Over 30 years after introducing the concept of mass producing wooden toys to the high school shop classes he was teaching, Steve Baldwin is still playing around with toys. These days, though, they’re a bit more complicated.
Steve’s original plan, when he began making the toy vehicles in 1976 in a 12′ x 12′ corner of his basement, was to make one car a month for sale at art shows. He sold six of them at his first show. Steve now works in a 60′ x 40′ building — a “100 foot commute” — and has made more than 1,000 different varieties of toy vehicles. The rumble seat puzzle car, his “first big one” remains the most popular.
When he started out, Steve had actually taken all the pieces of the car apart in order to apply the finish, then glued them back together. “I decided, ‘this is silly,'” he said, and opted to give people a choice in whether they used the toys as toy vehicles or as puzzles by letting the pieces remain separated, as puzzles. A few of his pieces – like the new cobra, made from a solid block — incorporate different ideas, but for the most part, Steve’s vehicles are all on the same chassis and are interchangeable. “People see ’em, and they don’t realize I’ve got a little Henry Ford in it,” he said.
Most of Steve’s toys are made primarily from walnut, a wood he prefers because of its highly figured appearance. Even though he’s made some toys thousands of times, Steve said, “I’ve avoided doing anything mechanized because then it starts to look like Kmart®.” All of his toys are hand sanded, and the fenders cut on a band saw — nothing on a CNC.
While Steve can make furniture — and the cradle he made several years ago for his own children will be used by the grandchild expected to arrive this year — he ended up specializing in the toys, he said, because of his participation in art shows. “With art shows, you apply and get in based on slides. My unique item gets me into the shows.”
That said, he does try different things within his toy niche, and has also been known to bring back a type of toy that he has quit making for a few years. One of his own favorites is the woody, and he’s also currently enjoying a new toy vehicle, a bicycle. “I’m a bicyclist,” he said, and a daughter who does triathlons “coached me to make sure I got it right” as he was designing the wooden bike toy.
“I love designing,” Steve said, “but the work limits me” in terms of how many designs he can create. “I have to stop and make things,” he explained.
He also loves the process of going to the shows. “It’s my creative outlet. I go to a show once a month, and I love talking to people to get inspired.” One show in particular stands out in his memory: back in the 1970s, he was doing a show in Fargo, North Dakota, when “an eccentric millionaire bought everything in the booth, including my storage boxes. I had to pull the trailer in the middle of the show and go home. That was it for the summer; I had to restock. I’m still looking for Archie …”
What Steve is not looking for is retirement. “If I stay healthy, I’ll do it forever,” he said. “I have so many ideas. It’s a labor of love.”