Wood blocks

Thoughtful and creative gifts can be difficult to come by, especially when applied to a one year old.

Most store bought items seem to have lifespans as short as the child’s vertical leap, serving their useful existence over a set of weeks. In an attempt to avoid this, I took to etsy and google for timeless and evergreen toddler gifts. Clothes would not do; too quickly outgrown. Art is difficult; cannot be played with. Dolls; that’s not my forte. Hockey gear; not quite yet.


Inspiring creativity is what I hoped to obtain in this instance. That’s when I stumbled upon my friend Eric’s wooden block sets. These are not necessarily unique to him, as kids have stacked these as high as possible and spelled out obscenities for generations. What is unique to Eric’s set is sophistication and design integrated into a toddler’s item. He also seemed excited to talk about his process when I explained I was planning on ‘borrowing’ his idea for my own set of blocks (he also has some fantastic items such as printed maps and furniture in his etsy store).


Laying out the blocks, selecting the typography, developing a set of pictograms, and creating the map was likely my favorite part. The set of blocks serve as a literal blank slate that will be put together and taken apart thousands of times over the years (hopefully). With little experience in a work process involving a laser cutter, I was trying to develop a strategy for production along the way. I would only find out later that I spent far too long selecting the perfect black weighted sans serif typeface.

Concept sketch, pictogram ideas, 
and the final product.
Pictogram print file.

As the planning continued, more questions were answered. Material was determined to be poplar as it was sold in the dimensions I was looking for and at 36″ lengths. That meant that in theory I would need three pieces of lumber to cover the 70, 1.5 x 1.5 cubes. This would garner 35 blocks for two identical sets of blocks. The 35 blocks would be 7 x 5 units and form a nice rectangle. This nice rectangle would make it easier to laser cut and be a frame for which the map could lie within.


A nice rectangle would have been nice. I did not give enough consideration to the loss in material by the saw blade’s kerf. I had a bit of leeway in wood stock but it was not enough. This meant that after chopping down the three foot lengths of poplar, I was left with 66 blocks. That changed things. No longer did I have a nice rectangle for the laser cutting frame or a nice rectangle to layout the blocks. Initially I had created the set with all 26 letters and numbers one through nine. With only 33 blocks per set, it seemed trivial to have all the letters and only numbers one through seven. A substitution in layout was made to include a duplicate set of vowels. This change in layout would, as before, have a larger impact.

Poplar stock.
Wood block blanks.

The Columbus Idea Foundry is perhaps the only place in town where the public has limited access to laser cutters. After pondering joining the Idea Foundry myself, I contacted them and they put me in touch with John. I then hired John for his laser cutter expertise and Idea Foundry membership. The decision paid dividends. The laser cutter rents hourly so all mistakes made are magnified in loss of material and additional time needed. John was instrumental in the laser cutting process though and helped to reduce lost time with his knowledge of the machine and material properties. He also created a wooden jig to hold the blocks, ensuring they would be in the same location with each pass. (He also makes his own amazing laser cut/etched pieces and more, which are available on his site and etsy store)


Uploading the files is where we first ran into issues. I made the mistake of not outlining my text files within illustrator before leaving my home computer. This meant that the new computer at the Idea Foundry was substituting its own set of typefaces for the sets that I had agonized over. The largest ramification of this substitution was that all of the block letters needed to be replaced with a similar font to the one I had chosen earlier. Once again, all mistakes made are magnified as I’m paying by the minute. The less significant loss in data was the state abbreviation labels which had been located on the map. The new computer had replaced the original text with a larger font and the labels were no longer visible within the bounding boxes. Instead of modifying the file, taking time to accomplish, John and I made the executive decision to delete them and move on sans labels.


The laser cutting, when we eventually got it dialed in, is fun to watch. I had only limited experience with the laser cutter in design school but enough to recognize the distinct aroma of laser burnt wood. It was as fascinating as I remember it being, particularly as the depth of the letters was being engraved. John and I agreed upon setting the laser to 60 speed and 100 power. This allowed the laser time to discard enough material for there to be a tactile difference when handling the blocks. The map and pictograms were both done at 100 speed and varying levels of power. If this project is to be taken on again, the speed should be slowed for the pictograms as they are not quite as deep as I may have liked.


Flipping the blocks had been always been a sticking point in my head. The file had been set up to mirror the pattern of blocks; for example, ensuring that the back of the letter ‘B’ would show a ‘bicycle.’ John’s jig helped immensely making certain that the blocks were correctly aligned. All I had to do was flip the blocks within the jig and not screw up the file. I did not hold up my end of the bargain.


In the haste of removing the numbered blocks from the file, the pictograms for the additional vowels were not located in the same place on each of the template files. This now meant that on three of the duplicates blocks (O, U, B) there were mismatched pictograms. Instead of the second ‘U’ having ‘unicycle’ it now had ‘bear.’ Needless to say, was not thrilled about the screw up but learned from the mistake. Glass half full, was later informed that bears are in the ursidae family so we will go with that as the reasoning behind the ‘U’ – ‘bear’ block. Continued reasonings: unicycles only have ‘one wheel’ and octopuses are ‘ugly.’ Yep.

Focusing the laser.
Cutting the map.
Letter blocks in laser bed.

Minus the self-inflicted hiccups, the laser work was exceptional. The laser cutter took approximately an hour and a half of to cut and engrave three sides of 66 wooden blocks. The only disappointing part about it was that Katie was in bed when I got home from the idea foundry, so I could not share the product.


Sanding and applying a finish and sanding were the final steps in the process. Thankfully another selfless friend allowed me to use his stationary belt sander. This made the process much easier than sanding by hand with a rubber block. I now owe him a new belt. As I wore through his by sanding down six sides of 33 blocks, but it was absolutely worth it. This also offered a chance to dull the edges and corners of the blocks. The process thus far had been easier with true cubes, but now that the precision steps were complete it was time to make the blocks a bit safer for a one year old. In addition to sanding the corners, a finish was applied to the wood. I used a beeswax and mineral oil mixture which is food grade safe and typically used on butcher blocks and cutting boards. This allows the blocks to be safely chewed on by small children and also protects the wood from drying and cracking.


I am really pleased with the end result. I was taught a lot through the process but that is to be expected (and sought after) with each new project. With every designed and crafted gift, much angst follows wondering about the reaction. If nothing else I do believe that this set of wooden blocks can serve as a fine motor skill builder, an educational tool, and a solid object to throw at an older sister. Here’s hoping that this one year old’s gift can inspire creativity and be cherished for years to come.


Finished map.
bash_worth blocks.

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