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Home > Craft Topics > Craft Introductions > Wooden Toys

The Craft of Making Wooden Toys

The Craft of Making Wooden ToysWooden Toy making Introduction

The enchanting delight of a beautiful wooden toy is as likely to captivate an adult as a child. These miniature pageants of the adult world and animal kingdom, carved and painted with such skill, cast the same magical spell over the imagination of the toymaker.

Origins of Toy Making


In Europe and Britain in the 18th century, there was a huge growth in the number of craftsmen calling themselves toymakers. Miniatures were made of soldiers, coach and horses and ships as well as games – exquisite trifles for an elegant society.

Meanwhile in Nuremberg the craze was for increasingly elaborate automata (moving toys operated by clockwork or trickling sand or water). The recipients of these masterpieces were usually the nobility.

Indeed in the 18th and 19th centuries Germany was renowned for its wooden toys. It is something of a surprise therefore that today the strongest movement in hand made wooden toys is in Britain.

This has come about largely due to the efforts of Yootha Rose and Sam Smith. After the second world war wooden toys were hard to come by, so Yootha and Sam began making their own toys for their children.

By his death in 1981, Sam Smith’s work had achieved the status of art, with wonderful, humorous carved toys on display in respected galleries. Today, toymakers are once more emphasizing the playability of toys, while still maintaining the high standards of the craft.


The Craft of Making Wooden Toys courtesy of www.walkaboutcrafts.comBasic techniques of Wooden Toy Making


Design is the first and most important step as, by their very nature, toys require imagination to make them fun. This applies whether they are instructional (alphabet blocks were one of the earliest learning toys), representational (say, of an animal or object), or something for pleasure.  


Simplicity is essential, in the sense of refined rather than basic. For example a few deft cuts can suggest the shape of an animal, or precise balance will set a circus clown into perpetual motion. Brightness, friendliness (no fierce expressions) and safety are other important factors to consider when designing a toy.  


Materials – Beech is an ideal wood as the close grain does not splinter easily and it takes paint well. Ash and oak are also excellent, the latter especially if the grain and beauty of the wood is to be fully exploited.

However, these are expensive and quite difficult to obtain. Pine is widely used but it is not so durable, while most hobby or DIY shops stock ramin, a reasonable materials. It is worth keeping all scraps and off cuts for details on future projects.  


Equipment – The equipment should be dictated by the design, not the other way round. Begin with the tools necessary for what you want to make and then add to them as your ideas and skills grow.

Four important pieces are:

Fretsaw – used to make flat toys with interlocking parts such as jigsaw puzzle. A design drawn onto the surface of the wood is followed by the blade which, as it becomes familiar to the user, can begin to dictate quite different ideas.

Lathe – used for turning wood to produce for example, skittles.

Circular saw – the tool needed to cut building blocks for example.

Band saw – cuts curved shapes through thick wood.

Any toy may, of course require a combination of these. In addition basic equipment includes a sanding machine (or sandpaper and lots of energy), a drill, screwdriver, small hammer, sharp penknife, set square, spirit level, ruler, a combination and mitre square (with a 90º and 45º arm), compass, pencil and sharpener and reinforced sticky tape.  


Decoration – Bright paint is obviously high on the list when it comes to appealing to children, and a sense of humour can bring a shape to life. Paint, varnish and lacquer should be non toxic.

If the wood forms part of the intrinsic beauty of the piece the grain can be highlighted with sanding and stain. If it is an animal, effective scales or feathers can be created by scorching the surface and wire brushing away soft parts of the wood. Pine is especially good for this as it has soft and hard areas.  


A beginner may start by tracing from pictures or photographs, and patterns are available in books. As your technique and experience develop it is your imagination that takes over, and will lead you to make a piece of wood into something to be played with, enjoyed and admired.  


Moving Toys – Toys can be made to move in all kinds of ways. Wheels can be attached, either directly to the body of the toy or to axles held on runners glued underneath it. Joints allow the limbs of a doll or animal to be put into any position, but need to be tight enough to hold the shape.

A lot of fun can be had with figures astride moveable parallel bars; these clever balancing toys depend upon the precise identification of the centre of gravity.  


A relatively new technique in Britain, inspired by a crude Peruvian model, is articulation, whereby toys can be made to bend and wiggle by cutting the wood into thin sections. Wooden fish and snakes are very effective made in this manner.

The basic shape is drawn on a piece of wood which is then sliced through horizontally with a band saw. The two pieces are then taped together, and the shape cut out. Slits are then cut at intervals of about 6mm along the length of the shape, almost sliced through to the other side. The pieces are separated and canvas is then glued in between the two pieces, to hold them together. Excess canvas is trimmed from the edges. The shape is then refined still further before the piece is sanded either by hand or on a machine. At this point the wood can be scorched and brushed to bring out the grain patterning.

Each slit is then cut right through, releasing the block into a piece of flowing wood. This is then ready for decorating with paints.


Safety Precautions – Most countries have special regulations on toy safety.

These guard against toxic paints, flammable materials and dangerous methods among other things and are worth adhering to even if you do not intend to sell your creation.


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