Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Building Blocks: A Recycler's Do It Yourself Project

As a kid Jim loved playing with those cardboard blocks with the somewhat inexplicable brick pattern printed on them (bricks made of mini bricks?). He had dreams of owning so many of them he could build a big, somewhat perilous ediface. That dream lives on today.

So, I started looking for cheap blocks to build "Ranger" (in this case- Jim) a huge collection of architectural materials. Amazon has quite a few options, but they were all too pricey for a cheapskate like me.

Google led me to the always helpful Berkeley Parents Network and their commentary on brick acquisition. Their advice on purchasing bricks through Lillian Vernon's catalog look great, but the June 1999 tip for making cardboard bricks with old milk cardboard cartons captured my imagination.

We had to buy half-gallon milk cartons because our local stores only carried organic milk in that packaging. My vegan parents had ample soy milk cartons and we love acid free orange juice (again, a beverage only sold in half gallons here).

So we rinse, cut, and wash our empty cartons, and then assemble them into individual blocks. The process is pretty easy, but cutting the cartons evenly can take a bit of technique.

Start by piercing the container on the side opposite the pour spout at approximately the location of the pour spout. This lets you have a jagged entry mark without marring the clean cut of the carton.

Cut downward at angle to sneak up on the fold line. When you reach the fold line, cut along it for a nice, even edge. It you happen to screw up an edge monumentally, make that the inside carton when you pair them.

Slide two cartons together, and presto- one water resistant building block! Soon you'll have enough for a whole playgroup. Don't like the patterns? You could cover them with contact paper or standard paper that your kids can decorate. Me- I'm lazy, so my son will get to appreciate the joy and value of reuse.

Jim recommends creasing the long sides of the carton to flatten the sides of the block- making it more stable for stacking.


Unknown said...

I'm with Jim--those cardboard blocks were my brother and my favorites growing up, my mom actually kept them and now my kids play with them at her house, but your right about the brick design..i never thought about that weird!

Kristine said...

Very, very cool. We drink all our OJ from cartons, and we could build a small house in just a couple months. LOVE this idea!

ChristieNY said...

I'd just been looking at the ones from Lillian Vernon the other day, I'm glad I held off!

Now to start saving our OJ cartons... thanks! :)

Unknown said...

We took this a step further at my preschool and used contact paper to join some of the cartons together. Four blocks (from 8 cartons) joined together make big cubes the kids love stacking into tall towers, and four in a row with wood-grain contact paper makes a 4 x 4 "timber". We made a whole set of timbers the kids use to build houses, boats, etc. they can get inside.

adrienne said...


That is SOOOO cool. GIANT BLOCKS! I need Contact Paper- STAT!


Anonymous said...

I love these! Thank you for sharing.

Is it wrong that I want to make a thousand of these to build forts with?

adrienne said...


Not at all (as long as you're not buying excess milk & juice to support your block habit).

Don't forget to ask friends and family members to save theirs too. That really speeds up the whole process. It takes a village to build a fort.

Anonymous said...

What an awesome idea. Our son is only 7 months so we'll have lots of blocks by the time he's ready.

Leighann of Multi-Minding Mom said...

Very cool! We get our milk in glass bottles, but we do buy soy milk. Looks like I have a new project!

Now where can I store them so that my husband doesn't go crazy and want to throw them away?

Anonymous said...

This is a great idea! We have about a dozen blocks so far and already I'm catching a lot of our adult visitors playing with them! One question though--What was meant by creasing the long sides for stability? I can't figure out what you mean and our towers are very tipsy (which if fun in a way but a stable building would be nice too).

Anonymous said...


After you push the blocks together, everything gets kind of rounded out making it hard to lie blocks flat against one another.

To battle this trend, start on one long edge of the cube and grip it between your thumb and forefinger near the square base (or bottom). Then pinch hard trying to make your finger and thumb touch through the cardboard. You should now see how the that little part is creased a bit. Simply do this over and over along the long edge until you reach the opposite corner that you started from.

Then repeat for the three remaining long edges.

You will now notice that the blocks lie flat against on another.

This is also a nice way to re-form blocks that get a little squished when sat or stepped on.

You can do the along the square base and top of each block. It is just a little harder.

I hope this explains it better.

If not, maybe I can have Adrienne do a post with pictures of my hands as I crease the edges of a new block.

Anonymous said...

Jim, thanks. I didn't initially understand but asked my husband what he thought you meant. Our conclusion is that you essentially take each long crease/edge/fold and try to crease it even more (on the crease/edge/fold that is already there). That seems to be doing the trick!

adrienne said...


You got it(!), that's how we crease them. We'll try and get some photos/video up in the next week (when we're done with our current large, insane project).

Anonymous said...

Thank you SO much for posting this!