Three decades later I can still see in my mind’s eye that sad pile of splintery scrap wood of various shapes and sizes. Gathered loosely by a length of pink, plastic cord, the bundle leaned against the wall in a dark corner, seemingly in perpetuity. How could I possibly foresee that it would take a once-in-a-century global pandemic for an adult version of me to finish the project?
It was during one of my summer breaks from middle school. One bored afternoon I chanced upon a book about how to make toys and was instantly hooked. Its spine peeling and pages frayed, the paperback was published in the “ancient” time when my parents were still teenagers. Many of the Chinese characters in it appeared in the traditional style, which was in use before the language reform, but were occasionally accompanied by a pronunciation guide in pinyin for the benefit of readers as young as elementary school kids. I flipped through the preface, impatiently scanned the chapter titled “Preparation Work,” and couldn’t wait to make my first toy!
The toys in the first section looked simple enough. Like most of the projects cataloged throughout the book, they demonstrated the possibility of harnessing the energy of elastic bands to generate motion. I was immediately drawn to a cute pair of bears log bucking a hefty tree trunk and I felt eager to bring them to life. To make this toy, aptly called “Two Cubs Sawing a Log,” you actually needed wood and a handsaw for cutting out the parts. I had no wood, nor did I trust myself to wield a thin blade of metal with razor-sharp teeth. Neither of these deterrents curbed my ambition. I unfolded the paper carton of a tube of toothpaste, drew the bears and parts on the blank side, slowly cut them out with a pair of scissors, and assembled everything with no more than a few pieces of wire and a rubber band. A bastardized version of what was pictured in the book, no doubt, it worked just fine for me. As I pulled the handle and released it, the smiling ursine buckers, each holding one end of their efficient tool, appeared to be happily sawing away at a log. I recently dug out the diary I kept that summer and discovered that my boxboard cubs suffered a crippling leg injury in the rough hands of a neighbor’s child, their log cutting career abridged abruptly. (I had no recollection of the incident, but–according to what I jotted down in the diary entry–I cried.)
The next toy I attempted to make was the “Goose-Head Boat”. At first I tried cheating with my cardstock trick, believing that a layer of candle wax could keep the structure afloat, but I had no luck this time. My cardboard goose made a nosedive into the creek and escaped from view. This regrettable outcome didn’t dampen my enthusiasm the slightest bit. I searched around the house and managed to rescue a boat model out of a pile of discarded odds and ends. I adapted the propeller–made of two interlocking slips of plywood wound up by a rubber band–for the tiny wooden barge. We didn’t have a camera in those days, but I found in my diary an illustration that documented my finished work, viewed upside-down from the bottom of the boat.
To set sail, one would wind up the propeller until the rubber band was twisted tight. When released, the spinning prop would cause the boat to chug along “with a bone in its teeth,” water splashing merrily at its tail.
The Greatest Temptation
There were other interesting and intricate toys in the book. The section “Toys on Wheels” taught children the application of eccentric disks; “Toys that Turn” contained instructions for building a zoetrope (an illustration of this ingenious pre-cinema animation device is available at Princeton’s Graphic Arts Collection blog) and a spinning carousel. In addition to the paddle boat, the book covered varieties of moving vehicles, farm machinery (for example, a miniature “row builder” that could plow through sand or saw dust to raise a neat ridge) and bamboo copters. For reasons I can’t explain, the toy that fascinated me most wasn’t anything that spun or ran or flew, but rather something stationary–or more precisely, stationery: a pencil dispenser. It was a box with a coin slot and a simple switch mechanism, dispensing pencils at the price of two cents each. Its instructions were clearly the lengthiest of all, running eight pages long. I gazed longingly at the cross-section drawings and finished look of the machine, itching to build the toy and watch pencils rolling out at the push of the button. The dispenser called for plywood of different sizes and thicknesses, metal sheets, a metal spring, nails, and so on. Even with the materials in hand, it would be complicated to make the parts.
Looking back, I have to be impressed by my blind youthful optimism. I paid my classmate Lifen, the daughter of a local wooden toy factory owner, a visit. She cheerfully provided me with a stack of plywood–leftovers collected from her dad’s factory floor. For as long as I sustained my fantasy of creating the pencil dispenser, the scrap wood stubbornly occupied a corner of the kitchen. The pink cord remained untied.
Fast forward to two years ago. I met Mr. Peter Hollingsworth, the retired parent of a recent Princeton alumnus. Pete, as he is known, pursued carpentry as a serious hobby. I lived next to his workshop, where he and his brother, a former Princeton researcher, were busy building a boat that spring to celebrate their major birthdays. As I witnessed large pieces of ordinary-looking plywood carried back from the local big-box store transform, week by week, into a 22-foot-long, gleaming rowing shell for two, I decided to ask Pete how he became a master wood worker and boat builder. At one point I mentioned the pencil dispenser that I once dreamed of making as a child. I’m certain that Pete didn’t understand what he was about to get himself into when he agreed to take a look at the diagrams of the toy.
The problem was, I couldn’t recall the exact title of the book — was it “Wooden Toys” or “How to Make Toys”? And I had no idea who the author was, even though I would have no problem recognizing its subdued yellowish green cover, with the diagram of the log-sawing bears in the background. After some tenacious online sleuthing, flexing my professional research muscles, I was able to locate a copy of what was called Mechanical Toys at the Stanford University Library, the only institution in the entire United States with such a title in its collection. The copy arrived at Firestone via interlibrary loan. I studied the chapter on the pencil dispenser for two nights before fully understanding how it worked–how the parts interconnected to accomplish a series of motions, initiated by the drop of a coin into a slot and ending with the release of a pencil. When I showed the instructions to Pete, he raised his glasses above his brow, squinting his discerning eyes at the photocopies I made, and nodded with instant understanding. He didn’t need my translation from traditional Chinese scripts into English, after all.
A few months after the Hollingsworth brothers launched their sleek red boat in Lake Carnegie, I unexpectedly received two boxes from them. My jaw dropped at the sight of what was inside, for multiple reasons.
First, Pete had made the parts of the pencil dispenser for me–two sets, no less, in case I needed practice with assembly! I was and still am afraid to ask how much of his time and mental effort I gratuitously claimed, even knowing that he’s no rookie carpenter. Second, it wasn’t until I held the actual parts in three dimensions and examined them against Lin’s pages and Pete’s assembly instructions that I fully absorbed the complexity of the project. The fluid motion of the coin, push button, shuttle device, and pencils all depended on a precise execution of the design, so that no part would get stuck in the middle of selling you a pencil at five cents apiece. (Two-cent coins were out of circulation in China, so it was necessary to raise the price to one US nickel, which was conveniently identical to the former in diameter.)
Adding to my awe, Pete had made alterations to almost every part in the original design, gluing a slim bar here, attaching a square block there, and cutting a groove yet elsewhere. His revised version contained more than 50 parts, not 35, as in the book. All this tinkering would stabilize the structure, enhance precision and performance, and bring added aesthetic and safety benefits, preventing nails from protruding through the front board. Unlike my cubs, with words like “anticavity” and “gum protection” tattooed on their backs, this box was going to withstand good pushing, prodding, and commotion and still reliably deliver the next pencil even if my old neighbor’s child’s child showed up to play with it.
Lastly, I was floored by Pete’s handwritten assembly instructions, which exceeded the chapter in the book at ten pages long. The instructions, meticulously phrased and accompanied by helpful 3D illustrations, broke the process down into digestible steps. (If IKEA were to hire Mr. Hollingsworth, no one would ever fail at putting together any furniture.)
So I immediately set to work and assembled the parts with great excitement and no glitches. Voilà! I had a pencil dispenser. My childhood dream came true. The end.
Except, alas…that fairytale ending wasn’t true. The truth of the matter was that I committed my established sin of inaction. I dutifully purchased all the materials and tools listed in Pete’s instructions, but wouldn’t start. Christmas came and went in 2019; the parts remained dormant in the boxes, which stared down at me from my bookshelf day in and day out. For a good while it seemed that they might suffer the same fate I unjustly assigned to the plywood I had solicited from the good-natured toy factory owner so many years ago. Was it the side effect of finally comprehending how complex the project was and how unforgiving the device would be to my clumsiness? Was it the laughable silliness of being intimidated by my unfamiliarity of carpentry? “12” Trigger clamp, such as DeWalt DWHT83140,” the fourth item on Pete’s You Will Need list, vaguely recalled a machine gun, and I hadn’t given much thought to how it was to be used. “Carpenter’s glue, such as Titebond II”–how good must I be with this stuff in order not to ruin any of the precious parts?
Then came January 2020. The world was suddenly distracted by a city named Wuhan.
Early February. On two separate days I experienced awful, unexplained symptoms and received a negative flu test result. The university health service was sure there were no suspected cases of Covid-19 on campus. Feeling 49% reassured at most, I holed up in bed and self-quarantined–still wondering to this day what I had.
Mid-March. I converted a corner of my bedroom into an office space, just for one week, you know, until we would be allowed to return to campus.
One week stretched into a fortnight, a month, a season…
I couldn’t pinpoint any particular stimulus, but my sense of guilt before Pete and disappointment at my procrastination must have tipped over to outweigh my usual apprehension of mistakes and failure. One evening after work, instead of sinking into the couch and continuing my compulsive doomscrolling, I reached for a box of parts, reviewed the ten-page handwritten instructions, and set to work. It took me two nights to put together the pencil dispenser while carefully taking note of the abundant reminders and precautions Pete had laid out for me.
I put the lid of the dispenser on, slipped a nickel into the slot, and pushed the button. A pencil rolled out of the box, clanking down the slide, just like in the mesmerizing scene I had played out in my head so many summers ago. The tween-age me wasn’t nearly imaginative enough, though, to picture a grown-up version of myself sanding and painting the box, looking practically legit with one of my last KN95 masks on, at a time when I couldn’t invite any friend to play with the toy. My only option was to share a video clip.
Having completed a project I initiated three decades ago (with great success, you might say), I am happy to share the five crucial steps required to make a toy pencil dispenser:
Step 1: Never give up on your childhood dream.
Step 2: Two options are open for this step.
Option A: keep honing your carpentry skills;
Option B: if Option A isn’t feasible due to an allergy to metal saws or a lack of manual dexterity or both, opt to hone research skills instead–like I have prudently done by pursuing the (almost) equally useful trade of library and information services. This way you may have the diagrams available when you are so lucky as to encounter a carpenter generous with his talent, skill, and time.
Step 3: Receive ready-made, fine-tuned parts of the toy.
Step 4: For extra at-home time, wait for a global pandemic.
Step 5: Assemble.
The Toy Book and Its Author
Mechanical Toys was published by the China Juvenile and Children Publishing House in 1964, issued as one of the installments in the “Handbook of Science and Technology Activities for Youth” series. Other topics covered by the series included how to grow grains, oil crops (soybean, sunflower, etc.) and cottons. The first half of the 1960s–sandwiched between the disastrous Great Leap Forward and the yet more disastrous Cultural Revolution–was considered a period of readjustment, when China shifted its preoccupation from ideological fervor to agricultural and industrial recovery. The handbook series reflected China’s aspiration to equip the next generation of citizens for advancing the nation’s science and technology. This, by the way, was the same period when the classic editions of One Hundred Thousand Whys [Cotsen 32611], the hugely influential popular science book series for children, were published by the Shanghai-based Juvenile and Children’s Publishing House.
Curious about who could possibly deem the pencil dispenser a craft project suitable for children, I did a little research about Lin Youyu, the author of Mechanical Toys. (Okay, that doubles as a veiled expression to airbrush my ineptitude for thirty years at building a toy from a book intended for readers as young as those who still needed help with reading words like “earthworm” 蚯蚓 and “jolt” 颠簸.) Lin was an elementary school science teacher in Shanghai when his book was published. He was in charge of one of three “science and technology stations” that loaned science curriculum equipment to the Shanghai school system. Lin made hundreds of specimens, models, wall charts, and pieces of laboratory equipment himself. He turned 102 years old in 2020 and made news after zoological specimens he built in the 1960s were restored by the Shanghai Natural History Museum and put to use again in his old school.
In Praise of an Unreliable Memory
One big surprise of my saga with the pencil dispenser was how I did and didn’t remember the summer I spent with Mechanical Toys. To my adult mind, it involved the joy of discovering a fun book, the triumph of bringing the bears to life, the luck of cobbling together a functional paddle boat, and the unsatisfied desire for something so tantalizing but too cleverly designed for me to master. My diary told a different story, one I hadn’t revisited for so long that I had to trudge far down memory lane to ensure I didn’t make the details up. I learned that it was a tense time for my family and I seemed to be miserable a lot. Early in the summer my brother took the high-stakes national college entrance exam, which at the time was the only social ladder for average Chinese citizens to climb out of menial, sweated, and poorly-paid labor. While my family awaited the result and dreaded the worst, it managed to mutate into a cluster of explosives. Everybody was in a bad temper; everybody–i.e., everyone older than me–was taking it out on someone else. I was constantly on the receiving end of scolding, whether I deserved it or not. Miraculously, I had almost no memory of the gloomy, nerve-racking side of this summer, but never forgot the glowing moment of pulling Mechanical Toys off the shelf. The book lit up my small, mundane life like other beloved childhood readings. It transported me to an alternate world that was both more intricate and more straightforward, a world where I found myself not at the capricious mercy of other people’s moods, where bears were amicable partners and boats were respectful of the rules of physics, and where drama didn’t result from harsh words but a resilient loop of rubber band.
Which brings me to the question of how I will remember the year 2020. I realize I can’t fully control how it will be recorded and recalled in my brain, but if I have learned anything from “the summer I made toys,” I know which part of my 2020 is good to keep. It isn’t the moments when I was in pain, worried, panicking with a relentlessly rapid heartbeat, lonely, despondent, and mired in self-pity, but the parts where I opened my front door to a care package from colleagues during my self-quarantine; where I reconnected with old friends despite–or because of–the lockdown; where I had the good fortune of fully appreciating an artisan’s craftsmanship. 2020 was the year I finished making the toy pencil dispenser* and realized my cherished childhood dream!
I recently remade “Two Cubs Sawing a Log,” this time upgrading my material from toothpaste box to cardstock paper. I am as big a fan of the work ethic and collaborative ethos of the bears as I was when I first set eyes on the pair. If you, too, are tempted to bring the cubs to life–and like me are the type to avert a saw except when it is made of toothpaste box–you may print this revised diagram on letter-size cardstock paper and connect the joints with small staples (No. 10).
Materials and tools you will need:
- letter-size cardstock paper
- 1 rubber band (2.5 inches long)
- 9 staples (No. 10)
- sewing needle to punch small holes
- pliers and (optional) flat head screwdriver to bend, unbend, and flatten staples
* Thanks least to my own doing…but I was hoping you don’t like to read footnotes.
Edited by Jessica Terekhov.
I thank Dr. Andrew Hollingsworth and Pete Hollingsworth for providing feedback on this essay and enriching it with accurate technical terms–on top of enabling me to finish the toy pencil dispenser project!