In the world of unexpectedly useful items, there's a definite place for Popsicle sticks and their near kin, tongue dispensers, "craft" sticks and coffee stirrers. Many of those uses are craft-oriented — that's how we came to have craft sticks in the first place — but often, they're useful in practical ways that aren't especially obvious. Here are a few outstanding examples.
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1. Handy Utensils
In a pinch, the handy flat sticks can serve as a full set of cutlery. They're excellent spreaders for jam and peanut butter, especially for little ones who want to assert their independence but aren't old enough yet for a knife. The flat sticks also work well as spoons for ice cream, puddings and dips, or even oatmeal. If you have a pocketknife, you can even cut a V into one end to improvise a disposable fork. Be careful in choosing your sticks, though: Tongue depressors, coffee stir sticks and real Popsicle sticks are all acceptable, but "craft sticks" may not be food safe and shouldn't go into your food or your mouth.
2. Stir Paint
Popsicle sticks are handy for stirring up small quantities of paint when you're entertaining kids on a rainy day, but have you considered their usefulness when you're painting around the house? Matching the exact shade you used in a given room can be difficult after the passage of a few years, when you don't remember any more where you got it or what it was called. To bolster your memory, dip a Popsicle stick in each paint you use. Once it's dry, write the name and brand of the color (and the manufacturer's number for it, if possible) on each stick. Store them in a safe spot until they're needed.
3. Fire Starters
There are lots of ways to start a fire, but one of the most reliable is to take something dry and flammable, and give it a thin coating of paraffin or other wax. The wax lights easily and burns beautifully (that's why it's used in candles) and as a bonus, it waterproofs your new fire starter. Popsicle sticks, or larger craft sticks or tongue depressors, are an ideal candidate for dipping. They're sturdier and burn longer than matches, so they'll give your fire a better starting point. Make them up in quantity ahead of time, and use them whenever you're camping or want to light your fireplace or wood stove.
4. Emergency Temporary Splint
Ideally, if you ever break or seriously sprain a finger or toe, medical help will be close by. If that's not the case and you need to find a first-aid option until you get to the emergency room, popsicle sticks can be a good choice. Use one to splint a small finger or toe, or two taped together to provide better support for a thumb or forefinger. Cut them to length — or have someone do it for you, if it's your injury — and then wrap it with tape, gauze or a stretch bandage to hold it in place and immobilize the injured digit.
5. Wobbly Furniture Stabilizers
In an ideal world, every piece of furniture would be perfectly plumb and square, and sit sturdily on a perfectly level floor. In the real world neither of those things is necessarily true, and sometimes you'll need to shim a piece of furniture to keep it stable and keep it from rocking. Store-bought shims are often too large for this delicate balancing act, but Popsicle sticks (or wider "craft" sticks) work beautifully. Their long, narrow shape is perfect for shimming bookcases and storage shelves, or cut sections from the stick to place under table and chair legs.
6. DIY Stand for Phones or Tablets
Smartphones and tablets are wonderfully versatile entertainment devices, but some situations bring out their limitations. If you're trying to do something with your hands while watching a video, for example – a common dilemma when you've looked up a "how-to" clip – it's difficult to manage the phone. Leaning the phone up against the nearest object sometimes works, but more often doesn't. Creating a stand from Popsicle or craft sticks is an easy solution. You can find several designs online, from simple easel types to more elaborate platforms, and most require just a handful of sticks and a few drops of glue.
7. Track Your Plants or Garden Beds
Popsicle sticks and their kin are also useful in the garden. If you start plants indoors to get a jump on the season, write the name of each cultivar on the sticks and insert them into the appropriate starter pots. It's a useful way to tell similar plants apart, especially when they're newly sprouted and less recognizable. You can do the same in your garden beds, using the sticks to identify the seeds planted in each row until they're old enough to assume their mature appearance. They can even support delicate seedlings during transplanting and hardening off, if you use a piece of string or twine to gently secure the tender stem to the stick.
8. Make Decor for a Doll House or Your House
Popsicle sticks are super-handy for crafts, and they're especially good as a way to improve your dollhouse game. Painted or stained, they can become anything from siding to roof shingles to rustic "barn boards" and furniture. They work pretty well as decor in your real house, as well. A miniature barn door made from stained sticks and then hand-decorated makes a fine wall hanging, or you can even stencil them with elaborate designs or inspirational sayings. You can even build a whole structure, like a birdhouse, out of Popsicle sticks. Stack the sticks log cabin-style and glue the corners to make a sturdy box, then make flat "rafts" of sticks for the halves of your roof.
9. Colorful DIY Bracelets
Wood is usually treated as a rigid material, but if you've ever watched trees blow in the wind you'll know that it also has a bit of flex. You can accentuate wood's natural bendability by steaming or boiling it, which is how everything from wooden skis to bentwood rockers get their shape. You can do the same with Popsicle sticks for little wrists or oversized craft sticks or tongue depressors for grownups. Boil the sticks until they're soft, then curl them into a small cup or mason jar to make the bracelet shape. Let the bracelets dry completely for a couple of days, then decorate them with pain, lacquer or stickers and seal them with a clear coat or craft glue.
10. Give Them to Your Birds
Birds are just as prone to boredom as any other pet, and they appreciate toys to play with and gnaw on. For larger parrots and their kin, a heavy wood dowel makes a pretty good chew toy. For smaller birds, like budgies or cockatiels, a Popsicle stick or wooden coffee stirrer is a more appropriate size. Attach one periodically to the side of the cage with a twist-tie, or dangle one from the top with a piece of string, and watch as your feathered friend happily turns it to sawdust over a period of a few days.