Most of us know what to expect from a toy we buy at a store. Is it cheap and looks flimsy? It won’t last long. Batteries included? Buy more batteries. 25 different sound effects? It will play AT your child and will also drive you crazy! But there are some toys that are more rare and we don’t really know what to look for when judging if they are worth the money. I am speaking of wooden toys. Not the ones at large retail chains that brag with large “Eco-friendly” stickers on their plastic wrap but the ones you find at craft shows, Etsy stores and small local manufacturers. Wooden toys used to be the norm until the dawn of modern plastics. Since then it seems we have lost the “connection” to these kind of toys. In the following article I will try to outline some of the aspects of wooden toys, what makes them good, safe, and worth the money. Of course this is my personal opinion and it might be biased by the fact that I am one of those small toy manufacturers but first and foremost I am a father and I want my son to have fun and safe toys.
1) Wooden toys should be quality hardwood, not leftover construction material
Wood is commonly divided into two categories, hardwood and softwood. There are scientific ways to describe hard and softwoods but since that’s too scientific lets just say softwoods come from trees with needles, like fir or pine, and are generally softer. Softwood is widely used in construction, furniture making and paper production, just to name a few.
I have seen a lot of toys made from pine construction studs. It’s cheap and widely available but in my opinion it is not the right material for making toys. It is soft and if it breaks, the splinters are long and thin. Even though hardwoods are more expensive they are the better choice in creating lasting and safe toys.
Hardwoods come from trees with broad leaves and are generally harder like oak, maple or walnut. Hardwoods have a higher density and are therefore better suited for applications where a high resistance to wear and tear is needed, like flooring and (you guessed it) toys.
Popular woods for making toys are maple, walnut, poplar, ash, beech and birch, just to name a few. Some species of wood are beautiful and strong but have other attributes that make them unsuitable for making toys. I personally don’t like to use oak for example because it has very open pores which is not very helpful when creating small details. A few exotic woods are even toxic, like Sassafras or Yew.
Some woods are known to cause allergic reactions through inhalation of the wood dust or contact with the eyes and in some cases through contact with the skin. Except for skin contact this is only relevant to the toy maker. Allergic reactions through skin contact are not very common and usually only result in slight skin irritations.
2) If metal hardware is used, then only safe metals like stainless steel. Best is no metal at all
Metal is significantly harder than wood which can be very useful when this strength is needed like an axle for a vehicle or a hook for a crane. However, its hardness makes it also less forgiving when it collides with a child and the risk of injury is greater. Small hardware pieces can also come loose and be swallowed. Some metals are safer than others because they don’t rust and are non-toxic like stainless steel, others are, well..lead is a metal too.
3) Toys should be sanded smooth with no risk for splinters
Most woodworkers will admit that it is a time consuming chore but sanding is an often overlooked necessity. Make sure the toy you pick is sanded smooth so there is no risk of injuries through splinters. Also make sure the corners are rounded and there are no sharp points or very thin pieces sticking out as these can cause injuries or could break off and pose a choking hazard.
4) Clean glue joints with no glue squeezing out between pieces. Also, non-toxic, like carpenters glue
There are a lot of different glues out there, but for the purpose of making toys carpenters glue, also known as yellow glue, is probably the best solution. It creates a very strong bond, sometimes stronger than the wood itself, and it is non-toxic. The glue joints are very fine and if the toy is made precisely the glue is inaccessible. Yellow glue has some resistance to moisture but is not waterproof.
5) Safe finish. Non-toxic and not flaking or chipping
The options for finishing wood are endless but not all are a good choice for toys and all but a few exceptions have to be tested for lead content. Exempt from testing are natural finishes like tung oil as well as shellac. Shellac is edible and it is used, among many other applications, as a glazing agent on pills and candies. Both oils and shellac soak into the wood and harden. They do not create a layer on top of the toy like many other paints and are therefore not as prone to chipping or flaking. When picking a painted toy make sure the paint is not flaking off. Ask the manufacturer what type of paint it is and if it has been tested for lead content.
Unfinished toys are great if you want to paint them yourself. However, if left unfinished they are going to become unsightly very quickly as any kind of dirt, natural oils from the skin, ketchup, drool and anything else found around kids will soak into the wood and stain it permanently. Furthermore, moisture can warp the wood and in some cases damage the toy.
6) Last but not least, a sturdy construction appropriate for the age group
No toy is indestructible. If breakage does occur it is vital that the toy be removed immediately and inspected for sharp edges or splinters. Some toys however survive generations. Among those are a lot of well crafted wooden toys. A skillfully made wooden toy might cost more than the throwaway plastic version but your child can build a lasting relationship with the toy and when grown out of it, it will surely make the next generation of kids happy. Make sure the size, weight and complexity of the toy is age appropriate. Manufacturers can give suggestions on the right age but you know your child best and are ultimately the one to decide if the toy is right.
Wooden toys have been an excellent choice for kids of all ages for many generations and even if they have been pushed out of sight by products made from more modern materials they have never lost their place in children’s hearts. Consider wooden toys when you go shopping for your kids this Christmas and they will surely thank you for it.
Guest post by : Story Builder Toys