Spinning Tops Was Big Fun
by Norris Chambers
A top is a cone shaped piece of wood about two inches in height and one and a half inches in width at the top. It tapers to a point at the bottom, and a metal pin with a rounded and smooth point protruding from the tip of the cone. A piece of cord about three feet long was used to spin the top. The cord had a loop on one end and this was placed over an indentation at the top, brought down and looped over a protrusion at the point and then wound tightly in a series of turns until the body of the cone was covered to within one half or three quarters of an inch from the top. The other end of the cord was looped around the wrist and the top was held between the thumb and first and second finger. A fast jerk backwards unwound the string and caused the top to spin at a high speed. It landed on the ground, or floor, and spun swiftly as it sat there. The ones with a sharp point tended to spin in the same spot, where those with rounded points moved around over the surface.
The sharp pointed ones were called "pluggers" and the round pointed ones were referred to as "sally walkers".
To enter the game, the contestant had to put something in the ring of some value, perhaps a marble, pencil, old knife, lead toy or even a coin, if one were lucky enough to have one.
The players then took turns plugging their tops at some item in the ring. If the item was knocked out, it became the property of the one plugging. If a top stayed in the ring, it could not be retrieved until knocked out by another player. The player knocking a top out of the ring got two extra plugs. Some players had tops with very sharp points, and tried to disable a top when knocking it out. This gave the serious player two plugs and unless the unlucky opponent had a spare top, he was out of the game. It was common to see chips split off a top by the spindle of the one being thrown. If a player plugged a top that was still spinning, he lost a turn. A top in the ring was not considered fair game until it had quit spinning because sometimes when the top quit and fell over it rolled out. To hit a spinning top was considered poor sportsmanship, but one lying helplessly in the ring was fair game.
Most tops were bought. They were very inexpensive. You could sometimes find them for three for a nickel, but the better ones cost as much as fifteen cents.
The top I described was a standard size, but there were also smaller and larger ones. Tops were very popular.
Clifton and I entered the top business on a small scale. Actually, my father showed us how to make the first one. He had built a small lathe out of an old foot pedaled sewing machine. He removed the needle bar and fastened a large round piece of metal on the end of the shaft. The metal had two rows of holes around it. A couple of screws through these holes held a block of wood firmly to the plate. An adjustable metal bar extended a few inches in front of the wood and served as a tool holder. The tools were various small sharp chisels. When the wood was turned and a chisel held against it, the wood was cut and rounded. With sharp chisels and a lot of foot power, the piece of wood could be shaped into a top in a short time. A small ridge was left at the bottom of the piece to keep the string from running off the bottom. Grooves were cut in the sides to help hold the string tight and the indentation at the top was easily cut for the cord loop. The top was then cut out of the block and a sharpened nail or screw inserted in the bottom. We used hard, seasoned oak wood. There was plenty of it in the pasture and the right size chunks could easily be cut with an ax and saw. The last phase of the construction was the smoothing with fine sand paper and the application of a coat of varnish. The tops were heavy, and made excellent spinners and pluggers.
Top pluggers liked our tops because they were heavy and tough. I never know of one that was damaged seriously in the ring.
We made several of them and sold them for ten cents. After everyone bought one that could get the money, there wasn't much demand for them and our top factory ceased to function. But the project brought us a lot of enjoyment and made us a little money.
After being introduced to the little sewing machine lathe, we made several other gadgets. One item that we sold a few of was a finger ring made from hard oak. They became quite popular for awhile. We made water pistols and pistols that shot rubber bands. We turned out a few cups, dishes and vases. It was a lot of fun.
As far as I know, we had the only lathe in the area. My father told about one my uncle built in the 1800's. My grandfather and his brother owned a saw mill and produced lumber. When the need arose for fancy, rounded gallery posts, one of my uncles constructed a large lathe for making them. He set up two posts and mounted a shaft in an oak bearing on one end and an adjustable meal spike on the other end. The shaft on the bearing end had a long flat pulley mounted on it. The other end of the shaft was flattened and sharpened. A four by four piece of timber (or whatever size was needed) was mounted between the wedge shaped end of the turning shaft and the point on the other end. A notch was cut in the wood that the chisel end fit into and the point on the other end was screwed in until the point in the center of the wood was supported it and it would turn with the shaft.
The power for the lathe was supplied by a crank on the shaft end. It was turned to wind a cable around the pulled. The cable went through a pulley suspended between the top of two upright poles, probably thirty feet in height. A box, filled with rock for weight, was cranked up to the top as the cable wound around the flat pulley. A foot brake controlled the speed of the unwinding as the weight came down and caused the pulley to spin. While the weight was descending and the timber spinning, the operator shaped the decorative rings on the post with sharp chisels. When the weight reached the ground, it was time to crank it up again.
Younger brothers were called upon to crank the weight back to the top. My father said he was a younger brother, and got his share of cranking the lathe.
Another version of early wood shaping lathes was similar to the one built by my uncle, but instead of the pulley and weight, the cable was attached to the top of a tall, thin tree and the tree was cranked over about as far as practical. As the tree returned to its upright position, the cable caused the lathe to spin. This model also required cranking after every run.
In a later version of my grandpa's lathe, it was turned by a water wheel and a belt in the same manner the lumber saw was turned. I guess this was after all the kids had been worn out. Some lathes were turned by a device called a power unit. A power unit was an outdoor device with a long pole running out from a central shaft A mule, or a pair of mules, was hitched to the end of the pole and walked around and around, rotating the main shaft. The main shaft, through a train of heavy gears, increased the speed many times and a smaller shaft brought the power out through a housing lying on the ground and connected to another heavy unit that caused a flywheel to spin at high speed. As long as the mules or horses pulled the pole, the pulley would operate a device from a drive belt. If you needed more power, you just added another mule. These power units could operate wood saws, water pumps, small threshers, syrup mills feed grinders, etc.
What's the moral of this story? Perhaps if you don't have anything else to do, you might consider going into the top manufacturing business. Could you sell them? Don't worry about that - that's a problem for the marketing department!
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Copyright © 2007 Norris Chambers