Sustainability, Tools, Woodworking

Woodworking and Tools in a Kid-Friendly Makerspace

For the past two months I’ve been asking the questions – how do you teach kids woodworking? How do you teach them to work with tools? This hasn’t been quiet contemplative research. It’s been more of an all-consuming, ask everyone who crosses my path, read everything on the Internet and risk bodily harm from toppling stacks of library books, endeavor. I’ve been interviewing construction workers, hobbyists, engineers, Home Depot employees, teachers and makerspace coordinators.

Despite casting such a wide net, I have encountered several common themes. One of which is the idea that you don’t actually need power tools. You can make amazing things and have an incredible program with just hand tools. Moreover, teaching kids exclusively with hand tools gives them a much better understanding of woodworking. This is a relief, as I am secretly afraid of power tools. My first priority in makerspace is safety and when you are using power tools an accident can very quickly turn into an emergency. But beyond safety considerations, using hand tools when woodworking gives kids more input. With hand tools, you can’t force things the way you can with power tools. You have to think about the hardness and grain of the wood. You have to take your time. 

A second pattern that emerged was a path for teaching woodworking in such a way that you can start working with kids as early as pre-school or kindergarten and build from there. With these little kids, you could have them make a project by teaching them how to assemble and affix pieces of wood that are pre-cut to size. This could mean using wood glue and clamps, or nails or screws with pre-drilled holes. You can create a project for them or you can buy pre-made kits, for example the classic Tool Box Kit. If you are more interested in skill building, you can teach really little kids how to, for example, use a hammer by starting the nails for them and having them hammer those nails all the way into a piece of scrap lumber. You can even buy them a lighter, kid-sized hammer, if a regular hammer is too big for them to use.

The next step up is to have kids pre-drill their own holes, start their own nails and begin figuring out for themselves the ways in which to put pieces of lumber together in order to make something. You can even cut wood partway through and have them finish the cut using a hand saw. This is where you might consider purchasing a lightweight (easier for kids to handle) cordless drill. However, if you wanted to stick with hand tools, you can also have them use a hand drill

Once kids are a bit bigger, around age 10 and older, and they’re comfortable with  using hand tools for woodworking, you can consider bringing in more power tools and machinery. All you really need for kids to create original projects is a drill and something that they can cut wood with. All of my sources agreed that the table saw is dangerous, and you may not want to have kids using that until high school, even if you invest in a SawStop (which I would STRONGLY recommend). At this point you can also still stick with hand drills and hand saws and still have a strong woodworking program.

The main consideration when deciding what tools to introduce is the age of your makers, since this correlates to their motor skills, coordination and strength, all important factors in being able to use a tool safely and effectively. If you wanted to engage students across a school district you could create projects by having high school students design and cut wood, middle grade students assemble and affix the pieces and elementary students paint and decorate them. The finished project could be sold as a fundraiser at a craft fair, farmer’s market or table at a school event.

Halloween, Tools

Frankentoys for Halloween

There are so many maker activities that you can engage in during the days leading up to Halloween.  Kids can make their own costumes, there are lots of really interesting projects with lighting, for example these cool options for under $5 and the crafting ideas are endless.

However, if you are into twisted and creepy, which in my opinion is a perfect match for Halloween, maybe you want to try making Frankentoys. The idea behind Frankentoys is to create a “new” toy out of a mishmash of different parts, just like Frankenstein (which is where the name comes from) or like the Mutant Toys from the movie Toy Story.

Middle school kids love doing this. It’s twisted enough to interest them and it feels a little bit naughty to pull (or hammer) toys apart. It’s appealing because they get to do all sorts of things that they aren’t allowed to do at home – cut the toy’s hair, pull off their arms, apply glue to their faces. Even though they have permission to do this while making Frankentoys, they feel like they are getting away with something. Some of them actually giggle while they are working. It’s adorable.

If you’re interested in facilitating a Frankentoys making event, it’s helpful to plan ahead. I start at the beginning of October with an old and discarded toys drive. There are plenty of parents, who have toys in their play room or basement, that they can’t wait to get rid of. It’s particularly fun to have toys that move, light up or make some sort of noise and the added bonus is that these types of toys will help kids learn about electronics, too.

The only tools and materials you really need to create Frankentoys are scissors, safety goggles, a multi-bit screwdriver a hot glue gun and, of course, lots of old toys to choose from. Likely you will have kids whose first choice for taking things apart is a hammer. This is a great opportunity to teach them about the right tool for the job (hint: unless you are hammering in a nail, a hammer should not be your first choice).

Once you have collected everything that you need and you’ve introduced the concept of Frankentoys to your makers, you just need to step back and let them do their thing. Our 6th graders even made a haunted house to use to display their Frankentoys.

Cardboard Construction, Tools

Cardboard Construction and the Global Challenge

I love using cardboard in my makerspace. It’s the most versatile and readily available material that you can get. As anyone who has kids – and has ever brought home something in a giant box knows – it can be used for play, for hours. You can also get incredibly sophisticated with it. People have made amazing things out of cardboard, such as a working electric car, furniture and full-sized Iron Man sculpture.

I think of the Fall as prime cardboard construction season since this is when the Global Cardboard Challenge takes place.  The challenge was inspired by a kid named Caine who created an entire arcade in his dad’s auto shop. The Global Challenge is now a worldwide celebration of making. It can also be used as a fundraiser for charities, if you want it to.

With past schedules, I’ve been able to involve the entire 5th grade in creating objects with cardboard for the challenge. The light box below is one example. Since there are around three hundred 5th graders, I had them work in teams. Even in teams, with that many students, there was cardboard on pretty much every surface of the media center! It was a worthwhile mess – it fostered team-building, creativity,  kinesthetic learning and imagination. In addition, the students are always very excited to share what they have made and it’s a great introduction to makerspace.

In order to help the students create cool things, without injuring themselves, I have them use Makedo Tools.  These tools are made specifically for cardboard construction and it’s almost impossible to hurt yourself while using them, although the tools take a bit of strength to use with thicker pieces of cardboard. I found the tools a little confusing when I first got them, so I created a video, Using Makedo Tools, to help anyone else who might need it.

The book that I mention in the video, Build and Manage a Makerspace for Kids, is still in process. When I have a firm publication date, I will post it here first! In the meantime…happy building.


Working light box created by students for the Cardboard Challenge.