All it took was a wooden peg and round piece of wood for Michael Brown to make a wooden top that immediately caught the interest of his young audience. A toymaker and historian, Brown gave a talk on traditional American wooden toys and demonstrated how to make some of them at the Hereford branch of the Baltimore County Public Library on Jan. 18. Best of all, the girls and boys who attended the event got to try out — under Brown's watchful eye — some of the simple tools used to make toys.
In a corner of Hereford Library on a cold winter weekend, the sounds of sawing and hammering mingled with giggles and laughs. Guided by the calm, knowledgeable voice of Mike Brown, children ranging in age from 3 to 9 got a hands-on lesson in toy-making.
"I started making toys 30 years ago for my nephew," Brown told the group, as he showed them examples of the wooden puzzles, tops and a wooden jailhouse he has made. Completely self-taught, Brown learned woodworking and toy designs from various books he read. Soon the hobby became an occupation.
"I made a lot of mistakes," the White Hall resident said, of his beginnings. "I come up with a design and make three or four prototypes and then look for a way to do it that takes a lot less time."
Brown sells his toys at craft fairs and through word-of mouth. He also does group demonstrations. He started the talk at the library a few years ago.
"I love doing it," Brown said. "It is good for kids to learn."
Through a series of stations, Brown first demonstrated six different skills – including sawing, hammering and filing, and then gave each child a chance to try it, too.
"The secret of tool use is to not work harder, but work smarter," Brown explained, as he showed how to use a hammer.
"It's super heavy," laughed Jami Nelson, as she lifted the hammer. "I feel it does all the work."
Nelson brought her two children, Rafferty, 6, and Dempsey, 4, to the event.
"I think it's great," Nelson said. "I remember back in elementary school in woodworking making puzzles like this. I'm glad for them to see this."
Rafferty liked using the tool called a spokeshave, which is used for curved work but produces a neat wood scrap.
"It was cool," Rafferty said. "It made curly things."
Five-year-old Madelyn Michenzi agreed. While she has worked with a few tools before as she is helping her dad renovate the basement, the spokeshave was different.
"They're cool," Madelyn said, as she pulled a curly wood shaving.
"It's like your hair - curly," Mike Bare told his grandson, Avery Slocum, 4, when Avery revealed a handful of curly wood shavings.
"He was shy at first," Bare said, of Avery's hesitation to participate. "Now, he really wants to do this. I thought it might be fun."
While many were satisfied with taking home just wood shavings, each child took home a small top they made.
"Any top that doesn't spin for 30 seconds doesn't make it," Brown said, as tops spun on the table.
"It's really fun," said Joan Steinly-Marks, 9, of the demonstration. "I got to make little tops and that was fun."
While Brown, who also substitutes at Hereford High School, has made hundreds of toys, he is still looking for his favorite.
"I haven't made it yet," Brown said. "It's always the next one."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun