Toysmith out of an old-fashioned mold

Bob Kierstead is a man of few words, but his handiwork speaks for itself -- rows of hobby horses (childrens' to adult sizes), doll houses with movable walls and stairs, doggies, trucks, and yo-yos. Mr. Kierstead is a toymaker after the old school: no plastics, no robots or superheroes, not even colorful paint jobs, except for a little red fire engine. It's native hardwoods, maple and birch, for him and a natural finish of nontoxic urethane.

Nothing could be further from the array of high-tech playthings that deck the shelves of Toys ``R'' Us and other mass-volume outlets this holiday season. And no one could be further from the image of a sharply calculating toy merchant than the amiable, soft-spoken, and firmly small-townish Mr. Kierstead. Father of two teen-aged children and chief of the local volunteer fire department, he got into toymaking when his construction business slowed a few years ago. Crafting toys, he says with t ypical economy of words, was simply ``something that interested him.''

That was 12 years ago. The little gray-shingled factory and shop, just a short walk from the remarkably picturesque center of this tiny town, has been turning out simply designed and nearly unbreakable toys and children's furniture ever since. Business hasn't ever really boomed, but the quality of Kierstead's work -- evident in each painstakingly smoothed, fitted, and glued item -- has won a steady trickle of customers.

That trickle could build to a stream, according to Bob Lyons, Kierstead's chief (and only) salesman. Mr. Lyons went into what he describes as reluctant ``semi-retirement'' a few years ago after a lifetime in sales. On hearing that the local toymaker needed a hand with marketing, he was ready. It's a perfect match, he says, ``Bob here likes to make them, but doesn't like to sell them -- it works out well.''

Lyons had good responses from toy dealers in New Jersey and Florida on a recent trip. He has also taken Kierstead's creations to industry trade shows, where they've been well received. ``Oh yes, I think it could take off,'' says the stocky, bespectacled sales manager, who fits the little old toymaker image a bit better than the lanky, dark-haired Kierstead. ``Plastic! They're getting tired of it.'' Lyons points to a nearby wooden toy stove and sink. ``They'll last two or three generations.''

``That's one problem with them,'' comments Kierstead with a chuckle. Still, finding buyers for his wares appears the least of this toymaker's concerns. ``The orders are out there,'' he says. ``Now the problem is finding full-time help.'' At present, he has two part-time helpers manning the saws, planers, sanders, and drill presses that fill the woodworking shop behind the sales room. With Lyons's marketing efforts boosting sales, he expects to need three full-time craftspeople soon. Kierstead

himself regularly puts in 60-hour weeks shaping toy soldiers and roadsters.

As he opens the door to the work area, the aroma of dry hardwood and sawdust floods out. One of the part-time helpers, Randy Rhodes, works at a sander, smoothing braces for the double easels that have proven a popular item with child-care centers. Each pass through the machine sends up a shrill whine.

Usually, Kierstead explains, they work on a fairly large run of a particular item, perhaps 200 to 300. But some things, like the doll houses, are hard to turn out quickly. One of those can take up most of a day, he says. But ``it never gets boring,'' he claims. ``That's the best part of it. You never find two pieces of wood that are the same.'' He runs his fingers along the base of a just-completed hobby horse, tracing a rich brown streak through the otherwise light-colored maple. ``Some people h ate the dark places and knots -- others like it.''

Back in the sales room, Kierstead sums up his method of getting new ideas for toys: ``I listen to people and see what they want.'' A terse bit of Yankee pragmatism that seems to work well. In any case, the task in the Hancock Toy Shop right now is to build an inventory of the 40 or so current items, not add new ones.

Salesman Lyons has his sample cases packed, ready to take on the toy-buying world in January and February -- the months, he says, when most retailers will be placing orders for next year's holiday season. Animals crafted from dowels and smoothed pieces of maple and pull carts full of good old-fashioned wooden blocks might not crowd too many robots and computerized teddy bears off toy-store shelves. But they have at least two things in their favor, says Lyons: They let kids exercise their imaginations, and they have a full-year guarantee against breaking. The latter, he says, guffawing, is nearly unheard of in this business.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.