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Do Nothing Machines

Just so you know...it's called a "Do-Nothing Machine" because, you guessed it! It does absolutely nothing! I was introduced to these things back in the early 60's when a classmate showed us one he got while living in the Philippines.

This is one of the classic toy designs called variously by the names of "Do Nothing Machine", "Smoke Grinder" or "SB Grinder". It's a pretty common beginning woodworker's trick, generally created to show off the use of a router or the ability to carve clean dovetails, and the ability to measure something accurately in square. If it doesn't work smoothly, then the woodworker goofed somewhere. It is a well designed mechanism which is activated by turning a handle which makes a series of turns happen within a strictly configured cross sectioned track. The photos are sequential; each time the handle is turned, the pieces within the tracks move effortlessly through the tracks.

I will try to learn how to create an animation from these images, or a short MPEG video showing the motion, but for now, that is in the future.

classic toy do nothing machine in motion-first stage classic toy do nothing machine in motion-second stage
classic toy do nothing machine in motion-third stage classic toy do nothing machine in motion-fourth stage
classic toy do nothing machine, handle

I purchased this particular Do Nothing machine off eBay and these are the previous owner's pictures. It is 6.5 inches on each side and is made of a four different pieces to create the track. Some of the more interesting Do-Nothing machines are made of one piece of wood and either use a router or a tablesaw for creating the dovetail shaped tracks.

A friend of mine has created one via the tablesaw method out in his dad's shop, and I hope to include a picture of it here, along with the instructions for how to build this classic "Smoke Grinder". Between the two of us, I think we have figured it out...it's really pretty simple. (I don't own a tablesaw or a router, nor do I know how to use a woodchisel, so I probably won't be making one of my own any time soon.)

A search for these on the web gave me the following hits, if you are interested in purchasing one, rather than making your own:

You can buy one for under 5$ at www.grtnorthern.com
But this guy wants 10$ at www.webshingles.com


A REAL use for the device!

After reading this webpage, a post from a woodworking email list came through with the following information:

"After several failed attempts to make an acceptably shaped walnut OVAL table top, I finally stumbled into a WOODWORKERS SUPPLY catalog showing this same device (at a healthy price, I believe) for drawing perfect ovals. Just add a pencil, and adjustable pivot points, and draw your choice of sizes of perfect ovals."

Well, I don't have a copy of the catalog, but I did find a device called the OVALGRAPH that fits the description of the do nothing machine and their site also has an animation of the motion.

Are there any more of these, or other varieties of wooden machines that do nothing, on the internet? Please email me with the link if you find some!


Other Styles of Machines that Do Nothing

There are other modern-day Do-Nothing Machines in the form of showing how various mechanisms, such as cogs, wheels and pistons work. I have found several books of these machines and an occasional one here and there in other books.

"Making Mechanical Marvels in Wood" by Raymond Levy, c.1991
"Making Wooden Mechanical Models" by Alan and Gil Bridgewater, c.1995
"Making More Wooden Mechanical Models" by Alan and Gil Bridgewater, c.1999

I THINK I can make some of these with my scroll saw and mini-lathe. They do require a lot of measuring though...and that's where I fail. I'm attention deficit/hyperactive, and numbers seem to defy me. I find it easier to be a "pattern-slapper" than a "ruler-reader" so this page may take a lot longer in getting completed.


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Updated: March 20, 2001