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How Clean Driftwood & Collect it Sustainably

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In this article, I’ll share how I collect, deep clean, and dry driftwood in a homemade kiln to make it safe for indoor decor or play, plus tips on gathering driftwood legally- come along with me as I create and clean a driftwood sculpture set for my niece and nephew.

I live in Seattle, but my nieces and nephews live in Dallas. The distance is difficult, but one way I stay connected is by letting them in on bits and pieces of my life – including my adventures on the Pacific Northwest beaches of the Puget Sound.

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

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

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).

Beachcombing for a Driftwood Toy Set

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.
Sleeve of moonsnail 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 freshwater, 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. By playing with kids in a free-form, asymmetrical playset, adults can see into a child’s world a little more clearly. By paying attention to what gets made, what gets destroyed, what gets separated, and what gets put together in that play environment, adults can get a read on their kids in a way that is impossible with conversation alone.

Supplies Needed to Create this Beachwood playset

  • 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

Age Appropriate Sensory Play Kits

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 organic 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, rocks, shells, and sea glass to create organic, beach-inspired sand tray kits for my colleagues in child development with sand trays in their office. The natural materials help create a mature and sophisticated stylish look in an office sand tray that manufactured items don’t always replicate.

How to Clean Beachcombed Driftwood

The vast majority of beachcombing treasures have already 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 play.

Note: Discard any driftwood pieces that have a film or stickiness on the surface, as this indicates the wood may be treated lumber or creosote-coated wood.

Driftwood makes a fun and unique building blocks set

How to Clean Driftwood

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 play or to build sculptures with! 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 driftwood needed three coats to restore a soft and smooth finish.

For longevity, use linseed oil – a natural oil preferred by woodworkers. But for general use, cooking oil works fine for this project.

Package, gift, and play

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 will vary 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 considered to be 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.