Why Unit Blocks?
Our first block purchase was the Grimm’s LSP.
The 4cm-scale set is recommended often in the play community–it's vibrant and beautiful. However, we quickly realized that 100 blocks of similar shapes and various colors can only be used to make so much. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great set that can be used to create many things. However, if you want to add a variety of shapes you will need to buy an entire 17x17 inch set to accompany the 100 pillars. Between cost, space issues, and the inability to buy a few blocks at a time, I started to look for alternatives.
I decided to buy our first affordable set of unit blocks as a test for my youngest daughter’s first birthday. My 3-year-old quickly gravitated to this set. It allowed her to make more interesting structures. She paired it with the LSP and would play for long (for a 3-year-old) stretches of time.
That said, the quality was terrible and they were full of wood filler. With a child who would inevitably put these in her mouth, I set out to replace them with an alternative unit block brand. I bought samples from several well-known unit block companies to compare their quality. They are a financial investment and I planned to grow our collection over time–I wanted to make sure we went with the best blocks for our family.
We are very happy with our choice but I wanted to share some thoughts on the samples I received. If you're going down the same road I was, I hope this can save you time and money.
Unit Block Brand Comparison
The brands I compared are Amazon, Barclay, Beka, Community Playthings, Everwood Friends, Guidecraft, Lakeshore, Melissa & Doug, and Plan Toys. If you want a quick reference, download the overview chart or shape selection chart to see a side-by-side comparison.
This set is labeled as a unit block and their blocks are not standard unit block sizes–they're significantly smaller. The units do not align within their set. For example, two quarter units do not combine to make a full half unit block. Half unit triangles do not align with the other half unit blocks.
They offer 70 standard-unit building blocks in different shapes, with no open stock options. Their blocks are made of FSC-certified, 100% natural beech wood (no paint or lacquer) and their sets include a cloth bag with carrying handles. Beech is a hardwood, but softer than hard maple. Over time, it will show dings more than the hard maple unit blocks but less than rubberwood.
Conclusions: If you are looking for a large number of blocks at a low price point, with no intentions of expanding your collections with other brands, this may be your set. However, if you have a child that appreciates blocks aligning and working well with other brands of unit blocks, I would avoid this set.
Barclay Wood Toys and Blocks, Inc. was established in 1999 and sells about four million blocks a year. They are located in Indiana and use hard maple sourced in the USA. Their blocks are tested by an independent laboratory.
Barclay offers an enormous selection of open stock blocks, which I can appreciate and found overwhelming at the same time. I find that not being able to see a physical picture of each block in their open stock catalog makes it hard for me to visualize how we would use many of their shapes within our collection. The hard maple will withstand wear and tear better than beech or rubberwood. However, I found their triangles to be a little too undersized and their edges to be slightly rough. Their larger construction blocks are glued together, unlike some of the other brands compared. Ultimately these are high-quality blocks that likely won't disappoint if you have the patience to comb through their site.
Conclusion: If you want the largest selection of open stock blocks and don't care about undersized triangles and blocks that are glued together, this may be your brand.
BEKA, Inc. is a specialty manufacturer, producing high-quality wood products for over forty-five years in their family-owned St. Paul, Minnesota workshop. The BEKA name is also known for their weaving and knitting tools, easels, puppet theaters, unit blocks, and other creative play products.
Beka blocks have a lot more character compared to the other brands. Overall, many of their blocks are darker. In the assortment I received, their triangles were noticeably darker than their unit block. In my opinion, their triangles were tiny and their open stock selection was on the lean side. The blocks are made of hard maple, so they will withstand wear and tear better than other wood types. Overall the blocks are well made but have a slightly rough texture with rounded edges.
Conclusion: If you're looking for blocks with more character don't need a large variety of shapes, this may be your brand.
In 1947, a small cooperative community in rural Georgia was looking for a way to pay the bills. A teacher from Caroline Pratt’s City and Country School in Manhattan introduced Pratt’s modular Unit Block design, and Community Playthings was born.
These blocks are beautiful, well-sanded, and have a decent weight to them. They are made of hard maple and will withstand rough play. The first thing I noticed was the variety of grain that differed within the 4 unit blocks I received. However, their shape offerings are limited. You have to purchase a minimum of 4 blocks at a time from open stock (shipped free), but they are on the pricey side.
If you are looking for a high-quality block and don't mind the price tag and limited shape offering, this may be your brand.
Everwood Friends was established in 2010 after years of searching to find the perfect toys and baby products for the children in their lives, but never finding quite what they had in mind. Their blocks undergo 25 steps before they land in a customer's hand and are made from North American Hard Maple that is locally and sustainably sourced. All of their blocks are third-party lab tested for safety and are CPSC compliant.
The first thing you will notice when you touch these blocks is how incredibly smooth they feel. Their colors, sanding and craftsmanship are very consistent across the board. They will often throw "imperfects" in with your order and you may never understand why they call them "imperfect" blocks. They offer several product extensions that include gem blocks, ball run blocks, learning resources, and games.
If you are looking for a high-quality brand that provides a large selection of shapes, product extensions, and a brand that can grow with your children, this is your brand.
Guidecraft was founded by Fred Fein in 1966 in a woodshop in New York State. In the 1980s the company was expanded to encompass consumer toys and furniture, along with an ever-growing portfolio of toys and furniture for the education market.
Their blocks are made of rubberwood, which is significantly softer than hard maple and beech. Because of this, it will show more wear over time. Guidecraft only offers their unit blocks in 5 sets, without an open stock option. Their shape offerings are more limited in comparison to the other brands. However, they offer some interesting product extensions, such as block buddies and unit block ball runs.
If you are looking to only buy sets and don't have a preference on wood type, this may be your brand.
Lakeshore has been developing products since 1988. To ensure quality and safety, every product they carry undergoes an average of more than one hundred hours of development and testing before it reaches our customers.
Their unit blocks are backed by a 50-year guarantee. Each block is made of solid hardwood maple, kiln-dried, sanded, and beveled. The wood type will withstand years of play. Their blocks are smooth and consistent and they offer blocks in open stock. You will have to pay to ship each time and their shapes are limited. I did notice the edges are more rounded than any other brand and their end grain is slightly rough compared to the rest of the smooth block.
If you're looking for a simple classroom set that is built to last, this is your brand.
Melissa and Doug
Melissa & Doug is an American manufacturer of children's toys, including puzzles, arts & crafts products, and other educational toys. The company was founded in 1988 by Melissa and Doug Bernstein in their basement and in Doug's parents' garage. All products are designed at its Wilton, Connecticut headquarters by a team led by Melissa. The company has factories in the U.S. and abroad with about 1,000 employees worldwide.
Their rubberwood blocks are only offered in one 60-piece set without open stock options. Rubberwood will show dings and dents easier than maple or beech. The blocks within that set I received are slightly inconsistent with sanding, grain, routing, and sizing. Some blocks contained visible wood filler and considerable rough patches. Their set comes with a convenient wood box to organize the blocks. For the price, there is a good variety of block shapes provided. They are a great starter set. But, be warned – if you try to add another brand to the mix, you will instantly notice the quality differences on feel alone.
If you want a solid low-budget introductory set and are not too picky on quality, this may be your brand.
In 1981, seven university graduates came together with a shared mission of infusing the world with positivity. Vitool Viraponsavan, one of the strongest voices of the group, went on to establish PlanToys®. Today, PlanToys has branched out to Asia, America, Europe, and Australia – bringing optimism, creativity, and a passion for sustainability to communities all over. The fusion of these three things is also known as their “Sustainable Way,” which further includes our use of sustainable materials, manufacturing methods, and mindset.
Their unit blocks consist of 11 different shapes with more angular edges. Plan toys blocks come in painted and unpainted sets, with 2 set sizes to choose from. Their unpainted set have a non-toxic coating that makes them feel slightly slick. They do not have open stock options, but their blocks are very consistent and have a nearly right-angle edge.
If you're looking for a painted set and don't care too much about shape variety, this is your brand.
In the end, shape selection, wood type, and quality played a big role in my final selection. I wanted to make sure our blocks looked great after years of play and would continue to grow with my kids as their interests changed.
I ultimately decided to build our collection of Everwood Friends blocks. Beyond my initial reasons for selecting this brand, I have grown to appreciate their amazing customer service, fast free shipping, and their ever-expanding brand extensions that keep us coming back for more. Their recent ball run blocks release have been a hit with both of my kids.
If you are thinking about starting a unit block collection, here are my recommendations based on what may be most important to you:
Best Brand for Classroom Use: Lakeshore
Best Budget Set: Melissa & Doug
Best Brand for Product Extensions: Everwood Friends
Best Brand for Shape Selection: Barclay
Best Brand to Grow with Your Family: Everwood Friends
Best Overall: Everwood Friends