How to Build a Whirligig
Folk art whirligigs fashioned from scraps of wood and metal have been popular for hundreds of years. In fact, George Washington bought some for his grandchildren during his trip back to Mt. Vernon after winning the Revolutionary War. You, too, can build this marching, spinning red-white-and-blue whirligig.
IntroductionIt can be built with common hand tools, a jigsaw and drill. Parts for creating the movement mechanism can be purchased at any well-stocked hardware store. Follow our patterns (just trace or iron them on), or make your own. Tinkering is part of the tradition and pleasure of crafting whirligigs.
Places to Watch Your Step When Learning How to Make a Whirligig
The photos will guide you through the basic steps for how to make a whirligig. As you work, use extra care in these areas:
Cutting the propeller arms (D) is the trickiest woodworking of the project. Use a fine-toothed saw to make kerfs for the dadoes where the arms cross and for the four angled faces where the propellers are attached (Photos 1 and 2), then carefully use a chisel to remove the waste.
Use knot-free lumber for all of the wood parts, including Uncle Sam; it’s stronger, easier to cut and looks better when painted than wood with knots.
If you have access to a drill press, use it for drill- ing the pivot holes through Uncle Sam’s shoulders and chest. Or have someone sight the drill bit to help you keep the bit square to the wood.
After securing the two push rods to the camshaft.
Drill holes in Uncle Sam’s hands and attach the flag and sparkler. Screw the firecracker to the platform and set the rockets on short lengths of 1/8-inch rod, with colored wire for the flames
Drill a 1/4-inch hole in the platform (Fig. A) for the pivot pin. Putting most of the weight of the whirligig in the back makes it function as a weather vane. Ream the hole out a bit; the 1/4-inch pin should be snug, but the whirligig should still spin easily. Insert the pin two inches into a post and set it up in the yard or on a deck.
For extra action, add the aluminum spinners. Cut them out with a tin snips and make the bends using a long-nose pliers. Place them on brass rods, then superglue several beads before and after each spinner, leaving a 4-inch space for the spinners to slide along as the wind blows.
For color, add beads before and after each spinner. Drill 3/4-inch-deep holes into the platform and the flag-pole, and push in the brass rods.
Coat the flag and any unpainted areas with exterior polyurethane. Then turn on the wind.
PDF links for how to make a whirligig
Project step-by-step (8)
Make the Propeller Arms
The first step in how to make a whirligig is to cut out dadoes in centers of propeller arms (D), then temporarily put the arms together and mark diagonal cuts where blades are attached. Blades must all tilt the same direction. Set arms in a 45-degree notch cut into a 2x6 and make cross-cuts every 1/4 inch, using 2x6 as a depth guide. Break away pieces and clean up saw kerfs with chisel.
Build the Propeller
Cut blades (E) with jigsaw and smooth with sandpaper (see Fig. C). Center one blade on an arm, drill the first screw hole, remove blade, apply wood glue, and then screw blade to arm. When the four blades are attached, glue arms together.
Cut Out All the Parts
3. Use carbon paper or a photocopy and iron to transfer the pattern to wood. Cut out pieces with a jigsaw. Cut parts for large flag and glue on cloth flags with exterior glue—spread it over entire surface and smooth flag on.
Paint and Assemble the Pieces
Drill holes through Uncle Sam’s arms, then use one arm hole as a guide for drilling the body. The holes for the binding post screw that holds the arms will be tight, so run the bit in and out a few times so the arms will move freely. Attach the arms to the body, using washers as spacers. Finger-tighten the binding post screw; the arms should move freely. Screw in screw eyes at the tops of the shoulders. Glue and screw the explosions and the flag to the platform.
Bend the Camshaft
Bend the camshaft (using the pattern in Fig. B) by holding the brass rod tightly with a locking pliers about 1/8 inch back from where you want the bend, and then make the bends. Flatten any warps in the camshaft after all the bends are made.
Attach the Push Rods to the Camshaft
Clamp one end of one wire to the camshaft, then wrap an 8-inch piece around the rod three times. Trim the end with a wire cutters and squeeze it in line with the rest of the coil. Loosen the coil if it doesn’t slide freely on the cam.
Get the Figure Moving
Attach Uncle Sam’s foot to the base with glue and a screw. Hold the arms perpendicular to the body and, with the cams positioned horizontally, bend the push rods through the screw eyes. Spin the camshaft to check the action. If an arm doesn’t move smoothly, bend the push rod slightly. The push rod should be straight, but you can bend it to make the arm move more smoothly.
(Photo 7), align and screw in two screw eyes on the front propeller brace. Then add the nylon spacers to the camshaft and slide it through the screw eyes. Turn the screw eyes in or out to make the camshaft parallel to the platform.
Making the arms move easily can require tinkering. Adjustments include tightening or loosening the binding post, enlarging the arm holes, moving the screw eyes in or out, or changing the length or bend of the push rod. You may need to wrap and superglue thin wire around the camshaft in front of the bends on the cams to stop the push rod from jamming against the bend.
Once the propeller and crankshaft are assembled and working smoothly, superglue a bead to the end of the camshaft to keep the push rod on. Test the whirligig with a fan; if the arms bind when the propeller spins, rebend the push rods or reroute them so instead of coming up through the eyebolt, they go down. When all works well, apply thread lock compound to the binding post threads.
Attach the Propeller
Drill a 1/8-inch hole at the center of the propeller and cap (F), and then slide the spacers and propeller onto the camshaft. Leave about 1/8 inch play in the shaft between the propeller and the cams so the spacers spin freely. Cut the brass rod 1/2 inch beyond the propeller. Pull the propeller off and squirt urethane glue in the propeller and propeller cap holes, and then push both back on the shaft.