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Eugene toymaker carves career out of wood, smiles.

Byline: Joe Mosley The Register-Guard

It began in a physics lab at the University of Oregon, but the experiment was less scientific than domestic.

Don Gilbert's son, who was 2 at the time, had broken a Scandinavian-made wooden toy.

"I have a degree in architecture, from the U of O, and I said, `I can build a better toy than that,?" Gilbert says. "But I didn't have any tools."

So, 37 years ago, using tools owned by the university, Gilbert fashioned the first of what he estimates to be more than a million wooden toys he has made since the concept of his Oregon Wooden Toy Company took

shape in 1971.

His son liked the toy, and it caught the attention of others.

"A friend of mine suggested a trip to Saturday Market with some of the toys I'm making for my kids," Gilbert says. "I went to the Saturday Market with a card table and some samples, and came home with lot of orders."

Vehicles have been a staple for the company - planes, trains and automobiles.

There have been dolphins and other animals, and various special requests. But production always seems to come back to race cars, Lane Transit District buses, log trucks and McKenzie River drift boats.

"We kind of stick to our basic designs," says Gilbert, who still runs the company with help from his wife, Kim. "Mostly, they're transportation toys, as it turns out - because that's what kids tend to like.

"We try to reflect the things that kids see around them, so they can pretend they're part of the world. And they can get to know wood, which is a really nice material."

Tell that to the $71 billion worldwide toy industry.

Adrienne Citrin, spokeswoman for the Toy Industry Association, Inc., says wooden toys don't fit into any of the categories of toys whose sales trends are tracked by the trade association.

"I know they're out there and know they're selling," Citrin says.

The most recent study cited by the New York-based association shows North America far ahead of the rest of the world in spending on children's toys - more than $24 billion per year, which amounts to $360 per child.

Gilbert's modest operation seeks to tap just a tiny fraction of that overall market. His toys are priced by the retailers who carry them, but typically range from $4 to about $20.

He declines to be specific about production or sales figures, but says he "can produce 10,000 smiles with the toys every year." His goal is 30,000 smiles.

"Right now, the business is doing quite well," Gilbert says. "I can't keep up with it, but it's a lot of fun.

"We're having some really good years right now," he says. "We're coming back from some hard times about five years ago, when our main national customer went out of business. But we're doing pretty well - enough to live on."

Gilbert began his career as a city planner, serving for awhile as the planning director for Santa Fe, New Mexico. He got an offer to return to Eugene, where he had spent his college years, and worked for awhile as an assistant planner for the city before discovering his calling as a toy maker.

"I wanted a job where I could spend more time at home," Gilbert says.

"I enjoy working with tools, and enjoy the native part of it. What I like about it is the directness - you make something and you get a reaction from a child."

The business has had a winding journey from its early Saturday Market days, producing toys for a variety of retailers and other clients. There was an order for 10,000 commemorative Model A sedans for Ford, and similar arrangements with General Motors and Union Pacific Railroad.

But Oregon Wooden Toy Co.'s bread and butter has always been retail sales. Gilbert currently has his toys in about 100 stores - primarily in the West Coast's WinCo supermarket chain, at True Value hardware stores and in the eight Made in Oregon gift shops around the state.

"Toys have been selling extremely well for us, especially these little wooden ones," says Lavern Clithero, store manager for the Made in Oregon shop at Eugene's Valley River Center. "We've had these for what seems like ages - I've been here 13 years, and they've been here since before I came aboard.

"These (wooden toys) are down low enough (on store shelves) that children can pick them up themselves, and they carry them around the store," Clithero says. "And when the parents check out ... I feel that (toy) is the child's choice."

Even in an era of unprecedented realism, with lifelike detail found in everything from dolls to video games, Gilbert has chosen to keep his products simple.

Most - typically, vehicles with movable wheels and a nondescript driver who slips into and out of a slot behind the steering wheel - are designed as smooth shapes that suggest what they represent, but leave the matter open to interpretation.

"I let kids use their imaginations," Gilbert says. "I don't put a lot of detail on the toys, but we try to evoke a presence of something they've seen.

"It's kind of a joke, a little piece of wood pretending to be something else. But kids get the joke."

Over the years, Gilbert has developed a kinship with materials of his trade - the alder, pine, maple, birch, walnut and poplar lumber that he shapes into durable toys.

He says that forests - particularly those in the Northwest - are the most efficient means of "sequestering" carbon that trees gather from the atmosphere and store in their wood as they grow. And Gilbert is proud to say that toys he made more than 30 years ago have shown up recently on eBay and elsewhere.

"Wood is half carbon," he says. "So if you make something that lasts a long time, that's made of wood, you're keeping that carbon out of the atmosphere."

Gilbert has had as many as a dozen employees, but now operates as a sole proprietor with a handful of subcontractors who produce "blanks" for his various designs or help with the chore of turning wood on lathes.

The company started at the Gilberts' university-area home, then moved to a barn on the south side of Spencer's Butte - which was sold several years ago. Gilbert now does his production work at a Eugene woodshop that he built, and handles shipping and the business end of things from an office in his home.

"I think it's the hardest thing I've ever done, to run a business," Gilbert says. "I was thinking about teaching a class in all the mistakes you could make in running a business. I'm an expert in that."

Oregon Wooden toy company

Founded: In Eugene in 1971

Owners: Don and Kim Gilbert

Primary retail outlets: WinCo, True Value, Made in Oregon

Annual production: "10,000 smiles"
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Title Annotation:Business
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jul 20, 2008
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