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How to Clean Driftwood in 6 Steps

In this article, you’ll learn how to collect, deep clean, and dry driftwood in a homemade kiln to make it safe for indoor decor. Come along with me as I create and clean a driftwood play set for my niece and nephew!

Step by step instructions to make this beachcombed driftwood sensory sandbox play kit - filled with organic shapes and smooth surfaces to prompt play and learning

I live in Seattle, but my nieces and nephews live in Dallas. The distance is difficult, but one way I stay connected is by sharing bits and pieces of my life – including my love for driftwood, shells, and other beachcombing treasures.

On PNW beaches, where forests flank the coast in often rugged and dramatic ways, driftwood seems almost as common as the glacial rock that lines the beach.

Why Cleaning Driftwood is Important

Listen, I love a good shortcut to a quicker, easier finished product, but you can’t decorate with dirty driftwood.

Why? Well, at best it’s got sand and dirt hidden in every crevice. At worst, those nooks and crannies are filled with biting sand gnats and their eggs. 🐜🙀

Before you can gift, decorate with, or make art from driftwood, it has to be cleaned.

How to Clean Beachcombed Driftwood

The best process for cleaning driftwood, which I’ll explain in depth later, includes:

  • Soaking driftwood in bleach water to sanitize
  • Scrubbing or blasting debris from knots and cracks
  • Drying/dehydrating the wood to prevent mold & kill any remaining organisms
  • Oiling the wood to preserve it.

The vast majority of beachcombing treasures have already been soaked in saltwater and bleached under UV light. A few extra cleaning steps will ensure the items are sanitary, free from dangerous microbes, and safe for use as home decor.

Before you Begin Cleaning Driftwood:

Before you start the cleaning process, inspect your driftwood. If any of the wood pieces have a filmy layer, a sticky or waxy texture, or smell strongly of chemicals, discard them. These are indications the wood was treated with chemicals, potentially creosote. Use these pieces of driftwood for outdoor decoration only.

Driftwood makes a fun and unique building blocks set

How to Clean Driftwood in 6 Steps

Time required: 3 days

Beachcomb for Driftwood

Driftwood gathered on the beach in the Pacific Northwest

Walk the beach and search for small, smooth pieces of driftwood, shells, or other treasures like sea glass or smooth rocks. Avoid wood that appears to have been treated or wood that is splintered, and be sure you are collecting legally.

Bleach Found Driftwood

Gather a bucket, your driftwood, and some bleach

After you’ve collected your driftwood and other beach treasures, soak your found items in a solution of bleach water for 4 to 12 hours in a shaded location. Leaving the items to soak allows the bleach to sink into the pores and kill any microorganisms.

Avoid sunlight as UV light can break down chlorine prematurely. NOTE: Driftwood will emerge lighter colored after bleaching.

Clean and Scrub

Scrubbing can remove debris that is embedded in the wood

Now, take a nail brush and vigorously scrub the surface of each piece of driftwood. The scrub helps loosen debris and remove any remaining sand. To clean crevices or knots in driftwood, use a water flossing tool to blast debris out of nook and crannies.

Dry Wood Completely

Driftwood after baking and bleaching

Essential for creating wood that is safe to store indoors, you now need to dry your waterlogged driftwood collection. Use a food dehydrator or an oven set to 110°. You’ll need to bake the driftwood for several hours, checking on it regularly.

Oil Wood

Allow the cooking oil to soak in and then repeat

Dry driftwood wood splinters- and that’s no fun to have in our homes! When your driftwood comes out of the oven after drying it will be dry and very prone to splintering. Luckily, the fix is easy: pull out some cooking oil and spray the driftwood liberally. Allow the oil to soak in, and repeat as necessary.

My clean driftwood needed three coats to restore a soft and smooth finish.

To keep your driftwood looking great longer, use linseed oil. Linseed oil is preferred by woodworkers. For general use, however, cooking oil works fine for this project.

Package or Display Cleaned Driftwood

Driftwood before cleaning

Present your beachcombed driftwood set in a drawstring bag or box. Gifted along with a sand tray, this set is the perfect gift for kids for encouraging sensory development.

Supply:

  • Bleach
  • Cooking spray

Tools:

  • Scrub Brush
  • Oven
  • Cookie Sheet
  • Bucket

Materials: Driftwood Shells Sea Glass Rocks

 Want more driftwood DIYs? Check out my tutorial on making a Driftwood Floating Shelf.

 

The legality of collecting driftwood varies by location, and it’s always a good idea to look up state laws or local ordinances before collecting wood- especially from public lands.

Here in Washington, the state Department of Natural Resources has made it clear that “Collection of driftwood and wood debris in state parks is prohibited, except where specifically permitted by a park ranger for personal firewood use.” (source) Driftwood is an important part of the habitat for oceanic and coastal creatures big and small, so it’s important to take care to preserve this habitat.

On privately owned beaches, like the one I collected this driftwood set from, driftwood is legally considered the possession of the property owner. Because of this, the best way to collect driftwood – legally- in Washington state is by permission of a beachfront property owner.

Oregon- another great spot for driftwood collecting- has a more liberal policy on driftwood. According to the forest service, small amounts of driftwood can be collected from Oregon beaches for personal use, gifts, or souvenirs.

Driftwood logs on the beach in Washington state.

How I Find Driftwood Beachcombing

The most time-consuming part of this project is finding the perfect pieces of driftwood, shells, rocks, and other items. Luckily, hours spent beachcombing are never wasted.

Sleeve of moonsnail eggs in a bed of shellfish on a Puget Sound beach.
A sleeve of moon snail eggs in a bed of shellfish on a Puget Sound beach.

As I mindfully walked the beach, beachcombing for these treasures for my niece and nephew was almost as much fun as gifting this kit to them. Although I found some amazing treasures for the sandtray kit – like a double oyster shell, gribble-bored wormwood driftwood, and a clamshell with a scar from narrowly avoiding being the dinner for a moon snail – all the things that didn’t make it in the kit were just as fun to find. During my month of daily beachcombing, I found all kinds of treasures washed up in the surf of the high tide.

By far, my favorite find was a houseplant washed up on the beach after a particularly strong autumn windstorm. Although I was certain the saltwater would kill it, after lots of flushing with fresh water, my plant thrived: becoming something of an emblem of making it through 2020.

The Value of Sensory Sand Tray Play

When I make or buy gifts for my niece and nephew, I look for gifts that promote attachment, imagination, and sensory experience. This driftwood playset ticks all of those boxes if used well.

In my professional life, I consult on child development regularly- so choosing a sand tray kit for my niblings was no accident. Sensory play is important. Sensory play has an important role in healthy brain development in young kids (source) – especially for kids growing up with often very digital experiences. The act of touching, stacking, tumbling, and hands-on experience with organic shapes like driftwood softened by years in the water can actually help young brains locate themselves in space.

A combination of wood and shells creates visual interest
Organic shapes can inspire creativity in a way that angles do not.

This driftwood playset, like my felt food patterns, promotes unscripted play. Unscripted play is free-form. Character-branded toys and even generic toys like swords or dolls have a certain “right” and “wrong” way to play with them.

In contrast, natural objects in a neutral environment like a sand tray have no right or wrong way to play with them. Playing with kids in a free-form, asymmetrical playset allows adults to see a child’s world a little more clearly.

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Supplies Needed to Create a Driftwood Decor, Art, or Play Set.

  • Driftwood – Small pieces of smooth and well-tumbled driftwood ranging from 2 inches to 8 inches – legally & sustainably collected. If you can’t find driftwood locally, driftwood vase filler works.
  • Sea Shells – Leave out any shells that are sharp or brittle, to make the set safe and fun to play with. Instead, choose thick shells worn smooth by sand and tides.
  • Sea glass – Large pieces are better. If you can’t find big sea glass on a real beach, you can make your own sea glass at home and control the size of the pieces.
  • Smooth Rocks – – although my kit omitted rocks (a consequence of planning to ship the kit cross-country) rocks can be an interesting addition. Tumble rocks in a rock tumbler for a polished finish.
  • IMPORTANT: Even if your child is old enough to keep toys out of their mouth, choose larger pieces in order to avoid a choking hazard in case a younger sibling plays with the toy. Test parts to determine if they are a choking hazard with a small parts tester.
  • Drawstring bag – A mesh drawstring bag provides a way to organize and store the kit- plus an easy way to sift sand off the treasures while collecting or playing.

Safety and age appropriateness for this homemade toy:

Check out the American Academy of Pediatrics choking prevention guidelines for appropriate sizes for toys in order to prevent a choking hazard.

Package your beach themed playset in a mesh bag

Making a Play Kit with Cleaned Driftwood

In 2020, I knew that I wouldn’t get to see my niece and nephew for Christmas. But I found myself passing much of the pandemic as a guest in a house directly on a Puget Sound beach. I cherished my daily walk on the beach, out on a spit jutting out into the water. When Christmas came, I wanted to share something of that experience with my niece and nephew.

That’s when I came up with the idea of a sensory sculpture-building sand tray that would feature the objects and textures I loved from that experience beachcombing in the PNW: smooth driftwood, pearly tumbled shells, sea glass, and smooth tumbled glacial rocks (although the latter ingredient was, ultimately, scrapped to save weight when I began planning to ship the toy set across the country).

Sensory and sculpture-building play kits are most appropriate for ages 4-6, when kids are most open to learning about the world around them through play and touch. However, this kit can be an appropriate gift for any age- even adults!

When I created and packaged this driftwood play kit for my niece and nephew, I posted photos on social media where many of my adult followers requested their own kit! Although this beach-themed playset was designed for kids, the sophisticated ruggedness of driftwood and natural shapes make it appropriate for sophisticated adult spaces. In fact, after finishing this set for my niece and nephew, I began immediately collecting more driftwood to clean. Clean driftwood helps create a mature and sophisticated look in a home or office as decoration.