Olive and Harry, I made you wood blocks for Christmas, and I hope you enjoy them! I made them out of a beautiful piece of oak to form a DIY stepped pyramid. They’re similar to a handmade set that caught my eye and struck me as an “easy” project.
I had to go to two hardware stores to get wood, since the first store kept referring me to pre-cut spruce from the moulding section, and blew off my request for “hard-wood boards I could cut into blocks”.
New situations are intimidating for me, but I try really hard to not let that stop me.
I get that when I walk in slightly dishevelled while wearing a baby and dragging a toddler, I don’t necessarily look like someone to be taken seriously (Nor do I resemble a “traditional” woodworker).
Maybe I wasn’t clear about what I was looking for… or maybe the guy at the counter had another reason for his “sorry we don’t have what you’re looking for” (You have no boards made of oak or maple or bass from a hardware store?!). I don’t think he believed me when I described my satisfaction in operating power tools.
I didn’t waste time there, I walked out ASAP and went down the road. I’m gracious to RONA’s Maglio Building Center in Trail who DID help me and provide direction on how to acquire one of these “hard-wood boards I could cut into blocks”. I am appreciative, but still discouraged on how intimidated I was made to feel by the dismissive attitude of that first person behind a counter.
“I Could Make That”
This is a typical example of a project I like to start before realizing the time and effort needed for completion. These are likely to be tossed aside over the excitement found in other brightly coloured toy options with moving-parts.
I think these will endure, though. I keep telling myself the real appreciation of them will come in the weeks after they’re received when the Christmas excitement dies down (or when my first grandkids arrive, as your Papa proposed to me last week).
Wooden toys, like any genre of kid-related items are a bit of a rabbit hole. There’s a focus on things that are sustainable, environmentally friendly, tough, and “open-ended” (open-ended meaning they can be used in many ways with a bit of imagination”. Open ended toys promote development of creativity, imagination, and critical thinking.
I both appreciate and value that wood toys require more resources and time to make. Along with the small label that states “handmade” there’s a price reflective of it. I got two hands too though, and they like to make things!
To the gals in the “DIY Wooden Toys” Facebook page:
I have a big love for Facebook groups, and one can use them to reference any interest. This one is the latest (Facebook link), and I’ve received a ton of encouragement and feedback. It’s a collaborative group, and thus, for anyone with an interest in making their own DIY stepped pyramid, here is my feedback…
Blocks are super easy, and these were “ripped” (cut along the grain of the wood) with a table saw, and then cut to length on a combo of table saw and mitre saw. I’m not posting pictures of the cutting operation because our table-saw isn’t the safest setup. The safest way to operate a table-saw is to have a guard in place to protect fingers, and to brace the cut so the saw can’t “kickback”. This happens when the saw catches on the wood without cutting it, and the rotation of the saw tosses your wood backwards and into your wall (or abdomen, if you’re not standing in the correct place while cutting). Our saw is a hand-me-down, and lacking such requisite safety apparatuses. Check out 2:30 of this Youtube video for reference, and remember to use correct safety techniques always!
These blocks were made to imitate a “Grimm’s Large Stepped Pyramid” both in size, and in colour scheme. For that I cut 4×4 cm width/depth, and the various lengths to make the DIY stepped pyramid structure as follows:
36 at 4 cm tall,
28 at 8 cm tall
20 at 12 cm tall
12 at 16 cm tall
4 at 20 cm tall
This followed by HOURS and HOURS of sanding with a palm sander (pro-tip, clamp together and sand multiples at once to keep them even and square to each other).
At this point I experienced agony while trying to decide whether to colour them or leave them natural with that gorgeous oak grain.
I did eventually decide on colour, and I decided to mimic the colours on the beautiful Grimm’s original “Large Stepped Pyramid” for my DIY Stepped Pyramid blocks. There are 100 blocks in this set, and I found it easier to go with their breakdown and balance of hues and shades (call it laziness, I copied, but also consider that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”).
“Folk Art” acrylics seem to be the go-to in the wood-toy-making world, mostly due to their non-toxic nature, availability, and price point. I briefly considered investing in “milk-paint” for its reputation for being even MORE non-toxic than anything else out there, or natural stains made from plant-based concoctions.
Folk Art won out because I wanted vibrancy, and endurance.
One thing I found hard was finding genuine examples of colours for paint mixing. Because of the pyramid structure, half the blocks are frequently not visible in photos, and when they are laid out, lighting quality varies, and different filters abound on social media.
There were two references I found incredibly helpful:
This Instagram post, since it lays out everything in reasonable lighting, along with other branded items for comparison (I think a Grimm’s pastel rainbow, lotus flower, water-wave?)
Once colours were decided on, I wanted them vivid. A few test-coats of paint, watered down as I’ve seen others do, weren’t giving me the coverage I liked, and would have required numerous coats of paint, so I bucked “tradition” and just used the paint direct from the tube. I had a red (cardinal something?), yellow (medium yellow) and a blue (cobalt) with black and white, and I mixed colours as needed.
Oak has a deep grain, and regular paint-brushes weren’t penetrating the grain, so I opted to use a toothbrush in order to “scrub” the paint into all the cracks and crevices before buffing it off with a rag. This left behind much of the colour while still letting the grain show through.
The only downside I encountered with the larger pieces was that by the time I’d finished applying the paint, the first side was already starting to dry, so I’d spray it with water to keep the whole thing wet until I could get going with the rag (the paint would buff off unevenly if one side dried too much). Buffing left each piece fairly dry, and so I was able to do each entire block at a time, without having to paint one side and wait for it to dry before completing the other side.
Two coats total completed, with a light sand in-between.
…and hours upon hours of my time!
My workspace was my kitchen table, and I’d have to cart these (heavy!) blocks up from the shop, get as much done as I could while kids slept, and then leave enough time to clean up and get them put away by the time the little boy woke up. This DIY stepped pyramid was every night’s after-bedtime project for a week, and one full day with Olive beside me playing while Harry was at Nonna’s (and that’s just the time devoted to painting!).
I got myself some Clapham’s Beeswax Salad Bowl Finish (Affiliate link)* for its food-safe nature and positive reviews. This part was absolutely DELIGHTFUL, because after the toil and mess of mixing and painting 100 blocks 27 different colours, this part required little other than sweet, brainless repetition.
It put this project on a WHOLE other level! The satiny polished finish turned out gorgeous, and made the grain more noticeable through the acrylic. I didn’t sand after the second coat of paint because I didn’t want a fully polished finish, and leaving a small amount of texture will ideally allow some friction to keep the blocks more stable when they get stacked.
I’m a little sensitive about this one…
It’s the most heavily flawed component of my project.
There was enough leftover wood from ripping my board to down to size to make a tray to hold and store them. I cut mitred edges, and used my table saw to make a groove that was the depth of my plywood (what I used to make the base piece). I cut the plywood down to a square and fit a mitred length onto each side, with the plywood held within the grooves. Here is someone else’s Youtube video to give you an idea of what I’m describing.
The perfectionist in me wanted a flawless fit, and I should have left a bit more play, because it is pretty tight, especially on one side. I can tell that I’m a hair off on the smallest cube blocks because when they all sit one way they are tight, and another way, don’t fit at all. At this point, that’s just how it it’s going to be.
I decided to add a note, and rather than writing with pen and risking it bleeding into the wood, I borrowed Matt’s old wood-burner from his Mom. I even spent a night on the couch practicing before the “main event”. Now for wood-block-tray-disappointment exhibit #2… I wrote on the upper “good side”, instead of the bottom of the tray. I could get past that in itself, but because the message was intended to be on the bottom, when you lay the tray right-side up, the words are upside down.
I was pretty set on fixing it by sanding the message out so I could do it on the correct side, however after ten minutes of sanding and no visible progress, I decided that was also “just how it was going to be”.
They say a handmade project should never be perfect, so that there is no mistaking the fact that it was made by a real person. I tell myself now that those flaws are what make this DIY stepped pyramid truly mine.
DIY Stepped Pyramid: It’s a Wrap
And now your gift sits under the tree beside where you play, waiting for Christmas to arrive. It’s not the flashiest, or the most expensive, but its the most sentimental. Even if you take one look and toss it aside, I plan to spend most of my time playing with it in your absence (someone better, after all this work!).
What project have you made that took way more effort than you expected?
*Amazon linkage part of “Associates” program, and purchase through linkages provided may divert a small payment to me, at no extra cost.