Children's Blocks - Canadian Woodworking Magazine

Gift Project: Toys make great Christmas presents. This project doesn’t require a lot of skill, and if you have the time and inclination, it’s a good excuse to pick up some pyrography equipment.

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Children's Blocks



Photos by Rob Brown

This is one of those projects that you could probably do in an afternoon if you wanted. On the other hand, you could spend hours and hours adding lots of detail to the blocks and constructing a nice box to store everything in. Really, it depends how close to Christmas it is.

I chose to go all out, as these were for my two-year-old daughter. I also wanted to give pyrography a try, and these blocks were the perfect excuse. There were lots of surfaces that needed decoration and if I really messed something up I could always make a new block. The bottom line was this was a low-pressure situation to practice using my new pyrography equipment.
 
50 Blocks
I had some 8/4 hard maple left over from a job so that’s what I went with. Pretty much any wood will do, but hard, dense woods will likely be around and in good shape when your kids’ children are born. I was aiming for 50 blocks, for no particular reason. As long as you have at least 26, you and your kids will be able to spell out the alphabet. I started by ripping the stock into 1 ¾" x 1 ¾" strips.

After jointing one face and squaring up an adjacent side I planed them to 1 ½" x 1 ½".

Before crosscutting all the blocks to length, I sanded the four faces with my belt sander. I also broke the four edges on the strips with a block plane then a sanding block. As you can imagine, this made the job of sanding and breaking all the edges a bit easier once I had 50 individual blocks to juggle.

With a sharp blade in my mitre saw, I trimmed one end of each of the lengths, then set up a stop block that would give me 1 ½" long blocks.

A test cut with a piece of scrap helped me get the exact measurement.

I butted the clean end of the maple length against the stop block and made my first cut. All of these cuts should be made reasonably slowly, as you want the finished surface to be smooth. As soon as the cut was made, I released the trigger and kept the blade down until it stopped rotating. If the blade was lifted up while still spinning there was a high chance the newly cut block would shift slightly, catch on the blade and instantly become airborne.


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Go All Out – If you have the time, do all you can to personalize the blocks. They will be around for a long time.

Take a Break
After my 50 blocks were cut (and a few more just in case pyrography was a lot harder than I anticipated), I cozied up to my belt sander and a fresh 100 grit belt. With my belt sander fixed on edge, I proceeded to sand all six sides of each block – just over 300 surfaces in all. Because my mind tends to wander while doing repetitive tasks, I made sure to keep things safe. I rolled up my sleeves and just did my best to concentrate.

As soon as I found my mind wandering, I stopped what I was doing and walked around for a few minutes, to give my mind a break. This works wonders for staying focused. I was also aware of how I held the block and I made sure to keep my hands back from the sanding belt. I find as soon as you feel 100 percent comfortable, things go wrong, so never let your guard down. A sander with a fresh belt can hurt. After the faces were all sanded, I started breaking all the sharp edges. A light touch on the sander was all it took.

By keeping pressure even and the block square to the sanding surface you end up with nice lines all around each block. For me a 45 degree sanded chamfer was enough; I didn’t feel any hand sanding was required, nor did I like the idea of handling the blocks more than I had to.


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Sand the Faces and Edges – I take my time when doing repetitive tasks. Sanding the faces of the blocks took time and patience. My fixture for holding my belt sander worked great for this job. Don’t forget to ease all the edges (below).

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Pyrography Equipment
Cam Merkle from Razertip, a Canadian pyrography company, helped me get going. After looking on their website and seeing hundreds of pen options I was confused. A quick discussion about what I planned on doing with my new pyrography tools – general purpose burning on furniture to embellish the surface and add some details – and he gave me his recommendations; a burner that will accept one pen at a time and four pens – a large skew, a 1.5mm round stylus pen, a medium spear shader and a medium spoon shader. Everyone has specific needs, so make sure you figure out what you want to accomplish before you make any purchases. I found I the skew and the round pen the most, followed by the spear shader, but that’s just me.

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The Equipment – The burner (left) and a small selection of pens are all you need to get burning. I bought four pens, but found myself reaching mainly for three of them – the skew, the round stylus ball and the spear shader.

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Find a Good Font – I used my Word program to show me what the letters would look like before starting. By typing out the alphabet and enlarging the point size, I had an almost life-size template to use. I also made a simple jig to hold the blocks and raise my hand as I worked.
 
Start Burning
With the blocks machined and sanded you could easily stop here, but I was looking forward to getting to know my pyrography equipment. With some scrap hard maple, I started experimenting. The pens are held just like a regular pen or pencil. In addition to the type of pen one can use, the heat applied to the pen is the other main variable to experiment with. I found the burner to medium heat was appropriate for most of the work I was doing, but how fast you move the pen and the look you’re hoping to achieve will also affect the results. After playing around for a while, I figured out how the pens wanted to move, how fast to move them and how much pressure to use for different effects I was looking to get from the different pens. The results are endless.

Because I was going to be working on a lot of blocks, I made a simple, flat jig to hold each block while I worked on it. It also raised the heel of my hand level with the blocks’ surface I was working on, which reduced strain on my wrist. I didn’t want to risk hurting my wrist, as I needed it for a big turkey dinner in a few days.
 
The Skew
I started with the letters of the alphabet. After deciding on a font and quickly drawing all the letters onto the blocks with a pencil I plugged in my skew and got to work. You don’t need to use a pencil to mark everything first, but I wasn’t confident in my ability to reproduce letters proportionally onto the blocks. I did the numbers and all the other burning designs without any preliminary layout. The skew is easiest to use while you’re dragging it towards yourself. Often I would do all the lines in a top-to-bottom direction then turn the block 90 degrees and finish off with the side-to-side lines. The skew was very accurate and precise, and would leave thin lines on the wood’s surface.


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The Skew – I used the skew to make the letters, as its strength lies in producing a thin, accurate line. Once I was done with the alphabet, I used the skew to add some details to the other faces of the blocks. Little slashes, long lines and wavy lines were made with ease. Even tiny marks can be made by touching the tip of the skew to the wood.
 
The Ball Stylus Pen
With the letters complete, I moved on to numbering all the blocks. For this I used the round stylus pen, because it could be moved across the woods’ surface in any direction without problems, very similar to a regular pen. I numbered the blocks in order, starting with a “1” on the “A” block. The “Z” received a “26” then the rest of the blocks were numbered up to 50. As long as I didn’t push down too hard, the round pen tip would move nicely over the maple surface. With even pressure the lines it left were fairly even in colour and width.


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The Ball Stylus Pen – Able to move in any direction, this pen was great for the simple numbers I wanted. It also gave me many options when adding designs to the blocks. A little dot here and there works wonders, and a trail of dots adds movement to the blocks.
 
The Spear Shader
Once the letters and numbers were out of the way I started to add some whimsical designs to the rest of the faces. The spear shader was what I used most often, as it works great for thicker lines and shading different areas. It also can be used on edge to get a fine line.


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The Spear Shader – Used, as the name implies, to shade in larger areas, this pen could also be used on its edge similarly to the skew. With a little practice the shader could evenly cover larger areas with an even burn. Temperature played a large role with all of these pens, but the shader was especially sensitive, probably because it’s being moved across the wood slower than the other pens.
 
Crop Circles
Everything from chevrons and slashes to crop circles and dot trails made their way onto the blocks. I used all the pens to get a wide variety of effects. This was the part I really enjoyed, as I could play around with what the different pens were capable of. Nature and geometry were where I got most of my inspiration from, but anything your child likes (animals, trains, flowers, etc.) can be worked into the design. I left the blocks unfinished, but a few coats of shellac or food safe oil could be applied.


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A Home for the Blocks
Because it’s nice to have a tidy place to put all 50 blocks I made a simple box out of walnut. The inside dimensions of the box stored two levels of blocks that were five blocks wide and five blocks deep. After dressing the stock and ripping it to width, I ran a rabbet to accept a ¼" bottom panel. The corners were mitred then the box was glued together. To add a bit of strength and a touch of class I installed two maple keys in each corner. Once it was dry, I installed the bottom, sanded everything, chamfered the top edges with a block plane and applied a few coats of polyurethane. Though not absolutely necessary, it was a nice case in which to store the blocks and made wrapping the blocks a lot easier.

Taking the time to make each block and learning pyrography was a lot of work, but the smile on my daughter’s face Christmas morning made it all worth it. Hopefully by the time our four-month-old son wants to play with the blocks, our daughter will enjoy sharing. I can hope, can’t I?


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A Good Home – In order to have somewhere to put the blocks away I made a simple walnut box with two maple keys in each corner. It also adds some character to a gift that will be around for some time and made wrapping a lot easier.



ROB BROWN
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Though he works alone, Rob is never lonely. He shares his shop with his dog Sammy, and he shares his office with his two-year-old daughter, three-month-old son, two cats and his wife.