Special considerations in wooden toymaking -- choice of wood, assembly, and finishes -- and how to care for wooden toys.

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Talk to the Toymaker About Wooden Toy Care

by Karen Weppner

How do you choose and care for wooden toys?

As parents and care-givers, we want two things from children's toys: safety and durability.

Toymaking is a special pursuit where the utmost consideration must be given to the ultimate safety of the toy - not just the art and appeal of the woodworking.

One of the wonderful things about a wooden toy is its durability. A well-made toy can last for generations if given proper care.

First, we need to define "well-made", on which toy safety depends. Then, caring for wooden toys is simple.

By following these guidelines from the toymakers at Family Tree Toys, your toys will remain strong and beautiful for your children's children!

What You Should Know about Toymaking

WOOD VARIETIES

There are two types of wood: hardwood and softwood. Hardwood comes from deciduous trees (with leaves), and isn't necessarily "hard". Softwood comes from coniferous trees (with needles) and can be harder than soft hardwoods.

Common hardwoods used in toymaking: oak, alder, walnut, cherry, mahogany, birch.

Common softwoods: pine, fir.

Special considerations

CEDAR splinters can be toxic. If choosing toys made of cedar (*we wouldn't, but if you do), maintain the toy to prevent splintering. Avoid cedar in baby toys and any toys that may be mouthed. OAK has a tannin that is better not ingested. Avoid oak in toys that may be mouthed. EXOTIC HARDWOODS might be toxic. There are many varieties -- educate yourself, or make sure your toymaker is well educated on the properties of the wood being used.

WOODWORKING

When a toy is cut, attention must be given to the thickness of the parts as well as the direction of the grain (the lines that you see in the wood).

Pieces should be thick enough to resist breakage. How thick is "thick enough" depends on the variety of the wood. Our best advice - if it looks fragile, it probably is. Also, look at the grain of the wood in narrow pieces. It should run parallel with the length of the piece. Wood is weakest along short grain lines, or where stress is placed on the end grain.

ASSEMBLY

Toys can be assembled in a variety of ways - dowelled, screwed, glued and nailed. Each has its weaknesses.

We prefer DOWEL ASSEMBLY for the purity of wooden construction. This is achieved with glue and wooden "nails". Changes in humidity can cause the wood to shrink and swell, loosening the dowels over time. This is particularly important where wheels are secured by a dowel axles. The toy owner should periodically check the assembly to make sure the parts are secure. If a part loosens, reglue with a non-toxic woodworker's glue, according to manufacturer's instructions.

SCREW ASSEMBLY is probably the most secure form of assembly when the screwed joints are also glued. Should the screws work themselves loose, they are sharp. The toy owner should periodically check the screws to make sure they remain tight. Ideally, the screws should be "countersunk" where the screw head lies below the surface of the wood. The screw can then be capped with a wooden plug (which gives the appearance of dowel assembly). Periodically check for loosened plugs.

GLUE ASSEMBLY can be remarkably strong when used in the right places. There are many considerations for the toymaker when gluing. The strongest use is when paired with dowels, screws or joinery such as grooves and notches. We don't recommend using glue alone in joints that will be stressed. If a glue joint breaks repeatedly, it needs to be fortified with dowels or screws.

NAIL ASSEMBLY has no place in toymaking in our opinion. Not only do they have a tendency to work themselves loose, but they can bend under stress, and are extremely sharp. We would advise against making or buying toys with nails.

FINISHES

Not all finishes are child-safe. Make sure the toymaker specifies the finish used or indicates that it is child-safe or non-toxic. Many finishes contain drying agents that are toxic, but once evaporated (usually about 30 days, but depends on finish used) leave a non-toxic finish. This is important to know, particularly for toys that will be mouthed. If you will be receiving a newly finished toy, inquire about the drying time.

Special considerations

Many toymakers use natural oil finishes that are food-grade or non-toxic oils, which can be derived from a variety of sources. If the type of oil is not specified, ask - particularly if your child has nut allergies.

STAIN changes the color of the wood. Not all woods absorb to the same degree which can leave some stain on the surface. For this reason, and others, we prefer not to use stains on toys. If you desire a particular color - it is best to choose a wood that is that color naturally. If you do choose stain, make sure it is well-sealed, and maintain that seal.

Over time, if the seal is not maintained, you will notice wear on the edges, revealing the original color of the wood. If the wood is vulnerable - so is your carpet!

*We recommend using a throw rug under rocking toys, to protect both the toy and the floor surface. Check the condition of the rockers regularly for wear.*

Finishes will wear. It is your responsibility as the owner to maintain the finish of a wooden toy. This is easily done with an oil or wax finish, and requires more effort with paint, varnish and lacquer.

Basic Wooden Toy Care

Keep in mind that wood and water are natural enemies. NEVER SOAK A WOODEN TOY.

*Direct sun can also damage a toy over time, particularly those that are unfinished or oil preserved.

*Wood that is overly dry is prone to cracking and splitting.

*Rough or splintered edges should be smoothed with fine sandpaper.

*The character of your wood can change with humidity, therefore it is essential that you routinely inspect the toy for parts that may have loosened.

*DO NOT use furniture polish on wooden toys...it is toxic to children. It is helpful to know what type of finish is used on your toy; this will determine the maintenance required. You will find detailed instructions about caring for a variety of finishes on our main website: http://www.familytreetoys.bizhosting.com/.

It is important that you maintain your toys properly to keep them safe for play! If you have any specific questions about Wooden Toys, feel free to contact the author directly through the website http://www.familytreetoys.bizhosting.com/

About the Author
Karen
is one of the Toymakers at Family Tree Toys of Coeur d'Alene Idaho. She has been making wooden toys for 8 years, and honored for her original designs and impeccable craftsmanship in professional competition. Named International Woodworker of the Month for December 2001 by Woodworker's Auction.

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