Before I dive into this, let me start by saying that the little, editorial “we” is really smaller still. “I” have been creating toys in the wilds of southeastern Ohio for about 35 years. What is it exactly that I have been doing all this time?
Well, my first toy design was a howling wolf about two feet tall, which I eventually put rockers under ( to make it somewhat useful), but, not before I took it out into the field one evening behind the barn where I was living and working, and let it howl at the moon (yes, a full moon and yes, figuratively).
That is, of course, where I discovered the logo of my business (to be). It started with that image of the Earth’s natural wildness. “Thoreau”, one of my early teachers, said, “In Wildness is the Preservation of the World.” I’m still not sure which “world” he was referring to, but the message stands, none the less.
Each of us yearns for that wildness at a very deep level, even though (as with the wolf) there is quite often a bit of fear associated, whether founded or not. There is something about the raw guileless innocence of all animals, especially wild ones, that makes us feel alive and inescapably rooted in the present, even if only momentarily. Stand by the bars of the Jaguar’s cage at the zoo and look into his eyes. You know exactly what I mean.
Children know this without us telling them. They are so clear that little can stand in the way of their simple love for all animals. They are the ones that can’t resist the stray cat. They are the ones who go down by the water to pick up frogs and salamanders and bring home turtles. They are the ones out on the ferry boat who have to keep throwing bread up to the seagulls even though everyone is getting crapped on. They are the ones who will do anything to see the baby calf be born, and go out in the dead of night to see if they’re o.k. These are our children. They know, even as we may start to forget.
This is why I make toy animals. I try to capture the elemental character of the creature with line and movement, and then bring the animals of the natural world into our living rooms, with all their inherent wildness and innocence that so clearly mirrors, attracts, engages and enlivens our children.
My larger dream is to grow this little enterprise to the point where I can help stimulate the use of our two underdeveloped resources in this poor part of the country: our forests and our people. I’d like to increase the use of our renewable resources in this area by encouraging small land owners to manage their forests sustainably, and combine the resulting wood with our unemployed to produce toys for our children, and jobs for their parents.
- The Wood
These toys are made almost entirely of local Black Cherry. I think that Cherry is particularly suited to toy making for several reasons. It is relatively light for its strength. It has a beautiful color which gets richer and deeper with time. It is not prone to splintering and sands to a very smooth finish, making it safe and pleasing for children to handle. It is available in this part of the country, an essential element of sustainability.
I have found a local sawyer who is very careful about the timber harvesters that he works with. The result is sustainably harvested wood.
The Emerald Ash Borer is arriving in our pert of the country (in the next county as I write this). It is killing all the Ash trees in its path. So I am harvesting the ash trees on my property before they are killed and rendered useless. I use it for accent parts like the tusks of the walrus.
- Tulip Poplar
Tulip Poplar is our most abundant tree in southeastern Ohio. It grows extremely quickly, as well as very straight. It is an excellent framing wood. I built my entire house out of green Poplar (from a local sawmill). I use it for accent where strength is not an issue, like the shell of the turtle.
- Black Locust
Black Locust is an extremely weather resistant wood which has been historically used for pegging the mortice and tenon joints in timber frame barns for hundreds of years. It is also prized for fence posts and can last up 60 years in the ground. I make the animal glider swings entirely of locust. I have found a local timber harvester that cuts timber for firewood. He puts aside Black Locust whenever it comes along and every six months or so I get a bunch of logs to my sawyer and then to a local kiln. It’s quite an involved process. The last step is to cut boards up into 1 1/16”x 1 1/16” sticks and take them to a mill in Cincinnati to have them turned into dowels for the handlebars of the swings.
- The Wheels:
Many toy makers peg the wheels to their toys. I think a glued axle is much stronger and longer lasting. So, I have to have my wheels manufactured to my specifications by a woodturning company in Maine. My wheels have a protruding hub that can be sanded off after being glued to the axle.
- The Finish:
These toys are finished in “food grade” mineral oil. It is used for oiling wooden bowls, food preparation surfaces etc. It is “child safe” and these toys can be safely chewed on by very small children as they grow into the toy. Chewing any wood can cause splinters after repeated aggressive chewing , so be careful about that.
- The packaging:
I use recycled paper for the filler in the box. I am looking for a source of recycled cardboard boxes, but at the moment mine are from a regular manufacturer. I’m counting on you to at least recycle them.