Building a Washington State Ferry decoration

Night shot of ferry outside

I built a working WA State Ferry decoration for my yard.

I like to work on projects that are a little outside of things I usually work on. I have no idea how to achieve it, and spend most of the year working on it in my spare time.

Some of my past projects:

For this post I want to expand on how I made some challenges, and how I overcame them.

You can see an overview of the entire process here:

Movement and Control

My original idea for the ferry was to use an aluminum rail with a wheeled sled. I found one while I was working on a different project. I had aspirations of building something similar to a 3d printer to control it. As I was working through how to achieve this, it became clear it would be too complicated and hard to maintain.

I had researched garage door openers in the past for my ski lift. I ruled it out since it wasn’t designed to run all the time – I was afraid it would overheat. I revisited the solution again for the ferry. I researched various models and features, and kept an on craigslist until one showed up.

At first I thought I would have the ferry run on a schedule. Every 15 minutes it would automatically switch sides. It didn’t take long to come to the conclusion that it was better to have the user press a button.

Testing a LED button with alligator clips
You can never have too many alligator clips

Garage door openers already have an option for a button. One downside is that the button can be used at any time to stop progress of the opener. I did not want the button press to be so responsive. Once the process started I wanted it to finish. This is where I decided to use an Arduino to control the button. I have a separate blog post showing how I achieved this:

The button behavior was fairly straight forward, but it would take some experimentation. I learned long ago that a good test environment gives you the highest chance of success. I had to be diligent about making my project easy to pickup after leaving it alone for a month . This meant well organized code, version control, and pictures of my breadboard setup.

I organized actions into functions:

  • instead of writing digitalWrite(LED_BUILTIN, HIGH) to turn off an LED
  • I had a functions called turnBuiltinLEDOn() and turnBuiltinLEDOff()

Staying organized made it a lot easier to crawl back into my code when needed.

What things should look like

I knew I had to make:

  • a ferry that looked like a ferry
  • a cover for the motor to keep it dry, and it should look like part of the scenery
  • something else on the other side, that also fit the scenery
A model made to look like a ferry boat.
A boxy Washington State Ferry

The Ferry
There are lots of examples of ferry online. I looked at a few pictures of real WA State Ferries, and a few drawings as well. I’ve found that people like decorations that look more like a cartoon than the real thing. I also wanted the ferry to look homemade. I settled on something with more rounded port holes, and the same color scheme as real thing. I also wanted some room for some cars.

A diecast model on the ferry
Our first customer

I thought it would be neat to have all our cars represented on the ferry. Finding a model for a classic VW Beetle was not that hard. Finding a Eurovan and a Chrysler minivan were a bit harder. I found some cheap diecast models on ebay. They looked close enough, I painted them to look like our vehicles.

waiting for a painted diecast model to dry
A makeshift drying station

There seems to be a large diecast model community. There was plenty of advice on how to paint the models. I follow most of the advice, but I cut a few corners here and there. I didn’t strip the old paint, and I had to paint with a brush. For some reason every model was advertised as 1:32 scale. But when you compared them next to each other the scale is not accurate. I did my best with the time allotted.

The Terminal
For the side of the Garage Door opener with a motor, I made something that looked like a terminal. The only problem was that the real terminals do not look like much. You would be hard pressed to see one if you were not paying attention. I settled on a bland white building, with a large version of one of the logos on the side. I borrowed this idea from some of the airlines that paint a huge logo on their hangars at airports. I wanted to have windows that could light up, but I decided that could be a feature for another time.

A picture of a box painted to look like a ferry terminal in a cluttered garage.
A ferry terminal hanging out in a cluttered garage

The Dock
While researching terminals, I saw a lot of pictures of docks. The main thing about the docks is that they had a large structure that went high in the air. I decided to build a similar looking structure as a dock for the other side. I got a little fancy and came up with a pattern that made it look pretty good.

Assembling the ferry dock
Assembling the ferry dock


Storage is a big deal. We knew from past experience that you must account for storage. Any time I have made an exception it has a certain cost in the future. From the outset I had a plan for how I was going to store everything:

  • The ferry is held together by bolts, and comes completely apart
  • The ferry dock is also held together by bolts
  • The terminal serves as a box that holds all the other parts
  • I’m going to store the garage door opener, in the garage! Since the track is attached to the motor, I can hang it up high as one piece

I built the platforms as I needed them. I originally thought I’d use a ladder for one side, but it didn’t work well when I had everything together. Both these platforms come completely apart. I learned a lot from watching a youtube video for building modular stages:


One of the things I like about this project is that I got it to the point where I have a lot of flexibility. At this point the project is using the same techniques used by model train builders for their scenery. I have a few ideas:

  • I want to light up the terminal at night. I plan to cut out the windows (the black rectangles), and install some translucent material with lights behind them
  • Some friends got me models of their cars for the ferry. One of them had LED headlights. I rewired them so that they work on external power instead of batteries. I’d like to put this car on the dock and power it so that its lights shine at night
  • I want to install some lights on the dock
  • Someone suggested I add a small horn when the ferry starts, but I’m thinking that will start to annoy the neighbors after a while 🙂
Night shot of ferry outside

In Summary

This was a fun project! I felt like I got to apply some lessons learned from past projects and it went fairly smoothly. This ferry incorporates more features than the other projects. The interactive part really makes it a crowd-pleaser.

Jay Inslee, Governor of Washington State, said "Nice work" on Twitter.

Toy Gondola

(also known as a Ski Lift)

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!