I found this blog post on The Kavanaugh Report. She's got some killer ideas. This was just too good to pass up.
The basic instructions are in that blog post, but I wanted to share a few pointers now that I've gone through the project myself!
I went to Home Depot. They sell PVC pipe in long pieces and short pieces. The short pieces are 24 inches each. They sell wooden dowels in 48 inch pieces. Both of those items come in a ton of sizes, gradually increasing in size (and price). TIP: Get a shopping cart! You should have seen me trying to carry my decaf gingerbread latte in one hand and a bunch of pipes and dowels in my arms. Then I realized, once I cut all the pieces into smaller pieces, I was going to have FORTY pieces... A cart (or basket, if your store has those) is absolutely necessary!
Now, back to the pieces. I found that there were a lot more size options of dowels than PVC pipes. I would suggest grabbing 6 various sizes of dowels and taking them to the PVC pipe section. Then test them out! Be sure that each dowel can only fit into one PVC size (and larger) but not smaller. Otherwise, there are too many configurations of a correct answer in the finished product.
If you've got a good power saw at home, use that to cut down your pieces! We only have a hand saw, so I figured I would get the guys at the store to cut everything for me. Guess what the wood guy used to cut the dowels... a hand saw. Hey - at least I didn't have to do it. BUT a hand saw didn't give me very clean edges, so I had to sand down the ends of every little piece. No big deal - it was calming.
For the PVC pipe, they have a machine. But the PVC guy who helped me decided to use a hand tool to cut them all. That's 20 cuts, buster! I gave those two fellas a workout. (Oops.)
For the size, I knew that I wanted each piece cut into 5 smaller pieces. And I wanted to dowel to be taller than the PVC so that a little part would be exposed, for grabbing onto. That said, I didn't think it mattered that much how much taller the dowel was. I ended up going to 4.5 inches per PVC section and 6 inches per dowel section. TIP: Use a measuring tape and marker to mark 4.5 inches or 6 inches. Then once that first piece is cut, use that piece to mark the rest. Basically, the guy at the store would cut once, and I would mark off everything else. That way, he could just focus on cutting instead of pulling out the darn measuring tape each time!
Another TIP (at least for Home Depot): Make sure that you've got a barcode preserved from each original piece. The PVC pipes were marked up in multiple places with a barcode, but the dowels were only marked once. So if that one barcode got cut in half, make sure to grab a second identical one, just for scanning at the register!
When I got home, I sanded down all the wooden dowel pieces. I was going to spray paint the PVC pipe but figured the exposed markings were kind of cool. It looks homemade, and I'm totally cool with that.
I had a box from the thrift store that I've been using for something else. I always knew it would serve a better purpose: this project was it.
It took me 3 good efforts to fit all 20 PVC pipes into the wooden box, but I finally found a configuration that worked! Once I had them situated, I heated up my hot glue gun. I removed one piece at a time, glued the bottom edge, and replaced it.
It dried right away, so I played a matching game myself. While it wasn't a challenge for me (go figure), it was very satisfying the way that every piece only fit in there a certain way. Alexander hasn't quite figured out how to get all the pieces in there, and I imagine that will take him a while. But it will be a long-lasting activity in our school area. And according to the original blogger, her 4-year-old has recently taken an interest in it again. That's very reassuring that a $20 project will last me such a long time!