Some thoughts on wooden toys

A smooth unpainted wooden toy car with a curved front and inset metal wheels

I bought this simple 'supercar' toy just before Christmas. It's from the Erin Rose shop on Folksy and is handcrafted from solid oak, with wheels made using skateboard bearings. It's quite beautiful, and manages to have just the right amount of design simplicity such that it suggests at a fast sports car, but leaves a lot to your imagination.

'Wooden toys' seem to exist as a whole separate category of toys, almost defining themselves as being the polar opposite of cheap plastic toys. There are entire shops that specialise in them (e.g. the Wooden Toy Store), and they seem to appeal to a certain market.

There's a lot loaded within the 'wooden toy' label though, which I think is worth unpacking. There's the eco angle - wood is a natural material, and therefore feels more sustainable than the fossil-fuel based plastic. There's the 'craft' - wooden products are associated with carpentry and hand-tools (even if they're really mass-produced). There's also often a provenance angle: wooden toys are often made in European countries, whereas most other toys are usually made in China.

These are laudable attributes, and there are some great wooden toy designs out there - but I think it's never good to be too nostalgic and focused on the material. Some wooden toys are pretty low quality, and are probably made in the same Chinese factories that churn out plastic Hasbro dolls.

Good design is what's really valuable. And good designers will select whichever materials give them the properties and aesthetics they're after.

After all, Lego started out as a wooden toy company, but it's the ABS plastic of modern Lego bricks that gives them their special ability to firmly stick to each other, and yet be able to come apart again.