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How to Sand

“Hallo!” I waved cheerfully at my German neighbors. Germans, I quickly learned during our military tour, are remarkably polite people with a most unfortunate inability to disguise their true emotions through polite facial expressions. I smiled, noticing their almost-grimace through their tight smiles and quick nods as they used little trekking poles to click-clack swiftly away. The sawdust I had kicked up with such a gallant wave hung, sparkling in the morning air.

I was covered in sawdust. My porch was covered in it. My driveway was covered in it. My six-month-old baby, despite all my best efforts, was covered in it. Sawdust had covered almost every inch of our tiny front yard for weeks. I was a dirty American doing a very dirty hobby in my front yard, a decidedly un-German thing to do. They must have thought, at the very least, that I was exceedingly strange. 

Strange, perhaps.

Ambitious? Absolutely!

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I had been deeply inspired by the beauty of wooden German toys that the sweet neighbor children had shared with my little girl. My heart was captured when their mom explained that the delightful, wooden whale her child was ‘swimming’ through the air was the same whale she had played with when she was a little girl. Those wooden toys weren’t just toys. They are shared memories, a playable icon that tells the story of their family’s play, learning, and laughter.

And, in the throes of Covid lockdown, I had casually decided that I would make my sweet baby girl her own set of alphabet blocks. The entire world seemed to be starting new hobbies; baking sourdough bread, collecting toilet paper, and exercising their rhetoric. I wanted to find something restful but productive, something innocent but also something that could capture the memories of my little girl’s childhood and the strange history we were living; something educational but also something beautiful to brighten up our home. Wooden toys checked all those boxes, and I decided to learn how to create them. 

So, armed only with tips and tricks scrounged from dozens of corners of the Internet, I dived in, not at all prepared for how horrible I would be at making toys or that making simple alphabet blocks would take me a solid month of dirty, frustrating effort. I wasn’t prepared for how much of my time would be taken up with entirely unnecessary sanding.

Now, two years after the offensive sanding incident, let me share every trick and tip I’ve learned, taking a task that took me countless hours to one that should take you only moments.

The first step is pretty straightforward. And that is… You shouldn’t have to do any sanding at all.

After that miserable first experience, we here at Bridgewood determined that we would do everything in our power to reduce the sanding. Our blocks are handmade and hand sanded. Most of the sanding you do will be based almost entirely on personal preference or quickly fixing mistakes. But if you want to learn how to get a beautiful, polished surface for your blocks, here are my best tips and tricks. I learned the hard way, so you wouldn’t have to.

Any sanding you will do with BridgeWood toys will be very light and will not produce much sawdust. And, although you will not be using heavy equipment or sanding for long periods with your BridgeWood toys, we recommend heading outside or to a well-ventilated area to do your sanding. You might also consider wearing a dust mask.

Sanding outdoors isn’t just more enjoyable. Being in the breezy sunshine provides far better ventilation, making it far less likely that you would inhale sawdust particles. Plus, it gives some great opportunities to connect with your neighbors, who often will be curious about your intriguing new hobby. But sanding indoors is also possible, provided it is in a large space with good ventilation, and you don’t mind cleaning up a little dusty mess!

Not everyone will be sensitive to sawdust, which can irritate some people’s airways if they inhale fine particles. But, if desired, you can take the extra precaution of wearing a dust mask. These are specialty masks found at any hardware store, and they filter out 94% of the particles that fly about in the air due to sanding. Although used chiefly by professionals or hard-core hobbyists using heavy equipment, you can use it even for small projects.

Now, I’ll be honest. When making my toys, I often do light sanding at the kitchen table or in the backyard while I watch the kiddos run around. Very little sawdust is produced; I rarely even see the dust from the few quick swipes I might make. But! Everyone has different comfort levels and health concerns. If you know you are prone to airway irritation, please take simple safety steps to feel comfortable.

Now, a question! Are you in the same boat as I was two years ago, not knowing the difference between 220 and 320 sandpaper? I didn’t think it would make a difference until I had a pile of scratched blocks that I had to fix, so let me share with you what I learned.

First, check the back of the paper. You will see either 220 or 320 printed on the back. Then, turn the paper over and feel the rough, textured grit. 

One will be very rough; that is the 220. It is best for aggressive sanding, such as taking down a ragged edge, sanding sharp corners into soft, round edges, or removing paint. Be aware that it can scratch the surface with its strong grit, especially if rubbed against the grain.

The other paper will feel smoother, though you can still feel its’ grittiness. This is the 320 grit, and it is better for finishing. So if your 220 scratched the surface, your 320 could help take it out. It will leave your block feeling very smooth.

You want to sand in the same direction as the long grain when sanding. Imagine the long grain of the wood as a series of drinking straws stacked and bound tightly together. By rubbing the sandpaper up and down along the length of the ‘straws’, they stay tight together and create a smooth finish. Rubbing from side to side ‘ruffles’ them up. You might get a smooth surface, but it won’t look as clean or polished as sanding along the grain.

A smooth, even surface is essential for a great, final result when painting. Although your blocks should be ready to go, inspecting them before beginning your painting doesn’t hurt. It will take only moments to fix if there is a rough edge, which can happen when the blocks are first ripped and cut. 

Take your 220 sandpaper and, pressing your finger on the back of the paper, rub your finger along the rough edge. If you want to be extra careful to avoid scratching, go with the grain. (But, I’ll be honest… I often cheat and go against the grain when the rough edge is very thin. It’s faster, and I don’t mind taking a few extra seconds to polish out any scratches.) A few firm swipes and the edge will be clean.

I always follow the 320 paper for a smooth finish. This time, make sure to only sand along the grain. This will remove any scratching that might have occurred from using the rougher 220 paper against the grain.

After rubbing out the rough edge, wipe down with a dry towel to remove any dust. Your block is now ready for paint!

Unless…. You want to have some fun.

Let me share some tricks to get a unique look and feel for your blocks.

First, you need to know a little bit about how wood works. Think of the ‘straws’ example, again imagining that your block is like many tightly bound drinking straws. What happens when you fill a drinking straw with liquid?

It expands—just a little bit.

Wood works in very much the same way. It ‘slurps’ up water, which causes wood to expand and contract as it gets wet and dries out. Unlike plastic, wood is not a static surface but responds to every environment. Your wood will stay stable and dry if you live in the desert. But if you move that same piece of wood to the humid South, it will drink in moisture from the air, starting to expand. This can cause huge problems with furniture when you move, although it won’t make a difference with your blocks!

However, if you lightly spray your raw wood blocks with a squirt bottle, the wood will slurp up the water. And the long grain will slightly swell, making the surface bumpy and slightly ridged.

Now, you could leave it like this and get an educational benefit for your child. With their developing neural networks, children must explore their worlds in tactile and intimate ways. We, as calloused adults, often lose the sense of magic that different textures can awaken. But children are experiencing texture for the very first time, building connections in their amazing brains every time they touch or feel something different. 

Holding blocks with slightly different textures helps children start imprinting knowledge in their brains. A block with a slightly raised texture will feel very different to a child than one that is polished smooth. Having different variations of different textures in the same block set is something that most adults won’t notice, but your observant child will!

Moisture from the paint can also slightly raise the grain in a block, which is good if that is the texture you want.

But if you want a perfectly smooth, polished block, you can use this natural swelling of the long grain to help you achieve it. 

Lightly spray the block with water and wait for it to dry. Then, take your 320 sandpaper and sand along the grain to remove the swollen grain. Polish until smooth.

Repeat the process. Lightly spray with water and wait until dry. If you feel the surface of the block this time, you will notice that it is not quite as ridge or bumpy as the first time. Again, sand off the ridges.

Repeat the process until you achieve the texture you desire. If you want to go all out, you can grab a brown paper bag out of your cupboard; it will mimic the texture of very fine grit sandpaper.

It’s a lot of work, but if you desire, you can get a glass-smooth polish on the surface of your block using this technique. It will have a beautiful, velvety feel, providing shine and textural contrast for the children who will explore it through touch, taste, and sight.

When I started making blocks, I presumed I would want that glass-smooth finish simply because it is so beautiful. It’s one of the reasons that I spent so much time outside, working hard to polish up my alphabet blocks. But I quickly learned that the smoother the finish, the harder it is for your child to stack the blocks!

Ultimately, it all comes down to your personal preference and taste. There are no wrong answers here. Rough blocks provide fascinating textural interest for your child and are much easier to stack into high towers. But smooth blocks also offer a different texture to explore, and they learn something new from their slippery surface during play. 

You get to choose! This is a low-pressure choice as every outcome has a positive. So have fun, experiment, and know you can always get more blocks to try new techniques.

For a truly unique look, round the corners and soften the edges of your blocks!

BridgeWood blocks are intentionally created with a slight chamfer, meaning that our team took the time to carefully hand sand off the sharp edge of each block. This makes the block softer in children’s hands during play while also making it very easy to get a crisp edge during painting.

However, some folks love the look of rounded edges for their blocks. And doing some rounded edges while leaving others with chamfered edges can create subtle interest in the blocks for your child to explore and enjoy. So, if you don’t mind getting dirty and putting in a bit of elbow grease, here is how you can get a lovely, rounded block.

First, I recommend putting on an enjoyable podcast or perhaps a movie, then bringing your project outside. And second, this technique takes the most time and will produce the most dust. So if you are considering using a dust mask, this is the time to wear it!

Once you are comfortable, take your 220-grit paper. Then, using your fingers to press against the back, take the first edge of your block and start to firmly rub the sandpaper along the grain. This will begin to remove the edge, softening it. Sand until you get your desired edge. Then, turn the block to the next edge and repeat.

There will be twelve corner edges and eight corners on each block. Rotating the block and doing one after the other is the best way to keep track of them. After you have finished each edge, turn the block around in your hand to ensure that each edge has been done to your satisfaction.

Repeat the same process with the 320 sandpaper to give it a smooth finish.

Repeat with as many blocks as desired.

You mustn’t sand off enough wood to make your block unsafe. Honestly, that would be an enormous amount of work; it would take hours… even days… of hand sanding a block to make it small enough for a child to choke on. But if you are worried you made it too small, run a simple test to ensure it is safe.
Take an empty toilet paper tube and try to fit the block into it. If it falls all the way through, it is too small and shouldn’t be given to a child under the age of three. And if you manage to achieve this, please let us know. I would be in awe of how much time and effort it would take to sand off that much wood and would be blown away to hear that someone had accomplished it.

But… Whew! Rounding corners can be a lot of work! The BridgeWood team has done our best to give you a block you can paint without alteration, but heck. If you love the look of rounded corners and want to sit out in the sunshine, dustily waving at your neighbors, this technique can help you achieve a truly unique look for your child.

Enjoy the process! Sanding your blocks gives you a chance to inspect each block’s unique beauty, helping you become intimately acquainted with each block’s unique wood grain and patterns. Take a deep breath, and enjoy the sunshine as you grow a deeper appreciation for the simple things in life. We can guarantee that you will love the natural beauty of your wooden blocks when you are finished!

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