How To Build A Sandbox: Part 1

Building Clara a sandbox has been a project that was nearly a year in the making. Just check out this post about her first birthday party from last May (yes, our girl is a month away from being TWO). So much for “any day now.”

My excuse, well, our excuse is that we couldn’t figure out where we wanted it. We debated building one on wheels that could sit in the middle of the patio when in use (and be pulled out of the way and stored at all other times), but with so much land around us it felt like we should just find a permanent spot for one instead of making an eternally-rolling-around sandbox. I guess we just couldn’t commit to a spot, so Project Sandbox went on an 11 month hiatus. Although the play sand that we had already started stocking did come in handy when sandbagging our basement when Hurricane Irene swept through in August. Though it mostly just sat in a sad pile in the backyard… a symbol of a broken promise. Picture a single tear sliding down my cheek as I say that.

But our recent outdoor projects have given us renewed energy to actually get this baby done. More specifically, while tidying up the patio we uncovered the perfect sandbox spot. It had been hiding behind the now-deceased-and-therefore-removed rhododendron which made way for what is now a nice big open area that’s partially shaded by a pretty dogwood tree and adjacent to the patio. We instantly thought “hey, we could add a few stepping stones to lead Clara right to it from the patio, and it’ll be nice to have it placed within our small fenced-in side yard.” So we mulled it over for a little while longer and then decided that we weren’t getting any younger (nor was Clara) and this was THE place. Sold.

 

It might look like a small cramped corner of the side garden, but it’s actually a nice level 7 x 7′ area – perfect for housing something functional and fun for the bean.

Now we just had to figure out how we wanted to create this thing. I turned to Pinterest (yes, even I go to Pinterest sometimes even though I don’t have an account myself) for inspiration. There were lots of cute, ingenious, and creative incarnations of sandboxes – some very intricate, some pretty straightforward, all proof that there’s more than one way to skin this kitty. Here are some of our favorites: Dana Made It, Small & Friendly, Modern Parents Messy Kids, and Dover Projects.

I knew I wanted something pretty uncomplicated. I’m great at making things harder on myself than necessary, so I was determined not to make a simple sandbox more intricate (or stressful) than it needed to be. But, you’ll see as I continue this post that I was only moderately successful at this. Anyways, the first step was clearing the area of – surprise! – liriope.  Fortunately it wasn’t too thick here so it was a pretty quick task.

Based on the available space, we decided we wanted a roughly 5′ x 5′ sandbox. Not huge, but large enough that Clara and a friend/cousin or two could play without knocking heads. So I measured it out and used some orange flags that the previous owner left in the basement (they marked off our property line during closing) to mark my corners.

I then dug out the area about 6″ so that the sandbox could actually be sunk in the ground. I figured this would achieve a couple of things. For one, it would help keep the box in one place (and keep its shape). But more importantly, it would allow us to make a deep enough box to allow for some good sand-digging (Clara exhibits signs of becoming a future archeologist thanks to her extreme love of digging). Sure we could’ve just made a taller box – but we wanted the sides to be low enough that Clara could get in and out without any trouble.

The hole wasn’t perfectly level throughout, but I did want to make sure all four sides were level so that my boards would sit square and even. Speaking of the boards, these are 2 x 10″ pieces of framing lumber (the same stuff we used for our office desktop). We didn’t get pressure treated wood since we learned that a lot of it is treated with chemicals that aren’t meant for children to be in regular contact with (more on that here). So we decided regular framing lumber that we could seal for outside use would do the trick.

I bought two 10 ft pieces and had them cut into 5 ft lengths in the store (for about $17 total). We chose it because it’s thicker than your average board so I thought it’d be nice and sturdy – and maybe wide enough for a toddler’s bottom to sit on (we have both since perched our own bottoms on it and it’s not too bad, although we prefer to sit in a nearby patio chair that we just turn to face the box). We decided not to do any actual seats or overhangs for one singular reason. KILLER SPIDERS. I had distinct memories of those being incessantly creepy and spider-webby in the sandbox that I had growing up (picture thick webs with sinister eight-legged things lurking under every overhang). Plus we always just sat right inside of it and played, so they never got used.

To seal and extend the life of our framing lumber we used some waterproof deck stain on it. We picked up some basic Behr stuff at Home Depot (for about $25). We chose the “Natural” stain after opting not to paint or otherwise add color to the sandbox. We were tempted to give it a cool pattern or color (we loved the striped example from Pinterest), but we figured that effort would be lost after the general wear and tear of being outside would make it dull and dirty (we intentionally buy wood, ORB, or black outdoor furniture/planters most of the time since after a rain the dirt speckles that pop up and are visible on painted items bum us out). Plus over time this finish will match the fence we added around the patio – so it’ll hopefully just be a neutral color that repeats itself around the garden so it fits right in.

Here are the four sides all stained and drying (they’re a little orange here, but look more natural outside – especially after we spreaded some rich dark mulch around them a bit later). The four pieces in the back were some scrap framing lumber that I had from another project (our desk perhaps?) that I cut into short corner posts on my table saw.

I did two coats of the stain on all sides of them as recommended on the can and let them dry over night. Then it was time to start assembling things so it no longer looked like I was digging a grave for a very skinny and very box-y creature.

Before installing the boards, I put down some Weed Block as a base. This would help block weeds (duh) while also creating a barrier between the sand and the dirt. Although we made a sandbox cover, we wanted to be sure to use something that allowed air and especially moisture/water to pass through so that our sandbox didn’t get all clammy. In most cases, breathable = infinitely less nasty.

I had lots of leftover Weed Block from an old mailbox project so I laid two layers (going opposite directions) to help minimize sand-to-dirt contact. I held it down in the corners with some garden staples.

As far as construction, I ended up mimicking the design of Modern Kids Messy Parents‘ sandbox the most – thought instead of building my box and laying it into the hole, I built mine in place (I worried about being able to maneuver the already-constructed box as easily).

The basic system here is that I dug a stake into each corner. They were only 4 or 5″ inches into the ground, so ultimately they didn’t provide that much stability (that instead came from the boards themselves). So mainly the stakes were just helpful in providing a common place for each board to be attached.

After digging each stake in (and packing some dirt around it before recovering the area with Weed Block) I used a square ruler to make sure my corners were 90-degrees.

Then I drilled in some 2.5″ exterior decking screws – one from the outside and one from the inside – to attach the board to the stake.

It wasn’t the fastest system in the world, I’ll admit (since there was lots of triple checking level and square corners) but I slowly started to get what looked like a sand box. Minus the sand.

Here’s the completed box. I was DYING to just dump sand into it and invite Clara out to play, but there was still more to do to make sure it was toddler-ready. Sigh.

First I had to backfill the sides with dirt so that there wasn’t a moat around the edge. You’ll also note in this picture that I placed the board on top of the Weed Block fabric (see it peeking out there). That was to help it stay in place even better.

Here it is with dirt all filled in around it. Of course now it looks like it’s begging for sand inside and mulch outside. That would still have to wait because there’s still one more critical element to this sand box…

…A COVER! You know to keep neighborhood cats from thinking it’s a giant litter box. And to keep birds from dropping some presents if they’re flying by. But not just any cover. One with hardware that hinges open and can be secured so we don’t worry about Clara pulling it closed on herself. Yup, Sherry and I did some brainstorming, and we had some fun coming up with a cover that adds safety and function to the whole shebang. And since this post is already too long, I’m gonna put the details about making the cover in a second post for you this afternoon. Hence the title of The Sandbox Chronicles. It’s not quite Narnia, but it’s a heartwarming story of a girl and her toy trucks.

You’re probably already getting a sense that I made it more complicated than it needed to be (you’d be right), but ultimately we’re really happy with how it all turned out. And since I feel bad about writing a whole post with no shots of the sandbox actually in use, how’s this for a sneak preview?

Anyone have any sandbox stories / memories / projects to share with the group? I know I loved mine growing up, but Sherry didn’t have one so I wonder if they’re a regional thing. Have you taken 11 months to get something done that you thought was “just around the corner?” Let’s commiserate.

Psst- We had fun weighing in on some open shelving pro/con chatter over here.

Pssssst- To read The Sandbox Chronicles in their entirety, here’s Part 2 (about building the lid which secures to the fence for safety reasons) and Part 3 (about swapping what we found out was “bad sand” for pea gravel).

Comments

  1. says

    This is stinkin’ cute! I know she loves it! It’s actually nostalgic for me too! My dad built me a sandbox and playground set when I was little and I actually got to help him plan it and design it when I was like 4 or 5. I loved it! I guess maybe that’s a small part of why I love DIY so much!

  2. says

    I, too, had a sandbox without a lid and don’t ever remember there being a problem. But, it is pretty amazing of how I never got sick or found any animal “surprises” in there. I loved that thing! Definitely not regional, though. I grew up about an hour north of NYC. Mine even had little triangle seats in each corner and was stained with a redwood color stain. :)

  3. silke says

    looks great! can’t wait to see the entire reveal and clara’s happy little face!

    if we’ve ever taken 11 months to tacke projects we thought we’ll just do any time now??? oh boy. how many do you want me to name? waiting an entire 3 years until we finally repainted the too-dark living room? check. living with an approx. 80 year old dining table as an interim desk for nearly 5 years before we built a very simple one ourselves – check. it is embarassing. and now that it’s done we’re a) so proud and b) thinking why on earth we didn’t do this any sooner…

    but you know what? I’m relieved to read that you, too, procrastinate sometimes, or that the odd project is less of a success than you’d thought (the outdoor string lights with that gorgeous picture of Sherry holding the… erm… sad little constructions). or the “real sherdog” posting. otherwise I’d think you guys are perfect. and as we know, perfection is not nearly as charming…

    love from germany,
    silke

    • says

      Haha, aw thanks Silke! It’s so funny how we finally get things done and in hindsight we have no excuse for putting them off that long, except that life happens and things just get put on the backburner. Happens every time! Haha.

      xo,
      s

  4. Rebecca says

    My sandbox as a child had a ladder to a deck build above it. Then that was framed in and had a slide down from the top. Lots of fun. Maybe something you can add in the future when the Bean is ready for a little backyard playground of her own.

  5. heather says

    We definitely had a sandbox as a kid and it was awesome! My parents got rid if it though the day we dug up cat crap. Or maybe once they realized there was no way to keep it clean because the top kept coming off. Or something. All I know is we had it, and then we didn’t. Maybe it broke (it wasn’t wood). Hahaha. While we did have it though – super fun town!

    • says

      and (forwarning) if you have the stomach for it – I just happened to put up a post yesterday about our giant litter box from when we moved in. Read at your own risk. I wouldn’t tell my husband what “retro” post I was putting up and when he read the conversation went,
      “You might have to take this down”
      “Why?”
      “No one will ever read your blog again”
      “It’s funny. I mean, it’s not. But it is.”
      “It’s disgusting”
      “I know. People will still read it. I’m just keeping it real”
      “I think this is a little too real”
      “It’s staying up”
      “You’re gross”.

      Bahahahah

      http://www.likeacupoftea.com/retro-post-i-hope-you-have-a-strong-stomach/

    • says

      Wow- that is amazing. That story needed to be told. And oh my gosh- your hubby is my hero! I would bake him an apple pie but I’m not sure how the scent would go over… and also I can’t bake an apple pie.

      xo,
      s

    • says

      Haha he can handle apple baked goods. Just not fake scented apple stuff like candles/spray/etc – and oddly it’s a very specific fake apple scent too. Like the fall apple spice scent.

  6. Stephanie says

    We had a swingset/sandbox pit growing up, so it couldn’t be covered up. But, I don’t remember many spiders or cat or bird poop. I just remember building forts and construction sites that I drove my matchbox cars all over. Great memories!!!

  7. Kristina says

    I love it! We actually went and bought lumber last weekend, because our little Madisen (2.5 yr old) gets her sandbox this weekend (after being really good and going to bed when she is suppose to this week.) Oh, and we are going to be putting seats on the corners because our daughter wants to put spiders in her sandbox (hopefully no killer ones!) She is so excited, thanks for the post!

  8. says

    “a symbol of a broken promise”
    Classic.
    My parents built us an awesome fort when I was a kid. Two stories, and the first story was a giant sandbox. It was completely shaded by the floor above, and completely awesome. I played in it all the time. My poor Barbies got very, very dirty.

  9. says

    We had a sandbox at our cabin and it was amazing. It wasn’t too large but we could fit about 8-10 cousins in there. We used it for years, even as teenagers. I remember one day we all spent hours building this elaborate castle and decorated it with the little plastic army men. We also buried those firecrackers that are all linked together into the castle. After everything was built we lit the fuse and it was glorious.

    I hope Clara loves her sandbox! I’m building one for my son this summer so I’ll be back for notes!

  10. Sarah A. says

    I grew up in New England and my engineer father built my sisters and me a sandbox right outside the back door: you could jump from the porch railing right into it (not that I ever did that…). We loved it. The sides were cement blocks covered by red wood planks (we did sit on them to play in the sand) and no cover – and back then there were many cats roaming around, and I never recall one using our sand box. It stayed there until after all three of us had graduated from college, and then suddenly the porch was redone with steps down the side and the sandbox was gone!

  11. says

    This is such a cool sandbox. Clara is going to have so much fun! I had a green plastic turtle sandbox growing up. It is now burried in my parents backyard. I remember my daycare had a huge one though. It was wooden and has a canopy overhead. I am pretty sure it had a place for te spiders to hang out though.

  12. Julie says

    I grew up with a sandbox–it was an old tractor tire filled with sand! I remember the tire would get HOT in the summer but I still played in it quite a bit. Can’t wait to see the final photos!

    • LauraC says

      Hey, I was going to say I had an old, HUGE tractor tire for a sand box for a few years (it was in Scotland, on a farm, hence the tire). Thought I was the only one, nice to see I wasn’t!

      My husband built a 4’x4′ sandbox last year for the kiddos, and I cannot even begin to describe how much time they have spent in it. Best. play. thing. ever. Perfect for imagination, creativity, etc. We don’t have a cover on ours, but with Mocha (our fireball dog) in the backyard, we’ve never had problems with cats, and rain is great – you can only build with wet sand, not dry; the top dries pretty quickly, then you have lots of good wet sand underneath!