Tops and yo-yos never go out of style with young people and the young at heart. Learn how to turn them easily from scrap.
For either a top or a yo-yo, you need a hard, durable piece of wood with equally spaced growth rings, for if they are wider on one side of the billet than the other, the weight will not be uniform. That is because summer growth is lighter than winter growth, making the density on one side less than the other. By the same token, tight growth rings are better than widely spaced ones. Maple, birch, dogwood and cherry are some great top woods. The heavier the wood, the better the inertia will be, and that’s key to a top or yo-yo spinning a good long time.
VIDEO: Watch Ernie Turn a Yo-Yo and a Top
Turning a Yo-Yo
A yo-yo is simply two discs of wood that are about 21⁄4″ in diameter by 5/8″ thick joined by an axle, which is a 3/8″-diameter dowel. It holds the discs about 1/8″ apart. The dowel can be turned or purchased, it does not matter. The trick is chucking the discs and drill- ing blind holes for the dowel that are on center and square to the inside faces of the disc. Making a yo-yo is more about accurate chucking than about turning skill.
Build a chuck by mounting a 11⁄2″-thick piece of wood on a 3″ or smaller faceplate. Turn it round just outside the faceplate diameter. Step it to 11⁄2″-diameter, staying above the screws holding the wood to the faceplate. Scrape the center portion dead flat. This puts the face at exact right angles to the axis of the lathe. Apply double-sided tape to the center of the disc (see Photo 1).
With your tailstock center, pick up the center mark of the circle you laid out to band saw the 21⁄4″ circles. Press the disc to the tape and apply pressure to secure it (see Photo 2).
Now scrape the face of the yo-yo disc flat with the same scraper you used to make the chuck. This brings the inside face of the disc at right angles to the axis of the lathe, which will also be the axis of the axle joining it to another disc. Drill 3/8″ deep with a 3/8″ Forstner bit held in a drill chuck in the tailstock (see Photo 3).
Turn the edge of the disc to a pleasing bead shape (see Photo 4). Sand thoroughly, as you’ll want the string to slide nicely on the inside surfaces. Remove the disc from the chuck. Repeat the process to turn a second yo-yo disc.
Next, drill the center of the chuck with the 3/8″ bit and mount a dowel that protrudes 1/4″ from the chuck. Reverse- chuck each yo-yo half by in- serting its hole over the dowel and holding with double-sided tape (see Photo 5).
You can use colored felt-tip pens to make exciting bands on the lathe (see Photo 6). Fin- ish with oil and/or wax. Join the discs with a 3/8″-diameter by 7/8″-long dowel axle.
Twisting Yo-Yo String with a Drill
While you can buy yo-yo strings ready-made, it is an easy matter to make your own. A yo-yo string is a strand of cotton cord doubled in a Z twist. In the spinning process there are S and Z twists, the former lying to the left while the latter lies to the right. You can ply your own using your electric drill and a bent nail as a spinning flyer. I misappro- priated several yards of S twist 5/2 cotton thread from my wife Susan’s inventory to make the string for this article. (If you go to a craft shop to buy your cord, 5 is the weight of the thread and 2 signifies that it is two strands or plies. This is what you need.) Yarn and rope are made by alternately plying S and Z twists together. Since we need a Z twist for our yo-yo, we need to start with an S twist.
Double two to three yards of 5/2 cotton thread over a finish nail pounded into a nail held in your bench vise. Bend another nail into a hook and chuck it in your electric drill and set it to reverse. (The chuck turns to the left.) Tie the ends of the string to the hook. Stretch the strings taut and turn on the drill. Holding the line taut all the while, twist until the thread starts to shorten and the twists start to double. Tie an overhand loop in the drill end, and you have your string. The finished string should reach from the floor to the belly button of the user. Shorten from the end that was on the drill if needed.
To mount the string on your freshly turned yo-yo, simply untwist the doubled end of the string and slip it onto the axle. Re-twist until tight. Beginners will benefit from forming a second loop over the axle to get a bit more friction.
Turning a Simple Top
To make a top, you will need to start with a wood billet that is between 1″ and 2″ square by 2″ to 3″ long. It can be held in a four-jaw chuck or on a screw chuck. If you choose the former, it will be easier to turn it round be- tween centers before chucking.
Turn the end to a point by making a half cove with a spindle gouge (see Photo 1). Round the point to a 1/32″ to 1/64″ radius. The point is really the bearing on which the top spins, so the smaller the surface area, the longer your top will spin.
Make a half cove in the other direction, leaving a band that is the full diameter of the billet. This needs to be brought to a stem that can be held between your fingers to spin the top (see Photo 2). Remember that children have smaller fingers.
Sand the top to a nice smooth surface, up to 180- or even 220-grit. You can now apply colored bands in the lathe with felt-tip pens that really add magic when the top is spinning (see Photo 3). My experience is that for children, the brighter the top is, the better. Cut the top off with a parting tool or the toe of a skew.
Short History of the Yo-Yo
As a toy, the yo-yo dates to ancient times but became an iconic American toy when Pedro Flores started the Yo-Yo Manufacturing Company in Santa Barbara, California, in 1928. In 1932, Donald F. Duncan started the Duncan Toy Company with the purchase of Flores’ company and registered Yo-Yo as a trademark.
In 1946, Duncan opened a new manufacturing plant in Luck, Wisconsin. In 1965, Duncan lost its trademark in a dispute with the Royal Tops Company; the court ruled that yo-yo had become common usage. Trademark lawyers would say that Duncan had not “policed” its mark. The cost of this lawsuit forced Duncan to sell the company to Flambeau Plastics Company.
Flambeau is a plastic injection molding company in Middlefield, Ohio. (Their plant is about four miles from the author’s house.) Flambeau had been manufacturing Duncan’s plastic yo-yos since 1955 and continues to make and sell them to this day. Their website is www.yo-yo.com.