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Dear Matthew Alice:

How do they make toothpicks? I asked my dad, but he doesn't know. He said to ask you.

-- Brian, age 7, San Carlos

Hi, Brian. Welcome to Matthew Alice's neighborhood. Can you say lunkhead? That's what dads are sometimes. They always know how many green things you have to eat before you can have dessert. And they can explain why you can't paint the dog. But when it comes to the good stuff, like how to make toothpicks, then their brains go as blank as a TV screen at bedtime. And that's why Matthew Alice is here.

They make toothpicks out of birch trees. They cut down a tree, take off the bark, and saw the tree into logs. If you stretch both your arms out real wide, that's about how long each log is. Then they use a big machine with a very sharp blade to peel the logs around and around, like peeling an apple with a knife. The machine peels the logs until the whole tree is turned into sheets of wood. If you look at your dad's thumbnail, that's about how thick they make each of the sheets. And now they're ready to make either round toothpicks or flat ones.

For round ones, they cut the big sheets of wood into little squares, smaller than a cracker, and dry them out in an oven. Then the squares go into another machine that rolls up each of them and squooshes them into toothpick-size sticks. Then each stick goes into another machine that's like a pencil sharpener, and it makes the ends pointy.

To make flat toothpicks, they take the wood sheets and feed them into a machine that stamps them out. It's like making cookies with a cookie cutter and rolled-out dough. Thanks for the question, Brian. Maybe someday you'll grow up to be Matthew Alice.

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