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.

Friday, May 15, 2015


(Sidebar - check out the phone attached to the wall, complete with a dial, and a springy cord)
A big part of toy making - especially toy cars, trucks, airplanes, etc. - is wheels.  Our first wheels were made by hand by us using a hole saw.  A drill makes a hole, but sort of peels out the the wood from the hole.  A hole saw has a central small drill to guide the circular saw, and an outer round saw that cuts a circle.... result - a wheel.  Our hole saw had about 6 different saws that could be changed out to create different sized wheels.
 Above, I am setting the fence just the right distance from the edge of the thin wood to be most efficient, and below, the resulting wheel, and the left over scrap.  The main problem with these wheels  was that the edges were pretty ragged.  Our solution was to attach the wheels to the axles and then put them on the car, and then hold them against the vertical sander to spin them to clean up the edges.
 I do not remember who told me that there were companies that actually made wheels that we could buy, but what a change in our business.  Up until the burlap bag below arrived, (actually two burlap bags!)  every Thursday  was "wheel day".  A whole day  each  week was spent cutting out those hole saw wheels.  Below you see me checking out a bag of wheels already made, already smooth, and a lot nicer looking than our hole saw wheels!  I'm don't remember for sure where our first wheels came from, but I think it was W.J.Cowee, in Berlin, NY.  Our other main source of wood turnings over the years was Kingfield Wood Products of Kingfield, Maine!  Some day I will tell the stories of each of these wonderful companies.  Cowee was our biggest supplier over the years, and at one point we were one of their 10 largest customers!  But on this day, we were thrilled by our burlap bags with 5,000 perfect wooden wheels!  Including spare tires, that is 1000 toy cars!  In those days  that was a lot of  wheels!  A few years later, we would be getting up to 100,000 flipover balls, or 20,000 kazoo parts, or 50,000 Easter Eggs!  Now there is a story! Stay tuned!

Monday, May 11, 2015

You want that corner to be nice and rounded and smooth to the touch!

One of the tools suggested to us by the good folks at Harmony In Wood was a router with a good ball bearing round-over bit.  The router spins the round-over bit very rapidly, and cuts off the square corner of a block of wood, and makes it round of course, and as long as you keep the bit sharp, and the wood moving in the correct direction, very smooth.  Some  times a bit of extra hand sanding was helpful!  The round-over bit, and the resulting shape of the edge is shown below.  The ball bearing shown at the top of the bit, holds the bit exactly the right distance from the piece of wood, and moves smoothly along any curved or straight line, even including the inside of the drilled hole for the window!  Moving in the correct direction with the grain of the wood is important because if you are traveling against the grain, the bit may lift off a large chip, or maybe just leave a rough edge?  As mentioned earlier, after the first hundred or so, the eye gets the knack of figuring out which direction to move the wood for the best results on each piece.  As with all woodworking tools, keeping your tools sharp gives better results, and shortens the amount of time spent sanding the final piece!

Above, our router is mounted upside down in a small metal table, and Elizabeth guides the body of the future Rolls Royce along the ball bearing, rounding over and smoothing the edges of the toy, making it much more comfortable to the touch for what ever child would soon enjoy our toy!
 Here is a better view of the router table - this one has a fence attached to push a straight board along instead of using a ball bearing bit to maintain the distance.  As is often the case in some of these pictures, while Elizabeth is wearing safety glasses, she should have also been sporting a dust mask.  Don is also missing some essential safety equipment is some of  these pictures!  Particularly with the very noisy router, some ear plugs or other ear protectors would have been nice!  Later, as I added employees to the mix, I became much more careful about safety equipment.  An accident that happened not too long after these pictures were taken also made me much more safety conscious!  I'm proud to say that over the 40 years or so, only one major accident occurred, and it was me that suffered that one.  More details in a future installment!

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Making it smooth! Harmony In Wood!

 First a really important story!  Our earliest toys were much more crudely made.  We had designed some neat stuff, but we didn't know much about the fine points of making our things smooth and polished!  Fortunately for me, one of my very first "sales" calls fixed that!  I had stopped in Pittsford, NY at a very nice shop called Harmony In Wood.  As I arrived with my cardboard box of toy samples, Carol and Marko - owners - were sitting on a bench in front of the store.  They were very sooty, dirty, thirsty, and obviously not in any mood to talk to a salesman! They were taking a break from cleaning up after a fire that had happened the night before! I tried to quietly take my leave, but Marko said that he would love to look at my toys!  I spread out my toys in the dirt driveway in front of the store, and Marko and Carol carefully examined them.  After some time, Marko began to talk, and in summary, he basically told me I had some great designs, but that my craftsmanship was terrible.  I remember him being a bit more graphic than "terrible".  However, to my everlasting wonder, Marko then proceeded to give me a short but well organized lesson in how to properly finish my work!  He told me about sanders like the ones shown in this post, and about the router shown in the next post, and about the mineral oil that I will tell you about later.  His encouragement about my designs gave me the courage to go on with this crazy enterprise, and his lessons in craftsmanship made our work truly good!  Marko and Carol, told me to go home and "finish" my work, and that they would buy it when I returned.  I did that, and they were as good as their word, and they often reinforced that early quality lesson, as they fairly regularly sent back pieces that we had not done up to their standards.  Carol and Marko were centrally responsible for the success of The Toycrafter, and Harmony In Wood was my longest steady customer.  I learned to make every toy to pass the Marko and Carol test!  Harmony In Wood went out of business recently, but they out lived The Toycrafter!

Above and below, Elizabeth carefully sands the sides and bottom of the Rolls Royce, and lightly "rolls" over the edge between the sides and bottom.
Below, Don uses the 1 inch wide vertical belt sander to work on the edges, making them smooth like Marko and Carol wanted them to be.  They were right - they looked a lot better! Just a side note that we used our income tax refund for that year to buy the $69 vertical belt sander!

Monday, May 4, 2015

Back to production pictures and info for our Rolls Royce wooden toy car!

 I took over the next step here - drilling the 4 holes that help change the basic shape into a toy car.  Here I am drilling the front axle hole.  A wooden dowel will form the axle with a wooden wheel on each end.  Later, I would develop a system of permanent jigs that would hold our wood parts in place, and always make the holes align in the proper place.  In these early days, I am relying on a "fence" to keep the holes the right distance from the bottom of the car, but I am using my pencil marks to align the holes front to back.  This is a good time to talk about the Shopsmith multitool that I am using here as a drill press.  Elizabeth's grandfather gave us this wonderful tool that could function as a drill press, a lathe, a table saw, a disc sander, and a jointer.  Without this great multi-tasking machine, I doubt we would have made it very far with our fledgling business!  Years later, I would replace the motor, but this workhorse functioned almost everyday for the whole life of The Toycrafter, and I still have it!  I will confess to putting it on Craigslist a while back, but I got no nibbles, and it still sits in our shop!
 Above, I am adjusting alignment to make the 1" window hole..... setting the depth very carefully to just poke slightly through the bottom, and then below I am using that tiny hole to align the hole on the opposite side for a nice smooth interior to the window!
 Below are 4 Rolls Royces ready for sanding, routing, etc.  Elizabeth will take over the next step in my next entry.  (There may be a gap of a couple of days here?  Tomorrow I get my new pacemaker, and will not have access to my computer till Wednesday, and I'm not sure if I will feel like story telling right away?)

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Saturday morning at the Ithaca Farmers Market - 1974!

A break in the saga of the production of a set of Rolls Royces.  So many story lines in this picture!  Yes, I am selling out of a VW Bug!  Not visible in the picture is the car top carrier that sometimes seemed to be larger than the car itself.  No actual booth here - just a simple plywood table with a blanket over it!  Elizabeth later made some very nice fabric table covers, that made it very handy to store our inventory hidden under the table. When we needed a booth, there was a big pile of 2x4's on top, plus wood shelves, and sometimes even an adult sized rocking horse at the top of the pyramid!  In those days, there were none of the very handy white metal frame tents that we all see at shows now. We actually constructed a full wooden frame, with shelves, tables, etc. all bolted in place, with a blue tarp for a roof.  Bad light with a blue roof, but we were all in the same situation, so it worked out. Yes, I'm wearing my well worn engineer's cap again.  Not sure about the Buffalo State t-shirt, except that I had a very large collection of t-shirts, all purchased out of the seconds bin at the Champion factory for 25 cents each!

Looking over the table, you can see some of the toys already mentioned.  There is a climbing bear, and a flying butterfly hanging in the back corner of the table.  Front and center are a couple of the helicopters I mentioned earlier.  At the back of the circle of cars is the Rolls Royce I have been talking about.  I'll fill you in on the other cars later.  The 4-car train is there, along with what we called a cement mixer.  I have been recently informed that it is actually a concrete mixer!  Beside the cash box is one of my very earliest designs - the bee pull toy, complete with spinning wings.  The basket is full of little wooden cars.  More about wheels later, but the wheels on the little wooden cars in the basket are ones we made ourselves.

We were all just lined up along the sides of a dirt parking lot down near the inlet at the foot of Cayuga Lake in Ithaca, NY - most folks were selling produce, plants, etc, but there were quite a few crafts people.  Potters, woodworkers, a toy maker (us), etc.  Side note - I still use a cutting board purchased from friends Chris and Ginny Gartlein at the Ithaca Farmer's Market.

I'll go back to Rolls Royce making in the next post, but I wanted you to see that we actually made and sold wooden toys!

Saturday, May 2, 2015

After you hand cut a couple hundred or so, you get pretty good at it!

 Wooden toy making may not have been her final career choice, but Elizabeth was pretty darn good on the band saw.  Following a curved pencil line with a band saw is tricky enough, but believe it or not, cutting a straight line can be an even bigger challenge.  Later, we figured out some sliding table jigs that made cutting straight lines a lot easier, and we even figured out systems for cutting almost perfect curves and circles every time, but in 1974, we were just following the line, and trying to keep our fingers away from the blade!
 Above she is cutting a nice straight line along the hood of the Rolls Royce, and below, inspecting the final cut out blanks.  Behind her right shoulder are a few of our airplanes mentioned in the earlier blog entry about patterns.  The axle holes are drilled, and the wings are glued in place.  Next will come a 3/4" hole for the little wooden pilot.  Behind  the planes I believe are a couple people cars for one of our four car trains!
These blanks look pretty good, and next we will add axle holes for wheels, the window hole, and the hole for the spare tire!

Friday, May 1, 2015

Patterns were an essential part of toy making back in the days before computer controlled routers and lasers!

Here is a picture of the patterns for three of our early toys. On the left, the body and the wing of our airplane.  A hallmark of many of our  early designs was conveying as much of the essence of a toy with as little detail as possible.  Adding a propeller would have added a lot more work without adding a lot to the "airplane-ness" of the toy.  Not to mention that most any propeller was likely to be the very first thing to break!  Later, I'll probably post about our even earlier helicopter design - it had a rotor, but how can you convey essence of helicopter without a rotor?  Lower right, the pattern for our ever popular climbing bear, who will undoubtedly get his own post later on, along with his cousin, the flying butterfly, and another epic failure - the inflating dollar?  Upper right - the ever simple plywood pattern for the Rolls Royce - subject of this mini-series of blog posts.  Below, my hands using a very simple tool - a pencil - to draw around the pattern for the shape, and four holes - two axle holes, a hole to locate and hold the  spare tire, and a larger 1" hole that will be the window!  This is a particularly nice large piece of door scrap, that will yield 4 complete cars, plus some leftover pieces that will go into the shop wood stove to keep us warm while working.  Since I think these pictures were taken in April, these scraps will probably not be used to boil down some of our maple sap into most delicious Maple Syrup.  That probably happened back in March?  A large galvanized tub sitting on some cement blocks in the driveway, with a nice roaring fire of toy scraps underneath!  We had maybe 4 or 5 medium sized sugar maples on our little 1.6 acre homestead, and boy was that home boiled syrup great!  On a side note, our little house was also heated with wood scraps, and the pancakes that were needed to be put underneath the syrup, was most usually made with flour we hand ground.  The Mother Earth Catalog was the Google of the day, and the source of a lot of what seem now like sort of hair brained ideas!  That might have been the source for the recipe for some cookies we made one day from yogurt, stone ground flour, nuts, and a lot of other organic and natural materials that we mixed up and baked into probably the worst tasting batch of healthy cookies ever created!
Tomorrow some pictures of Elizabeth band-sawing along those lines to begin the process of shaping a Rolls Royce!

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Preparing scrap door parts for making them into great wooden toys!

A couple of major points to be made at this stage.  One, the woman in the picture is Elizabeth Stroop.  At the time, known mostly as Betsy Olney-Stroop.  My first wife, and co-founder of The Toycrafter.  It later turned out that being a toy maker was not her first choice of a life plan, and we each went on in different directions.  Elizabeth went to Colgate Rochester Divinity School in Rochester, NY not long after this, and that also led to the move of The Toycrafter to 1237 E. Main St., Rochester, NY about a year later?  We spent a year with her commuting to Rochester each week, and coming home to Ithaca weekends, but that was far to hard on both of us! I remembered that we figured out that either I needed to move to Rochester, or we needed to separate our lives.  In the end, we did both - I moved to Rochester, along with our tools, lots of wood, etc.  Elizabeth went on to become a hospital chaplain and a trainer of other chaplains, and found another love, and another family.  Things went well for both of us, and I went on making toys and other things for the next 40 years!  I also found another love, and another family, but this blog is mostly about The Toycrafter!

In the above picture, Elizabeth is jointing the edge of one of the pieces of scrap door parts that we made into our toy cars, etc.  Our shop was on the second floor of a very sturdy building.  The wood shown in the previous post, was stored downstairs. The big grey object next to her is the counter weight on the door in the floor.   Each piece of wood had a joint on all 4 sides, and we used the jointer to remove the shaped edges.  She is wearing safety glasses, but in those early days, we were not as careful with ear plugs, and dust masks as the pictures will show.  Just for the record, in all the years that The Toycrafter made wooden toys, the only major injury happened to me, not long after this series of pictures of us making Rolls Royces!  More about that later.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Very early picture of me sporting the engineer's hat that I wore a lot in those days!

As I mentioned yesterday, I do not intend to do this blog about The Toycrafter in any particular order, but this picture is a really early one!  I was obviously a lot younger in this picture - The file I have these pictures in is labeled 4-75 (Age 29)  This was taken at the third place that The Toycrafter was located.  Stone Quarry Road, Ithaca, NY.  To my knowledge I don't think any pictures exist of the first two locations, but at some point I  will elaborate on that?  This is me - standing in front of a pile of wood that we got from a guy who sold us scrap from The Overhead Door Company in Cortland, NY.  If you look carefully at the wood behind me, pretty much every piece is a completed part of an industrial overhead door, that had some flaw in it, and was thrown away - to be later resurrected as a wooden toy! Again, I will expand on  that later, but this is the first picture in a series that was taken of our process for making one of the toy cars we made early on.  While spinning tops became our main product over the later years, at this point in time, we made mostly toy cars, trains, trucks, etc.  Over the years I always say that we made pretty much any wooden toy you can think of!

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Opening Remarks

After lots of thought about writing a book about The Toycrafter, I have pretty much decided that such an undertaking would be far too big a challenge.  Just the thought of trying to get all the stories, thoughts, triumphs, stumbles, etc. into an organized book format, has seemed way too daunting!  I'm almost 70 - coming up soon - and have way to many projects that I want to tackle.  Any one of about 6 or 8 projects come to mind, and any one of them could use up a year or two or three of my time, cutting short my time for bike riding, designing new things, playing with my three grandchildren, etc!  Thus, my decision to create a blog about The Toycrafter.  My plan is to sort of randomly tell stories about my years as The Toycrafter, and also including info about the years after I sold The Toycrafter.  I'm hoping to include some stories and observations from some of my former employees/friends who shared in various parts of the about 35 years of toycrafting.  We went from just me alone in a friend's basement with a small hobby jigsaw - which I still have -, to about 30 of us making close to a million toys a year, taking up the entire 4th floor of the Fedder Industrial Park.  Probably about 20,000 square feet including some storage on other floors in the building!

I'm going to take pictures, or use old pictures, or scan old sales sheets, etc., and then share my recollections about The Toycrafter.  I  will not even try to adhere to any time sequence.  For example, yesterday, an old friend gave me some un-trimmed blanks of some packaging inserts that went with one of our less memorable failures - a product called "Spin-n-Win".  Due to my definite inclination to not throw out things, I actually have some of the tops from the one and only batch we made, and a whole chapter comes to mind!  Yesterday I also found on E-bay, one of my old Limberjacks for sale.  A definite several blog entries about Limberjacks come to mind.  (I may actually buy that limberjack on E-bay, because I'm not sure I have one of that style - especially because this one has a "carved" head, and I only remember doing a shaped head on a very few of that design!) Picture below, but I will add more about limberjacks later. (later note - I did not "win" the auction for this limberjack.)
Anyway, I'm looking forward to blogging about The Toycrafter, and I especially invite any former employees, customers, friends, etc. to offer comments about their recollections of The Toycrafter, and the many toys we made over the years - some very successful, and many total duds - I remember one in particular that we only got one order for, and that one got cancelled before we shipped!  I know I will enjoy this, and I hope you will too!