Laser-cut plywood

Miller Toys and Models

The lockdown has proved to be a fruitful time for design, much less so for printmaking. Lovely CATO Press here in Easton, Bristol has re-opened but with strict social distancing, which means one person at a time can print; many of my fellow printmakers seem to be busy.

I have spent many hours getting several new models and their associated instructions, photos etc. to a stage where I might put them on my web site – Miller Toys and Models – and perhaps even sell a few. And I have at least five more in the development stage, just waiting for a few last tweaks.

Basically Wooden have been doing some laser cutting for me, in between their usual game boxes and face shields. They also have a new lampshade design which I really like, but it’s not on thir web site yet.

I try to design for ease of construction – the models are an introduction to wooden modelling aimed at younger children – as well as incorporating some playability, a degree of robustness and of course some eco-friendliness. 3Mm birch plywood is a wonderful material but the laser cutter has bought a whole new dimension to it.

The first of my new models is a Chinese Junk, about 220 mm long, with a winch/anchor, linen paper sail and twine rigging.

A Junk is an ancient type of Chinese sailing ship, traditionally with fully battened sails, which are the bars running across the sail. This construction toy uses a schooner rig – one of many variants – for ease of assembly. The name Chinese Junk describes many types of coastal or river ships. They have been used as cargo ships, pleasure boats, or houseboats. They vary greatly in size and there are significant regional variations in the type of rig.

Junks were developed during the Song dynasty (960–1279) and were predominantly used by Chinese traders throughout Southeast Asia. They are still found, throughout Southeast Asia and India, but primarily in China. These days they are often used for pleasure sailing. (Thanks, Wikipedia).

I have found aircraft designing to be difficult, they are so bland, all the same. But the long forgotten flying boat provided some inspiration. The early years of flying saw the creation of lots of flying boats, many with heavy lifting capabilities. Sadly few of the large and spectacular versions survived beyond the 1950s, although there are small ones in use, especially in Alaska. One giant of the 1940s was the famous Hughes H-4 Hercules , commonly known as the Spruce Goose, but actually made of birch, like my models. Only one – the largest flying boat ever – was built and it is still on display in Oregon, USA.

This construction toy flying boat is designed with cargo carrying in mind and so has a rear ramp door and twin propellers mounted high and to the rear. A small but versatile sea bird, and I like to think it could be a real flyer.

The third of the new models is an Arab Dhow, again about 220 mm long, with a winch/anchor and an opening stern door.

The beautiful, ancient trading craft of the Indian Ocean, Arabian Sea and the Red Sea, the dhow can still be seen and is used trade and tourism, for some fishing or just pleasure. It’s graceful lines attract the eye and the triangular lanteen sail is supported by a yard held at an angle across the boat.

There are many varieties of dhows, and they still carry dates, timber and fish, and tourists around the Persian Gulf, East Africa, Yemen and coastal South Asia (Pakistan, India, Bangladesh). Larger dhows have crews of approximately thirty, smaller ones typically around twelve.

I have used a waxed twine for the very simple rigging as it it is much easier to thread through the tiny holes than thin string. All three designs have some laser engraving, something I avoided on my earlier models (I was looking for clean lines and simplicity). All the models are ideal gifts for girls and boys over three and for any age, all materials and packaging is sustainable. On sale at Miller Toys and Models.

Laser-cut plywood

Steampunk follies

This is a style not usually associated with children’s toys or models, but my young testers were interested in my initial attempts so I have tried creating some construction toys in the genre, in 3mm laser-cut plywood.

Steampunk is sometimes described as retrofuturistic, a sub-genre of science fiction. It roots are in the cyberpunk novels of William Gibson, Bruce Willis and others, mixed with the gothic and scientific romance of Mary Shelly (Frankenstein), Jules Verne (Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea) as well as more recent authors such as Michael Moorcock.

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea – A BBC illustration

Visually, the American steam locomotives and steamboats had an impact on some TV designers in the 1960s, and the artist Remedios Varo produced work that examined machinery and artefacts. But literary influences defined the genre in the west, while in Japan the manga comics were creating steampunk imagery from the 1940s onward, long before the term steampunk began to be used.

Manga comic, June 1940

The steam engine itself provides many of the most popular images, heavy iron, riveted plating, brass pipework, dials, valves, levers and obscure machinery. This is often combined, anachronistically with the imagery of the airship, a device which was thought to be the future of air transport at the beginning of the 20th Century. The games industry has created many of the most familiar images, with a wide range of styles in games such as Rise of Legends, Final Fantasy VI, The Chaos Engine et al.

Final Fantasy VI

No one ever powered a flying machine with a steam engine and it seems unlikely that anyone ever will, but it can be fun to imagine doing so. There are very few steampunk aeroplane drawings or models which look as if they might fly, those that do tend to be ‘diesel punk’ which allows for similar solidity and style but with far more apparent power.

There are some interesting steampunk helicopter designs on the web but as with the aeroplane designs many tend to use the gas bag or the jet engine to overcome the obvious visual discrepancies with apparent weight. Adding weapons is popular but is still more visual weight and it’s not something I would do.

Design for a model steampunk ‘copter – Chris Miller 2020

Plywood is not the most obvious material to use when trying to use the steampunk style, but the designer in me wants to rise to the challenge. I try to avoid the most cliched elements in my own steampunk designs – not always successfully – and to combine easy of assembly with good play value and hopefully something to attract children of all ages. I can’t get much cutting done at present due to the Corvid 19 lockdown but hopefully this will ease soon. My web site – Miller Toys and Models – will have new models as soon as possible.