A few months back I was visiting with my brother, his wife, and his young son Bowen, who was very excited about his toy Hess truck. Toy Hess trucks have a long tradition, going back to 1964. The first one I had was a 1978 Hess tractor-trailor tanker. The truck was plastic, and very detailed. The designers took some liberties, but the level of verisimilitude is very good, to the point that to my 32-year-old eyes the tractor is plainly made by International. To my 2-year-old eyes it was just awesome. Looking at Bowen’s 2011 Hess truck, which bears no similarity to anything that actually exists, I got to thinking about the toys I liked best as a child: those that let me mess with the real world, with objects that I saw every day but were completely exotic and inaccessible to a child.
So with Bowen’s first birthday coming up, I set about making him a wooden fire truck. What little boy doesn’t like a fire truck, right? For my model I took the fire truck I know best: Pawlet’s ETA 542, a 1998 E-One custom pumper on a Freightliner chassis. 542 is Pawlet’s front-line apparatus, the first truck out the door, and being the firefighter who lives closest to the firehouse, I am quite often behind the wheel. I began by sketching rough dimensions of the truck. I wasn’t striving for a model maker’s absolute precision, but I did really want the finished toy to at least look very much like the real truck. Next I took stock of my shop’s scrap pile. A friend had brought by quite a bit of small 2″ thick high-grade maple scrap that some local cabinetmakers had discarded, from this I found three pieces of wood the correct length. I started with the base block. By using some artistic license here and making the chassis from a single block, I could give the finished toy the necessary durability to survive the rough service a little boy would surely throw at it. I ripped the board square on a table saw and then jigsawed out the space behind the front wheel wells. The cab and body were created from smaller blocks stacked on top two deep, cut with a jigsaw and a chopsaw.
Details of the top of the body were added with a router, and a small siren was added to the top of the cab. All of this was glued in place, with a single wood screw through the top of the siren, as this piece was small enough to present a choking hazard should the glue fail. Once the glue was dry, a spade bit was used to drill out the wheel wells, and the rough form of the truck was in place.
After some extensive sanding and some wood filler, and an inch of 1/4″ dowel rod inserted 1/2″ deep with some wood glue as the deck gun, it was on to the painting process. A friend suggested milk paint for this project as a non-toxic alternative to enamel paints and the results were stellar. It took about three coats to get the desired depth. On top of this went some details applied by hand (with a very small brush) in non-toxic enamel paints.
All of this was sealed using three coats of shellac in lieu of the usual acrylic polyurethane. I applied it with a HVLP spray gun. The shellac added a slightly yellow hue to the whites, but it will not yellow further over time, and this natural protective finish (shellac is a resin secreted by a beetle dissolved in ethyl alcohol) is both very durable and nontoxic.
For the wheels, I purchased turned wooden wheels from a woodworking supply shop (cheating, I know– you’re welcome to buy me a lathe if it bothers you :)…) and a length of brass rod. I cut the rod to length and threaded it with a die. Two pairs of screw eyes were inserted into the bottom of the truck to hold the axles, and the wheels were then threaded on with hex nuts and Derlin washers and secured in place using brass acorn nuts. Some Locktite and a lot of pressure was used to keep the acorn nuts secure, as the wheels could be a choking hazard to a small child.
And there it is, wood scrap to wood toy. Total purchased for this project: 1 brass rod, two bags of eight wooden wheels, one quart of milk paint. The rest was rummaged from parts bins and the shop floor. Now I can only hope that Bo has as much fun playing with it as I did making it.