Timber, twine and tech: how one maker is learning new technologies to craft traditional teaching toys

When grandfather and builder “Papa Stu” embarked on his new project of Timber and Twine Handmade Toys, he also began a journey into new technologies and production techniques. His tactile timber toys are lovingly made in his Christchurch workshop using beautiful native reclaimed timbers and natural finishes, and are designed to inspire imaginative, naturally engaging play for preschoolers, and sensory experiences for babies.


 

 
What do you make?
I like to make things that might interest kids and maybe stimulate their imagination. Too many toys do too much and I don’t think it helps them greatly.

I’m all for kids learning stuff and if they can swing a hammer, pretend to cut with a saw, or turn a nut with a spanner, as long as they are interested in that, then they are learning stuff.

The gender gap is interesting to me. I guess my stuff is a little male oriented, in a traditional way of thinking, but I hope it appeals to both. Really, that’s not up to me. The kids can decide.

How did you get into your craft?
The idea came from my daughter and marketer, Renee. I was building decks and doing concreting, but it was getting too hard on my body. I started on lighter stuff and made tables, only to find that difficult too. Renee suggested I make toys as she had seen the demand through her Facebook groups with her hand made soaps.

I started with a small scroll saw and a saw bench. It was very time intensive with all the shaping and sanding done by hand. Actually, I nearly gave that up because it was also too painful on my worn out joints. I very much liked the idea of making toys, so my only option was to mechanise. A belt sander helped greatly and a planer made the work easier.

My next problem, however, was to keep up with demand. I couldn’t cut, shape and sand fast enough because I could do only one thing at a time. I had the bright idea of using a CNC router to cut out the shapes as it could do that by itself while I did the rest. Buy a CNC and make toys! What could be easier? Quantum physics, mechanics and special relativity, pseudorandomness algorithms, abstract algebra and plenty more. It turned out I was a little optimistic!


Photo credit: www.instagram.com/my_two_treasures
 
I bought a small CNC router from China. It didn’t work. It had outdated electronics and would not operate with my computer. It wasn’t well constructed and I could see it would be a problem. My only option was to dismantle it and use most of the parts to build a new one.

I sourced new electronic components and built the rest of what was needed to make it work. Actually, that was the easy part. I then had to figure out how to make it go. It took over a week of sitting, looking and thinking. The internet wasn’t much help. It turns out there are very few people as stupid as me who expect to make a CNC machine without actually knowing how to do it.

Once I had it sorted and following my commands there came the time to learn how to best operate it. That’s an on-going task. It works. It does what I need it to most of the time and we get by. When I have more time I want to really explore what it can do. It’s really quite amazing to see this thing working away all by itself. It would have been science fiction not so long ago.


 

 
Do you have formal training or qualifications in your craft?
I don’t really have any qualifications in anything at all. I’ve done many things and always learned as I went along. Sometimes I’ve ended up in the deep end, but it all worked out somehow in the end!

This work doesn’t require training. It just needs persistence and attention to detail. I suppose it does need some sort of desire to see nice things. I wouldn’t make something that I didn’t think looked nice.

Your favourite materials, tools and processes?
I loathe sanding. It’s painful. I like the result, so that keeps me doing it. I like to get to the finishing stage and see the wood start to glow. So my least favourite tool is sandpaper, but my second most favourite has to be the CNC. Now I can only say that on a good day, because we do have days when nothing works. Some days jobs will mess up just near the end, cutters will break, or the machine decides it knows better and a deep cut right through the middle of the job would be nice. Some days we don’t get along, but the thing really is a wonder. I load an object on the computer, generate millions of lines of code and then it appears on the machine – hands off!

The wood really is my favourite thing in the whole process. I feel fortunate to have got to know what our native timbers are really like. I try as best I can to stick to native timber. It’s wonderful to work with. I discovered to my joy that when some of them are cut I am rewarded with the most wonderful aromas. They smell incredible and most are nothing like timber at all. Kauri, for example has the smell of honey and Totara is similar, but it might be like smelling honey while sitting in the bush just after a rain, when all that sweet organic smell rises up. The wood itself doesn’t have the smell. It’s only while it’s being worked and it’s brief. I feel like it’s a gift. Just a quick appreciation between the tree and the worker.

Some of the timber I use is very old and the Kauri almost definitely will have come from trees of a thousand years old. You have to respect that…

Some of the timber I use is very old and the Kauri almost definitely will have come from trees of a thousand years old. You have to respect that and when, after all this time, it can release its perfume, it’s special and I appreciate it.

I try also to use reclaimed timber because I would rather use that up than promote more tree cutting. Some of it has marks and blemishes and I do try to work around them, but I think a bit of a mark here and there is worth it if we leave more trees in the ground. It’s good to see how so much timber is being recycled now that there’s an abundance of it after the Christchurch earthquakes.


 

 
Tell us about some of the techniques involved in producing one of your wooden toys:
Most of the technique is just hard grind with sandpaper! Initially I had what I considered failures because they departed in their final form from what I had in mind. I like to be able to make a pleasing shape and initially it was hit and miss. The CNC machine has removed that problem. I was initially a little concerned that it might go the other way and they would be too uniform, but there’s enough hand process to take care of that.

I do the designs on my iPad with a simple vector based drawing app. I really need to learn how to use a CAD program and I’ve tried, but I find it’s just too frustrating. I would love to be able to design complex things and the machine is capable of making them, but my barrier is that I just want to make stuff and I’m too frustrated if I have an idea in mind, but can’t get it down on the computer and onto the machine within an hour.

I’ve tried outsourcing some CAD work, but so far the results haven’t been too great. What I’m making seems to be going down well and quite frankly I’m having a struggle keeping up with the demand, so there’s no great incentive to change.

What inspires you?
Actually, you know, what I was just talking about before, how the wood releases an aroma after all that time being locked away. That’s inspiring to me.

Mainly it’s kids. I like them and I like making things for them. There’s nothing in the world more important than our children. Raising kids is the most fulfilling thing in life really. All the things people think are so important; their career, their possessions, their social standing and wealth. These things are inconsequential compared to family.

My daughter Renee is great inspiration to me. I don’t know whether I’m a bit old or just bone idle, but what she can do in a day would take me a week. A job, two young children, a household to organise and she runs her soap making business as well. It’s not just the time, effort and ingenuity of the soap making, but the effort she puts into marketing both her business and mine. I wouldn’t have sold a single toy without Renee. Well, I wouldn’t have made one either actually.

My toys are pretty basic fare. Just replicas of what kids might see being used and can imitate with. It’s not what is in my mind, but what can be in the child’s mind that is inspiring. My regret is that I’ve been too long away from full involvement with kids and it’s only through my two grand daughters that I’m remembering how they work. They are so different from us adults and it’s a shame really that we don’t pay more respect to who and what they are, for kids have so much to offer and we can learn so much from them. I often wonder if it’s we who should be imitating them. It might make a better world. Well an interesting one anyway. Haven’t you ever wished that you too could lie on the supermarket floor kicking and screaming because you’re not allowed chocolate?

Chocolate and inspiration reminds me of a little by-the-way question from my four year old grand daughter last time I visited. “What if rivers were made of chocolate?” So there’s an inspiring question leading to things like how hot chocolate would be if it was lava and would chocolate icebergs float on a chocolate ocean. It makes thinking of toys seem a little dull.


 

 
Is there a philosophy behind your work?
Nothing other than that kids deserve the best we have to offer. What I have to offer is something to play with and I just do the best I can to make them.

I would prefer to make learning toys. I guess any toy is a learning prop, but I like the idea of things with gears of different sizes, so they can see how some go fast and some slow, some one way and some the other. Things with levers too, that can be adjusted to lift different loads. I would like to make things that can be experimented with so kids can find stuff out for themselves. I would like to make something with a set objective, like lifting a weight from the floor to the table. I would give them the parts so they can make their own crane, or a winch, or whatever they come up with. It’s kids in the act of learning that appeals.

Describe your creative process:
I just spoke of what I would like to see kids play with and in my mind I immediately know what it will look like, how it’s made and what I will use to make it. It’s not really a creative process as such. It’s more just that it’s obvious. Here’s what you want, so just do it. There’s nothing complicated or special in what I make, or want to make. Sometimes the plain and simple stuff works the best – and by works, I mean that it stimulates imagination and learning by having fun.


 

Photo credit: www.instagram.com/my_two_treasures
 
Describe your workspace:
Hah. Work-space is an oxymoron. I have to keep getting more stuff to do the work with and so the space gets smaller. Then there’s more work to do because I’ve got the stuff to do it, so now I need more stuff. Where do I put it? I can’t have space and do the work and I can’t do the work because I don’t have the space.

I work in a small corner of half a garage. It’s a typical garage in that no car has ever been there. It’s full of really, really useful and important stuff that I haven’t touched in five years. But I’m going to clear it out. Oh yes I am! And that “one” day is drawing nearer because I have a project or two that I want to work on.

I can see that the setup I have is very soon going to be incapable of keeping up with demand. I have started to make a larger CNC machine and it’s going to need room. Then there other things I want to make with the CNC as well. I have an interesting addition to Timber and Twine that I’m working on at this moment. At least the CNC is working on it while I’m lazing around on my iPad. I do like that machine. The trouble is that it started making this at eight this morning. It’s now 9.30pm and it won’t be finished until around 3.00am. I’m going to need more than one machine!


 

 
Your favourite feedback from a customer:
There’s not a great deal of feedback really, but what I do get seems to be very positive. Today one person said their toys arrived and they are “just awesome.” That sort of thing is really nice to hear. I think there are comments made on Facebook, but I don’t use Facebook much so I don’t see them.

The best feedback would be from the kids. I’d really like to know what they think of my stuff. I bet they wish it was made of chocolate. Actually, you know the CNC really could cut toys in chocolate. Maybe that’s an idea.

Tell us about your pets:
I’m always worried when I package a shipment that there will be cat hairs all over it. I use a beeswax product that Renee supplies on the wood, which is one of her Butterberry products and cat hair likes to stick to it. Of course she has to supervise every aspect of the packaging process. Not Renee, the cat. Actually, it’s Renee’s cat anyway! Cat Face has to be in the middle. Right in the middle. It’s in the middle, right where it stops me from doing anything or it’s a huff and she’s off. It’s a wonder she’s not sitting on the iPad right now. She’s slipping.

If you were a crafty superhero, what would your name and superpower be?
I’d be BigKid. I’d be bigger than anyone else with the mind of a kid. One thing that holds kids back is their size. BigKid wouldn’t have that problem and he could do all the things that adults can do, but better because he’s a kid.

He could help all the other kids climb over high things that they are not allowed to climb over, but BigKid said they could and if adults have an issue with that they can talk to BigKid. He’s afraid of no one and always listens to what kids have to say as if it’s the most important thing that was ever spoken.

He would have the power to make all the little kids feel big and to swim in chocolate rivers, walk on chocolate lava and jump from one chocolate iceberg to the next.


Photo credit: www.instagram.com/my_two_treasures
 

 
What would your advice be for those starting out in a crafty business?
Don’t buy a CNC machine and if you do, don’t blame me, because I’ll just say “I told you so.” Other than that I’d say go for it. It’s great. I love it, but you had better get Renee to do your marketing.

What was the last handmade item you bought and what attracted you to it?
Wow! That’s made me realise what a mass produced world we live in. I can’t think of anything I’ve bought that was hand made. There’s Renee’s soaps, obviously, but she doesn’t make me pay for those.

I think the nearest thing would be some biscuits my lovely neighbour brought to me. Peanut biscuits. My favourite and, I would have to say, every bit as good as my Mum used to make. Now, what if mountains were made of peanut biscuits?

What’s in store for 2018?
There’s something very interesting that I’ve come across that the CNC can be used for and that’s what it’s doing at this moment. I’m not going to say what it is, but it is has to do with photographs and it’s a technique that was used with porcelain a few hundred years ago. Back when pretty much everything was hand made.

I like beautiful things and the promise is that these will be quite beautiful. I’ll find out at about 3.00 tomorrow morning. They work in well with wood, so will go hand in hand with what I’m currently doing. I’ll get Renee to put them up on the Felt listing when I have it all worked out. It will be a service. Don’t hold your breath.

Prize draw!
Papa Stu of Timber & Twine has very kindly offered a great prize for one lucky Felt reader of a Timber & Twine hammer and spanner three piece set, valued at $28 (see above). To be in to win, simply leave a comment telling us what you enjoyed about Papa Stu’s story and his creations. The draw closes at 5pm on Friday 16 December and is open to New Zealand residents only.

See more toys for the imagination from Timber & Twine »

 

Photo credit: www.instagram.com/my_two_treasures

7 thoughts on “Timber, twine and tech: how one maker is learning new technologies to craft traditional teaching toys

  1. What a great article. Love your desire to create toys that will stimulate little minds. I also enjoyed your description of your “workspace” .

  2. Beautiful handmade tools! Papa Stu seems like a very humble man when it comes to the feedback he has received. I’m sure there are tonnes of kids around NZ that just love playing with their tools!

  3. The toys are gorgeous. I love to hear about enjoyment and satisfaction he gains in making them, the brief smell of the wood and then sending them on to a child to played and loved in turn.

  4. Me and my daughter Paige met papa stu through his grand daughter’s lovely birthday party and my daughter was totally besotted with him he really is a all round lovely man a great article 🙂 he has a amazing way with kids and by the looks of these beautiful toys very talented as well

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