My nephew Nathan loves trucks. Obviously, he needed a sandbox to use his trucks in. So I decided to build him one for Christmas.


My main goal was, of course, to build a functional sandbox that Nathan would enjoy playing in. My secondary goal was to build a bizarre sandbox that would amuse me and confuse his friends’ parents.

In researching sandboxes on the internet, I learned exactly three things. One, it’s nice to have a place for grownups to sit while the kid is playing in the sand. Two, sandboxes need a cover so they don’t get soaked in the rain or used as a litterbox by local cats. Three, sandboxes need drainage for when you inevitably forget to put the cover on before it rains. (My sister, another friend, and I were discussing the sandbox project in the ladies room at an antique show. As we left the bathroom, an unknown woman in one of the stalls yelled desperately after us, “Drainage! Your sandbox needs drainage!!!”)

We decided that, based on the space available in our yard and the estimated number of children who would be playing in it, 4′ x 7′ would be the appropriate size. The design that I came up with was based on the human circulatory system. I’m not sure exactly why I thought this would be a good subject for a two-year-old’s sandbox, although Nathan actually does enjoying looking through Grey’s Anatomy, which is no doubt why I chose the cover of Grey’s Anatomy to work from. As a nod to Nathan’s interest in trucks, I made it sort of a cybernetic circulatory system, with wheels in place of the heart and a rather extraneous steering wheel.

Step one was to build a base that would allow for sufficient drainage. I used half inch plywood on a 2×4 frame, with three-sixteenth inch holes drilled in it for drainage at regular intervals.

I built the frame around the base out of 1×12, with profiles cut into it so as to suggest the shape of a man’s torso with arms out and fists pressed together. The front of the frame was formed by the forearms and fists meeting in the middle. The sides sloped up to form the upper arms. I put in plexi cutouts in the sides so I could cut away the opening under the upper arms. My hope was that this would emphasize the arm shape and provide a neat little glance into the stria of the sand in the box. The back of the frame was the actual torso, so in addition to the frame, I cut a piece of 1x to suggest a cross-section through the shoulders, which also functions as a seat.

That was all the structure I was planning, but my brother-in-law pointed out that a sandbox designed to be used with trucks really ought to include a ramp. So I came up with one that flipped in and out and cut some curves into the sides so it would look less incongruous. It wasn’t perhaps as integrated with the overall design as it might have been, but experience has proved that it was, indeed a worthwhile addition.

After a few coats of clear sealant (I had decided to stick with a natural wood look), I lined the inside of the sandbox with a couple layers of landscape cloth, so I would still have drainage without the sand leaking out the holes I had drilled. I then laid down a layer of that springy stuff that goes under carpets to keep them from sliding around. I thought this would make a nice soft bottom for the sandbox, but I had to remove it after a few months of sandbox use, because it kept collecting sand underneath it, so that the functional sand depth kept dropping.

To complete my torso concept I painted the head onto the canvas that was destined to be the underside of the sandbox cover. Instead of skin, I gave it a woodgrain effect so it would appear more continuous with the wood of the sandbox. Then, using the cover image of my Grey’s Anatomy book, I painted in veins and arteries.

Once the paint was dry, I sewed the canvas underside together with the blue vinyl I had bought for the upper side of the cover. With the lid complete, I was able to position it on the back of the sandbox. Where each painted vein or artery on the cover met the back of the sandbox, I drilled a corresponding hole through the seat and screwed in a length of plastic tubing as a continuation of the vein or artery through which sand could be poured.

The last step was adding the wheels – three in the vicinity of the heart, eight little casters indicating the fingers (which have proved to be utterly useless), and an arbitrarily placed steering wheel in the upper right arm.

As of this writing, it has now been 17 months since I made this sandbox and Nathan still plays in it literally every day, so I would say that it has been a very successful present.

Hobby Eagle

As soon as my nephew Nathan learned how to walk I decided that he was ready to fly. So for his first birthday I made him a hobby eagle. (It’s like a hobby horse, but much more cumbersome.) Being the giant Tolkien nerd that I am, I called it Gwaihir the Windlord.


In making the pattern, I tried to size it appropriately for a taller-than-average one-year-old boy. Time has proven that I, in fact, sized it appropriately for a taller-than-average three-year-old boy, which is just as well, since time has also proven that Nathan had virtually no interest in the eagle until he turned three.

For the structure I used a wooden spindle with a dowel stuck through it at a right angle for the handle. I had already decided to go with a muted palette of natural eagle-toned browns (because everyone knows that one-year-olds love subdued, tasteful colors), so I simply used a basic oak stain. I put a caster on the bottom as well because I figured that would make it easier to use for a boy too small to actually pick the whole thing up.

I then made a complete mockup of the entire fabric section out of paper. I of course made it unnecessarily complicated with layers of feathers in gradated colors and lots of alternating curves and a big gaping maw with a twisted tongue. So when it came time to sew the real thing out of fabric, I had to do a lot of hand sewing on the little fiddly bits. Then I used foam rubber to stuff the wing feathers and batting to stuff the rest of it and glued the fabric pieces onto the wooden structure.

Since I was making this in Wisconsin and my nephew lives in California, I then had to make a giant, custom-made foam core box to ship the huge thing to Nathan. I think that he found the box at least as interesting as he found the eagle.

Star Trek Uniform

We all know that all babies look like Winston Churchill. But making a Winston Churchill costume seemed too complicated, so I decided to dress my new baby nephew, Nathan, as another bald icon – Captain Picard.

Just to be clear, I didn’t deliberated make this as a Halloween costume. I made it because I thought it would be funny to dress a baby as a Starfleet Captain. It was pure coincidence that it was about the right size for Nathan to wear on his first Halloween.

I started with a pattern for pants and a long-sleeved one-sy. In the interests of comfort and ease of diapering, I went with elastic waist and ankle on the pants, rather than the slim leg with the boot slit that adult Captain Picard wears. It’s not as if Nathan was going to be wearing low-healed ankle boots with his pants. I made a mock-up of the one-sy on muslin first so that I could draw in the appropriate pattern of red and black sections, which I then cut apart and used as a pattern for cutting the real pieces. The communicator and the pips on the collar are hand-sewn.

I have a friend who was appalled that I deliberately branded my nephew as a Star Trek nerd at such a tender age. Of course, my friend is an alumna of Cal Tech, so I don’t think that she has any right to talk about anyone else’s nerdy-ness.

Stuffed Spider

When I found out that my dear friend had given birth to her son Isaac prematurely, the only thing that I could think to do with my worry for them was to make Isaac an enormous stuffed spider.

At some point I read or heard something about black and white patterns stimulating babies’ developing brains. In retrospect, I imagine that is a drastic oversimplification of someone’s preliminary research that got completely distorted in its portrayal in the popular media, much like the Mozart effect. Either that, or I just imagined that I had heard that somewhere, when, in fact, I made it up altogether.

Be that as it may, I used black and white patterns as a jumping off point. I chose to make a spider both because spiders have a lot of legs and eyes and such that I figured would be good for a baby to grab onto and because I really like spiders. I chose to make it two feet long because I always overdo these things. I chose to use various fabric textures, under the theory that someone exploring the world with his hands and his mouth would appreciate some textural options.

I decided on a black velour and two different black and white patterned cottons for the abdomen and cephalothorax. For the legs and eyes I chose eight different colorful patterned cottons plus a white vinyl.

Each of the eight eyeballs is made of pentagons assembled into a sphere, using both the colored patterned fabrics and the black and white fabric. Because the pieces were so little, it proved to be easier to hand sew them then to sew them on a machine. I think I made a blessing out of a necessity by using a thick thread so as to create textured ridges on all the seams, again, under the theory that it might be a nice touch for someone prone to chewing on things. I attached each eyeball to the cephalothorax with a length of elastic wrapped in black and white fabric, giving them some movement and bounce.

I also made big vinyl pedipalps for the front and a crazy big stinger of some kind for the back.

I believe that initially little Isaac greeted the gargantuan spider with equanimity, but I am told that it has recently been banished from his bedroom because it was inducing nightmares.