Friday, August 26, 2016

Early "custom" work.

My first wholesale customers were - in order as I recall - The Red Pony in Fairport, NY - Harmony in Wood in Pittsford, NY - Parkleigh Pharmacy in Rochester, NY. I will write more about each of these customers, and how they became customers, in another essay at some point, but for this piece I want to talk about The Toycrafter's early forays into making "custom" pieces.

The picture shows a rhinoceros that we made for Harmony in Wood.  As I recall, there were about 5 or 6 other exotic animals in the set.  The folks at Harmony in Wood told me that they had lost their supplier for some good selling wooden animal figures, and asked if we could make something similar.  The originals were silhouette shapes cut from 3/4" maple as I recall.  I cut ours from the thicker material that we had readily available, and rounded the ends over on our vertical belt sander.  This created a unique piece, but I will readily admit that this collection was certainly "inspired" by the original samples lent to me by Harmony in Wood.  As time went along, and I became more savy, I became very careful to not "copy" any designs.  In this case, I would say that we came dangerously close to the line.  More about Harmony in Wood in another essay.  Today when customers ask for what seems like a copy of another person's work, we politely indicate that we would very much like to design something of our own that would fill their need.

Another similar but more blatant story comes from my interaction with our very first wholesale customer - The Red Pony in Fairport, NY.  I'm sure the woman's name will pop into my head at some point in the future when I stop trying to remember it!  Somebody had suggested The Red Pony as a good prospect, and I knocked on her door with great excitement and trepidation (my first cold call).  She ordered about $100 dollars worth of the toys I had created, and then brought out a "Bunny Cart" that she had sold a lot of at Easter time, but her supplier had gone out of business.  (Do you see a pattern here?)  I wish I had a picture, but this takes place around 1974? or so. Photography was not as easy as today, and I did not save any samples. There was a box with about 4" dia. wheels pulled by a way too cute bunny.  I agreed to make her some bunny carts for the price she wanted, but even back then I knew I had lost money on the deal by the time I finished the two dozen Bunny Carts!  Years later I told this story to a couple of other local craftspeople who told of her doing exactly the same deal with them when they were just starting out.

Our third wholesale customer was Parkleigh Pharmacy in Rochester, NY.  I walked in with my cardboard box of samples, spread my toys out on the floor as I recall, and Bruce Kost said.  "I like them ..... give me $75 worth of your best sellers.  You know what sells better than I do."  Not one mention of anything "custom".  Parkleigh is part of this story only because they were part of that initial trip from Ithaca, NY to Rochester to see if wholesale could be part of the future of The Toycrafter.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

More on Kazoos

 After experimenting with various shapes for kazoos, I finally went with our old stand-by .... a turning.  Like several other toys, I was inspired by some odd parts that were mixed in with some other turnings that came in regularly from W.J.Cowee.  Mixed in one bag of turnings were several that seemed to just scream Kazoo to me.  I contacted our sales person, and asked if I could buy some of those parts to make into kazoos.  The answer was No.  "Those are Playskool hammer heads for their Nok Out Bench", and that is their design."  He added that if we designed our own turning, they would be glad to make them for us.  I designed a turning that would seem symmetrical with the plastic cap on one end.  We were very pleased that our friends at Brimms in Tonawanda, NY, who owned The Kazoo Company in Eden, NY, were more that willing to sell us their little circular kazoo "buzzers" - actually a little three layer thing .... two cardboard rings with a cellophane layer in between.  They also sold us the little plastic "caps" that held their "buzzers" in their plastic kazoos.

 We sold a lot of these little wooden kazoos over the years.  Using the turnings from Cowee, let us make them at a very competitive price, and while I don't have definite numbers, I would guess that over the years these were probably one of our top 5 sellers, and definitely our 2nd best non-spinning top item!

We did a lot of customized products over the years for a wide variety of customers.  I found this custom wedding kazoo in my closet a few days ago..... customized for our friends John Dodd and Lorrie Frear, and their Leap Year wedding.  Next year will be their 6th anniversary!

Monday, July 27, 2015

Baby Rattle

Baby rattles were not a big part of The Toycrafter product line.  In addition to this design, I made a few "ring" rattles - ones with several wooden rings turned from one piece of wood with a shaft in the middle, and loose rings.  Another rattle design was a ring of wood with a cross bar that had a loose bead on it that could be rattled.  This latter design also served nicely as a teething ring!  I made all of the rattles myself.  The one in the picture is from two pieces of walnut, with a center layer of Baltic birch.  Each end of  each half has a hole drilled into the flat side before the glue up, and partially filled with dry mung beans.  This rattle makes a very subtle sound, and is nice to hold!  It was very difficult to turn the shape and not break through into the hole full of beans!  I'm guessing this and the other rattles were made around 1976 - 77 (?) in our Rochester shop.  Little did I know that about 40 years later, I would be giving this one to my granddaughter Stella Mae.  This picture was taken this year in her living room.  I can't find the picture I took of Stella with this rattle.  She actually seemed to like it quite a bit, though the baby rattle stage of life is surprisingly short!  If I find pictures or samples of the other two designs mentioned, I will post them.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Wooden Kazoos, and less than wonderful designs?

 I played a lot with designs for kazoos over several years.  At one point I even purchased an existing business - I honestly can't remember the name, but he was a craftsman who made very nice wooden kazoos from quality woods like walnut, and cherry.  He had decided to tackle another career, and sold me his remaining stock, plus some partially finished parts.  For a toy maker, these kazoos just didn't quite fit.  Kids like to make noise, not music!  I will probably post some pictures, etc. about the noisy kazoos that became a pretty solid part of our product line, but for now, I recently found the samples shown here.  The ones above are the actual product.  I always was a sucker for puns, odd word play, etc, but that didn't always serve me well in naming and promoting my toys.  I look at the phrase "kazoo in the round with astounding sound" today, and a part of me laughs, and a bigger part sort of cringes .... what was I thinking?  And what's up with the whistling/singing tree?  This design was about as big a flop as the fancy kazoo designs purchased from my friend.  But, we did make "Kazounds" our annual gift to our wholesale customers... see below ....  perhaps thinking that a flood of orders might pour in when our customers had a sample in hand/mouth?  And in keeping with my confessional here, what's up with my face on the snowman?
Luckily The Toycrafter made a lot of very successful toys, so flops like "Kazounds" sort of taught us good lessons, but did not kill us!  A couple of much worse flops come to mind, but I'll save them for another day.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Spinning wings bee pull toy

Another early toy was our Bee Pull Toy.  At the time, I don't remember any sense of thinking about the Fisher Price Busy Bee.  That one used gears to spin the wings - in mine, the dowel that the wings are attached to just rests on the top of the wheels, and due to the different diameters, the wings spin quite fast.  I remember being quite surprised that for a pull toy, the string was supposed to be only 12 inches long.  Now that I know more about kids, I realize that they are just about the right height for a 12 inch string!  I find it interesting  that my fascination with insects came out in my earliest designs.  This bee pull toy, and an even earlier butterfly pull toy with flapping  wings, reflect that interest.  I know I have one of the butterfly pull  toys around somewhere, so will post a picture at a later date when I find it.  Below is a video of this toy in action!  If video below does not work well, click here
Apologies for the gap in posting - it has been a busy past few weeks.

Monday, May 18, 2015


Above, Elizabeth stamps The Toycrafter name on the bottom of each car.  For years our cars and lots of other toys were labeled with simple rubber stamps.  I still have a rack of the rubber stamps in our current shop.  I'm not sure if we were stamping the year and make of the car on the bottom at this point.
All of the cars, trains, etc. were dipped in a mineral oil finish to make them look nicer without adding any "toxic" finish.  At this point in time we were very focused on keeping our toys all wood, with no paint.  We took all the finished  toys inside our house to a little upstairs bedroom for the mineral oil dip!  I love this picture because you can so clearly see what a huge difference the mineral oil finish made in the look of the toys.  We used pharmaceutical grade mineral oil, and used to joke that if a kid ate the toy, the mineral oil would just help the wood through their system!  The disadvantage of the mineral oil was that it never dries, so over time, any dust settling on our toys on a store shelf formed sort of a gummy layer?  Another disadvantage we discovered was that if we wrapped our toys in newspaper - which we did one time - the mineral oil would dissolve the ink, and you could actually read some of the print on the side of our toys.  This was one of the quality lessons learned from Harmony In Wood when they shipped back a whole box of lovely custom made animals we had created especially for them - unfortunately with little articles from the Ithaca Journal printed on the sides!  In the background you can see a plastic dish of train cars draining, and in the right front, some little toy cars.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Put some wheels on it, and it is ready to "Rolls Royce".

 OK - Add some axles to those wheels, and you are real close to having a toy!  I think  that is my Grandpa Drake's handmade wooden mallet.  I've got a few things from my Mom's parents, and that mallet is one of my favorites!  The best however, has nothing to do with our toy business - it is the wooden rolling pin that they bought when they got engaged, complete with a hand repair that Grandpa made to it when one of the handle ends broke.
 Above, Elizabeth and I assemble the wheels onto the Rolls Royce cars.  Behind Elizabeth is a pile of airplanes with the wings clamped in place while the glue dries.
 Above, a nice example of some of the very crude jigs we made over the years for various purposes.  This one was just a bit over the width of the car bodies, and the wheels would rest on the sides so we could drill a 1/8" hole through the wheel, and into the axle.  Below, Elizabeth hammers home the little wooden pegs that insured that the wheels would not fall off with hard play!  The little notch in the side of the jig makes a spot for the spare tire to fit once that is in place!
I hope I can find more pictures of some of the many jigs we made over the years.  They were pretty much always pretty crude, and intended to make some oft repeated operation quicker and easier.  I always intended to make nicer jigs later, after I proved that the basic design worked well.  However, I almost never made a new jig as long as the original one was working OK.