For this project, I broke out my old sketchbook from high school and brushed off my drawing skills. Drawing and painting have always been a form of the arts that I’ve never had the patience for. I don’t quite understand it—I’ll spend hours sanding wood, sewing a straight seam, or piping a cake, but the patience it takes to draw a picture eludes me. The drawing class I took my senior year of high school made me realize that I could, in fact, draw something I was proud of, but the time it took just wasn’t worth it to me. So thank you Mr. McDermitt for growing my confidence and making me realize the difference between skill and passion. I prefer to avoid serious drawing or to hand it off to someone who has the experience. But with this project, I knew I needed to do it myself. I've found it difficult to communicate to someone else what shape will cut easily with a jig saw and what shape just won’t work. And this time, I told myself to just buck up and see if I could do it. 

Isn’t it funny that there are ways to grow your skills without stretching beyond your comfort zone, and then there are ways that do? In my job, I’m used to growing my skills. I’m used to approaching something in a new way, or furthering a skill I haven’t touched on. And it always takes something from me to do that. It takes a little extra time, a little extra patience, and a little extra grace for myself. And when it works, I feel proud of myself. I’m thankful I took the risk. But when I grow in a way that’s outside of my comfort zone, it takes so much more. I need a lot more time, patience, and grace (and, possibly, to not tell anyone what I’m doing so no one will know if it fails). And then, when that works—the reward is that much more. I was so nervous to try my hand at designing and drawing these wood blocks. And, granted, I did have some reference photos. But in the end, I had four different designs that are uniquely mine, and that I absolutely love. 

So, with this project, I encourage you to step outside of your comfort zone. If you’re in the same boat as me, take some time and try your hand at drawing. If the woodworking is the intimidating part, then try your hand at that. Simplify it if you have to; just stretch beyond your comfort zone. Maybe it will work, and maybe it won’t, but there’s nothing to lose. And who knows, you may discover something you love.

Step 1: Print and cut templates

Download templates here. Print out on cardstock and cut out. 

If you’re designing your own animal figures, then it’s important to keep in mind what you can and can’t do with the saw. If you’re working with a coping saw, it’s a little more forgiving than a jig saw—but either way, you’ll want to keep the curves soft: First, because soft curves work well with babies, and second, because if the curve is too tight, the saw won’t be able to make the cut. The other big thing to keep in mind is that you want to avoid creating a box cutout with two sharp corners (this is why the legs join together at a point, and why the rhino’s horn is curved)—cutting a box shape is difficult with a saw, and rarely ends with a very clean finish. 

animal blocks template
cut animal block template
cut out animal shape

Step 2: Trace shapes onto wood

The next step is to trace the shapes onto the wood so they can be cut out. It’s rare that I actually remember this step, but the best way to get a clean finish is to start out by taping off the wood wherever it will be cut and making your pencil markings on top of that tape. The tape helps the fibers of the wood hold together during the cutting process and makes for a cleaner cut. 

I found it easiest to line up the feet of the animal with either the end or the side of the board (depending on the width of the board you’re using and the size of the animal).

trade wooden toy blocks
trace animal shape on wood block
diy animal toy pattern

Step 3: Cut out animals

Now it’s time to start cutting. Clamp your board onto your work surface with a couple clamps. You don’t need the whole animal shape overhanging the work surface, just the area where you’ll start cutting. As you go, you’ll need to adjust for the various angles anyway. 

My usual "go to" for this kind of project is a jig saw—but if you don’t have a jig saw, or you’re not confident enough with one to take on a project like this, you can swap it out for a coping saw. A coping saw is a hand saw with a very fine, narrow blade attached to a wide frame. The blade rotates in the frame, allowing you to turn easily (more easily than a jig saw) and the wide frame allows you to cut several inches into the wood without getting in the way. The main trick with this is finding the right angle that works for clamping your wood and for your arm working the coping saw.

Regardless of the saw you’re using, I recommend starting out with the elephant—it’s the easiest. The rhino also is fairly easy, though a little more detailed with the small ear and horn. The hippo requires multiple passes along the head because of all of the different bumps and curves that make it look like a hippo. If taking multiple passes with the jig saw doesn’t work for you, then leave the curves less distinctive and finish them with a sander (I find that trying to correct something with the jig saw can be more difficult than with the sander). The hippo’s ear is cut to a square with sharp edges and then will be sanded down into a curve later. The giraffe is also a little tricky around the ears. I recommend leaving the dip between the ear and the horn shallow and defining it with the sander later. 

jigsaw animal wood toy
cut diy animal blocks
cut wooden animal toy block
cut out animal blocks

Step 4: Sand the animals

Sand all of the pieces with a sander. Normally, I would say a sander is optional, but unless you’re prepared to give a lot of time to this project, I think it’s more of a necessity. Because we’re making these wood blocks for little children, we want every piece to be completely splinter free and every sharp edge to be smoothed down to a curve. 

Start out with 100-grit sandpaper on your sander and focus your attention on all of the cuts that are a little choppy or didn’t get the shape you were wanting, like the head of the giraffe, the head of the hippo, and the ear of the hippo. You’ll also want to eliminate any sharp corners or edges—sand down the corners of the feet, the horn, and the ear of the rhino. Take a piece of sandpaper and sand between the legs. 

Once you’ve achieved the general shape with the rougher sandpaper, switch to 150-grit sandpaper and run over everything you just did, smoothing it more. Smooth out the front and back, and then sand the edge between the face and the side of the wood into a soft curve, like the edges of a milled board. Lastly, go over everything with 220-grit sandpaper to get everything silky smooth. Take your time with this step until everything is perfect.

100 grit sandpaper

sand wooden blocks
sand wooden toy block
sand animal blocks edges

Step 5: Add features

Adding features is a key step to make these wood blocks look a little more animal-esque. There are many ways to add features and embellish these animal wood blocks, but for the sake of simplicity, I used a wood burner. I like this option because you don’t have to worry about paint being non-toxic or anything. That being said, we have used non-toxic acrylic paint in the past on baby toys. If you’re interested in painting these animals, I’d recommend mixing your paint with some water to create a wash where you can still see the wood grain underneath. 

For features, I added eyes to all the animals, and an ear for the elephant. But you could also make spots for the giraffe, and toenails for the elephant, rhino, and hippo. Have fun decorating your wood blocks and make them uniquely yours!

animal shape blocks
wooden animal block features

wood burner

Step 6: Seal wood

Lastly, I wanted to seal the wood in some way to ensure a longer life. The obvious solution to me was mineral oil. This is a food-grade oil that is used to protect cutting boards. It has medical purposes as well, so you can easily find it at your local drug store, and it’s fairly inexpensive (the key is to look for it in the health section—it's the same product and tends to be cheaper than the "cutting board" mineral oils). Mineral oil is like a furniture polish in the sense that you rub it into the wood and allow the wood to absorb it, and then over time when the wood begins to dull, you reapply. 

If you want a more durable finish, most polyurethane finishes are considered food-grade once they’ve cured (this is different from dry time and takes up to 30 days). 

seal animal block wood
seal diy animal blocks

Step 7: Give a magical gift

I love finding projects that are simple enough that I can give them away without feeling like I’m cutting off my right arm. These animal wood blocks, once you’ve mastered the technique, can be made without taking too much time and are a magical gift for a new mother or a favorite little kid. I particularly love the soft curves that make these animals look so fit for children. 

wooden animal blocks
home wooden animal blocks
diy wooden animal blocks

For more DIY kids’ toys, check out a different style of wooden blocks, this indoor teepee, and a DIY toddler busy board