The Wooden Toy and Its Design, Manufacture and Marketing

Tibor Uhrín

A toy, used as an aid and means for a child’s playing, fulfils the most varied functions. It stimulates the motor, mobility, mental and emotional development of the child, and it also plays an important role in socialisation. Furthermore, it may be a means of reducing and removing a harmful excess of psychic tension in a child. And therefore we need not think of the toy merely as a means for children’s playing. It renders important service also as an object which effectively helps in developing the child’s personality and thus has intellectual, didactic, therapeutic and pedagogic dimensions. No toy can fulfil all the functions at once. Only a child’s imagination can assign the role of toy to diverse objects. The role of adults is to give guidance to children in their spontaneous decisions, because the children cannot make adequate judgments, particularly as regards the safety of playing (what children would not gladly play with real weapons?) Nonetheless, it is precisely the adults who come in the line of fire of the film industry’s sophisticated marketing, which finds an important source of increased profits in toys (models of the well-known characters of the cartoon films). But what meaning do toys have for the adult? They are a cause of concern for adult purchasers, who are seeking the most suitable toys, appropriate to the child’s age, durable, and not very expensive. They give employment to designers, who have a professional interest in seeing that they are creative, high-quality, manufacturable, and along with all that, successful. They are an object of interests to teachers, psychologists and pediatricians, who investigate whether they do not damage the child’s proper psychomotor development, etc. And toy manufacturers are worried about being able to produce them effectively and sell them at a profit. For manufacturers and retailers toy production is an extremely demanding field in terms of competition. To achieve success there requires hard work with a capacity for sustained innovation and massive marketing support. The Slovak market is too small for the successful, profitable mass manufacture of toys. However good a toy may be, if the manufacturer wants to get it successfully into the European market, there is no choice but to make an appearance at the Nuremburg Toy Fair and to win the trust of retailers over a number of years.


When working out the requirements for a good toy one must bear in mind quality (material used, functionality), production (quality of possible manufacture, technology), design (aesthetic level, safety, appearance, colourfulness), originality, and finally also the toy’s use (educational purpose, didactic utility). This list might be completed by referring to a dimension, not easily definable, which toys often lack – the emotional side of design, or simply the toy’s expression. Attractiveness based on a captivating expression can play an important role precisely when the child wants to reach for a favourite toy, when he is tired, when he wants to feel secure. An example of a different type of toy is the construction set, based on technical dexterity and spatial imagination, which the child will tackle more for satisfaction from creative work, thinking and experimentation. In the creative process the designer does not initially need to formulate specific goals or to define precisely the age of the appropriate target group. Most toys originate from experimentation with diverse materials, inspirations from the animal world, or the development of mechanisms or various physical phenomena, or alternatively their mutual combination. Once having discovered the key thought–motif, only then does the designer proceed to specification and definition of the more closely-defined aims of the toy.


Even today wood is an important manufacturing material, and in processed form it is part of the contemporary cultural environment. Past times give us many examples of the happy combination of tradition with a modern approach. In contrast to the Czech milieu, in Slovakia the manufacture of wooden toys saw a vigorous development during the interwar years in three areas in particular: Kunešov near Kremnica, Stará Tura, and Kyjatice near Rimavská Sobota. However, in none of these places did manufacture exceed the limits of traditional folk production. Currently wooden toys are sold only as a supplementary assortment. They cannot compete with the more flexible and accessibly-priced plastic varieties. Wooden toys generally require a special set-up for perfecting the technological processes of their manufacture. It is not sufficient for their makers to have merely traditional carpenters’ equipment and craft experience gained in practical woodworking. The need to turn out a large number of pieces, the untypical shapes, and at the same time the minute segments of toys, are among the reasons for seeking the most efficient procedures. In the past also, the manufacture of each wooden part had to be painstakingly thought out, which required creative technical thinking and keen intelligence if the toymaker was to gain a reasonable financial reward. Though now outmoded, these technological procedures are very inspiring even today, when they are being redeveloped using up-to-date woodworking equipment.

The Market

Nuremberg is the venue where the largest fair is held for toys and materials for spare time activities and hobbies. The Fair is designed exclusively for professionals from the entire world and it is an important source of information which enables one to find orientation in the market. Having done a complete survey of the Nuremberg Fair, one must inevitably find that the question comes to mind: does such a huge number of toys need to exist? Only a small fraction of the toys on offer can be regarded as genuinely good, high-quality, innovative and creative. A further problem of imbalance is caused by the existence of „Asian manufacture“, where the fundamental principle of enterprise is plagiarism and copying, and for a long time now the range of materials used have not simply been confined to plastic and textiles. We can sense something of an „Asian complex“ in European manufacturers, because it is no longer the case that everything coming from Asia is cheap and low-quality. That is a piece of positive news for the consumer. But how can one hold out in this merciless competition? Some firms solve the problem by constantly finding new manufactured products, others by raising the quality of production and material and using good craftsmanship and design. In the present-day period most new innovative and creative products are manufactured in small (often family) enterprises, which indeed are sometimes managed by the designer himself. These small firms often have an inclination towards craft work and experimentation with materials, and they have an undeniable advantage: they can more frequently innovate the manufacturing programme and they have closer contact with the consumer, which speeds up the feedback from the customer to the producer.

In Slovakia in the 1990s we would often hear that we were living through a renaissanvce of toys. It was not entirely true at that time, nor is it now. During the past 20 years an unmistakable slump in that commodity has been recorded at the Nuremburg Fair. About a third of what remains comprises toys which we would categorise rather as souvenirs. Here at home the range on offer is dominated by traditional local producers from the Krušné hory region, especially from the town of Seiffen, which has a tradition over three hundred years old of making lathe-turned, cleft, carved and painted figurines, toy houses and crackers.

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