20 December 2010

Henry's Natural Wood Blocks: A Tutorial

I'm waiting until after Christmas to post about most of the Christmas gifts I made this year. But I think I can post about these natural wood blocks I made for Henry without fearing that he may read the blog. They're all wrapped up for him now and I love how they turned out. I used a beeswax finish on them which makes them look quite nice I think.

Here is a quick run down on how I did them. I'm sure it's mostly obvious but there might be something in here that's useful for someone.

The only tools you will need are a handsaw and some sandpaper. I used my table saw and my drill apparatus for sanding because I already own them, definitely don't be put off by thinking you need those tools.

I started with 2 branches between 1 and 2 inches in diameter. One has a thick flaky bark that I think was from an evergreen and I'm a bit worried that the bark will continue to flake off. So I cut a block from the other branch that has a thinner less flaky bark. But it just didn't look as beautiful so I mostly used the flaky bark branch. I will have to report back if the flaky bark is a problem.

Edited to add: The flakey bark has not been a problem but a few flakes have come off even after all my sanding. And I'm sure a few more will come off in the future. But overall they're ok and I'm glad I used the more beautiful stuff.

Advice for choosing wood: Pay attention to the bark, the best stuff would be something with a tight bark that won't flake or peel off but that still has interesting bark. It is possible to get rid of most of the flakes of a flakey bark but not all and it will be more work in the sanding department.

I used my table saw like so to make the cylindrical blocks but a hand saw could definitely be used.
And I used my table saw like this to make the more rectangular pieces. If you don't have a table saw I can't really think of a good way to make this type of block.

Oh that's not really how I did it. That would be TOTALLY UNSAFE. That was to let you see better what was happening. This is how I did it, with the safety shield down and push stick.

Here are some blocks that I cut:

Next I put all the freshly cut blocks on a baking sheet and put in the oven at 200 F for an hour hoping to kill any bugs that could be in there. Be sure to do this step before sanding because the drying oven might make another layer of bark flake off and will cause more sap to seep out.

Next step is to do a bit of sanding. How much sanding you do and how "natural" you want them to look is up to you. I'm not a fan of sanding so I tried to do just enough to get rid of the most flakey outer layer of bark and to get rid of the blobs of sap.

Here is a picture of my sanding set up but even I could have handled sanding these by hand. I also own a hand held disc sander but find this easier for small pieces. You can buy sanding discs at Canadian Tire that fit into a regular drill. Warning: the sap from the wood completely wrecked my sanding disc.

And here is what they looked like after they were sanded.

Next step is finishing. I bought a big block (a little more than 1 lb) from the beekeeper at our local farmer's market for $8.50. And I used 1 oz beeswax and 4 oz olive oil. I ended up with 3/4 cup leftover beeswax polish so you don't use very much.

I melted them together in a double boiler.

And then let it cool down a bit so I could touch it. And it turned into one semi solid mass. (So I had to reheat it a bit to be able to pour the leftover polish into a glass jar for later.) It was so awesome seeing that little bit of beeswax turn all the oil into a kind of solid mass. I definitely have to try making lip balm some time with all my leftover beeswax.

Then I took a rag and used it to rub the mixture into the blocks. At first it just seemed like the blocks had an oily layer on them which I did not like. But I left them to absorb the mixture for 24 hours and then the next day I used the same rag to rub them again. And I was able to remove all the oily residue but the blocks were left looking beautiful and finished.
Here are some pictures of the finished products:

And now they're all wrapped up for Henry to unwrap on Christmas day. At 10 months I know he is a bit young for them but he does love knocking down towers so he should at least like them for that reason.


  1. This is the BEST and most complete tutorial I've ever seen about making natural blocks. And believe me, I've looked. And looked. And looked... for good instructions.
    Thank you so much!!!

  2. I remember making them for my kids when they were little. I did it all by hand though and like you I did only the least amount of sanding.

  3. lov it, going to see if someone could make a bunch of them for our non-profit farm's event children areas :)

  4. Is there a specific type of wood you'd suggest using? I'd love to make a set for our Grand Daughter. Thanks for the great tut!

  5. this is a wonderful idea! i love taking nature and using it for toys! i esp love sticks! thanks for the great idea. i don't have a table saw, but maybe one day! for my love of sticks, you can visit me: http://aprilscraftnest.blogspot.com/2010/07/owl-mobile.html OR here: http://aprilscraftnest.blogspot.com/2010/08/love-mobile.html

  6. My only advice with regards to choosing wood is to pay close attention to the bark. A flakey bark will be more sanding work (to remove the flakiest outer layer) and will always be a bit flakey. So try to find something with a tight bark and hopefully an interesting beautiful bark too.
    Good luck!

  7. I love using natural blocks. We use them inside with our gnome home play and by using slightly larger branches, they become perfect out-of-door blocks. Thanks for sharing. I'll be linking on Facebook.

  8. wee folk art shared this! We made some out of a cedar branch & the kids love them--but we didn't use beeswax, I think we may go back & do that. Thanks!

  9. I love this! We have a bunch of limbs that were blown down in a storm that now have a purpose. I bet that if you use some wood that had cured (like you do for firewood, leave out for a long time) you would not have a problem with sap.