26 July 2012

Tutorial: Jacob's Ladder Toy

I have a handful of toys I distinctly remember cherishing as a child. To me, these toys have really superseded the true test that is time and to this day I think back on them with joy. Among these toys were my Lite-Brite (a toy that if plugged in for longer than 5 minutes was easily considered a fire hazard), my Gameboy which was the introduction to my obsession with Tetris, a stuffed animal dog from my piano teacher whom I named Patch and everyone knew was my first love, and a quaint old toy from FAO Schwarz: a Jacob’s Ladder. I enjoyed this toy because it seemed like regardless of how long I played with it, its charm was never lost. So, when I found it again the other day, I knew I had to make one of my own. And perhaps 20 more in the future…

I wanted the wood to be excessively dark and the ribbons to be vibrant colors for a little juxtaposition.  I love that it gives this old toy a bit of a modern zing.

Even after knowing how this toy works, the optical illusion it creates is still fascinating to me and I often get lost just watching the segments tumble down the ladder.  The click-clack of the wooden pieces doesn't hurt either; everything such a breath of nostalgia.

I've seen methods out there where you can use tacks to keep the ribbons in place at the ends of the blocks, but I prefer using two wooden slats and gluing them together instead.  Not only is this the way my olden Jacob's Ladder Toy is constructed, but it also means that you can have much thinner wooden slats, which I prefer.

Want to make your own Jacob's Ladder Wooden Toy?



  • 12 wooden slats (will be glued together to form the 6 segments)
    Dimensions: Practically anything. Not too thick, and must be wide enough to comfortable fit 3 ribbons side by side
    * My slat dimensions were 0.12” x 1.4375” x 2.125” purchased here
  • Ribbon
    * Both sides will be seen, so don’t pick ribbons that are only patterned on one side
  • Wood glue


  • Wood stain, polyurethane, brush, lint-free rag
  • Clamp


  1. Finish one side of each of the 12 wooden slats (this will be the “right” side) any way you desire. They can be painted, covered in fabric, mod podged with scrapbook paper, etc.
         * I decided to use wood stain and polyurethane. Here’s how I did it:

      1. Apply the wood stain to the slat. Get the sides too!
      2. Let the stain sit ~10 minutes, remove with lint-free rag. After 4+ hours, do steps 1&2 once more for darker coloring. Let dry at least 8 hours before putting on polyurethane.
      3. Apply thin coat of polyurethane. Let dry for a few hours and put on a few more coats as desired.

  2. Cut 1 center ribbon and 2 side ribbons all of the same length:
    Ribbon LengthYou want the ribbons to be approximately 3x the finished length of your Jacob’s Ladder
    * Measure the length of 1 slat and multiply that by 18. Cut each of your ribbons to this length.
  3. Mark a centerline and a line to either side of the centerline on the wrong side of each slat. These lines denote the placement of your ribbons.


  1. Lay down the first slat, wrong side facing up.
  2. Place the center ribbon along the centerline with the ribbon extending past the top of the slat.
    Place the side ribbons along the side lines with the ribbons extending past the bottom of the slat.
    * I used mini scrapbook squares to keep my ribbons held down before gluing. I recommend against using something like tape because the glue has a hard time adhering to it.
  3. Glue a second slat onto the first, wrong sides facing each other.
    * I used a clamp to ensure a secure bond
    * Be sure to wipe any excess glue off with a damp towel
  4. Fold the center ribbon down.
    Fold the side ribbons up.
    * Take care to not twist your ribbons
    * Do NOT tape the ribbons to the right side of your segments otherwise your Jacob’s Ladder won’t operate properly!
  5. Lay down a slat onto the first segment, wrong side facing up.
  6. Fold the center ribbon up.
    Fold the side ribbons down.
    * Again, mini scrapbook squares help keep the ribbons aligned correctly.
  7. Glue a slat on top of this slat with wrong sides facing.
  8. Continue steps 4-7 until you reach the gluing part for the last segment.

    To FINISH: Before gluing the last segment, cut the ribbons so they do not extend beyond the slat. Glue the last segment.
***NOTE:  If you find that your Jacob's Ladder toy doesn't work freely at first, you should bend all of the segments back and forth a few times.  I found that mine needed a little breaking-in before it really started to work for me.  And now it's very fluid.

1 comment:

  1. We made two of these, sawing apart a wooden box that used to contain tea. They turned out great, and we didn't even need to buy anything! Thank you!