrow panels and still fit together.

3. Cut the planks and posts to length. The length of each post and panel is again a matter of choice. I chose 9" lengths for posts and regular panels. That was a good scale for the various dolls and figures we already owned. Much taller than that would use a lot of wood, be getting pretty heavy, and would physically be a bit set to manage. Any smaller wouldn't feel like a castle wall, when placed next to a 6" figure. So 9" worked for me. The small posts and panels are simply half that height so that, again, two small posts are the same as a large post.

4. Cut a test groove in a scrap post. The 1/4" dado worked well with a 3/8" ball-end bit. That would leave a decently wide throat for the neck of the bead to slide through, but still be narrow enough for the ball-end bit to cut a clearly wider groove. It took a little trial and error to get the dado blade depth and the router table ball-end bit depth to work together. The router table had to cut slightly deeper to that the square corners of the dado cuts met the edge of the ball-end bit. Once I had this working, I carefully measured and wrote down the fence positions and bit/blade heights on the test piece. This would prove to be super handy down the road.

5. Cut a test bead on a scrap panel. Once I had a test post, I needed to figure out the right fence and bit height settings to cut a matching bead. My first step was to place the test post on the router table, and raise the profile bit until it seemed to match the shape of the groove. I removed the test piece, moved the fence in to guide the panel and did a test cut. Each time I did a test, I ran the panel across the bit, then flipped it end-for-end and ran it through again. This was to mimic the actual process I would use for the final pieces, and would ensure that as I moved the fence closer and closer, I would always have a symmetrical and centered bead. Eventually, it got close. I would take a pass on each side and then test it in the test post. I'd take a hair more of each side and test again. The micro adjustment knob on my Kreg router table was very useful for this process of sneaking up on the right bead width. When it was right, I once again measured and recorded all the settings on the panel itself.

6. Mass post production. With a matching test post and panel, I could get to work cutting the rest of the pieces. With a stack of 9" posts on a table, I began cutting dozens of dados, checking every once in a while that the fence was still secure and the cuts were all of consistent depth, and were centered on the faces of the posts.

When the dados were all cut, I moved to the router table. Using the test post as a guide, I inserted the ball-end bit again and raised it until I could just slide the test post over the bit. I then slide the fence over until it met the edge of the test post. I removed the test piece, turned on the router, and ran the test piece over the bit again to ensure that no additional wood was being removed. Assured of its setup, I began running the dados over the ball-end bit, one by one, 8 passes per piece (4 in each direction).

With each finished post, I would pick up the test panel and quickly slide it through each groove. Normal human motions will occasionally mean I applied more less pressure against the fence during a given cut. Even a few thousandths of an inch can be felt by the sliding pieces. Every once in a while I got one that faintly stuck in a certain place, so I ran that post over the bit again to clean it up.

7. Mass panel production. With the posts complete, I turned to the panels. Again, I used my sample panel as a guide to quickly get the bit height set. I then set the fence about halfway to its final position and did light passes on both sides of all of the panels. Trying to cut the full profile in one pass would have led to lots of tear out or splintering of the wood and likely would have damaged the bit or the router. Much better to take more, lighter passes.

So after I completed a first pass on both faces, on both sides of all of the panels, I moved the fence to it's final spot and re-ran one panel to ensure a good fit. When I saw that it fit perfectly with the posts, I began re-running all of the panels at their final depth.

8. Cut pieces to final length My source wood for the posts had started as roughly 3' long planks. That worked well to produce four 9" posts per length. So at this point I cut the posts into their 9" and 4.5" final lengths.

The panels had started as 6' to 8' long planks. Since I would be running these planks on edge on the router, I cut them to final length before routing. I wasn't comfortable trying to manage long panels of that width on edge. In hindsight, I should have constructed an add-on fence for the router table to better support panels that wide up on edge.

9. Sanding, sanding, sanding. I realized there were a LOT of edges in these pieces, and since I was building a toy for very young children, I needed to hit every edge to make sure nobody got splinters. I also expected to sand the faces of the planks, but when I began that process I realized the glossy surface left by my new Dewalt 735 planer, when set at high quality cut, was superior to what I would get with 180 grit sandpaper. So I just left the faces alone. Thank goodness for small miracles. I still ended up building myself a quick downdraft box to minimize the dust from all of this close-quarters hand sanding. I also built some specialized sanding tools (wrapping adhesive sandpaper around the pointed tip of a pencil) to get into the nooks at the end of each post.

10. Beeswax Finish. Again, because this was going to be used by little kids and even an infant, I had to make sure the finish was safe. I wasn't too worried about dings and scratches-it's a hardwood toy; it will get dinged, but it will be tough. But I did want to keep the wood from getting too rough, and I wanted a nice feel to the wood. The Salad Bowl finish was perfect. It's a blend of mineral oil and beeswax. You can rub it on with your fingers and it leaves the wood just slightly darker. Two added benefits are that it smells great and natural, and it actually makes the pieces slide together even more easily. With the finish added, the pieces have a smooth, fluid, quiet action. And if I ever need to add more, I can reapply finish in the house and immediately hand the pieces back to my kids to keep playing. No smell, and no waiting necessary.

11. Building the Box. Once I had all of the pieces built, I was finally able to plan out and design a box to store and carry them all. At first I thought of building a typical toy box with a flip up lid, etc. Then it occurred to me to make the box part of the set. By using posts for the corners of the box, with regular grooves cut in the outside faces, the box can become the center of the castle and the walls can be attached and built out from the corners. That meant, once again, I needed to build it so that the height, width and length were all multiples of the narrow panels and post widths, so everything could still meet at a right angle. Fortunately, the math worked out so that I could build a box about 2 wide panels x 1.5 wide panels x 1.5 posts tall. The last feature of the box was to cut permanent "doorways" into the sides. These doorways allow the castle residents to get into and out of the main room. Also, they conveniently double as carrying handles on all four sides of the storage box. I decided to leave the top of the box open to make it easy to see the pieces inside, reach the people or furniture you put into the castle, and eventually to put the pieces back when playtime is over.

I built the box out of 1/2" baltic birch plywood, with each edge reinforced with a strip of solid ash. The corners are joined by simple dados and Titebond woodglue holding the plywood in place. The bottom is another piece of 1/2" plywood resting on 1/2" ledger strips that are glued and screwed into the bottom edges of the sides.

The box is also finished entirely in the Salad Bowl finish.

Wrap Up

At the end of the day, once I had the router bits I needed, the whole project probably consumed about 60 hours of cutting, routing, sanding and finishing. If I had to do it again, I could probably shave a few hours off now that I have good samples to start from. But it's still a manual labor-intensive undertaking. If you had two table saws, and two router tables, and some friends to help with sanding and finishing, you could knock out a whole set in a day. Maybe.

Thanks for reading. I hope you enjoyed the blog.
Tiny,

I'm glad you like it. It was fun to plan/build and even fun to blog about.

By "half small" posts, do you mean a post half as tall, so that you'd stack up four of them, alternating between attaching to the fixed wall, and attaching to the "door" panel? That would certainly work. It may be more stable, but using just two small posts is pretty stable as it is, mostly because the door itself rests on the floor (or table) and therefore puts very little sideways torque on the pin.

In general, I've tried to avoid making any really single-purpose pieces (like ladders, fences, gates, etc.), both to avoid having my kids give me a laundry list of one-off things to build and to try to spur their creativity. I'm one of those guys who laments that Lego sets have so many complex, special-purpose pieces these days. I know kids can still mix and match them, but I kind of liked the old "bucket of bricks" days. We still built cars and jets and houses and whatever, but we had to use a little more imagination.

As for a roof system, I was kind of hoping some of the talented folks who enjoy Lumberjocks could throw me a clever idea or two. I'm stumped!
 

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How to Create The Pieces

Everything in this set depends on two things: cutting the beads and cutting the grooves. And those two things both rely on using the right router bits.

Watch the video below for the short and sweet summary. Read the text below for more details.

http://static.photobucket.com/player.swf

The Right Router Bits

There are two bits used for this project-a ball-end bit and a bead profile bit. In this case, both bits have a main diameter of 3/8". Through some testing and some math, I determined that 3/8" grooves and beads gave me enough strength in the narrow parts of the pieces, but also kept the posts and panels to a reasonable size. I tried 1/2" diameter bits, but they required 2 1/4" wide posts, which felt like baseball bats and would have weighed a ton all together. 3/8" was a better way to go.

The ball-end bit was easy enough to find. I used a Whiteside bit, purchased online for around $30. But I couldn't finalize a ball-end purchase until I knew I had a perfectly matching profile bit to match. And that profile bit was very hard to find. In fact, it was impossible.

About 18 months ago, I started my online and catalog search for a bit that would cut half of a "keyhole" profile. It seemed straightforward enough, and a lot of bits looked like they were close. But they all had one problem or another: one would leave a "neck" on the bead that would be far too narrow, another's would be too thick. Some would cut such a deep neck that the bead would be "floating" about 3/8" or more from the rest of the panel, making it quite likely that the entire bead could just be snapped off. I wrote to Amana, Infinity, and other manufacturers and the answer was always the same: We don't have anything like that, and we've never seen another set like it.

Originally, Amana seemed interested. I spoke with Lonnie Bird, Amana's spokesman and a contributor to Fine Woodworking, and sent them detailed specs in a PDF. He said they were interested in producing the set, but after a few months I had heard nothing and started my search again.

The second time around, I also looked at getting a complete custom bit made. I was quoted $120 to $150 for a one-off solid carbide bit. That was a bit more than I wanted to spend, but it was an option. Then I got a great suggestion from the product information expert at Infinity. He said to speak with a sharpening service to see if they could modify an existing bit to match my measurements.

I did a quick search online and found a few firms in the general area that seemed reputable, including one in Canton, Ohio called Cammel Saw Company. I sent an email to the Contact Us address on their site and quickly got a return email from Dennis Cammel. I sent him my PDF specification and had a quick phone call with him, and he said they could do it. They sell high quality Whiteside bits. Dennis made a recommendation on which source bit to start with and said the additional custom sharpening would cost a mere $10.

About a week later, a package arrived in the mail from Cammel Saw with my first set of bits-the 1/2" diameter ball-end and profile bits I mentioned above. After my first attempt I knew I was on the right track. The bits cut perfectly and left a mirror finish. With a little adjustment to my router table fence, to make the bead just a hair narrower than perfectly round, I got two pieces that slid together easily, but with fairly little slop. But the 1/2" set was just too large.

I called Dennis back and asked if he could do the exact same thing, but with 3/8" diameter bits. Again, 10 days later a new set arrived, as perfect as the first. I would highly recommend working with Dennis Cammel and his team at Cammel Saw if you ever have similar needs, and the odds are high that I will also be using him for any regular sharpening I need for bits or blades.

Step By Step

1. Joint or plane the planks to get the desired thickness. I started with 4/4 planks, and planed them down to 5/8"-thin enough to be easy to handle by little hands, but thick enough to stand up to their abuse. And I used 1 3/4" posts, cut from 8/4 boards. I used all ash wood, because ash is hard and durable, and has a high elasticity. It will bend before breaking. There's a reason it used to be the go-to wood for baseball bats. There's a lot of maple used in bats these days, but they always shatter when the break. Not good for a kid's toy.

2. Cut the planks and posts to the right width. The posts are all 1 3/4" on a side, so that's easy at the table saw. The planks were a bit trickier because I had to calculate the right widths so that two narrow planks and a post would be equal to a wide plank. You can make you planks whatever width you like, but it's important to keep that ratio of two narrow planks and one post equals one wide plank so that the structures you create can interchangeably use wide or narrow panels and still fit together.

3. Cut the planks and posts to length. The length of each post and panel is again a matter of choice. I chose 9" lengths for posts and regular panels. That was a good scale for the various dolls and figures we already owned. Much taller than that would use a lot of wood, be getting pretty heavy, and would physically be a bit set to manage. Any smaller wouldn't feel like a castle wall, when placed next to a 6" figure. So 9" worked for me. The small posts and panels are simply half that height so that, again, two small posts are the same as a large post.

4. Cut a test groove in a scrap post. The 1/4" dado worked well with a 3/8" ball-end bit. That would leave a decently wide throat for the neck of the bead to slide through, but still be narrow enough for the ball-end bit to cut a clearly wider groove. It took a little trial and error to get the dado blade depth and the router table ball-end bit depth to work together. The router table had to cut slightly deeper to that the square corners of the dado cuts met the edge of the ball-end bit. Once I had this working, I carefully measured and wrote down the fence positions and bit/blade heights on the test piece. This would prove to be super handy down the road.

5. Cut a test bead on a scrap panel. Once I had a test post, I needed to figure out the right fence and bit height settings to cut a matching bead. My first step was to place the test post on the router table, and raise the profile bit until it seemed to match the shape of the groove. I removed the test piece, moved the fence in to guide the panel and did a test cut. Each time I did a test, I ran the panel across the bit, then flipped it end-for-end and ran it through again. This was to mimic the actual process I would use for the final pieces, and would ensure that as I moved the fence closer and closer, I would always have a symmetrical and centered bead. Eventually, it got close. I would take a pass on each side and then test it in the test post. I'd take a hair more of each side and test again. The micro adjustment knob on my Kreg router table was very useful for this process of sneaking up on the right bead width. When it was right, I once again measured and recorded all the settings on the panel itself.

6. Mass post production. With a matching test post and panel, I could get to work cutting the rest of the pieces. With a stack of 9" posts on a table, I began cutting dozens of dados, checking every once in a while that the fence was still secure and the cuts were all of consistent depth, and were centered on the faces of the posts.

When the dados were all cut, I moved to the router table. Using the test post as a guide, I inserted the ball-end bit again and raised it until I could just slide the test post over the bit. I then slide the fence over until it met the edge of the test post. I removed the test piece, turned on the router, and ran the test piece over the bit again to ensure that no additional wood was being removed. Assured of its setup, I began running the dados over the ball-end bit, one by one, 8 passes per piece (4 in each direction).

With each finished post, I would pick up the test panel and quickly slide it through each groove. Normal human motions will occasionally mean I applied more less pressure against the fence during a given cut. Even a few thousandths of an inch can be felt by the sliding pieces. Every once in a while I got one that faintly stuck in a certain place, so I ran that post over the bit again to clean it up.

7. Mass panel production. With the posts complete, I turned to the panels. Again, I used my sample panel as a guide to quickly get the bit height set. I then set the fence about halfway to its final position and did light passes on both sides of all of the panels. Trying to cut the full profile in one pass would have led to lots of tear out or splintering of the wood and likely would have damaged the bit or the router. Much better to take more, lighter passes.

So after I completed a first pass on both faces, on both sides of all of the panels, I moved the fence to it's final spot and re-ran one panel to ensure a good fit. When I saw that it fit perfectly with the posts, I began re-running all of the panels at their final depth.

8. Cut pieces to final length My source wood for the posts had started as roughly 3' long planks. That worked well to produce four 9" posts per length. So at this point I cut the posts into their 9" and 4.5" final lengths.

The panels had started as 6' to 8' long planks. Since I would be running these planks on edge on the router, I cut them to final length before routing. I wasn't comfortable trying to manage long panels of that width on edge. In hindsight, I should have constructed an add-on fence for the router table to better support panels that wide up on edge.

9. Sanding, sanding, sanding. I realized there were a LOT of edges in these pieces, and since I was building a toy for very young children, I needed to hit every edge to make sure nobody got splinters. I also expected to sand the faces of the planks, but when I began that process I realized the glossy surface left by my new Dewalt 735 planer, when set at high quality cut, was superior to what I would get with 180 grit sandpaper. So I just left the faces alone. Thank goodness for small miracles. I still ended up building myself a quick downdraft box to minimize the dust from all of this close-quarters hand sanding. I also built some specialized sanding tools (wrapping adhesive sandpaper around the pointed tip of a pencil) to get into the nooks at the end of each post.

10. Beeswax Finish. Again, because this was going to be used by little kids and even an infant, I had to make sure the finish was safe. I wasn't too worried about dings and scratches-it's a hardwood toy; it will get dinged, but it will be tough. But I did want to keep the wood from getting too rough, and I wanted a nice feel to the wood. The Salad Bowl finish was perfect. It's a blend of mineral oil and beeswax. You can rub it on with your fingers and it leaves the wood just slightly darker. Two added benefits are that it smells great and natural, and it actually makes the pieces slide together even more easily. With the finish added, the pieces have a smooth, fluid, quiet action. And if I ever need to add more, I can reapply finish in the house and immediately hand the pieces back to my kids to keep playing. No smell, and no waiting necessary.

11. Building the Box. Once I had all of the pieces built, I was finally able to plan out and design a box to store and carry them all. At first I thought of building a typical toy box with a flip up lid, etc. Then it occurred to me to make the box part of the set. By using posts for the corners of the box, with regular grooves cut in the outside faces, the box can become the center of the castle and the walls can be attached and built out from the corners. That meant, once again, I needed to build it so that the height, width and length were all multiples of the narrow panels and post widths, so everything could still meet at a right angle. Fortunately, the math worked out so that I could build a box about 2 wide panels x 1.5 wide panels x 1.5 posts tall. The last feature of the box was to cut permanent "doorways" into the sides. These doorways allow the castle residents to get into and out of the main room. Also, they conveniently double as carrying handles on all four sides of the storage box. I decided to leave the top of the box open to make it easy to see the pieces inside, reach the people or furniture you put into the castle, and eventually to put the pieces back when playtime is over.

I built the box out of 1/2" baltic birch plywood, with each edge reinforced with a strip of solid ash. The corners are joined by simple dados and Titebond woodglue holding the plywood in place. The bottom is another piece of 1/2" plywood resting on 1/2" ledger strips that are glued and screwed into the bottom edges of the sides.

The box is also finished entirely in the Salad Bowl finish.

Wrap Up

At the end of the day, once I had the router bits I needed, the whole project probably consumed about 60 hours of cutting, routing, sanding and finishing. If I had to do it again, I could probably shave a few hours off now that I have good samples to start from. But it's still a manual labor-intensive undertaking. If you had two table saws, and two router tables, and some friends to help with sanding and finishing, you could knock out a whole set in a day. Maybe.

Thanks for reading. I hope you enjoyed the blog.
Okay, how about a three sided post with one side a simple dado to fit over the top of the wall pieces, then with the shaped slot in one other side to accept a side? Do the post at a 45 degree angle so that one on each side would result in a 90 degree ridge line. might have to do some specialy sized roof pieces to fit, though, but texture them to show the difference.
Either that, or play with the angles so the regular pieces fit…
 

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Discussion Starter · #17 ·
How to Create The Pieces

Everything in this set depends on two things: cutting the beads and cutting the grooves. And those two things both rely on using the right router bits.

Watch the video below for the short and sweet summary. Read the text below for more details.

http://static.photobucket.com/player.swf

The Right Router Bits

There are two bits used for this project-a ball-end bit and a bead profile bit. In this case, both bits have a main diameter of 3/8". Through some testing and some math, I determined that 3/8" grooves and beads gave me enough strength in the narrow parts of the pieces, but also kept the posts and panels to a reasonable size. I tried 1/2" diameter bits, but they required 2 1/4" wide posts, which felt like baseball bats and would have weighed a ton all together. 3/8" was a better way to go.

The ball-end bit was easy enough to find. I used a Whiteside bit, purchased online for around $30. But I couldn't finalize a ball-end purchase until I knew I had a perfectly matching profile bit to match. And that profile bit was very hard to find. In fact, it was impossible.

About 18 months ago, I started my online and catalog search for a bit that would cut half of a "keyhole" profile. It seemed straightforward enough, and a lot of bits looked like they were close. But they all had one problem or another: one would leave a "neck" on the bead that would be far too narrow, another's would be too thick. Some would cut such a deep neck that the bead would be "floating" about 3/8" or more from the rest of the panel, making it quite likely that the entire bead could just be snapped off. I wrote to Amana, Infinity, and other manufacturers and the answer was always the same: We don't have anything like that, and we've never seen another set like it.

Originally, Amana seemed interested. I spoke with Lonnie Bird, Amana's spokesman and a contributor to Fine Woodworking, and sent them detailed specs in a PDF. He said they were interested in producing the set, but after a few months I had heard nothing and started my search again.

The second time around, I also looked at getting a complete custom bit made. I was quoted $120 to $150 for a one-off solid carbide bit. That was a bit more than I wanted to spend, but it was an option. Then I got a great suggestion from the product information expert at Infinity. He said to speak with a sharpening service to see if they could modify an existing bit to match my measurements.

I did a quick search online and found a few firms in the general area that seemed reputable, including one in Canton, Ohio called Cammel Saw Company. I sent an email to the Contact Us address on their site and quickly got a return email from Dennis Cammel. I sent him my PDF specification and had a quick phone call with him, and he said they could do it. They sell high quality Whiteside bits. Dennis made a recommendation on which source bit to start with and said the additional custom sharpening would cost a mere $10.

About a week later, a package arrived in the mail from Cammel Saw with my first set of bits-the 1/2" diameter ball-end and profile bits I mentioned above. After my first attempt I knew I was on the right track. The bits cut perfectly and left a mirror finish. With a little adjustment to my router table fence, to make the bead just a hair narrower than perfectly round, I got two pieces that slid together easily, but with fairly little slop. But the 1/2" set was just too large.

I called Dennis back and asked if he could do the exact same thing, but with 3/8" diameter bits. Again, 10 days later a new set arrived, as perfect as the first. I would highly recommend working with Dennis Cammel and his team at Cammel Saw if you ever have similar needs, and the odds are high that I will also be using him for any regular sharpening I need for bits or blades.

Step By Step

1. Joint or plane the planks to get the desired thickness. I started with 4/4 planks, and planed them down to 5/8"-thin enough to be easy to handle by little hands, but thick enough to stand up to their abuse. And I used 1 3/4" posts, cut from 8/4 boards. I used all ash wood, because ash is hard and durable, and has a high elasticity. It will bend before breaking. There's a reason it used to be the go-to wood for baseball bats. There's a lot of maple used in bats these days, but they always shatter when the break. Not good for a kid's toy.

2. Cut the planks and posts to the right width. The posts are all 1 3/4" on a side, so that's easy at the table saw. The planks were a bit trickier because I had to calculate the right widths so that two narrow planks and a post would be equal to a wide plank. You can make you planks whatever width you like, but it's important to keep that ratio of two narrow planks and one post equals one wide plank so that the structures you create can interchangeably use wide or narrow panels and still fit together.

3. Cut the planks and posts to length. The length of each post and panel is again a matter of choice. I chose 9" lengths for posts and regular panels. That was a good scale for the various dolls and figures we already owned. Much taller than that would use a lot of wood, be getting pretty heavy, and would physically be a bit set to manage. Any smaller wouldn't feel like a castle wall, when placed next to a 6" figure. So 9" worked for me. The small posts and panels are simply half that height so that, again, two small posts are the same as a large post.

4. Cut a test groove in a scrap post. The 1/4" dado worked well with a 3/8" ball-end bit. That would leave a decently wide throat for the neck of the bead to slide through, but still be narrow enough for the ball-end bit to cut a clearly wider groove. It took a little trial and error to get the dado blade depth and the router table ball-end bit depth to work together. The router table had to cut slightly deeper to that the square corners of the dado cuts met the edge of the ball-end bit. Once I had this working, I carefully measured and wrote down the fence positions and bit/blade heights on the test piece. This would prove to be super handy down the road.

5. Cut a test bead on a scrap panel. Once I had a test post, I needed to figure out the right fence and bit height settings to cut a matching bead. My first step was to place the test post on the router table, and raise the profile bit until it seemed to match the shape of the groove. I removed the test piece, moved the fence in to guide the panel and did a test cut. Each time I did a test, I ran the panel across the bit, then flipped it end-for-end and ran it through again. This was to mimic the actual process I would use for the final pieces, and would ensure that as I moved the fence closer and closer, I would always have a symmetrical and centered bead. Eventually, it got close. I would take a pass on each side and then test it in the test post. I'd take a hair more of each side and test again. The micro adjustment knob on my Kreg router table was very useful for this process of sneaking up on the right bead width. When it was right, I once again measured and recorded all the settings on the panel itself.

6. Mass post production. With a matching test post and panel, I could get to work cutting the rest of the pieces. With a stack of 9" posts on a table, I began cutting dozens of dados, checking every once in a while that the fence was still secure and the cuts were all of consistent depth, and were centered on the faces of the posts.

When the dados were all cut, I moved to the router table. Using the test post as a guide, I inserted the ball-end bit again and raised it until I could just slide the test post over the bit. I then slide the fence over until it met the edge of the test post. I removed the test piece, turned on the router, and ran the test piece over the bit again to ensure that no additional wood was being removed. Assured of its setup, I began running the dados over the ball-end bit, one by one, 8 passes per piece (4 in each direction).

With each finished post, I would pick up the test panel and quickly slide it through each groove. Normal human motions will occasionally mean I applied more less pressure against the fence during a given cut. Even a few thousandths of an inch can be felt by the sliding pieces. Every once in a while I got one that faintly stuck in a certain place, so I ran that post over the bit again to clean it up.

7. Mass panel production. With the posts complete, I turned to the panels. Again, I used my sample panel as a guide to quickly get the bit height set. I then set the fence about halfway to its final position and did light passes on both sides of all of the panels. Trying to cut the full profile in one pass would have led to lots of tear out or splintering of the wood and likely would have damaged the bit or the router. Much better to take more, lighter passes.

So after I completed a first pass on both faces, on both sides of all of the panels, I moved the fence to it's final spot and re-ran one panel to ensure a good fit. When I saw that it fit perfectly with the posts, I began re-running all of the panels at their final depth.

8. Cut pieces to final length My source wood for the posts had started as roughly 3' long planks. That worked well to produce four 9" posts per length. So at this point I cut the posts into their 9" and 4.5" final lengths.

The panels had started as 6' to 8' long planks. Since I would be running these planks on edge on the router, I cut them to final length before routing. I wasn't comfortable trying to manage long panels of that width on edge. In hindsight, I should have constructed an add-on fence for the router table to better support panels that wide up on edge.

9. Sanding, sanding, sanding. I realized there were a LOT of edges in these pieces, and since I was building a toy for very young children, I needed to hit every edge to make sure nobody got splinters. I also expected to sand the faces of the planks, but when I began that process I realized the glossy surface left by my new Dewalt 735 planer, when set at high quality cut, was superior to what I would get with 180 grit sandpaper. So I just left the faces alone. Thank goodness for small miracles. I still ended up building myself a quick downdraft box to minimize the dust from all of this close-quarters hand sanding. I also built some specialized sanding tools (wrapping adhesive sandpaper around the pointed tip of a pencil) to get into the nooks at the end of each post.

10. Beeswax Finish. Again, because this was going to be used by little kids and even an infant, I had to make sure the finish was safe. I wasn't too worried about dings and scratches-it's a hardwood toy; it will get dinged, but it will be tough. But I did want to keep the wood from getting too rough, and I wanted a nice feel to the wood. The Salad Bowl finish was perfect. It's a blend of mineral oil and beeswax. You can rub it on with your fingers and it leaves the wood just slightly darker. Two added benefits are that it smells great and natural, and it actually makes the pieces slide together even more easily. With the finish added, the pieces have a smooth, fluid, quiet action. And if I ever need to add more, I can reapply finish in the house and immediately hand the pieces back to my kids to keep playing. No smell, and no waiting necessary.

11. Building the Box. Once I had all of the pieces built, I was finally able to plan out and design a box to store and carry them all. At first I thought of building a typical toy box with a flip up lid, etc. Then it occurred to me to make the box part of the set. By using posts for the corners of the box, with regular grooves cut in the outside faces, the box can become the center of the castle and the walls can be attached and built out from the corners. That meant, once again, I needed to build it so that the height, width and length were all multiples of the narrow panels and post widths, so everything could still meet at a right angle. Fortunately, the math worked out so that I could build a box about 2 wide panels x 1.5 wide panels x 1.5 posts tall. The last feature of the box was to cut permanent "doorways" into the sides. These doorways allow the castle residents to get into and out of the main room. Also, they conveniently double as carrying handles on all four sides of the storage box. I decided to leave the top of the box open to make it easy to see the pieces inside, reach the people or furniture you put into the castle, and eventually to put the pieces back when playtime is over.

I built the box out of 1/2" baltic birch plywood, with each edge reinforced with a strip of solid ash. The corners are joined by simple dados and Titebond woodglue holding the plywood in place. The bottom is another piece of 1/2" plywood resting on 1/2" ledger strips that are glued and screwed into the bottom edges of the sides.

The box is also finished entirely in the Salad Bowl finish.

Wrap Up

At the end of the day, once I had the router bits I needed, the whole project probably consumed about 60 hours of cutting, routing, sanding and finishing. If I had to do it again, I could probably shave a few hours off now that I have good samples to start from. But it's still a manual labor-intensive undertaking. If you had two table saws, and two router tables, and some friends to help with sanding and finishing, you could knock out a whole set in a day. Maybe.

Thanks for reading. I hope you enjoyed the blog.
Interesting idea. I may have to take a closer look when I get home and hold some panels up to see how that would work. My daughters have realized that two panels at a right angle around a single post can be easily made to balance across the top of a tower or building. The wood is apparently just grippy enough to hold it in place. You can see an example of that in the Much More Than Castles montage in blog entry #3. But it's not the same if they are balanced, vs. a strong stable roof.

Originally, a question I spent a lot of time on was how to get little figures to be able to stand at the wall and just peek over the top-like having a sort of catwalk along the inside of the wall. Never did figure that one out, either.
 

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How to Create The Pieces

Everything in this set depends on two things: cutting the beads and cutting the grooves. And those two things both rely on using the right router bits.

Watch the video below for the short and sweet summary. Read the text below for more details.

http://static.photobucket.com/player.swf

The Right Router Bits

There are two bits used for this project-a ball-end bit and a bead profile bit. In this case, both bits have a main diameter of 3/8". Through some testing and some math, I determined that 3/8" grooves and beads gave me enough strength in the narrow parts of the pieces, but also kept the posts and panels to a reasonable size. I tried 1/2" diameter bits, but they required 2 1/4" wide posts, which felt like baseball bats and would have weighed a ton all together. 3/8" was a better way to go.

The ball-end bit was easy enough to find. I used a Whiteside bit, purchased online for around $30. But I couldn't finalize a ball-end purchase until I knew I had a perfectly matching profile bit to match. And that profile bit was very hard to find. In fact, it was impossible.

About 18 months ago, I started my online and catalog search for a bit that would cut half of a "keyhole" profile. It seemed straightforward enough, and a lot of bits looked like they were close. But they all had one problem or another: one would leave a "neck" on the bead that would be far too narrow, another's would be too thick. Some would cut such a deep neck that the bead would be "floating" about 3/8" or more from the rest of the panel, making it quite likely that the entire bead could just be snapped off. I wrote to Amana, Infinity, and other manufacturers and the answer was always the same: We don't have anything like that, and we've never seen another set like it.

Originally, Amana seemed interested. I spoke with Lonnie Bird, Amana's spokesman and a contributor to Fine Woodworking, and sent them detailed specs in a PDF. He said they were interested in producing the set, but after a few months I had heard nothing and started my search again.

The second time around, I also looked at getting a complete custom bit made. I was quoted $120 to $150 for a one-off solid carbide bit. That was a bit more than I wanted to spend, but it was an option. Then I got a great suggestion from the product information expert at Infinity. He said to speak with a sharpening service to see if they could modify an existing bit to match my measurements.

I did a quick search online and found a few firms in the general area that seemed reputable, including one in Canton, Ohio called Cammel Saw Company. I sent an email to the Contact Us address on their site and quickly got a return email from Dennis Cammel. I sent him my PDF specification and had a quick phone call with him, and he said they could do it. They sell high quality Whiteside bits. Dennis made a recommendation on which source bit to start with and said the additional custom sharpening would cost a mere $10.

About a week later, a package arrived in the mail from Cammel Saw with my first set of bits-the 1/2" diameter ball-end and profile bits I mentioned above. After my first attempt I knew I was on the right track. The bits cut perfectly and left a mirror finish. With a little adjustment to my router table fence, to make the bead just a hair narrower than perfectly round, I got two pieces that slid together easily, but with fairly little slop. But the 1/2" set was just too large.

I called Dennis back and asked if he could do the exact same thing, but with 3/8" diameter bits. Again, 10 days later a new set arrived, as perfect as the first. I would highly recommend working with Dennis Cammel and his team at Cammel Saw if you ever have similar needs, and the odds are high that I will also be using him for any regular sharpening I need for bits or blades.

Step By Step

1. Joint or plane the planks to get the desired thickness. I started with 4/4 planks, and planed them down to 5/8"-thin enough to be easy to handle by little hands, but thick enough to stand up to their abuse. And I used 1 3/4" posts, cut from 8/4 boards. I used all ash wood, because ash is hard and durable, and has a high elasticity. It will bend before breaking. There's a reason it used to be the go-to wood for baseball bats. There's a lot of maple used in bats these days, but they always shatter when the break. Not good for a kid's toy.

2. Cut the planks and posts to the right width. The posts are all 1 3/4" on a side, so that's easy at the table saw. The planks were a bit trickier because I had to calculate the right widths so that two narrow planks and a post would be equal to a wide plank. You can make you planks whatever width you like, but it's important to keep that ratio of two narrow planks and one post equals one wide plank so that the structures you create can interchangeably use wide or narrow panels and still fit together.

3. Cut the planks and posts to length. The length of each post and panel is again a matter of choice. I chose 9" lengths for posts and regular panels. That was a good scale for the various dolls and figures we already owned. Much taller than that would use a lot of wood, be getting pretty heavy, and would physically be a bit set to manage. Any smaller wouldn't feel like a castle wall, when placed next to a 6" figure. So 9" worked for me. The small posts and panels are simply half that height so that, again, two small posts are the same as a large post.

4. Cut a test groove in a scrap post. The 1/4" dado worked well with a 3/8" ball-end bit. That would leave a decently wide throat for the neck of the bead to slide through, but still be narrow enough for the ball-end bit to cut a clearly wider groove. It took a little trial and error to get the dado blade depth and the router table ball-end bit depth to work together. The router table had to cut slightly deeper to that the square corners of the dado cuts met the edge of the ball-end bit. Once I had this working, I carefully measured and wrote down the fence positions and bit/blade heights on the test piece. This would prove to be super handy down the road.

5. Cut a test bead on a scrap panel. Once I had a test post, I needed to figure out the right fence and bit height settings to cut a matching bead. My first step was to place the test post on the router table, and raise the profile bit until it seemed to match the shape of the groove. I removed the test piece, moved the fence in to guide the panel and did a test cut. Each time I did a test, I ran the panel across the bit, then flipped it end-for-end and ran it through again. This was to mimic the actual process I would use for the final pieces, and would ensure that as I moved the fence closer and closer, I would always have a symmetrical and centered bead. Eventually, it got close. I would take a pass on each side and then test it in the test post. I'd take a hair more of each side and test again. The micro adjustment knob on my Kreg router table was very useful for this process of sneaking up on the right bead width. When it was right, I once again measured and recorded all the settings on the panel itself.

6. Mass post production. With a matching test post and panel, I could get to work cutting the rest of the pieces. With a stack of 9" posts on a table, I began cutting dozens of dados, checking every once in a while that the fence was still secure and the cuts were all of consistent depth, and were centered on the faces of the posts.

When the dados were all cut, I moved to the router table. Using the test post as a guide, I inserted the ball-end bit again and raised it until I could just slide the test post over the bit. I then slide the fence over until it met the edge of the test post. I removed the test piece, turned on the router, and ran the test piece over the bit again to ensure that no additional wood was being removed. Assured of its setup, I began running the dados over the ball-end bit, one by one, 8 passes per piece (4 in each direction).

With each finished post, I would pick up the test panel and quickly slide it through each groove. Normal human motions will occasionally mean I applied more less pressure against the fence during a given cut. Even a few thousandths of an inch can be felt by the sliding pieces. Every once in a while I got one that faintly stuck in a certain place, so I ran that post over the bit again to clean it up.

7. Mass panel production. With the posts complete, I turned to the panels. Again, I used my sample panel as a guide to quickly get the bit height set. I then set the fence about halfway to its final position and did light passes on both sides of all of the panels. Trying to cut the full profile in one pass would have led to lots of tear out or splintering of the wood and likely would have damaged the bit or the router. Much better to take more, lighter passes.

So after I completed a first pass on both faces, on both sides of all of the panels, I moved the fence to it's final spot and re-ran one panel to ensure a good fit. When I saw that it fit perfectly with the posts, I began re-running all of the panels at their final depth.

8. Cut pieces to final length My source wood for the posts had started as roughly 3' long planks. That worked well to produce four 9" posts per length. So at this point I cut the posts into their 9" and 4.5" final lengths.

The panels had started as 6' to 8' long planks. Since I would be running these planks on edge on the router, I cut them to final length before routing. I wasn't comfortable trying to manage long panels of that width on edge. In hindsight, I should have constructed an add-on fence for the router table to better support panels that wide up on edge.

9. Sanding, sanding, sanding. I realized there were a LOT of edges in these pieces, and since I was building a toy for very young children, I needed to hit every edge to make sure nobody got splinters. I also expected to sand the faces of the planks, but when I began that process I realized the glossy surface left by my new Dewalt 735 planer, when set at high quality cut, was superior to what I would get with 180 grit sandpaper. So I just left the faces alone. Thank goodness for small miracles. I still ended up building myself a quick downdraft box to minimize the dust from all of this close-quarters hand sanding. I also built some specialized sanding tools (wrapping adhesive sandpaper around the pointed tip of a pencil) to get into the nooks at the end of each post.

10. Beeswax Finish. Again, because this was going to be used by little kids and even an infant, I had to make sure the finish was safe. I wasn't too worried about dings and scratches-it's a hardwood toy; it will get dinged, but it will be tough. But I did want to keep the wood from getting too rough, and I wanted a nice feel to the wood. The Salad Bowl finish was perfect. It's a blend of mineral oil and beeswax. You can rub it on with your fingers and it leaves the wood just slightly darker. Two added benefits are that it smells great and natural, and it actually makes the pieces slide together even more easily. With the finish added, the pieces have a smooth, fluid, quiet action. And if I ever need to add more, I can reapply finish in the house and immediately hand the pieces back to my kids to keep playing. No smell, and no waiting necessary.

11. Building the Box. Once I had all of the pieces built, I was finally able to plan out and design a box to store and carry them all. At first I thought of building a typical toy box with a flip up lid, etc. Then it occurred to me to make the box part of the set. By using posts for the corners of the box, with regular grooves cut in the outside faces, the box can become the center of the castle and the walls can be attached and built out from the corners. That meant, once again, I needed to build it so that the height, width and length were all multiples of the narrow panels and post widths, so everything could still meet at a right angle. Fortunately, the math worked out so that I could build a box about 2 wide panels x 1.5 wide panels x 1.5 posts tall. The last feature of the box was to cut permanent "doorways" into the sides. These doorways allow the castle residents to get into and out of the main room. Also, they conveniently double as carrying handles on all four sides of the storage box. I decided to leave the top of the box open to make it easy to see the pieces inside, reach the people or furniture you put into the castle, and eventually to put the pieces back when playtime is over.

I built the box out of 1/2" baltic birch plywood, with each edge reinforced with a strip of solid ash. The corners are joined by simple dados and Titebond woodglue holding the plywood in place. The bottom is another piece of 1/2" plywood resting on 1/2" ledger strips that are glued and screwed into the bottom edges of the sides.

The box is also finished entirely in the Salad Bowl finish.

Wrap Up

At the end of the day, once I had the router bits I needed, the whole project probably consumed about 60 hours of cutting, routing, sanding and finishing. If I had to do it again, I could probably shave a few hours off now that I have good samples to start from. But it's still a manual labor-intensive undertaking. If you had two table saws, and two router tables, and some friends to help with sanding and finishing, you could knock out a whole set in a day. Maybe.

Thanks for reading. I hope you enjoyed the blog.
That's an easy one. Just make an "L" shaped bracket of an appropriate length and attach a cut off molding as on the panels at a 90 degree angle to the top to fit a post with a plain dado to fit the top edge of a panel and a shaped dado to accept the molded cut off molded tongue.
 

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Discussion Starter · #19 ·
How to Create The Pieces

Everything in this set depends on two things: cutting the beads and cutting the grooves. And those two things both rely on using the right router bits.

Watch the video below for the short and sweet summary. Read the text below for more details.

http://static.photobucket.com/player.swf

The Right Router Bits

There are two bits used for this project-a ball-end bit and a bead profile bit. In this case, both bits have a main diameter of 3/8". Through some testing and some math, I determined that 3/8" grooves and beads gave me enough strength in the narrow parts of the pieces, but also kept the posts and panels to a reasonable size. I tried 1/2" diameter bits, but they required 2 1/4" wide posts, which felt like baseball bats and would have weighed a ton all together. 3/8" was a better way to go.

The ball-end bit was easy enough to find. I used a Whiteside bit, purchased online for around $30. But I couldn't finalize a ball-end purchase until I knew I had a perfectly matching profile bit to match. And that profile bit was very hard to find. In fact, it was impossible.

About 18 months ago, I started my online and catalog search for a bit that would cut half of a "keyhole" profile. It seemed straightforward enough, and a lot of bits looked like they were close. But they all had one problem or another: one would leave a "neck" on the bead that would be far too narrow, another's would be too thick. Some would cut such a deep neck that the bead would be "floating" about 3/8" or more from the rest of the panel, making it quite likely that the entire bead could just be snapped off. I wrote to Amana, Infinity, and other manufacturers and the answer was always the same: We don't have anything like that, and we've never seen another set like it.

Originally, Amana seemed interested. I spoke with Lonnie Bird, Amana's spokesman and a contributor to Fine Woodworking, and sent them detailed specs in a PDF. He said they were interested in producing the set, but after a few months I had heard nothing and started my search again.

The second time around, I also looked at getting a complete custom bit made. I was quoted $120 to $150 for a one-off solid carbide bit. That was a bit more than I wanted to spend, but it was an option. Then I got a great suggestion from the product information expert at Infinity. He said to speak with a sharpening service to see if they could modify an existing bit to match my measurements.

I did a quick search online and found a few firms in the general area that seemed reputable, including one in Canton, Ohio called Cammel Saw Company. I sent an email to the Contact Us address on their site and quickly got a return email from Dennis Cammel. I sent him my PDF specification and had a quick phone call with him, and he said they could do it. They sell high quality Whiteside bits. Dennis made a recommendation on which source bit to start with and said the additional custom sharpening would cost a mere $10.

About a week later, a package arrived in the mail from Cammel Saw with my first set of bits-the 1/2" diameter ball-end and profile bits I mentioned above. After my first attempt I knew I was on the right track. The bits cut perfectly and left a mirror finish. With a little adjustment to my router table fence, to make the bead just a hair narrower than perfectly round, I got two pieces that slid together easily, but with fairly little slop. But the 1/2" set was just too large.

I called Dennis back and asked if he could do the exact same thing, but with 3/8" diameter bits. Again, 10 days later a new set arrived, as perfect as the first. I would highly recommend working with Dennis Cammel and his team at Cammel Saw if you ever have similar needs, and the odds are high that I will also be using him for any regular sharpening I need for bits or blades.

Step By Step

1. Joint or plane the planks to get the desired thickness. I started with 4/4 planks, and planed them down to 5/8"-thin enough to be easy to handle by little hands, but thick enough to stand up to their abuse. And I used 1 3/4" posts, cut from 8/4 boards. I used all ash wood, because ash is hard and durable, and has a high elasticity. It will bend before breaking. There's a reason it used to be the go-to wood for baseball bats. There's a lot of maple used in bats these days, but they always shatter when the break. Not good for a kid's toy.

2. Cut the planks and posts to the right width. The posts are all 1 3/4" on a side, so that's easy at the table saw. The planks were a bit trickier because I had to calculate the right widths so that two narrow planks and a post would be equal to a wide plank. You can make you planks whatever width you like, but it's important to keep that ratio of two narrow planks and one post equals one wide plank so that the structures you create can interchangeably use wide or narrow panels and still fit together.

3. Cut the planks and posts to length. The length of each post and panel is again a matter of choice. I chose 9" lengths for posts and regular panels. That was a good scale for the various dolls and figures we already owned. Much taller than that would use a lot of wood, be getting pretty heavy, and would physically be a bit set to manage. Any smaller wouldn't feel like a castle wall, when placed next to a 6" figure. So 9" worked for me. The small posts and panels are simply half that height so that, again, two small posts are the same as a large post.

4. Cut a test groove in a scrap post. The 1/4" dado worked well with a 3/8" ball-end bit. That would leave a decently wide throat for the neck of the bead to slide through, but still be narrow enough for the ball-end bit to cut a clearly wider groove. It took a little trial and error to get the dado blade depth and the router table ball-end bit depth to work together. The router table had to cut slightly deeper to that the square corners of the dado cuts met the edge of the ball-end bit. Once I had this working, I carefully measured and wrote down the fence positions and bit/blade heights on the test piece. This would prove to be super handy down the road.

5. Cut a test bead on a scrap panel. Once I had a test post, I needed to figure out the right fence and bit height settings to cut a matching bead. My first step was to place the test post on the router table, and raise the profile bit until it seemed to match the shape of the groove. I removed the test piece, moved the fence in to guide the panel and did a test cut. Each time I did a test, I ran the panel across the bit, then flipped it end-for-end and ran it through again. This was to mimic the actual process I would use for the final pieces, and would ensure that as I moved the fence closer and closer, I would always have a symmetrical and centered bead. Eventually, it got close. I would take a pass on each side and then test it in the test post. I'd take a hair more of each side and test again. The micro adjustment knob on my Kreg router table was very useful for this process of sneaking up on the right bead width. When it was right, I once again measured and recorded all the settings on the panel itself.

6. Mass post production. With a matching test post and panel, I could get to work cutting the rest of the pieces. With a stack of 9" posts on a table, I began cutting dozens of dados, checking every once in a while that the fence was still secure and the cuts were all of consistent depth, and were centered on the faces of the posts.

When the dados were all cut, I moved to the router table. Using the test post as a guide, I inserted the ball-end bit again and raised it until I could just slide the test post over the bit. I then slide the fence over until it met the edge of the test post. I removed the test piece, turned on the router, and ran the test piece over the bit again to ensure that no additional wood was being removed. Assured of its setup, I began running the dados over the ball-end bit, one by one, 8 passes per piece (4 in each direction).

With each finished post, I would pick up the test panel and quickly slide it through each groove. Normal human motions will occasionally mean I applied more less pressure against the fence during a given cut. Even a few thousandths of an inch can be felt by the sliding pieces. Every once in a while I got one that faintly stuck in a certain place, so I ran that post over the bit again to clean it up.

7. Mass panel production. With the posts complete, I turned to the panels. Again, I used my sample panel as a guide to quickly get the bit height set. I then set the fence about halfway to its final position and did light passes on both sides of all of the panels. Trying to cut the full profile in one pass would have led to lots of tear out or splintering of the wood and likely would have damaged the bit or the router. Much better to take more, lighter passes.

So after I completed a first pass on both faces, on both sides of all of the panels, I moved the fence to it's final spot and re-ran one panel to ensure a good fit. When I saw that it fit perfectly with the posts, I began re-running all of the panels at their final depth.

8. Cut pieces to final length My source wood for the posts had started as roughly 3' long planks. That worked well to produce four 9" posts per length. So at this point I cut the posts into their 9" and 4.5" final lengths.

The panels had started as 6' to 8' long planks. Since I would be running these planks on edge on the router, I cut them to final length before routing. I wasn't comfortable trying to manage long panels of that width on edge. In hindsight, I should have constructed an add-on fence for the router table to better support panels that wide up on edge.

9. Sanding, sanding, sanding. I realized there were a LOT of edges in these pieces, and since I was building a toy for very young children, I needed to hit every edge to make sure nobody got splinters. I also expected to sand the faces of the planks, but when I began that process I realized the glossy surface left by my new Dewalt 735 planer, when set at high quality cut, was superior to what I would get with 180 grit sandpaper. So I just left the faces alone. Thank goodness for small miracles. I still ended up building myself a quick downdraft box to minimize the dust from all of this close-quarters hand sanding. I also built some specialized sanding tools (wrapping adhesive sandpaper around the pointed tip of a pencil) to get into the nooks at the end of each post.

10. Beeswax Finish. Again, because this was going to be used by little kids and even an infant, I had to make sure the finish was safe. I wasn't too worried about dings and scratches-it's a hardwood toy; it will get dinged, but it will be tough. But I did want to keep the wood from getting too rough, and I wanted a nice feel to the wood. The Salad Bowl finish was perfect. It's a blend of mineral oil and beeswax. You can rub it on with your fingers and it leaves the wood just slightly darker. Two added benefits are that it smells great and natural, and it actually makes the pieces slide together even more easily. With the finish added, the pieces have a smooth, fluid, quiet action. And if I ever need to add more, I can reapply finish in the house and immediately hand the pieces back to my kids to keep playing. No smell, and no waiting necessary.

11. Building the Box. Once I had all of the pieces built, I was finally able to plan out and design a box to store and carry them all. At first I thought of building a typical toy box with a flip up lid, etc. Then it occurred to me to make the box part of the set. By using posts for the corners of the box, with regular grooves cut in the outside faces, the box can become the center of the castle and the walls can be attached and built out from the corners. That meant, once again, I needed to build it so that the height, width and length were all multiples of the narrow panels and post widths, so everything could still meet at a right angle. Fortunately, the math worked out so that I could build a box about 2 wide panels x 1.5 wide panels x 1.5 posts tall. The last feature of the box was to cut permanent "doorways" into the sides. These doorways allow the castle residents to get into and out of the main room. Also, they conveniently double as carrying handles on all four sides of the storage box. I decided to leave the top of the box open to make it easy to see the pieces inside, reach the people or furniture you put into the castle, and eventually to put the pieces back when playtime is over.

I built the box out of 1/2" baltic birch plywood, with each edge reinforced with a strip of solid ash. The corners are joined by simple dados and Titebond woodglue holding the plywood in place. The bottom is another piece of 1/2" plywood resting on 1/2" ledger strips that are glued and screwed into the bottom edges of the sides.

The box is also finished entirely in the Salad Bowl finish.

Wrap Up

At the end of the day, once I had the router bits I needed, the whole project probably consumed about 60 hours of cutting, routing, sanding and finishing. If I had to do it again, I could probably shave a few hours off now that I have good samples to start from. But it's still a manual labor-intensive undertaking. If you had two table saws, and two router tables, and some friends to help with sanding and finishing, you could knock out a whole set in a day. Maybe.

Thanks for reading. I hope you enjoyed the blog.
:) I should have clarified-I haven't figured out how to do that without creating another assortment of purpose built parts. Depending on how much custom work I want to do, I supposed everything is possible. But I do appreciate the current pieces' versatility. Then again, if I did create some pieces like a post with a plain dado to sit sideways on top of a panel, I'm sure my kids would figure out other crazy ways to use it that I had never thought of!
 

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How to Create The Pieces

Everything in this set depends on two things: cutting the beads and cutting the grooves. And those two things both rely on using the right router bits.

Watch the video below for the short and sweet summary. Read the text below for more details.

http://static.photobucket.com/player.swf

The Right Router Bits

There are two bits used for this project-a ball-end bit and a bead profile bit. In this case, both bits have a main diameter of 3/8". Through some testing and some math, I determined that 3/8" grooves and beads gave me enough strength in the narrow parts of the pieces, but also kept the posts and panels to a reasonable size. I tried 1/2" diameter bits, but they required 2 1/4" wide posts, which felt like baseball bats and would have weighed a ton all together. 3/8" was a better way to go.

The ball-end bit was easy enough to find. I used a Whiteside bit, purchased online for around $30. But I couldn't finalize a ball-end purchase until I knew I had a perfectly matching profile bit to match. And that profile bit was very hard to find. In fact, it was impossible.

About 18 months ago, I started my online and catalog search for a bit that would cut half of a "keyhole" profile. It seemed straightforward enough, and a lot of bits looked like they were close. But they all had one problem or another: one would leave a "neck" on the bead that would be far too narrow, another's would be too thick. Some would cut such a deep neck that the bead would be "floating" about 3/8" or more from the rest of the panel, making it quite likely that the entire bead could just be snapped off. I wrote to Amana, Infinity, and other manufacturers and the answer was always the same: We don't have anything like that, and we've never seen another set like it.

Originally, Amana seemed interested. I spoke with Lonnie Bird, Amana's spokesman and a contributor to Fine Woodworking, and sent them detailed specs in a PDF. He said they were interested in producing the set, but after a few months I had heard nothing and started my search again.

The second time around, I also looked at getting a complete custom bit made. I was quoted $120 to $150 for a one-off solid carbide bit. That was a bit more than I wanted to spend, but it was an option. Then I got a great suggestion from the product information expert at Infinity. He said to speak with a sharpening service to see if they could modify an existing bit to match my measurements.

I did a quick search online and found a few firms in the general area that seemed reputable, including one in Canton, Ohio called Cammel Saw Company. I sent an email to the Contact Us address on their site and quickly got a return email from Dennis Cammel. I sent him my PDF specification and had a quick phone call with him, and he said they could do it. They sell high quality Whiteside bits. Dennis made a recommendation on which source bit to start with and said the additional custom sharpening would cost a mere $10.

About a week later, a package arrived in the mail from Cammel Saw with my first set of bits-the 1/2" diameter ball-end and profile bits I mentioned above. After my first attempt I knew I was on the right track. The bits cut perfectly and left a mirror finish. With a little adjustment to my router table fence, to make the bead just a hair narrower than perfectly round, I got two pieces that slid together easily, but with fairly little slop. But the 1/2" set was just too large.

I called Dennis back and asked if he could do the exact same thing, but with 3/8" diameter bits. Again, 10 days later a new set arrived, as perfect as the first. I would highly recommend working with Dennis Cammel and his team at Cammel Saw if you ever have similar needs, and the odds are high that I will also be using him for any regular sharpening I need for bits or blades.

Step By Step

1. Joint or plane the planks to get the desired thickness. I started with 4/4 planks, and planed them down to 5/8"-thin enough to be easy to handle by little hands, but thick enough to stand up to their abuse. And I used 1 3/4" posts, cut from 8/4 boards. I used all ash wood, because ash is hard and durable, and has a high elasticity. It will bend before breaking. There's a reason it used to be the go-to wood for baseball bats. There's a lot of maple used in bats these days, but they always shatter when the break. Not good for a kid's toy.

2. Cut the planks and posts to the right width. The posts are all 1 3/4" on a side, so that's easy at the table saw. The planks were a bit trickier because I had to calculate the right widths so that two narrow planks and a post would be equal to a wide plank. You can make you planks whatever width you like, but it's important to keep that ratio of two narrow planks and one post equals one wide plank so that the structures you create can interchangeably use wide or narrow panels and still fit together.

3. Cut the planks and posts to length. The length of each post and panel is again a matter of choice. I chose 9" lengths for posts and regular panels. That was a good scale for the various dolls and figures we already owned. Much taller than that would use a lot of wood, be getting pretty heavy, and would physically be a bit set to manage. Any smaller wouldn't feel like a castle wall, when placed next to a 6" figure. So 9" worked for me. The small posts and panels are simply half that height so that, again, two small posts are the same as a large post.

4. Cut a test groove in a scrap post. The 1/4" dado worked well with a 3/8" ball-end bit. That would leave a decently wide throat for the neck of the bead to slide through, but still be narrow enough for the ball-end bit to cut a clearly wider groove. It took a little trial and error to get the dado blade depth and the router table ball-end bit depth to work together. The router table had to cut slightly deeper to that the square corners of the dado cuts met the edge of the ball-end bit. Once I had this working, I carefully measured and wrote down the fence positions and bit/blade heights on the test piece. This would prove to be super handy down the road.

5. Cut a test bead on a scrap panel. Once I had a test post, I needed to figure out the right fence and bit height settings to cut a matching bead. My first step was to place the test post on the router table, and raise the profile bit until it seemed to match the shape of the groove. I removed the test piece, moved the fence in to guide the panel and did a test cut. Each time I did a test, I ran the panel across the bit, then flipped it end-for-end and ran it through again. This was to mimic the actual process I would use for the final pieces, and would ensure that as I moved the fence closer and closer, I would always have a symmetrical and centered bead. Eventually, it got close. I would take a pass on each side and then test it in the test post. I'd take a hair more of each side and test again. The micro adjustment knob on my Kreg router table was very useful for this process of sneaking up on the right bead width. When it was right, I once again measured and recorded all the settings on the panel itself.

6. Mass post production. With a matching test post and panel, I could get to work cutting the rest of the pieces. With a stack of 9" posts on a table, I began cutting dozens of dados, checking every once in a while that the fence was still secure and the cuts were all of consistent depth, and were centered on the faces of the posts.

When the dados were all cut, I moved to the router table. Using the test post as a guide, I inserted the ball-end bit again and raised it until I could just slide the test post over the bit. I then slide the fence over until it met the edge of the test post. I removed the test piece, turned on the router, and ran the test piece over the bit again to ensure that no additional wood was being removed. Assured of its setup, I began running the dados over the ball-end bit, one by one, 8 passes per piece (4 in each direction).

With each finished post, I would pick up the test panel and quickly slide it through each groove. Normal human motions will occasionally mean I applied more less pressure against the fence during a given cut. Even a few thousandths of an inch can be felt by the sliding pieces. Every once in a while I got one that faintly stuck in a certain place, so I ran that post over the bit again to clean it up.

7. Mass panel production. With the posts complete, I turned to the panels. Again, I used my sample panel as a guide to quickly get the bit height set. I then set the fence about halfway to its final position and did light passes on both sides of all of the panels. Trying to cut the full profile in one pass would have led to lots of tear out or splintering of the wood and likely would have damaged the bit or the router. Much better to take more, lighter passes.

So after I completed a first pass on both faces, on both sides of all of the panels, I moved the fence to it's final spot and re-ran one panel to ensure a good fit. When I saw that it fit perfectly with the posts, I began re-running all of the panels at their final depth.

8. Cut pieces to final length My source wood for the posts had started as roughly 3' long planks. That worked well to produce four 9" posts per length. So at this point I cut the posts into their 9" and 4.5" final lengths.

The panels had started as 6' to 8' long planks. Since I would be running these planks on edge on the router, I cut them to final length before routing. I wasn't comfortable trying to manage long panels of that width on edge. In hindsight, I should have constructed an add-on fence for the router table to better support panels that wide up on edge.

9. Sanding, sanding, sanding. I realized there were a LOT of edges in these pieces, and since I was building a toy for very young children, I needed to hit every edge to make sure nobody got splinters. I also expected to sand the faces of the planks, but when I began that process I realized the glossy surface left by my new Dewalt 735 planer, when set at high quality cut, was superior to what I would get with 180 grit sandpaper. So I just left the faces alone. Thank goodness for small miracles. I still ended up building myself a quick downdraft box to minimize the dust from all of this close-quarters hand sanding. I also built some specialized sanding tools (wrapping adhesive sandpaper around the pointed tip of a pencil) to get into the nooks at the end of each post.

10. Beeswax Finish. Again, because this was going to be used by little kids and even an infant, I had to make sure the finish was safe. I wasn't too worried about dings and scratches-it's a hardwood toy; it will get dinged, but it will be tough. But I did want to keep the wood from getting too rough, and I wanted a nice feel to the wood. The Salad Bowl finish was perfect. It's a blend of mineral oil and beeswax. You can rub it on with your fingers and it leaves the wood just slightly darker. Two added benefits are that it smells great and natural, and it actually makes the pieces slide together even more easily. With the finish added, the pieces have a smooth, fluid, quiet action. And if I ever need to add more, I can reapply finish in the house and immediately hand the pieces back to my kids to keep playing. No smell, and no waiting necessary.

11. Building the Box. Once I had all of the pieces built, I was finally able to plan out and design a box to store and carry them all. At first I thought of building a typical toy box with a flip up lid, etc. Then it occurred to me to make the box part of the set. By using posts for the corners of the box, with regular grooves cut in the outside faces, the box can become the center of the castle and the walls can be attached and built out from the corners. That meant, once again, I needed to build it so that the height, width and length were all multiples of the narrow panels and post widths, so everything could still meet at a right angle. Fortunately, the math worked out so that I could build a box about 2 wide panels x 1.5 wide panels x 1.5 posts tall. The last feature of the box was to cut permanent "doorways" into the sides. These doorways allow the castle residents to get into and out of the main room. Also, they conveniently double as carrying handles on all four sides of the storage box. I decided to leave the top of the box open to make it easy to see the pieces inside, reach the people or furniture you put into the castle, and eventually to put the pieces back when playtime is over.

I built the box out of 1/2" baltic birch plywood, with each edge reinforced with a strip of solid ash. The corners are joined by simple dados and Titebond woodglue holding the plywood in place. The bottom is another piece of 1/2" plywood resting on 1/2" ledger strips that are glued and screwed into the bottom edges of the sides.

The box is also finished entirely in the Salad Bowl finish.

Wrap Up

At the end of the day, once I had the router bits I needed, the whole project probably consumed about 60 hours of cutting, routing, sanding and finishing. If I had to do it again, I could probably shave a few hours off now that I have good samples to start from. But it's still a manual labor-intensive undertaking. If you had two table saws, and two router tables, and some friends to help with sanding and finishing, you could knock out a whole set in a day. Maybe.

Thanks for reading. I hope you enjoyed the blog.
Okay, for YOUR enjoyment (the pure "let's design something for the heck of it" enjoyment), let's suppose you cut the corners off some of those posts so you CAN tilt them more than just a little. Shave the edges of them to the edge of the slots and chamfer the slot bottoms. Now we have pieces that can go from a 180 to about 135 or so, enough for the roof idea, IF we cut the round over pattern on ALL FOUR sides of some of the panels.
Make a small panel and you can hook it into the side of one of the new posts that is hooked to the top of one of the four sided panels. Add a regular post to the other end of the small panel and PRESTO! The post acts as a sort of battlement to stand your troops on. If you want a bigger walkway, add a small panel at a 90 to the other one.

This is almost as much fun as the kids are having PLAYING with the darn things! ;)
 
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