Over 15 years ago I was visiting some relatives and they showed me a toy that they had bought called a marble tree. The picture on the right is not that toy I saw, but gives you an idea of what I saw. The beauty of this toy is that any human being from about age 1 on pretty much knows what to do with it. You take the marble (or many marbles) from the bottom tray and drop that at the top of the tree. The marbles then roll down from leaf to leaf and as they strike the leaves they make a xylophone-like sound of descending notes. If you want to see it in action see this video with one marble as well as this video with many marbles.
This was way before laser cutters came into my life, but I have been a hobbyist wood-worker since I was a teenagers and my first thought was ‘I can build that!’. The leaves are just something you can cut out on a scroll saw, and the trunk was simply a square stick with groves cut into it that at a compound angle. Super-easy if you have a table saw. So not too long after that I had created a scroll-saw design and figured good angles for the table saw, and had built my own marble tree.
Well once you build one, you realize what a REALLY GOOD GIFT they make. I have a nephew who was 1 or 2 years old at the time this toys is pretty much guaranteed to be a hit with kids from 1 to 5 years of age (or beyond really). So I went through this phase where I built several of these for various children (of the appropriate ages) of friends and relatives.
That’s how things stood until about one year ago. At the time I had just gotten access to a laser cutter and was thinking about what I could do with it. The thought of making the leaves of a marble tree immediately occurred to me, but that got me thinking…. Could you make an ENTIRE marble tree using only a laser cutter? At first I was pretty skeptical because of the compound angles that have to be in the trunk. Laser cutters can’t cut too deep and they can’t cut ANY angle, let alone a compound angle, so it certainly was not ‘obvious’ that it could be done. But as I thought about it, I could not rule it out, and the more I thought about it, the more ‘doable’ it became. In a day or so I knew I could build it, and over the course of another week or so I taught myself enough Inkscape to do a concrete design.
It took a couple of iterations to perfect the design, but by Christmas I have two or three prototypes built. I am reasonably proud of the result. It is a ‘clever’ design and the end product is very professional looking if you take the time to do a bit of sanding and are careful not to make a mess with the glue.
A few months later I decided I would make some instructions so that others besides myself could make marble trees using a laser cutter and had written a first draft of the instructions. Over the next few months I gave the instructions to a small number of ‘beta testers’ to see if they were sufficiently descriptive.
One of the interesting results is that not only is the finished product fun, but it also works out well as a ‘kit’. To make a kit I simply put all the laser-cut pieces in a 1 gallon ziplock bag along with a small bottle of wood glue, glue brush, a few rubber bands, sandpaper, a few marbles , and the copy of the instructions. Either a parent or a teen-ager can have the fun of putting it together, and the child gets to play. The best part is that I don’t have to assemble it (after you have done a few, it gets old…).
Well that is where things stood until yesterday when I decided I would finish off the instructions and actually publish them.
The result is ‘Instructions for Building a Marble Tree Using a Laser Cutter’. In case that link does not work, I have also attached a copy of the instructions to this blog post. The instructions have the design files embedded within it, so if you have access to a laser cutter, the instructions should be all the INFORMATION you need to build the project.
I realize that not everyone has access to a laser cutter, but laser cutters are becoming more and more common at your local college, high school or maker-space. My daughters high school has one, my other daughter’s college has several (open to the public), and there is a maker-space nearby that has one. If the project interests you, I encourage you to look around, you may be surprised.
I have copyrighted the instructions and the design files. You are free to use them for any non-commercial use. I only ask that if you make a derivative work you simply attribute the fact that you used them. Note that you are free to remove my name and copyright notice when you actually make a marble tree. I understand that you may wish to personalize it to the recipient of the marble tree, and if my ‘signature’ is in the way, it is OK to remove it.
Sooo, happy laser cutting. For those who want to build it ‘old school’ with scroll saw and table saw, I will probably make a set of instructions for that sometime. In the mean time you can simply print out the leaves and then use it as a guide for scroll sawing. You can also get the angles you need for the table saw from the design which should be all you really need. As always if you have questions you can ask below.