On the Road Again!

There are just a handful of people left here at Steampunk-Shrunk Towers who remember the touring days.  The rest of us listen with a mixture of respect, envy and terror as they tell us tales of being bubble-wrapped, boxed and thrust into Mrs S’s trusty old wheelie suitcase, then trundled away on journeys lasting many hours.

SITC21.jpg WEB (1)“Ah,” they say, “but when you finally arrive and are unpacked – then it’s all worth it!  You’ll be placed ever so carefully in just the right spot to display your fine costumes and intricate details.  Fairy lights and spotlights will illuminate the stall and people will come to stare, to gasp, to admire… and sometimes to buy and take you off to a new home.”

IMG_20210928_153101_resized_20210928_033607222We had almost given up hope of experiencing a fair ourselves, but now we have FOUR to look forward to before the end of the year!

The months of lockdown in the Towers have been pleasant enough.  The visits from the plague doctors and others were diverting, but to see Mrs S dusting off the suitcase and searching out her stocks of bags and boxes…  Well we can’t deny that we are more than a little excited.

Clueless in Clockwork

for bird automatonsI’ve written before about the day I answered a strange advert on a local noticeboard, offering ‘a flock of clockwork birds’.  It was several years ago but I clearly recall the vendor reaching into a box of mouse-shredded newspapers and pulling out one of the little mechanisms for my inspection.  It seemed to be composed of brass, steel and rust, in more or less equal quantities, with a plastic section to one side which housed a rubber diaphragm.  With the sort of smile a favourite uncle gives at children’s parties before performing magic tricks, he took a brass key from his pocket, began to wind the motor and with a loud snap, the spring broke.

“Oh dear,” he said, carelessly tossing it back into the box and removing another, “They have been kicking around an attic for about 40 years,  Not surprising, really.  Let’s try this one.”

The next purred into life perfectly.  Metal arms moved to and fro, a blue steel lever pumped the rubber bellows and a tiny Swanee whistle twittered its modulated tune.  The whole thing, he explained, was controlled by a complex steel cam just visible amongst the whirring brass cogs and gears.

I was smitten.

“And how many are there?” I asked eagerly.

“God!  No idea!  Hundreds – at least,”  he grinned.  “Do you have a van?  No?  I’ll drop them round to you tonight, then.”

I’d been expecting a dozen, or maybe twenty, for the money he was asking.  As my hallway filled up with an endless stack of  mouldering cardboard boxes and a musty smell I wondered whether any of the mice whose handiwork I’d witnessed earlier remained.  The boxes were stacked in the shed.

In the days that followed, I gingerly investigated.  Countless clockwork motors ranging from pristine to utterly wrecked, a huge box of small plastic birds and yellowing waxed envelopes with the precious brass keys and parts to join the birds to the mechanisms.  There was also a sheet of rodent-nibbled instructions for putting them together and a hobbies annual from the early 1960s where I found the sets advertised for 9 shillings and sixpence each, for fixing into novelty cigarette boxes.  It seemed I had inadvertently bought up the entire remaining stock.

I grew up in a different age.  I’m female.  When I asked (every year) for a Meccano set for Christmas, my parents smiled and gave me a dolls’ pram or toy iron and ironing board.  When I put down woodwork and metalwork as my preferred technology options at school, I was allocated to domestic science (aka cooking and housework) and needlework classes. 

for sale on Etsy at SteampunkDollsHouse

Can I blame this background for my almost total ineptitude with anything mechanical?  Maybe not, but still it took me many, many weeks of fruitless and frustrating experimenting to begin producing chirping and twirling birds, perched on little boxes of clockwork wonders.

I sold dozens of them, and dozens more of the motor sets (with shredded newspaper and mouse droppings removed).  However the number of broken mechanisms gradually began to outnumber the remaining working sets and I started to wonder how they could be used.  In most cases the motors worked fine, but the rubber diaphragms that created the bellows had perished, which meant they were silent.  Putting my woefully limited technological skills to work, I examined them.  Two metal bars moved irregularly backwards and forwards.  An offset lump on a wheel turned round and round quite fast when detached from the broken bellows. Three moving parts, then.  What could I do with them?

Idea 1 came from a miniature butterfly net I’d bought in a job lot of dolls’ house furniture.  Two dismembered arms move up and down – one waving the net, the other grasping a magnifying glass while a small metal bug whizzes around and others perch nearby.  I called it The Clockwork Entomologist and am now making some more of them.  They’re my sort of crazy.


Idea 2 is a silent version of the bird model, but with a seahorse emerging from glittery weeds to search left and right.  It went too fast and smoothly at first, so I added some shell charms to the whizzing wheel to slow it down a bit.

Idea 3 is probably the most ambitious – an evil octopus kicks a small hapless jellyfish, who turns the machine that works the robot angler fish above the undersea lair.  This creature hunts for tiny fishes in the weeds to provide supper for the octopus.   That one is off the wall, even for me! 

Finally (for now) there is another angler fish – simpler but more deadly with gaping mouth, huge teeth a battery-operated light-up lure, chasing her prey as it swiftly darts about and changes direction.

I can imagine readers of this post shaking their heads sadly at my lack of skill in fully utilising the intricacies of these amazing little motors.  In my defense, I can only say that they all do what I had intended them to do, they are all constructed almost exclusively from upcycled junk and cast-offs and I had tremendous fun making them.

A few of them are for sale in my Etsy shop.  More will be available when I replenish supplies in the New Year.  They’re incredibly fiddly to make for one this clueless!

 

 

Automaton Tutorial

Something different today.

for sale on Etsy at SteampunkDollsHouse
Some I made earlier

For quite a while now we have been selling little vintage clockwork motors and birds from our Etsy shop, together with the fixings needed to turn them into pretty little twittering and swooping automatons.  They come with a copy of the ‘instruction sheet’ I inherited when I originally bought them.  It was written in the 1980s and is – to my way of thinking – heavy on hyperbole but light on helpful information.  It took me many hours of trial and error to figure out how the various tiny parts went together, but then I’m not very mechanically minded.

It was quite heartening when a customer who had bought several was struggling to make them work and asked if I could explain how I do mine.   I decided to put together a tutorial for her, and anyone else who wants to try making one.  What follows is probably laughable for anyone who understands mechanical bits and bobs, but it may be some help to fellow bodgers and tinkerers who would enjoy building their own automaton.

 

As well as the parts supplied, you will need a box or housing of some kind.  Mine are little card boxes about 8.5cm/3.25 inches square and 4cm/1.5 inches deep (2 for £1 at The Works in UK at time of writing) but you can pack any spare space with foam board or folded card if your box is a bit bigger.

 

Drill a hole in the top of the box. Fig 2 shows the template for the hole, usefully placed on the back of the motor. Check bush fits snuggly in hole. I glue it in place or wrap it with a piece of double-sided tape.

Check fit of motor in box and pack spaces but check mechanism works OK. Don’t fix it in place yet.

If you want a stop/start bar, push the bar through its two slits and press it hard against the back of the box to make a dent (fig 4). Take motor out and cut a slit where your mark is (fig 5).  (The bar provided isn’t long enough for my boxes, so I make one out of plastic packaging.)

I think the pictures (figs 6 to 10) work better than words for attaching the bird. Very fiddly and you may need to adjust position of motor to get the arm moving freely. Lots of trial and error!

 

A true artisan would have crafted a wooden box and screwed the motor into it.  Me, I’m happier with glue, so here’s a picture of where you can safely spread glue without gumming up the mechanism.

Fig 12 shows the finished all-singing all-dancing bird. You can buy the kits from our Etsy shop at this link https://www.etsy.com/…/…/small-vintage-clockwork-motor-with… 

The Clockwork Entomologist

It puzzled me… but I enjoy a good puzzle.

I have this pile of vintage clockwork parts, as many of you will know.  Time hasn’t been kind to them, left as they were to rot in an attic for decades.

for sale on Etsy at SteampunkDollsHouseThe ones I can clean up and get working are either sold as they are to automaton makers or turned into pretty clockwork twittering birds that sell as fast as I can make them.  The ones that have seized up completely are taken to pieces, the parts being upcycled into our miniature gizmos and contraptions.

But there was this one.  It defied all reason.  The spring had snapped, the rubber bellows had perished, the little band that turned a few cogs in the middle had disintegrated, and yet, when I turned the key, it whirred into life.  I had no idea how parts of it were still working.

It most certainly couldn’t be sold or turned into a singing bird.  I removed the broken bellows and whistle.   Stubbornly, the part that was left continued to function.  Admittedly it was rather primitive, but each time I gave the key a few turns, the brass bit in the middle zoomed around at a rate of knots and the arm which should have moved the bird waved up and down unevenly, controlled by the blue steel cam.  I presume one of the broken parts had once regulated the speed.  The other mechanisms move relatively sedately.  This one, though, buzzed like an insect as it spun around…

…and that gave me an idea.

I hunted in an old box of bracelet charms and found a few dragonflies, a butterfly and a bee.  These were painted in jewel colours and most were stuck to the casing.  Another was threaded on to a length of copper wire and fixed to the wheel in the centre.

Next I turned my attention to the arm.

Arm!  That was when the idea of the Clockwork Entomologist came to mind.  Somewhere I had…  yes… in one of those boxes of junk-I’ll-find-a-use-for-one-day…

There it was – a 12th scale butterfly net!

Constructing a pair of arms and hands from epoxy putty was relatively easy.  One held the net and was molded to the flailing metal arm.  The other held a diminutive magnifying glass, cobbled together with a few bits from the stash.  It fitted neatly into the now empty housing from the bird whistle.  A pair of small black sleeves and cuffs dressed the arms in a suitably formal fashion.  My entomologist might lack all other body parts, but those he had were at least well attired.

The mechanism was housed in a small cardboard box, decorated with an assemblage of suitable images.  A few coffee stirrers were sawn up to make a cover for the spring, so that the sharp, snapped steel edges would be safely covered.

So there it is – my rather inept clockwork bug collecting automaton, swiping ineffectually with his net at the buzzing insect each time the little brass key is turned.

The vintage clockwork mechanisms (in full working order) can be bought from this link at the SteampunkDollsHouse, in case you’d like to try your hand at making an automaton.

The magical mechanical birds are available on Steampunk-Shrunk stalls (see home page for dates and venues) or from this link.

As for The Clockwork Entomologist – I’m not sure that I can part with him at the moment, unless someone makes me an offer I can’t refuse…