Making Sand Toys

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Make them a few sand toys and your kids will make the most of their backyard sandbox.

Sand, like water, is a fluid material that kids will configure
as their imaginations dictate. But if castle walls,
riverside piers, or Matchbox-car garages are to be much
more than shapeless humps, young builders need something
rigid to form or reinforce walls, platforms, and roofs.
Plus, the children need mobile sand toys to carry their
imaginations through the formed media.

Long, narrow wooden blocks are better for reinforcing sand
castles than conventional squares and rectangles. Wooden
wheeled excavators and trucks are good to move the sand
around. Plus, they will float to serve as boats, barges,
bridges, and rafts on the water table.

I made sand blocks and toy sand movers from wood scraps:
hardwood left over from furniture projects and softwood
from building-materials cutoffs. If you make a water table (See “Build a Water Table for Kids“) you’ll have a few feet of
2″ x 3” and plywood left over you can use.
If you don’t have a shop of your own, see if you can
salvage leftovers from a local lumber finisher, a
commercial furniture maker, or a neighborhood woodworker.
Check building sites for ends of 2-by framing lumber and
other scrap. You might see if local hardware stores,
supermarkets, outdoor sports, or camping goods outlets, or
roadside stands sell wood stove or vacation camp fire
kindling. Stores near me sell plastic-wrapped packages of
assorted factory scrap hardwood for $3.00–expensive
to start a fire, but far less than you’d pay for the
equivalent board-footage of raw building stock.

Or, buy a few lengths of good clear 2″ x 3″ or 2″ x 2″
lumber, some 4/5″ x 4″ decking-board stock, and several
feet of square, round, slat, and L-shaped hard pine or
poplar trim stock, and saw it to length. I have an electric
cutoff/miter saw that produces square ends automatically
and quickly. You can get the same result at less cost with
an inexpensive plastic miter box and muscle-powered

Sand Building Blocks

To prevent splinters, choose close-grained, well-dried wood
that is hard enough your thumbnail can’t make much of a
dent in it. For sand pit or sandbox play, cut any size board from a 2″
x 4″ stud to 1/2″ x 2″ wood lath or 1 1/2″- or 2″-diameter
dowel into 4″, 6″, and 8″ lengths. Much smaller blocks
disappear in sand. Larger blocks are out of sand-castle
scale and too easily become kid weapons when the inevitable
squabbles erupt. Sand all blocks well, especially ends
rough-cut across the grain. At minimum, seal with a coat or
two of deck sealer. For more elaborate finish options, see

Strips of plywood will be used to make roads, roofs of
buildings, and walls. Make up a bunch–4″ wide and 6″,
8″, and 10″ long. Raw plywood will warp and delaminate in
the weather, so soak it well in a hard finish.

Sand Movers

I made up a bunch of simple earth movers. Each represents a different combination of
construction options that you or your kids can mix and matc.

Bodies were made from 2″ x 4″ or 2″ x 3″ softwood or by
gluing and clamping strips of hardwood or plywood scrap and
sanding so joints largely disappear. I used Titebond
waterproof glue, a “space-age” indoor/outdoor wood adhesive
that requires no mixing as does epoxy.

Using a Forstner bit that produces straight-sided,
flat-bottomed holes, I drilled bodies to accept those
little round “peoples” that come with several brands of
wheeled toys …or you can turn your own if you have a

You can also make your own wheels on a lathe, or using a
circle cutter on a drill press or a hole saw on your
portable drill. Ready-made wheels in several designs and
sizes are available at craft and hobby stores or from the
mail-order catalogs that advertise in woodworking

Between painted or varnished bodies and wheels, I inserted
enough fiber washers to prevent rubbing.

The following are brief explanations of how to piece
together a few models, but
there’s room for versatility of design, so feel free.

Pusher The body of this minidozer is made
from a block of 2″ x 3″ building stud, the blade from
1/2″-thick hardwood. Three sets of wood wheels are fastened
with waterproof wood glue to 3/8 dowel axles. Axles are set
into grooves carved into under-body and held on by a
hardwood strip fastened with rustproof wood screws. No
drilling (or drill) required, and easy to make and repair.
Finish is minimal and intentionally rough: two coats of
deck-sealer (sanding between), to accept a child’s crayons
or marker, yet clean off reasonably well.

Scooper Joints are screwed and glued
except for the scoop, which is made from thin, oak
box-making stock (or plywood) and joined with dovetails
made by eye with a coping saw with fine blade and a
1/4″blade hand chisel (easier than you think–try it;
just keep the chisel razor sharp). For strength, hardwood
fillets (from the flying model or doll-making section of a
craft supplies store) are glued at inside corners of scoop.
The wheels are held on by 3/8″ wheel pegs glued into 3/8
holes drilled in the body. Gives the best-finished look,
but the peg axle is relatively fragile and difficult to
repair. To show off the joinery, parts are stained with
contrasting colors, glued sparingly, filled, and
spray-varnished to a craft-store shine.

Hauler Made with a 2″-3″ softwood body
with plywood base/bed. Wood wheels of this flatbed truck
are held on with short 1/8″-shanked brass wood screws set
into pilot holes drilled into hard dowel plugs that have
been glued into holes into the softwood truck body. Be sure
to use screws with round heads, as tops of flathead screws
have sharp edges. Parts were filled and painted before
final assembly, then, were given a several coats of clear.

Roller Body is made of three strips cut
from a 9/6″ x 2″ strip of white oak scrap, notched to
accept wheels, and laminated together with glue and brass
wood screws. The fat, turned-maple wheels are attached with
3/8″ wooden wheel pegs. The example pictured was left
natural, filled, sanded, and sprayed with several coats of
clear acrylic to produce a craft-store finish.

Decorating and Sealing 

Most children have to be discouraged from marking or
coloring on toys–especially on smooth, carefully
varnished, inside-use wood blocks and rolling toys. Our
blocks are for outdoors, however, and I find that kids
adore being allowed, even encouraged, to use crayons,
markers, or paints to turn the building blocks into girders
(or magic wands) …and to draw spokes and mufflers (or a
flowered border) on the wheeled earth-moving toys.

Probably most satisfactory to most young children is for
you to soak the wood in a colorless outdoor sealer (made
for decks), and let the children do a quick finish sanding
and then decorate with water paints, crayons, or washable
markers. The colors will wear off quickly, and I’ve found
that the kids will get the urge to redecorate several times
over a summer.

Some kids–mainly boys aged 6 to 8 who are future high
school Wheelheads–love vehicles with wheels that
leave aggressive-looking tread marks in moist sand. You can
give your tread-maker a narrow-edged wood file and let him
make grooves or notches or crosses in the wheels of his
favorite sand vehicle to leave personalized “treads.” Black
marker will give tires a satisfying color.

Exposed to a summer of sun and rain, unfinished wood will
weather to a mottled gray that isn’t very attractive to an
adult eye, but doesn’t seem to reduce play value to the
kids. Bring the blocks and toys in come fall, hose off the
sand, bleach with diluted Clorox or a wood bleach, and
store till next winter–when you and the children can
refurbish them.

Refinishing or rebuilding the sand toys can be a powerful
hint of warm weather to come and become a late-winter
family ritual much like carving pumpkins on Halloween. Our
kids would get all excited, bundle up in snowsuits and
boots, take the wooden toys out to the sandpit (still
buried under a yard of snow), play with them in the snow
for a while, and–of course–leave them buried there. So long
as we kept the dogs from carrying the good-chewing wood
blocks off, building blocks and sand movers would sink as
snow melted and be in place and ready to excavate when the
weather warmed in the spring.

A few fastidious young ones and many older kids who are
developing a precocious sense of order will resist marking
on toys or having toys that look “dirty.” For them–or
to satisfy your own sense of order–you can give the
blocks and toys a better finish. Easiest is to assemble
toys, then preserve the wood in one step with several coats
of outdoor wood preserving sealer/stain. For a better job,
before assembling, sand the wood smooth–slightly,
rounding only those sharp corners that will be exposed
after assembly. Treat exposed faces with several coats of a
good sanding sealer (sanding lightly between coats). Spray
parts with several coats of nontoxic exterior-grade enamel,
truck bodies in bright colors, and wheels in black or
bright with black tires. Assemble and then, for a toy-store
finish, spray with thin coats of clear outdoor acrylic