A Classic Propellor Toy

Propellor toy

This classic toy was well known before Leonardo da Vinci was a boy, and may have influenced some of his aerodynamic ideas. There are also stories about Orville and Wilbur Wright playing with this toy as kids.

The toy is easy to make, being nothing more than a propeller on a stick, but the physics behind its stability in flight are not so simple.

To make the toy, we need the following:

  • A block of soft pine, 8 inches long, 2 inches wide, and 1/2 inch thick. The dimensions are not critical.
  • A 10 inch dowel, 1/4 inch in diameter.
  • A drill or auger with a 1/4 inch bit.
  • A wood file or shaping tool, or a whittling knife. Power tools like a drum sander or belt sander make the job go much faster.
  • A drop of white glue.


Wood block

We start by drilling a 1/4 inch wide hole through the 8 inch block of soft pine.

Block with hole

Next, we remove the wood from the corners of the block.

If you are using a knife, hold the block in your left hand, and shave away the wood on the right side of the block. To make the propeller shape, we are removing only the wood on the top right side. The left side is untouched, and the right side is shaved down to a sharp edge.

First cut

Now turn the block over, and repeat, shaving off the right side only, so the propeller blade is a thin piece of wood, at a pronounced angle to the hole.

Edge on

Now hold the wood block by the blade you have just made, and carve the other end of the propellor in just the same way as the first. Again, only the right side is shaved down to the bottom, and the left side is unshaved.

A knife, while traditional, is not the fastest, easiest, or safest way to remove the wood. Using a wood file or a shaving tool or planer is better. Power sanders are even faster.

The wood can be left in its rough whittled form, or it can be sanded smooth. You can paint the blades, or draw designs on them with felt tipped markers.

Glued to dowel

Now we glue the dowel into the hole. In the photo, I am using a dowel that is 9½ inches long. The dowel can be a little shorter or a little longer, but a shorter dowel will make a less stable flight, and a longer dowel adds unneeded weight. The optimum length is something you will want to experiment with, since each hand carved toy will be slightly different.

How to fly it

Hold the dowel against your left palm using your right fingertips.


Now quickly slide your right hand forward and your left hand back, so your left fingertips are against your right palm. The propeller toy will fly away, and land a short walk away.

EndFlyingAfrican toys

The photo above shows some toys made by hand in Africa. We support the artisans there by offering these hand painted toys in our catalog.