Carving Alphabet Blocks – Part I

My little girl just recently turned three months old. Hooray! Though she is only beginning to comprehend “I can grab things with my hand and move them”, it’s never too early to plan ahead, right?

My favorite toys are the simple ones, so I thought I’d start with the simplest toy I can think of: wooden alphabet blocks. Of course, I could just go to the toy store and buy a package of wooden blocks. They would be neatly stamped with every letter of the alphabet, neatly painted, with animals and fruits and trains etched on the sides. But where’s the fun in that?

I’ve never done any woodcarving, but my plan involves a dremel tool and some wooden craft blocks. Let’s see how much trouble I get into…

Overview

Before doing anything, I googled to see how feasible it was for a non-artistic person such as myself to finish such a project. What I found was encouraging, so here’s my plan:

Materials

  • Dremel – mine was a gift from an old friend. By old, I mean longtime rather than elderly.
  • Wooden blocks – after failing to find any locally, I ordered 1.75″ wooden craft cubes online from Barclay Blocks.
  • Wood carving bit – after some experimentation, I found the #196 “High-speed cutter” worked well.
  • Paint – non-toxic paint from the craft store.
  • Shellac – as a non-toxic sealer for the wood.

Process

Proof-of-Concept 1

Before spending any money, I decided to test my ability to cut reasonable-looking letters into scrap lumber with the dremel. (Ok… actually I went out and bought some new dremel bits, so I did spend some money…)

The lettering came out… recognizable. I experimented with a few different bits before settling on the #196 for its nice wide cuts and square edges. I also decided on inset letters since they were easier to cut. Unfortunately, I was never able to get a smooth surface inside the letters. If I had a router, it would probably do a better job.

I bought some non-toxic black craft paint from Michael’s (craft shop). The black paint adds a lot of contrast to the lettering, and hides some of the roughness of the cut surface.

Proof-of-Concept 2

I ordered some wooden craft blocks, 1.75″ on a side. There were at least two major differences between my scrap lumber and the wooden blocks, which required a second proof-of-concept:

  1. These blocks were hardwood, not softwood
  2. I would be cutting into a cut face.

Since I don’t want to practice on a good block, I inspected each block in the batch, and picked out the four that looked the worst.

Results

The painted letters ‘Z’ and ‘C’ on the right are from my first proof-of-concept. I think they came out well enough to continue the project.

The rough-looking letter ‘thorn’ on the left is my second proof-of-concept. It’s unpainted and you can still see the construction lines penciled-in.

I found that cutting into the hardwood block was much harder on the dremel, but it was eventually able to cut the letter.

Next Time

I plan on another test cut, using carbon paper to copy a letter from a printed template onto the wood. It’s just too time-consuming to cut each letter out by hand.

I still have the opposite side of the second proof-of-concepts, plus two sides of the three other blocks I separated out. Hopefully my next tests will come out cleaner looking.

 

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