Dug North’s Whimsical Wooden Worlds: A Woodworker Spotlight

Dug North’s automata are complex machines—and yet, the opposite of today’s technology
By Abigail Brubaker in the Scroll Saw Woodworking’s Special Edition – Gizmos & Gadgets 2015

At the simplest level, Dug North tells stories with toys. He builds wooden automata, or animated characters, and uses the appearance and motion of the figures, as well as the title of each piece, to tell a story, similar to a one-panel cartoon. At the same time, however, Dug aspires to build machines that are the opposite of so much of today’s complicated, confusing technology.

He uses simple, non-synthetic materials to create pieces without wiring or circuitry, built to last for generations, existing for no  purpose besides providing amusement and wonder. He wants people to have a familiar relationship with his automata—to interact with the piece to both activate and understand its workings. Devoid of the frustrations and bugs that often accompany contemporary devices, Dug’s work is just as captivating as those objects. Somewhat ironically, Dug’s interest in automata was born around 2002 after he stumbled upon the website of the Cabaret Mechanical Theatre, a group of automata artists largely based in the United Kingdom. Drawn by the intrigue and cleverness of the automata he saw, and by the combination of technical and artistic elements involved in creating automata, Dug began making his own despite having little previous experience with

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Dug begins by sketching his ideas. He once woke up with an idea fully formed; others come from his interests, such as magic, or his clients. He mocks up the mechanisms in cardboard, Popsicle sticks, and rubber bands, and then constructs a prototype from scrap wood, finalizing the design as he builds. He creates the final piece with much care and attention to detail, using mostly miniature tools suited to the intricacy and small scale of his work. Dug generally uses assorted hardwoods, noting that the choice of wood is vital for his delicate mechanisms. It can take anywhere from a week to several years for Dug to complete an automaton, depending on the complexity of the piece. Dedicated to encouraging new automaton-makers and enriching the art itself, Dug has written how-to articles for magazines and is now a columnist for the Cabaret Mechanical Theater. Although the
modern age is awash with touch screens and gadgets, Dug and his fellow automaton-makers continue to demonstrate that an object need not run on batteries to fascinate its audience. Click here for more expanded information about Dug North.

Works by Dug North

Mekanikos vs. the Minotaur is an elaborate mechanical scenario. From its staging to the main figures and the minions running the machines below the floor, no detail was spared.

This automaton project, the Unwelcome Dinner Guest, depicts a dog losing his dinner to an opportunistic neighbor. With his leash wrapped around the birdhouse pole, all the poor dog can do is bark at his unwelcome guest. This step-by-step project was featured in the Big Book of Gizmos & Gadgets.

Dug North’s one-of-a-kind Machini the Marvel, 21½ ” tall, is a modern wooden automaton. The figure lifts his head and closes his eyes, and then waves his hand to make the ink in the inkwell rise, the book fly open, and the pen spin in its holder. As the arm moves down, the pieces reset, the head lowers, and the eyes open. The complex works are made from cherry and brass, and there are no visible linkages to the moving items. Photo by Dug North.

Christmas: The Pre-Reindeer Era depicts Santa making deliveries in that legendary time before he acquired his famous flying reindeer. Poor Father Christmas must do the flying himself with his arms flapping and eyes squinting in the cold wind with his bag of toys trailing behind him in tow.

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