Guest Guru – Edwards Smith Talks About How He Uses His Hobby to Make Practical Gifts

Edwards Smith, owner of Edwards Smith Fine Woodworking

My children have been a great joy in my life and now that the grandchildren are arriving I find them an even greater joy. The urge of a woodworker is to make something very special for them. Yet it is hard to compete for their attention. They are surrounded by inexpensive and colorful plastic interactive toys with their onboard computers and remotes that provide sound effects, music and flashing lights.
So, how does one begin? Any clear beginning starts with clear goals. I call this the unity principle. We live in a universe of infinite diversity. It is so vast that it boggles the mind. Yet diversity only makes sense in the light of unity, a unity of diversity. So what I wanted to do was to figure out my unifying purpose in making toys for grandchildren.

What I wanted was a toy that was simple to use, was fun and stimulated the imagination, one that would last for a very long time and, of course, one that was safe. I also wanted to make them something that was somewhat unique.

Now I have stated many times that there is nothing new under the sun. Everything that could have been thought of has already been. So we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We can stand on the shoulders of those who have gonet before and we can look to nature for inspiration. How we use what has gone before may be how we achieve uniqueness.

Wood is my thing. I have collected wood from all over the United States and a little from other countries. So I wanted to make something that would show off the many species of wood from around the country and world. Being a rather practical minded grandfather, I wanted to teach my grandchildren something I held of value. Those who study the play of children inform us that what looks like innocent play is actually a very serious learning experience for the child. So, why not have them learn something useful while they are at it?

The next step in my process was to see what others had to say about the process. I love that saying that chance favors the prepared mind and as I was browsing in the book section of my local Woodcraft Supply store my eye fell on a promising book. It was entitled Making Toys that Teach. It was by a Canadian author, Les Neufeld who made these items for his own children. After a cursory inspection I decided to purchase the book.


There were many thoughtful and interesting toys but many had limitations. Most were for a specific learning skill such as identifying shape, color, counting, etc. My problem was that I had three grandchildren and now have another on the way. What could I make that would cover a wider age group and a broader set of skills, and would stimulate the imagination?

When I came on the chapter in the book about blocks my mind went racing back to my own childhood. I can remember playing for hours with blocks and playing with them even after I was eight years old. As I read this chapter I was impressed that this man had made one of the most complete set of blocks that I had ever seen. They were amazing.

There were all sorts of shapes and sizes and plenty of everything so you would not run out of critical building materials at a crucial time. The bill of materials contained 226 separate pieces. Many were the familiar shapes but others were unusual and some were interactive in that they could be coupled together with turned dowls making for many more possibilities. I further reasoned that this would give me an opportunity to use a great many species of wood that I have collected and that in time the children would have become quite familiar with the sights and textures of different species of wood, many of which are non-commercial. So I planned to label the wood species with my wood burning pen on just one or two of each of the species used so that when the children learned to read, they would have that added bit of learning as well.

Now I was satisfied that I had a project that fulfilled my unifying principles and all that was left to do was to plunge into diversity. And diverse it was.
As you can see I had many species of wood to start with. It was just a matter of resawing the found wood of my collection into regular surfaces, planing two sides parallel with the planer, using the jointer to true up one or two sides and then using the table saw for getting the precise length, width and height.

Practice made perfect. I have two sets of grandchildren so I got to go through the whole process four hundred and fifty-two times. Then I chamfered all the edges of each piece so there would be no sharp corners to cut little fingers and hands. Each block was carefully sanded through all the grits of sandpaper to 400 grit. I love the feel of well finished wood and the lovely appearance it gives the wood surface. I wanted my grandchildren to see how beautiful unstained natural grain wood could be. So I put a lot of effort in preparing the surface.

Now, little hands are not always as clean as they should be and I reasoned that the blocks should have some form of finish on them. I did not want anything toxic so I settled on natural Tung oil. A coat of this drying oil makes a durable finish that is down in the wood, not just on the surface like lacquer or varnish so it wont chip or crack with age. Now the blocks were smooth and user friendly. Here is the finished set.

Woods include cherry, walnut , ambrosia maple, rock maple, cedar, spalted beech, holly, Siberian elm, white oak, ash, magnolia.

I was not sure how they would be received. However, children instinctively know what to do. They immediately began to build things and have been building ever since.


It is interesting that children will combine their plastic and metal toys to operate on layouts made of the blocks. So the blocks enrich the environment for the other toys. My children report that they spend more time playing with blocks than with any other toy. Children love to learn and with blocks and imagination they can learn to make things. The unity of the block set became the playground for the infinite imaginatioin of the child to make anything.

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