The Big Yard Snake

If you notice the dates on my previous posts, you can see that this blog business does not come naturally to me. After finishing the last one on the snowflake bellows (more on that in a future post), I just couldn’t seem to drag myself back to the keyboard to keep writing them. It’s hard to tell you why, I’m still not sure myself, but every time I tried to sit and write one, the words just wouldn’t come.

What has brought me back to try again is a project, or rather, a series of projects that are designed to eventually lead me to the main one. My wife wants a tyrannosaur. When we first moved here, I, only half joking, offhandedly remarked about how it might be fun to build a giant tyrannosaur skeleton as a yard ornament, maybe a triceratops too. She never forgot that and still mentions it now. So, while out cutting firewood this spring and seeing how many downed trees I had laying around, I figured that I might as well start thinking about this more seriously. I was originally thinking in life-sized terms, but as I grew to appreciate just how big that really was, and just how much would be involved, I scaled down my ambitions. I am keeping it at the “as big as practicable” stage for now.

So, what about the snake in the title? Well, in a word, practice. I want my eventual big critters to look passably plausible, nothing that would fool a paleontologist or a ten-year-old, but close enough most folks would recognize the beasts. I want them impressively large (keeping that as ambiguous as possible for now), inexpensive to build (free would be ideal), safe, durable, and if possible, posable in several different positions. Those are a lot of design elements to consider for a big project, especially if you have no real training or experience in that sort of design and construction.

One of the most intriguing of those design elements is the spine. If I’m going to make posable skeletons, then I need to make a posable spine, so why not start with a critter that is essentially all spine? In the case of the snake, I’m not interested in doing a passable skeleton; I’m not ready to make all those ribs just yet, but I do want a believable snake, that can be moved and shaped much like the real thing. I want to be able to coil it around a tree or have it draped over a rock.

The first step was in simply learning something about snakes. They have hundreds of vertebrae, and I’m not going to try and duplicate that. But it does mean that the more I can manage, the better the overall effect will be. The individual vertebrae are connected to each other by a restricted ball and socket joint which allows more motion in the horizontal plane, about 15 degrees or so, than in the vertical plane, only a few degrees. So I want to devise a simple joint that has similar qualities. What I decided upon for my first try was a wedge joint with a strong cord or cable running lengthwise through the center.

My initial effort will be to make the snake about 8 feet long, with a diameter at the thickest point of about 4 inches. This would be a respectably sized snake in real life, and hopefully will be large enough that whatever lessons I learn from making this one will scale up nicely to a larger one. I plan to have at least 50 individual pieces, all strung together on a nylon rope. Since I still won’t have nearly as many individual joints as the real thing, I’ll need to compromise a bit by increasing the range of motion on each joint, and also limiting the overall motion of the snake.

downed maple in the woodsThe wood for this will come from a small maple tree that fell last year. As you can see in the photo above, it was not touching the ground except at the ends. This kept it from rotting, so the first step was to cut a section out and haul it back to the house to work on it. I ended up bringing back two sections, just in case I ruin one of them right out of the gate. I’ll also have extra material for other possible projects.

logs in the yard w/chainsawThe segment I picked is a bit longer than I need, but I’ll trim it after I’ve removed the bark and gotten a better look at it. 10foot long maple logSince I don’t own a draw-knife, I used a hatchet to strip the bark, and most of it was loosely attached, coming off pretty cleanly.

log with stripped-away barkThere was a strip remaining that was still very tightly attached, and despite my hope that leaving it out in the sun for a few more days might help loosen it, I finally brought it inside to my worktable and removed the rest of it using the hatchet and a surform file.

log moved into the shopAfter removing the bark, I cut off a chunk of wood at the fat end for the head, and also trimmed off about a foot and a half of the smaller end which was showing some traces of rot. The next step was to use my bandsaw to slice off a couple of wedges at each end to taper them. The head end will taper down to about 2 inches while I plan to taper the tail down to about 1 inch.

log with wedges bandsawed awayAt this point I need to think a bit about how I’m going to deal with a large crack that runs most of the length of the log. This indicates that the log is fairly dry, but also presents a large defect that I have to deal with. As you can see in the photo below, the split is a deep one, penetrating all the way to the center for a large portion of its length. This is typical of a log when it dries, and shows the effects of wood movement I described in my second post. I think I can work my way around this problem, but if not, I may have to start over with another log.

log with large crackSo for now, that’s where the project stands. Once I’ve completed a few more steps along the way, I’ll write some more, and I invite you to follow along with me.

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