Ski Lift for Toys

or “Toy Gondola”

I made a working Gondola (Ski Lift) for toys as a yard decoration.

I had the idea deep into Christmas season last year. I thought it would be easy to design some sort of ski lift as a yard decoration for Christmas.

It’s much easier to view the entire process using the original album. If you are more interested in setting pictures, then by all means check out the album!

For this post I want to expand more on some of the challenges I had and how I overcame them.

I broke down the project into smaller pieces, and arranged them by difficulty. Some of these things I could do in parallel, or switch between if I got tired of one part.

  1. the towers / base
  2. the motor
  3. chairs
  4. the roof

The towers

I knew if I was going to get anywhere, I had to have a good spot on which to work. I had to build a platform that would hold the two towers that were going to hold each end. I knew I wanted the thing to be about 10 feet apart, so I needed to build them that far apart too. This meant that I could build the entire thing in my garage – very convenient.

I came up with a good design for the towers based on my fence. It’s a picket fence with vertical slats that are about a 2×4 width apart from each other. The towers are 2 2×4 boards that fit between the slats on either end of the fence. I use bolts to hold them together to the fence. I built the base in my garage to be able to hold them.

The motor

The motor was, by far, the hardest thing for me to figure out. I have very little formal knowledge about motors and electronics. I’m more of a string-it-together hacker than a cad/design planner. The hardest thing was that there was no place I could go and buy this thing off the shelf. There are plenty of websites, but for someone new to this they tend to be overwhelming.

I wrote to some hobby websites, forums, maker groups and machine shops. I didn’t get far with any of them.

I started by taking apart things that I fought might work. Here are some things I tried:

  • motor from a breast pump (not powerful enough)
  • electric blender (idea was good, not powerful enough)
  • a blender (this is where I learned some types of motors do not work with dimmer switches)
  • I considered a couple of motors online, but they would have required a machine shop to make everything fit

I finally turned to craigslist and wrote to someone who was selling small motors. He put together a motor/control setup for me.

The motor works by friction. A wheel on the motor rubs against the gondola wheel and makes it turn. I made a custom mount out of wood to hold the motor, and used a nail to make a pivot-point. This way I can adjust how close the motor is to the wheel. I kept the connection solid using a turnbuckle. It allowed me to dial-in the friction and keep it there.

A good shot of the turnbuckle making sure the motor is making good contact with the wheel.

If I had to do this again, I should try a lot harder to get the chain to work. I had a hard time finding a sprocket that would fit my chain AND work with a motor. I still hold on to the notion that there was a magical fix out there.


I had high hopes of making very fancy chairs for the lift. I ended up going through many different versions.

My biggest issues:

  • Too heavy: heavy chairs would weight down the line and it would slip off the main wheels and fall on the ground
  • Too floppy: if the chair rocked around too much it might catch on something and jam the entire thing

I came up with a list of some basic rules:

  • The wheels on each tower have a lip, so the chair has to come in at a right angle so not to interfere with the lip
  • they had to be stable, i.e. little to no wobble
  • strong enough to hold a small toy
  • it had to be removable if possible – at some point I have to store this for next year!
  • it had to look legit

I used a lightweight wire that is almost the same as that used in clothes hangers. I tried the solve the lip and stability issues by angling the wire around the edge of the wheel. I also tried to keep the weight of the chair centered so that is below the line.

I added some dashes to the picture below to help you get an idea of what I’m talking about.

the Roof

The roof serves two purposes – keep the motor dry, and look good.

After considering a few different designs, I decided to go for something like a lodge. My neighbor had an idea to use ceder shingles that we glued onto a simple roof base that I had built. The effect looks neat, and everything stays dry since it’s using real shingles.

In hindsight

I put a lot of time into the motor. I am very happy that I found a solution, because for a short time it was starting to look like I wasn’t going to find a solution at all. However, I still am fighting the feeling that I can use the bike chain to drive the wheel. The friction model sometimes gets a little stuck, and the solution is to add a little more power. Which in my opinion makes the thing turn a little too fast.

I think incorporating the fence might have been a problem. I was afraid that the gondola might blend in together with the fence too easily. They are both brown and the towers do not sit too far above the fence. I’m still thinking that it might be better to just install 2 poles in the yard for the gondola and not use the fence at all.

the END

I had a lot of fun with this project. It was challenging and gave me something to do in my spare time. I’m already getting excited about what to do next!