Laser-cut Plywood Toys

September 13th.  I have now added two more boats to this project, a Lifeboat and a Tugboat.  All the designs have been modified recently to eliminate the ‘bridges’, the tiny engraved areas that held the pieces in place after cutting.  This is to get rid of splintering when the pieces are pressed out.  Immediately after cutting, while the cut ply is still on the laser bed, it is necessary to apply sticky paper to each A5 sheet so as to hold the pieces in place.  The end user can then peel the pieces from the whole sheet and discard the waste.

This also enables the use of acrylic, which will not permit splinters as they are very sharp.  So each toy could be produces as a lamp or night-light using LED fittings.

May 4th.  Report: this project has entailed a lot of learning, much of it at the computer:

  1. Designing in Adobe Illustrator; I have largely taught myself using books (Illustrator for Dummies, 2004, Illustrator CS6, Weinmann, 2003,)  but with invaluable help from the staff in Fabrication and Epicentre at Bower Ashton.  I did not find to be of much use, this medium cannot – in my opinion – replace a person, it cannot respond and the answer one needs is, inevitably not available.     (My opinion on computer based teaching/learning has not changed since I completed an Open University module – Educational Computing – in 1987; I take the marxist (simplistic?) view that such material is essentially the  product of bygone (dead) labour and cannot be brought to life, no matter how complex the graphics, branching system and so on . (“Technologically determinist accounts of educational computing remain distressingly pervasive. “, The social chicken and the technological egg: Educational computing and the technology/society divide, Hank, 1997) )
  2. Designing in 123D Design which is an Autodesk product, now succeeded by Tinkercad; this is a design tool which uses ‘primitive’ shapes to build up a design in three dimensions, learnt by trial and error.  I found it especially useful for 3D printing.
  3. Drawing and manipulating images in Photoshop, again mainly by book, (Photoshop CS Bible, McClelland 2004; How To Cheat at Photoshop, Caplin, 2002 (this is a wonderful book); Photoshop for Photographers, Evening, 2003.
  4. Laser cutting and 3D print. The technicians at Fabrication, particularly Michelle Townsend and Zarya Moskovits and Andy Simpson have been incredibly helpful, (I can’t praise them enough!)  Andy helped me 3D print a hinge for the first iteration of the RoRo ferry, and has often given advice and support.  Michelle and Zarya have encouraged and supported my efforts with all the laser cutting; they are often in a teaching role.  Although I did not finally use the 3D hinge the process of making it proved instructive and useful.
  5. Working with sheet materials:  Plywood is invariably warped. The depth varies by up 20%. The material (any) impacts strongly on the design, designing with a specific material in mind is far more rewarding than having a design then deciding what to make it with.  The depth of the engrave for bridges, as with a stencil is also critical, the bridges need to be deep enough to be easy for child hands to press out, but shallow enough to accommodate variations in the ply thickness and the difficulty in getting the plywood flat on the cutting bed.
  6. Finding and dealing with someone willing to laser cut small batches of the toys; this proved quite time consuming and there were a couple of dead ends, but has resulted in a good relationship with a Devon enterprise, Cut & Burn.  Attempts to find a cutter for larger batches have not so far proved successful.
  7. Trial and testing, mainly on adults as far as assembly, mainly on children as far as play.  I have kept notes of the responses of children and my observations of them playing but not tried to quantify these, (I would need much more observation time and more children); they have been generally positive and always informative.  The comments from adults have been about the ease of assembly – make it easier – and the general value, attractiveness and likely sale potential of the toys, almost entirely positive.
  8. I realised that it is important to let go of projects if they don’t look like succeeding, something I learnt previously when making video films.  Don’t fall in love with your work, be self-critical and listen to the criticism of others.  The first attempt at a RoRo ferry, whilst a successful design was much too expensive to sell easily.  The model/shadow theatre fell between two stools and satisfied neither requirement and was also too expensive to produce.  I abandoned them both, reluctantly, but both proved useful in firming up the design process.  The other large toys – demountable Windmill  and Watermill I will proceed with but with a price tag that realistically reflects costs, i.e. at least £150 per unit.

May 4th.  Laser cutting Perspex at Bower Ashton with Zarya.  This was to make perspex versions of the three press-out toys which might be used as lamps.  The cutting went well and I had four items ready for assembly.

The assembly has been interesting, especially the helicopter.

  1. One pressing out the pieces there were several breaks, leaving sharp edges and points; I had several tiny cuts on my fingers.
  2. Press-out was far too hard, even without the breaks.

    Perspex helicopter, broken
  3. All ‘bridges’, used – as with stencils –  to hold the pieces in place on the perspex sheet, would need to be eliminated, they are the main problem preventing press-out.
  4. More breaking during assembly, leaving razor    sharp points and edges.
  5. A large amount of waste material, acrylic and therefore Group 7 plastic, cannot be recycled.

The inevitable conclusion: this is not a viable project and should be abandoned, unless I can find a translucent sheet material that is not brittle and does not break and can be recycled.



April 2017.  This project is largely complete, currently awaiting design registration for the Ferry and the Trawler, other boats will be made soon but they are only variations on the trawler design – a tug boat and a lifeboat.  The larger designs for a windmill and a watermill are unlikely to be realised during the next year as the minutiae of demountable design is very time-consuming.   The theatre was made and was successful as a design, I think but proved much too costly to produce for sale, so is not going forward.

April 2016. The progress on this project is reported on the links below, I intend to add a gallery here and a final report when each toy is finished.

October 2nd 2015: Laser-cut Plywood Toys to include a RoRo Ferry, a Trawler, a Watermill, Windmill, a balance toy, Shadow Theatre/Theatre, a Helicopter


To explore the possibilities and limitations of laser-cut plywood for making complex, demountable toys.  To create repeatable, 3D objects using single thickness plywood sheet and minimal assembly.  To use 3D printing to enable movement (moving parts) within in these objects.  To create at least two different toys by the process outlined above.


1. To produce an accurate plan drawing for each of three toys, using both traditional methods and CAD (computer aided design)
2. To produce ‘exploded’ drawing and prints of the above – including (possibly) on a tee-shirt (separate project).
3. To produce laser-cut prototypes
4. To produce 3D printed prototypes of hinges (redundant March 2016)
5. To amend above as necessary and creates final pieces which can be repeated.