THERE’S a bit of a glow about traditional wooden toys, a sort of inner warmth which makes them that extra bit special.
It’s a radiance that has something to do with the touch of a human hand, says Daniel Ulrich, whose parents established the renowned Wooden Heart toy shop on Quay Street in Galway nearly four decades ago.
“The traditional hand-made toy has been in human hands all along. The mass-manufactured toy is entirely machine-made, so the first hand that touches it is that of the child. There’s a certain glow about wooden toys …I think you can see it and feel it.”
For 35 years Wooden Heart has stocked traditional wood toys made in Ireland and elsewhere; toys which are classical, old-school, and says Daniel, (who took over the management of the picturesque store from his parents four or five years ago), exceptionally well made.
However, despite the fact that many parents are increasingly aware of the benefits of the simplicity and craftsmanship that comes with handmade toys, and consciously choose them for Christmas presents, Irish toymakers face an uphill climb in their bid to make a living:
“They often have very nice goods but because their toys are handmade and labour-intensive, there can be difficulty pricing them competitively on the retail market.
“Generally the handmade Irish toys I’d come across would be of good quality, but they make up quite a small proportion of what I see.” However, he says, there’s a growing demand for quality, hand-made Irish toys.
“I think that a lot more people are looking for quality rather than quantity now, and they also come in wanting to know where the toys are made.”
Gavan Murphy, Lisa Tonge and Barry Linder all started out making toys for their children – and all three have now turned their skill into a business.
A former IT specialist who wrote computer manuals, Gavan Murphy’s journey into wooden toy-making was circuitous. His son Caomhan, now 11, was diagnosed with autism at the age of three, and attends a special school a lengthy commute away from the family home in Dunhill.
“I was at home with him the whole time. The demands on my time were such that I couldn’t return to a conventional workforce job,” says 42-year-old Gavan.
The roots of Gavan’s interest in handmade toys stretch back to 2005, in the middle of the boom, when Caomhan was only five or six. The family was on holiday in West Cork when Gavan came across a shop offering beautiful, handmade wooden toys which Caomhan really liked:
“There were no lights or buttons or electronics. They were based around gravity.
“At that point I was looking for something to do on a Saturday and I decided to supply wooden toys to the local farmers’ market.”
He began to import wooden toys from Eastern European countries and with a steady demand, expanded his operation to Kilkenny and Dungarvan.
When the recession hit, Gavan was left with more time on his hands, but also with an excellent insight into what parents wanted to buy for their children. Over the past year he has begun to replace imported lines with home-made toys:
“I decided to make my own toys. I started making things you couldn’t get easily; bows and arrows, wooden swords and shields, nursery mobiles made of wood with flying birds, moons and teddy bears.”
The toys are reasonably priced – a bow and two arrows cost around €10, for example, and are available at his regular Saturday morning stall at Waterford’s Butlerstown market, near Harvey Norman’s. He’s also on Facebook and at www.wildwoodtoys.com.
However, he warns, it can be difficult to make a living with your hands.
“During the boom I could, but now it’s more of a hobby than anything else. It’s hard to say where it will go. If I was to invest in big machinery like a lathe and cutting equipment it would be a massive amount of money and I don’t think I’d get a return.
“Even in lower-cost European countries like the Czech Republic, the toy-making industry is disappearing. The tradition of toy-making is disappearing very quickly everywhere.”
Lisa Tonge has always been good with her hands – but it wasn’t until her daughter Sofia was born less than a year and a half ago, that she began to think she could make a career from her craft work.
Her speciality is soft toys – bunny rabbits, rag dolls; elephants and play-mats – and it’s all down to the birth of her daughter, according to the 32-year-old who lives in Clonakilty and only launched her online company, Little Green Dot, in October.
Qualified with a Master’s Degree in Community Development, Lisa had been making play mats and blankets as gifts for friends for years. However, when Sofia was born, she decided to try her hand at some soft toys:
“The reaction from the people who saw them was hugely positive. The main thing I was working towards was getting the CE mark for the toys – every toy you buy should have this mark, which shows that it’s safe and has been rigorously tested.”
Business is good, she says, and the reaction to her products — the dolls and bunnies cost around €35 and the elephants are €22 — has been very positive.
“People really appreciate the fact that they are handmade because of the ethical issues involved in the mass production of toys in some parts of the world. I think people really do like the fact that a toy is made in Ireland and is handmade,” she says. (Find Little Green Dot on Facebook or visit www.littlegreendot.ie)
Former marketing executive, Mallow resident Barry Linder had always made toys for his kids – but it was a wooden train for his grandson’s first birthday was the catalyst for his toy-making business.
Originally from Vancouver, Linder has been living and working in Ireland for some 12 years. All the toys generally retail at about €16 and can be bought online through his website barrystoys.com or through Pinocchio’s in Cork and Wooden Heart in Galway.
Although he only launched his website about 18 months ago, he is already getting orders in from Australia and Florida.
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