Toy Blocks

Our friends’ son is turning one year old. His parents, deep in the Silicon Valley tech world, would prefer to delay the point when screens become a major component of his entertainment. Fortunately, screens are a major component of my entertainment, and so Pinterest suggested the perfect gift: wooden blocks. But why buy, when you can
make?

I’ve hauled around a few large leftover hunks of maple from the bed I made. This one was a little over 1 3/4 inches thick. After consulting choking hazard regulations, and thinking about common children’s blocks, 1 3/4 inches seemed about right. I ripped two square-ish columns, and then sent them through the planer to square them up and smooth out the faces.

Each block is 2 5/8 inches tall: a lower, cube 1 3/4 on a side, plus a 45º “roof” half that height. Instead of cutting these columns into 2 5/8 inch segements, though, I cut them into twice that length, plus 1/8 inch (5 3/8 inches). The extra length gave me a better hold on the piece while I cut the angles on either end.

I attached a sacrificial extension to my miter gauge, to give me more support and reduce tear-out at the near side. The way I attached the extension, with a little clearance off the table, made it difficult to use my normal method of setting the angle. That is, if I set my try-square against the miter rail, the ruler of the square didn’t engage the extension. So instead I laid my framing square against the saw blade, and then set my miter so that the extension crossed the same marking on either leg – a 1-in-1 drop.

With the angle set, I lined up the first cut, and clamped a stop block in place at the other end of the piece. With that preparation, cutting all off the roof lines was a simple matter of placing the block against the stop, running it past the blade, flipping it over, and doing the same again. In no time, my floor was covered in off-cuts.

The final cut was to separate the two blocks in each segment. This was the reason for the extra 1/8 inch: that’s the kerf of my saw blade. With the mitre gauge set to 90º and a new stop block in place, I had a village assembled in no time.

My final bit of dust creation was to ease the edges and scrape off any marks with some 220-grit sandpaper. I call this one the “cathedral” formation:

With all shaping done, it was on to painting. I re-learned my lesson with my last project, and returned to taping stencils for this one. I wanted very simple patterns anyway; most often just a face or two painted, with an occasional simple geometry.

We used milk paint to keep the toxicity low. The red and green hues covered solidly mostly after just one coat. We added a second for evenness. The blue and yellow showed through a bit more, so we added a third coat to those. I think more even roughing with the sandpaper would have helped with adhesion, but I tried to go easy on the faces, since the grain figure was so nice right off the planer.

The milk paint dried with a slightly dusty texture. Wax coating is very common for milk paint projects, so I mixed up my usual beeswax and mineral oil finish. I mixed it a little stiffer than normal, which resulted in a moment when I was sure I had ruined the project.

The finish was too stiff when it cooled in its container. I heated it to make it spreadable, but as soon as it came in contact with the wood, it cooled into ugly clumps. We decided that if heating worked once, it could work again, so we put the blocks in a low oven for fifteen minutes.

It worked perfectly. The wax reflowed evenly, and a quick wipe to remove the excess is all that was needed. The wax also lightly glossed the dusty texture of the milk paint and the face of the raw wood.

The final step was to prepare some sort of container. We couldn’t drop a sixteen-piece toy in our friends’ laps without some way to organize it.

My wife designed and sewed a beautiful felt box to carry the set. We spent some time considering different options for closures, but ultimately settled on suede thongs loosely wrapping a large button. I love the simple look of it.

The gift has now been given, receiving smiles all around the room. He has already demonstrated his love for knocking down towers, so I think this toy will provide plenty of entertainment for a few years.

Author: Bryan

I'm the creator of Symbology (http://appsto.re/us/9r6Icb.i), BeerRiot (http://beerriot.com/), lots of homebrew, some furniture, and other things. There's more about me at http://beerriot.com/bryan.html