Jenga is a Swahili word meaning “to build,” and the name of my favorite game. It’s a game that requires thoughtful decision making and dexterity. Do you remember how to play? Once the tower of small blocks is created, each player must remove a block, and then place that block on top of the tower in the same crisscross way the tower was built. This creates a progressively taller but less stable structure. One bad decision or unsteady hand and boom – the tower collapses!
It makes sense that we at Habitat for Humanity would love a game whose name means “to build.” After independent affiliates sprouted in the United States, the first place that Habitat for Humanity International built houses was in Zaire, where Swahili is one of the major languages. Here at Habitat for Humanity of Kanawha & Putnam, in addition to building houses, we decided to build a jumbo Jenga!
This project is simple and inexpensive, but it does require the use of a chop or radial arm saw. These saws can be expensive and a little scary. If you don’t own one, maybe you can “contract” the cutting from a friend or loved one. Here’s what you’ll need to DIY Jumbo Jenga.
• (7) 2x4x8 Pre-cut studs
• Measuring tape and pencil
• Chop saw or radial arm saw
• Protective glasses
• Sanding block or electric sander
Be prepared to spend a good amount of time in the lumber yard choosing your 2x4s. It is important that the pieces you select are very straight and free of large scars. It is a little more expensive to purchase pre-cut studs instead of regular dimensional lumber, but it is worth it. Studs are straighter. Hold each piece out directly in front of you and look down the length (supporting the other end on the floor, creating a triangle with your body and the lumber). Discard any lumber with bowing. Carpenters call this procedure “crowning” the lumber.
Mark your lumber in 10.5” sections. This dimension will ensure that your jumbo Jenga is square. Keep in mind that it may be necessary to cut off rugged ends. When all pieces are marked, chop your 2×4s into 54 pieces. Make sure you have a sharp blade to reduce splintering. Wear those safety glasses! Jenga is much harder to win if you are missing an eyeball.
ReStore Tip: When using a chop saw or radial arm saw to cut the same length piece over and over again, use a “stop” (sometimes called a “jig”). A stop is a block of wood fastened securely at a precise distance from the saw blade that eliminates the need for measuring each piece, and reduces the probability of errors. Simply put the end of the stud firmly against the stop and each cut will be exactly the same length.
You must sand all 54 pieces. It takes longer than you’d imagine. The idea is to get the sides all smooth enough that they slide when you’re playing Jenga. Use a progression of sandpapers, starting with 80 grit and working your way down to 220 grit for the final sanding. How much time you want to put into sanding is up to you, but the more you sand the smoother the blocks will be, and the better they will slide out of the stack. When they’re all sanded, wipe them down with a damp cloth to get the sawdust off.
The options for decorating your jumbo Jenga are endless. Go for the traditional look by staining your lumber with redwood color water-based stain (oil-based stain will make the blocks to sticky to slide easily). Go halfsies by dividing the blocks in two and applying your favorite colors (I suggest green and white, but I know most of your prefer blue and gold). I chose to maintain the natural integrity of the wood in case jumbo Jenga gets old and we decide to resell the scrap lumber at the ReStore.
There are other great ways to customize your jumbo Jenga. Turn it into a giant truth or dare game by writing ridiculously personal questions and outlandish dares on each piece. Use it as a learning lesson for the kiddos by printing states on the blocks and requiring a capital proclaimed with each extracted block. And on the other side of the spectrum, I can’t imagine it would be hard to turn your Jenga into a drinking game. Give yourself some future flexibility by applying removable labels to the blocks instead of writing instructions directly onto the pieces.
I plan to use our jumbo Jenga as a teambuilding game for ReStore staff and volunteers by applying fun get-to-know-you questions on each piece. Questions like “If you had to eat a worm, how would you cook it?” or “Would you rather be a giant rodent or a tiny elephant?” Real thought provoking stuff! To start each team member’s turn, he or she must read a question to the person on their left. The person on the left must reply before the reader can pull his or her block. It’s sure to be a good time!