By John Prince
If you aren’t familiar with these joyful devices, watch at the accompanying video. They are difficult to adequately describe: kind of like miniature windmills embodied in whimsical toys perched on sticks in the front yard or back garden.
Where I grew up in Eastern Canada, whirlygigs were as common as seagulls. Farmers, fishermen, and handy people made them for fun—and I suspect, because the silly things brought joy that relieved the tough existence of their daily lives.
Whirlygigs are as simple or complicated as one desires. The easy ones have wings that turn in opposite directions, connected with a screw to the silhouette of a bird or cartoon character cut from a handy pine board. The more complex versions might include dancing penguins, an old man chopping wood, or a woman stirring a bowl.
The creators of the miracles seldom went out to buy special paint, so they might be painted in garish exterior colors (think: the colors of lobster pot buoys, or the outside of the tool shed), and often with a well-worn brush. So, upon close inspection, the paint job was usually rough and loose.
In order to “fly” or chop, or stir, the whirlgig was mounted on an upright stick or post with a large nail so it could turn freely in the wind. Eventually it would expire from old age and wood rot to be replaced by another brightly colored one next year.
I visited the Canadian East Coast a few pre-pandemic years ago. On a bright, warm Saturday afternoon my friend and I settled into his top-down German two-seater for a leisurely drive from Halifax along Nova Scotia’s South Shore highway. Two mature gentlemen out on a sunny afternoon adventure.
The road hugged the coast, the breeze was up, and there were whirlygigs proudly flying, stirring, and chopping on front lawns everywhere. Then we hit the motherlode—a yard filled with whirlygigs that outperformed all of the above and much more.
“Whirlygigs for Sale,” read the rough, hand lettered sign by the mailbox. Of course, we had to stop.
The owner/creator/salesperson sauntered out from his workshop, a dusting of sawdust on his jeans.
“Hi there,” we all said. My friend and I walked among the whirling, pumping, and jabbing menagerie, making it clear that we weren’t here to buy, but rather to admire—which seemed to please him. Bright house paint coated the assorted animals, birds and people doing their thing. Propellors hummed and the mechanisms, made of welding rods and bent coat hanger wire, clattered and grated joyfully.
“I’ve got some x-rated ones in the shed,” our man said quietly, “if you’d like to see them.”
Lead the way!
“I designed them myself,” he said with pride, displaying his prize pieces of people and characters doing all sorts of activities that involve energetic thrusting and pivoting. “You won’t find these in a pattern book.”
“Or on people’s front lawns,” responded my friend. “OK. Maybe in the back,” he conceded.
All I could think of was a coffee table book of full color photos: “X-Rated Whirlygigs of Nova Scotia’s South Shore.” Or maybe a YouTube video of the best of them in action. This needs to be memorialized.
Last year, bored and waiting for the never-ending pandemic to end, I thought of doing some woodworking again. I’d been happily making sawdust since, as a kid, I picked the lock on my father’s workshop so often that he gave up and just left it open for me.
Of course, living in a small house, my miniature workshop is six feet of the garage wall. So, I got miniature power tools that could fit on a shelf: a tiny drill press, circular saw, sander, band saw.
“What are you going to make with your miniature tools?” my kids asked. Tough question, because I really didn’t know for sure. Dining room tables? Probably not. I just knew I wanted the tools; then I could make anything I wanted.
I thought hard and fast. “Whirlygigs,” I answered confidently with a smile. “I’m going to make whirlygigs.” That seemed to satisfy almost everyone.
“Do you know how?” asked the outlier in a serious tone. Actually, no.
“I’ll get a book.” Brilliant. Are there really books on making whirlygigs?
There are. I got one, followed the instructions, and whirlygigs were created. I can now add ‘whirlygig maker’ to my list of accomplishments. I plan to make lots of different ones.
They’ll live like a frenetic family in my back garden and when the breeze is up and Wendy says, “The whirlygigs are flying,” I’ll stop whatever I’m doing to go and look. And smile.
Maybe I’ll even design my own x-rated ones. Just to keep the tradition alive.