American Hard Maple - The Real Deal
|How to Make
This is our
"Detailed Set" of instructions.
Click here for the Simple Instructions.
Warning: The topic covered on this page includes activities in which there exists the potential for serious injury or death. We do not guarantee the accuracy or completeness of any information contained here. Always use proper safety precautions and safety equipment and keep all tool guards in place.
People sometimes write and ask, "How can I make my own set of blocks?" These instructions will show you how, or you can buy molding below. If you are arriving here from a link on another site, however, and you really don't know very much about unit blocks, it would be a good idea if you got a better sense of what you are attempting to accomplish by reading this: about.
This set of
instructions is intended for the person who has (at least) some
familiarity with woodworking tools and the terms associated with
A serviceable set of school size blocks can be made at home by a
practiced woodworker. Aside from gathering materials, expect to spend
20-40 hours at this. We give directions for making hardwood blocks but
the instructions can easily be adapted to making blocks from SPF stock
from your local lumber store. The plan is based on our "Base Set A,"
and a contents list can be obtained by going to the
List of Pieces for this set and printing it. Other sets are
similar, but you will have to re-compute the required quantities of
Using SPF and Other Woods
Plane the Stock
Use your planer to plane the thick stock
to 1-3/8. Plane both sides and use a caliper to get it exactly the
correct thickness. Use your planer to plane the thin stock to 11/16.
Use sharp new blades in order to avoid sanding. Do not trim off the
snipe at this time as you will also be using the planer to plane for
width at a later stage.
Rip the Stock
Using a sharp rip blade on
your table saw, rip the following stock. You should have plenty of
lumber to do this and you can easily end up with extra if your original
lumber was high quality.
Plane the edges
Use your planer to plane both edges of
the wide stock stock to 2-3/4. Use your planer to plane both edges of
the narrow stock to 1-3/8. Be very careful with the wide, thin stock
as this has a tendency to tip in the planer. If you've gotten this far
you should have four sizes of S4S stock, with smooth, perfectly square
faces. At this point be sure to cut off any snipe on the ends as this
will haunt you if it gets mixed in with the blocks.
Rout the edges
Using a small rounding bit on a router or shaper, round or chamfer
the edges of the sticks. This is easiest on a small router table, but
it can be done by hand. If you use a router table, be sure to use short
fences as longer ones will push warped material away from the bit. Use
a sharp, carbide bit and watch the direction of the grain to avoid
chip-out. It is also possible to use a belt sander for the same
purpose. Try to establish an even bead with a small radius (about
3/32"). This is the place where you need to be most vigilant about
potential splinters in your stock, so inspect your final work carefully
and sand any proud slivers. Use chalk to mark for elimination any
sections where a splinter has made itself apparent and sanding won't
remove it. Customers are usually confused about splinters and suppose
them to be the edge frass that sometimes flops around on the end edges
after cross cutting and sanding, but this is harmless. Free floating
splinters can't leap up and penetrate the skin even on little hands.
Real splinters are intact tips projecting from the blocks in the long
dimension where the grain is separated slightly. This will hardly be a
problem with maple as the cells are too fine, but more substantial
splinters may occur in Oak and other woods with bigger cells -
particularly Pine and SPF.
You should now have
molding more or less in the amounts given above.
Chop the Blocks
Chop the blocks to length on your table saw with a crosscut sled or
a miter bar using an ultra sharp, carbide crosscut blade (about 60 ATB teeth for
a 10" saw). The object is to make the requisite number of 22 inch, 11
inch, 5-1/2 inch, and 2-3/4 inch pieces. You can eliminate all of the
knots if you wish or, if there are sound knots, leave them. In general,
a simple miter saw won't work very well as it tends toward a lot of edge
chipping. Some of the new sliders may work better, but a table saw is
probably the best. A radial arm saw may also work, but most of them
have a lot of slop in the track.
Triangles, Wedges and other stuff
Making these pieces
requires a band saw complete with a fence, a circle cutting attachment
and numerous jigs. The latter can be made by slitting a piece of Masonite to run along the fence on your Band Saw and then gluing stops
in place to hold a blank at the proper angle. Using a jig and the
fence, cut triangles and wedges out of the 5-1/2 inch and 2-3/4 inch
blocks by cutting them diagonally. Because you want the triangles and
wedges to end in a blunted lip (about 5/32), the diagonal should be
offset at the lip edge by that amount. You can use the defective blocks
(above) for this. The resultant small half is usually thrown away.
These are made from dowels though
1-3/8 dowels may be hard to find. The largest dowels in lumber stores
are typically 1-1/4 (Ramen). Anything bigger is a special order. Sometimes
Closet pole and banister rail material is available in 1-3/8. This is
usually Fir, so be careful about splinters. If you have a lathe, here's
your chance to make some spiffy columns out of anything you want. While
you're at it, make a few onion domes for minarets and churches.
Sand the end faces, sweep the end-edges, and bump the corners of
the blocks to round them on a stationary belt sander or a belt sander
held upside down in a vise. This is very time consuming and requires a
sure hand and a good eye to do uniformly. It helps to have a dust
collector attached to the sander and it's best to use a respirator.
Practice on scrap for a little while. Be sure not to sand too much or
your blocks will be shortened. Some people like a lot of rounding for
reasons of imagined safety, but this makes blocks unstable, and I prefer
them just slightly softened. This is a matter of personal preference.
(It's more important, in the long run, to keep an eye on children at
play and to nip naughty behavior in the bud).
blocks are best left unfinished. They can be painted with child-safe
paints, but it is always a mistake to varnish or shellac them. In the
long run this surface will chip, darken differently than where it is
still varnished, and develop a mottled look that is extremely ugly.
Oils are even worse Most are slightly poisonous and after application,
all oils act as an adhesive for dirt. Painting blocks is like painting
the business end of a shovel. Don't do it. But if you must, laboratory
tested, child safe colored stains are available from the
Considerable care should be taken to assure that sizes are correct and
angles are square. Aside from driving around to gather materials,
expect to spend quite a while at this task. Blocks are a wonderful toy
for teaching math skills, but crooked blocks are likely to accomplish
nothing but frustration. A certain amount of random error is
allowable. Be safe with power tools and enjoy yourself. Don't tell
anyone you've made blocks or the whole neighborhood will be stopping by
. . .
Copyright 2003 Barclay Wood
Toys and Blocks, Inc.
207 N. Main St., PO Box 819
Hebron, Indiana 46341