Some of the inspiration for John Hutchinson’s animated wooden items probably stems back to visits to his grandfather as a boy. The grandfather had revolving lamps, with shades that rotated and showed different scenes, such as Niagara Falls in motion or a locomotive with steam and smoke coming out of it. Another source? His collection of McDonald’s Happy Meal wind-up toys, begun when his children were young.
So, after he inherited his father’s band saw as an adult (as a boy, John said, “I was never allowed to use anything more dangerous than a screwdriver” in his father’s shop), and caught sight of David Wakefield’s book How to Make Animated Toys, John was primed to pursue his interest in making things that move.
His training as an architect and his proficiency with CAD software helped him out on that front. “I made the transition from pencil architect to CAD architect starting in 1996,” he said. “By 1998, I was fairly proficient at 2D stuff.” He subsequently taught himself how to do three-dimensional CAD drawings and now, “3D is the only way I work,” he said. “I model stuff in 3D and work backwards to 2D to get my plans.”
Those full-scale AutoCAD models also help John prove to himself whether a project concept will work. “My architectural training taught me that just because you can draw it, doesn’t mean you can build it or that it works,” and his woodworking skills also come in handy there.
John, however, describes himself as “not really a woodworker; I’m a wood tinkerer.” He still does most of his work on the band saw when he can, saying, “I can do anything on a band saw a lot safer than on a table saw.” He recently bought a scroll saw for $20 on Craigslist but that, too, he says he’s using as a “precise band saw.” “Ninety-nine percent of my cuts are outside cuts,” John said. “I don’t do fretwork or anything. I’m using the eye-hand coordination developed on the band saw.”
His techniques in general, however, have changed over the years. At first, John said, he might create the animation in a project by, for example, using a pulley with an O-ring – but that would have been before he became proficient at making wooden gears. His younger brother, a machinist, helped John develop his process for making wooden gears, and now he creates them from plywood which he also makes himself. Usually, John makes his gears out of cherry, or sometimes walnut, using 1/8-inch plys and alternating the grain to make either 2-ply or 3-ply hardwood plywood. John said this adds stability to his gears.
He has also changed his sourcing of some of the other components of his pieces over the years, moving from finding old Erector Set motors on eBay to purchasing continuous duty synchronous turning motors from Surplus Center.
In some of his more recent projects, such as animated music boxes and animated lamps, the components of the piece become prominent features of the design. For instance, when he’s making a lamp, the designs he’s able to find on purchased lampshades influence the overall scheme of the lamp. A lampshade with a fern design provided “snacks” for two animated brontosauruses in one lamp, while in another case, a chrome lightbulb that resembled an octopus head became the feature for a “Menacing Octopus” lamp with eight waving tentacles.
The songs chosen for his music boxes also complement the animated figures, with Beethoven’s “Für Elise” playing on a box with leaping ballerinas and “If I Only Had a Brain” playing on a Frankenstein-themed box.
John’s also been making some sports-themed lamps; part of the inspiration for this type of project, he said, is that “Toys are OK, but I found that a lot of guys were making toys, supposedly for their children and grandchildren, but really for themselves.” With that in mind, he wanted to make animated projects that, rather than being solely playthings, had “some kind of utility.”
Still, “right now I only want to make things that move,” John said. “I don’t want to turn a pen; I don’t want to make a cutting board. I appreciate it, but I’m not interested. It’s probably a guy thing, or an ego thing, but with the animated lamps, I’m probably the only one in the world making them, so by default I’m the best. I’m number one.”
Editor’s Note: click the links to see videos of John’s projects in action.