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!