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About Wooden Unit Blocks

A page for readers concerning
Wooden Building Blocks

    Welcome to our web site.  This page is about Unit Blocks and is directed to those who find it better to read about some things than to merely study the pictures. We manufacture and sell classic, school size wooden unit blocks for children made of premium American Hard Maple in 54 different kits.  We sell Open Stock in 95 individual shapes.  We sell alphabet blocks in 31 languages and variations, we sell craft cubes and parts for hobbyists, and we sell block stock for those who want to make their own.  Our blocks are completely free of noxious chemicals and are tested by an independent laboratory to conform to CPSIA and CPSC rules in regard to chemical and mechanical safety.  These children's blocks and other blocks toys provide a lifetime of pleasure for youngsters who like to build things.  You can buy a whole set, you can add to a set you already have, or you can buy one piece at a time.  We sell superior wooden blocks of the finest material in an exceptional range of shapes and sizes and we sell economy blocks for those who are seeking an economical product. 

     Unit blocks are the best educational toy ever made - a once in a lifetime investment. If you are shopping for blocks or thinking about buying some of them, you might want to consider the following check list - this has been the standard for quality unit blocks for over 100 years:

1.  Are they the standard size for school size blocks? (a full 1-3/8 thick with a unit block 1-3/8 by 2-3/4 by 5-1/2 inches)
2.  Are they made of Hard Maple? (not some vague "hardwood")
3.  Are a wide range of shapes available in open stock to add later? In any quantity?  In any shape?  At any time?
4.  Are they independently, lab tested for safety?
5.  Are they made in the USA?

    If you are seeking premium, American made wooden building blocks, our domestic toy blocks made of Rock Maple will last for generations. Like good pots, good tires, and good tools - blocks withstand a lifetime of abuse.  You probably won't remember the price 30 years from now, but you'll still have the blocks. American Hard Maple Blocks are a premium product, but if you are interested in economy blocks, our rubberwood blocks from Thailand will provide unrivaled value.  They are the correct size for Unit Blocks, and though the workmanship is not the same as American blocks, they are completely playable and will integrate with other blocks quite well.

      Our blocks are school sized blocks: a full 1-3/8 inches thick. We manufacture our domestic blocks of hard maple and not some vague “hardwood.” (Heck, balsawood and cork are hardwoods!)   Our Unit blocks are 1-3/8 by 2-3/4 by 5-1/2 and not the little “desktop blocks” seen elsewhere.  We do not coat our blocks with anything. You can buy our blocks with the assurance that they are safe, that they will last forever, that they will integrate well with school sized blocks from times gone by, and that you can buy more of them, in any quantity, at any time, in our extensive range of shapes and configurations.

       Wooden building blocks are the premier educational toy.  Few playthings come close.  Their long pedigree, according to Witold Rybczynski, can be dated to (at least) the end of the 18th century:Cathedral in Blocks

    "The earliest mention of building bricks for children that I have come across is in Maria and R.L. Edgeworth's 'Practical Education', published in 1798.  It is no coincidence that this is a pedagogical text, since building toys were, from the beginning, not merely for fun. Building bricks were called "rational" toys, and they were intended to teach children about assembling many small different parts into a whole, about gravity and physics, and about how buildings were made. John Ruskin, referring to the Edgeworths, wrote that thanks to his wooden toy bricks - 'my constant companions' - by the time he was seven or eight years old he had mastered 'the laws of practical stability in towers and arches". That would have been about 1825. Twenty years later, Henry Cole's famous series of Victorian children's books, 'The Home Treasury', included a box of terra-cotta toy bricks that was accompanied by actual building plans contained in a pamphlet titled 'Architectural Pastime'.
                    (Witold Rybczynski in "Looking Around: A Journey Through Architecture," Penguin (1992) with permission)

        Simon Schama also mentions Henry Cole, the inventor of the Christmas Card, as an early promoter of building blocks made of ceramic.  Others credit Caroline Pratt, who encouraged the development of kindergarten in the early part of the 20th century.  Ms. Pratt's wooden blocks were the precursor of those in current use in Kindergarten and Preschool.  Finally, there is also a loose connection to Fredrick Froebel, a mid 19th century German educator who developed simple sets of wooden blocks for research purposes.  (Still, children love to play with cut-offs and other fall.  The evolution of Unit Blocks is probably more prosaic, the true inventor a nameless zimmerman, and there is little doubt that children have been playing with these bits since time immemorial).

Airport in Wooden Blocks       The "unit" concept continued to evolve into such famous offshoots as Erector Sets, Tinker Toys, Lincoln Logs, Legos, and K'NEX.  These are the survivors among hundreds of other innovative, though less successful unit construction toys that have passed from the scene.   This scaling idea is ubiquitous: addition and multiplication objectified, and the term "building blocks" has become a cliché for the modular concept in general . . . there are "building blocks" for computer programs, mental health, school programs, lesson plans, nutrition, . . . whenever someone wishes to impart the idea of an organizational structure, the "building blocks" concept is invoked.

        These are the wooden building blocks of legend.  Kids love them and they teach a basic idea of life.  You can't buy a better toy.

        The best wooden blocks are hard and stout and made to the customary scale for school size blocks from a heavy, fine-grained hardwood.  But the term hardwood isn't very informative - it refers to the tree being an angiosperm. Many hardwoods are soft (like Aspen or Balsa) and many softwoods (gymnosperms - like Fir and Pine) are quite hard. It isn't a question of blocks being made of hardwood, but of a hard hardwood. The premium choice is the American Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum) which has been used for years for floors, bowling alleys, and countertops. The downside is that Hard Maple is a premium hardwood and this kind of quality comes at a price.  Other "hardwoods" are much cheaper.  The term hardwood by itself is meaningless and does not mean that the wood is "hard."

       An additional virtue of Rock Maple is that the blocks are fine grained. For example, Oak and Walnut are very hard hardwoods, but they tend t have large pores which result in very rough blocks. The Soft Maples (Red Maple, Silver Maple, Big leaf Maple. Western Maple) have a similar color and texture to Hard Maple, but these woods are materially lighter and softer than Hard maple.  Wood blocks take a terrible pounding over a lifetime and there is no substitute for quality. Hard Maple is the best. Hard Maple blocks get the job done and they last.  That's why Rock Maple has been the woodworker's choice for Unit Blocks for 100 years. Aec de Triumph

      Sugar Maple (Hard maple) is a uniquely North American tree - it only grows in the eastern US and Canada.  It is noted for its spectacular colors in the fall so familiar to the residents of Vermont and New Hampshire.  The Canadians put it on their flag.  Europeans substitute European Beech which is a little lighter and a little softer.  Asian Blocks tend to be significantly lighter and softer.

   Our blocks are all the same scale, regardless of the material.  Blocks should be softened (rounded) on the edges and corners in order to avoid splinters and a good kit has a wide range of shapes, all carefully cut to a single scale.  There should be a sufficient number of rectangles for walls and foundations, but there should also be block shapes - triangles, arches, wedges, and square and round columns.  You can't build anything interesting with rectangles alone.

synagogue in Blocks   The best blocks are completely uncoated.  In times past, manufacturers painted their "seconds" bright colors and made a virtue out of necessity, but these days painted and colored blocks are viewed by many people with suspicion.  Most of these painted toys come with little assurance that the paint is safe, and under the best of circumstances this means only that they are absent lead or heavy metals - not that the paint is edible.

     Other chemicals may be used to treat imported blocks.  Rubberwood, for example, is soaked in Borates during the logging stage, a family of relatively benign insecticides that easily dissolve in water or perspiration.  Though Borates occur in many domestic products including detergent, eye wash, and cockroach powder, and this is not considered harmful by the government - we think that giving children blocks soaked in bug poison is stretching the envelope.  Our Hard Maple Unit blocks aren't soaked in, painted, or coated with anything.  Nada. If you are buying our Rubberwood economy blocks from Melissa and Doug, however, you might want to consider these facts about Rubberwood or other imported products on this site and elsewhere. 

      Children enjoy these classic toys for years.  They will begin to play with blocks at an early age and they will continue playing with them until the age of 9 or 10.  Around the age of 4, kids are introduced to big blocks in school.  Teachers like them because blocks encourage imagination, eliciting it from inside rather than supplying it from outside.  The stores are full of brightly colored plastic toys that are imaginative for your child . . . trying to stuff them full of ideas like intellectual sausages.  But it's the child that needs the imagination, not the toy.  Allowed to play freely, children spontaneously create things ranging from profound to hilarious. Blocks are a medium for this kind of expression.   Kids' engagement  with wooden blocks goes through a number of stages.  At the youngest ages, children turn the different shapes in their hands and look at them.  They also show them to their parents, learn the names, and evidence interest in how they fit together.  After a time, children will begin to sit on the floor and stack them into small towers.  During this period, learning the ideas of balancing, bridging, and bracing is a key accomplishment.  Next, children begin to make walls, and following this, four walls with a roof.  By the age of 3-1/2, children will be able to make taller towers, balance a wider block on top of a narrow one, and can make vaguely identifiable structures like skyscrapers.  They also like to make roads and drive small cars on them.  Maybe more important, kids from the earliest age are attracted by blocks and their play evolves over the years so that blocks evince an extraordinary range of appeal across age groups.

     The peak age for toy unit blocks is 4-8.  Children will often come across these large blocks at quality pre-schools and kindergartens and will yearnMosque in Blocks  for some at home.  Unfortunately, the small wooden blocks available in toy stores are nearly useless as they are too light and too small to be stable.  Children can build amazing structures if given a wide range of shapes and sizes, but the shapes must be substantial enough to stand firmly.  Interest in them may taper off a bit after the age of about 9, but many children will haul out their wooden blocks on a rainy day, and will frequently help younger siblings accomplish tasks that they have mastered at an earlier age.

       This range of play is important.  If you will look at your youngster's toys, you will realize that there are very few of them that show this extended span of interest - a toy that will engage a child's interest for eight or ten years.  We like all kinds of toys here, but we notice that they tend to get a few months of play and then they break or disappear.  If you ask yourself how much play time you get for your dollar, children's building blocks begin to look economical indeed.  Building block toys and kids construction toys can survive generations of use.

    The best storage for wooden blocks is a small bookcase.  Simple bookshelves from Wal-Mart and elsewhere are excellent for storage and your blocks won't become mixed with other toys.  Even the smallest bookcase will store a lot of blocks as they stack together tightly.  Rolling plastic carts from Wal-Mart and elsewhere will also serve, but there are important lessons to be learned in putting the blocks away by shape, it is far easier to use the blocks when they don't all have to be dumped out on the floor, and a simple bookcase is the right solution.

    We also make and sell a variety of wooden craft parts for artists and schools including cubes, balls, squares, disks, and other items designed for craft purposes.  Our craft cubes and other craft parts are especially useful for making cube puzzles and other picture puzzles.

    Take the time to explore our web site.  It has over 165 pages showing pictures of block buildings, famous buildings in general, how to order, details and frequently asked questions, a page for school officials, a page for ordering our free catalog, a page of links to architecture sites, school sites, and other toy stores, a page explaining how to make your own blocks, and pages for accessory kits, open stock, block kits, and even recipes.  We know you are impatient . . . everybody on the internet is impatient.  But even if you're not ready to buy blocks, we think you'll find our site informative. 

Have fun.

Copyright 2010 Barclay Wood Toys and Blocks, Inc.
207 N Main St.
Hebron, IN 46341