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The Story of the “NASA” Nut Cracker

by Russ Harman

Just in time for the season and the timing could not be better for this is the story of the NASA Nut Cracker.  Not having the deep pockets necessary for a full blown version I was forced to forgo the titanium necessary and be happy with plain old carbon steel for the prototype.

Hard to believe it is that time of year already.  The old north wind beginning to puff and blow and makes me want to hole up like a grouchy old bear.  Or should I say squirrel, as like the squirrel, even holed up, I continue to eat and eat and eat.  That, in our lives, means someone has to take the reins of the stove and oven and prepare those meals and treats.  I thrive on this job almost as much as I do watching the swarf accumulate around my feet while in the shop.

Food prep is kind of like doing layout.  You have to do it for the final product to turn out right but it usually not near as exciting as the final product.  Also like layout there are certain tools for food prep designed to make our job easier and or faster or just plain convenient.  The nut cracker pretty much fulfills all the aforementioned requirements.  Besides providing the succulent nut meats necessary for our holiday treats or the everyday simple things such as a fine moist loaf of “Chocolate Chip Chocolate Walnut Banana Bread”.  Say that fast four times and you will be smitten with uncontrolled desire.

Let us consider this.  And I am a certified expert, as I learned all the following behavioral  habits of the squirrel from watching many, many reruns of National Geographic and U-Tube.  Visualize.  The squirrel, cleaver fellow that he is, lives in a tree.  This tree provides shelter from the elements, protection from predators, a place to frolic with his mate, and if he picks the right tree, dinner.  One day Sam, boy squirrel, is chasing Sheila, girl squirrel.  This was a long time ago when squirrels were still developing and had not joined the democratic party so they were still aware of the where’s and how’s of making baby squirrels.  So many distractions!  Back to sex, I mean squirrel chasing.  Sam, in his highest gear races past Sheila and crashes into a rock hanging in their tree.  While Sam shakes off the stars Sheila notices that when the rock hit the ground it split open and a generous size nugget popped out.  Being the curious one Sheila jumps to the ground to investigate.  Lo and behold, the first shelled walnut.  Sheila was enthralled by her fortune and the first honey do was  coined.  “Sam”, she cooed, “I desire more of those wonderful, cracked, shelled walnuts”.

Sam, not being the kind to be easily foiled moved to the next cluster of rocks, err walnuts.  He twists and pulls.  Tugs and wrestles.  Finally another breaks free where upon Sam hurls it to the ground.  But it just bounces away.  Sheila is far from impressed.  Quickly recounting her situation she asks herself “Just what kind of idiot am I working with here”?  Sam works and works but there is no luck, just a growing pile of un-cracked walnuts.  All this work has made Sam a tired hungry boy.  Sitting down to munch a skinny blade of grass he ponders his situation.  Sam is not making any shelled walnuts and Sheila is not the most patient beauty in the forest.

Hearing a sound from afar he spies the neighborhood mastodon swaggering through the area.  Now Matey, the mastodon, pretty much goes and does as he pleases. As most mastodons do.  In so doing he waltzes under Sam’s tree, steps right on the, by this time, huge pile of walnuts and presto changeo, Sheila’s dreams were answered with just a little help from Matey.  CRACKED WALNUTS!  Sam scurries to the pile and quickly fills the winter larder with one of the tastiest of mother nature’s treats.  Sam is an instant hero and Sheila rewards him well, over and over and over, for in the spring Sam has many more little mouths to feed.

Over the winter things go pretty well but the walnut problem still bugs Sam.  How in the world does a dinky squirrel manage to train a huge independent thinking mastodon such as Matey?  A simple task really, come when called, step on walnut pile, pretty simple.  For a quick, agile, smart squirrel anyway.

Late in spring after the blossoms had fallen and the clusters were promising a bumper crop of walnuts for Sheila in the fall, disaster fell.  Matey was over at the watering hole (Yeh, every story has one) pulling in a tall cool one when these goofy looking dorks carrying sticks all showed up.  Quickly surrounding Matey the poor mastodon was quickly rendered a pin cushion.  Sam was devastated.  No more walnuts for Sheila meant no more gratitude from Sheila.  No more gratitude payments meant for a dull existence.  An empty belly has many forms of satisfaction but the other leaves few alternatives.  Only one I can think of and it leads to a rather lonely existence.

But wait!  The stick men, while stomping around Matey’s carcass  were taking rocks and smashing the walnut shells to obtain the meat treat inside.  These stick guys obviously had more than two brain cells to rub together and besides, they needed the walnuts for the stuffing for the roast mastodon.  The walnut acidity this year is a perfect pairing to the Merlot from down in the valley.  Sam was saved from Sheila’s rants by the scraps of nuts dropped by the stickmen and the mastodon training school was closed forever.

Time flies by and man develops better and better tools for the job.  Moving from rocks to clubs, from clubs to hammers to finally a levered device actually called a nut cracker.

Figure #1
Figure 1

Cleaver people these nut eaters.  Each improvement showed its merits and faults.  Thumb and finger damage was one problem early on.  Moving to the levered implement it pretty much removed the smash quotient from the equation. But to some of us aging mechanics arthritis has snuck into our joints and the squeeze motion causes irritation and pain.  Another levered device was invented, by the Russians I am told, and is quite evident during the holiday season.  So revered and celebrated this device has had entire ballets created for it.  The Russian nutcracker resembles a toy of some type or at least a Czar’s Guard dressed in his finest.  There are two major problems associated with this item, 1) it does not really work that well and, 2) it is ugly and scary.  I have been known to awaken from a deep sleep by having one of these creatures chase me while his jaw is mechanically chomping up and down attempting to chew my leg off.  Not a pleasant sight to a six year old, or a sixty-two year old.  I have always carried a deep seated revulsion for the Nutcracker.  May he pass to history in devastating, wretched, twisting, torment.

Well if you have made it this far, you must be really bored with a whole lot of time on your hands.  The following two pictures pretty much show the entire device as I devised it.  Figure 2 shows the nutcracker ready for use while figure 3 shows the nutcracker in it’s unassembled form.

Figure #2  Ready for work.
Figure 2: Ready for Work


Figure #3  The inside secrets
Figure 3: The Inside Secrets

I must apologize for one thing in my picture of the progression of nut cracking tools. Figure 1).  Even after perusing my wife’s ample collection of all things near and dear after forty two years of marriage I was not able to locate a mastodon foot.  The foot is self-evident by its omission in the picture.  So imagine the foot and going in a clock wise direction, start with the rock.  Not everything is perfect.  Live with it.

Dimensions are rather loose and can be adjusted to fit your scrap pile as mine was, so they are not included.  Except for the worn, chipped, and broken tooling and about one hundred dollars’ worth of electricity to run your machine tools, this project is free!  You can’t say that about many projects!  Don’t ever tell Mama what the electric meter does when your 5hp air compressor starts.  She would not even let you run that dremel if she knew.

I started as John M. Browning often did.  Making oversize templates and drawings to check proportion, fit and angular movement.  Then moving to my goody pile I chose a cutoff of 3” 4140 tool steel.  I felt it would have the necessary abrasion resistance but still have the machineability to stand up to the rigors of use, yet obtain a finish pleasant to the eye.  If after some use, excessive wear is noticed on the contact friction edge, heat treatment is a possibility.  A less costly coating of Kasonite is a possibility or even a build of hard surfacing rod applied by electric arc welding.  Similar to that used on heavy earth moving equipment.  Not as pleasant to the eye but a viable long wearing solution if need be.  A handle from a long broken bullet swaging press was picked thinking if it could swage bullets it should crack walnuts without too much trouble or excessive bending.  At times like this I surely do wish I had more formal training in our craft to be able to calculate the “TRUE” crush force of a walnut.  Another of life’s mysteries.

Now for the hidden secret.  The pivots and super-secret holding method mating these pieces with no fasteners!  One inch cold rolled was chosen not for its heft but for the simple fact that my only remaining bronze bearing material was in that size range.  I must admit though, that having those hefty hubs protruding from the crushing cam sides does look pretty cool.  Isn’t that half the goal in projects such as this?  Knew a girl in high school with hefty hubs!  Oh yeah, the super-secret part.  Look closely on the end of the handle and you will see a straight smooth section, a threaded section, another shouldered section and finally the major diameter of the handle its self.  The long small section enters holes perpendicular to the hubs so they do not escape while installed in the crushing cam and the handle then screws into a short threaded section to secure the whole thing.  Pretty cleaver if I do say so myself.

Back support post is just some ¾” x 1” hot rolled cleaned up a mite with a piece of 1/8” x 3” x 4” flat welded to it.  A matching piece, held by captive allen head cap screws, forms the removable side.  3/16 x 1 ¼” strap metal was picked to beef up the area where the hub bearings were placed.  My first thought was to allow steel on steel contact in this area with grease zirks installed.  But then the possibility of unintended, unauthorized use entered my mind.  If the wrong type of non-food grade grease was used the entire world economy could become imperiled.  What would happen if some person, somewhere, added walnuts contaminated with  petroleum based grease to their refried beans.  The entire pork futures in Chicago would never be the same.  The move from lard to oil produced lithium grease would be uncontrolled.  Putting still more pressure on the world oil market.  I could not take that chance or even fathom the responsibilities.  Staying with a high quality food grade vegetable grease seemed the only solution.  Also helping to stay within the low fat guidelines printed on the bean can label.  But who to monitor these activities? Just too many loop holes, too many places for mistakes to rear their ugly little heads.  Steel on steel had to go.  Hence, the brass bearings incorporated into the design.  Now my two high speed grandsons will be capable of cracking walnuts at their pace.  Not mine.  Thus requiring less supervision and machinery maintenance.  After bearing inserts were machined for a press fit, and installed, the entire assembly was mounted in the mill.  The bearings were then line bored to ensure perfect alignment with the crushing cam hubs.  Tolerances between bearing and hub were left rather large so excessive thermal expansion from high speed use would not hinder operation.

2” x 2” x 1/8” angle was the beginning of the base, approximately six inches long .  Two pieces of ¾” x ¾” x 1/8” angle form a small bed if sorts to keep the walnut from slipping away during the crushing process.  This bed was blind welded to the base from the bottom.  A long flat was left on the right side as I am not sure where yet the unit will be employed.  Using a “C” clamp, this flat should enable the user to quickly secure it for stable utilization.

The last item is a handle return device that was added at the last moment.  I did not know I needed it until I saw how clumsy the unit was without something to raise and hold the handle while securing another walnut.  While in the spin dex at the mill an octagon was cut in the grip area of the handle to get some flats for an end wrench to bite on so the handle need not be scarred by pliers while tightening.

I know you all say, isn’t that what a proto type is for?  To find mistakes and omissions or just to show the smart aleck inventor he is not so cleaver after all.  Come on, you got to give me one don’t you?  A simple return spring was mounted and one of the green principles was endorsed.  I re-purposed a spring from a recessed light fixture trim to hold the handle in the upright position.

Paint?  This is one of my admitted down falls.  I hate painting in any and all forms.  Why?  Because I am not good at it.  I am messy, I don’t like to wait for it to dry, I get as much on me as I do the project and the evidence of my finger prints is indeed, evident.  Besides, I rather like bright steel contrasted by layout fluid.  And, I cannot pick a good color besides my favorite, Navy haze gray.  Remember that old saying?  “Haze gray and underway”.  I do, too well.  Another fantastic, super wonderful, impressive project see’s completion.

Well folks, there you have it, in a nut shell so to speak.  Man has always been driven by need and then he wants the easy way out.  First he fixes the problem then he tries to make it so simple and easy to use the wife and kids can handle it.  But then the politics of getting them to use it rears its ugly head.  It never ends and life is never dull.  So I, for one, am willing to put forth a little extra effort at the get go if I can see a supposed long term benefit.  That is why it pains me so to fail.  My failures usually have much more connected to them than what meets the eye of the casual observer.  Time wise anyway.  A copy of all this has already been submitted to NASA for their perusal.  I am fairly confident that after they find a way to make this pile of junk justifiable to cost several million dollars even after purchasing it from China, that you will see it on the moon, mars, hell, where ever they go next.  The Navy could see the humor in this, but I suspect the Air Force will soak it up like a sponge.  Some General is bound to be without one for the holidays.  I must go now.  I need to Google up the Air Force procurement  phone number.  Is General LaMey still with us?

Stay with me now and pray for us all!

I had fun with this and I hope you did too.  Just in case the timing is right, may God Bless and

Merry Christmas.

Now back to making swarf.

– Russ About the Author


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About Uncle Russ

Retired electrical contractor. Really always wanted to be a machinist so I am self teaching and having a great time.

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