About four years ago, Chuck Baker, 67, figured it was time for a new hobby. "I was approaching retirement and decided to buy tools to make things for around the house," recalls the Sterling, Va., resident. When he found a project for making a puzzle in one of his saw books, he gave it a shot—after all, with a brood of 22 grandchildren and great-grandchildren, he could always use an extra toy.
That one puzzle turned into a stockpile of 25, and then 25 more, until this year, he opened his "usnavyretiredvet" online shop on the website Etsy.com. Baker has already sold 200 wooden works in the shape of fire engines, steam trains, chimpanzees, and more.
Part of his success stems from the fact that parents are rethinking toy shopping after a year dominated by recalls due to lead-based paints, dangerous chemicals, and small parts. Rather than worry about what hidden terrors lurk under the colorful packaging, parents can snap up goodies from artisans like Baker or even try to conjure up their own.
Ketchup. There's a long tradition of parents making playthings for children, reminds Stevanne Auerbach, a children's product expert better known as Dr. Toy. Raggedy Ann and the Slinky were both developed for the inventors' kids, and there are many other examples, from kites to sock monkeys.
The process of making the toy can be as amusing as playing with the finished project, adds Ellen Lupton, coauthor of DIY Kids, a manual of craft projects for wee ones. In youthful imaginations, even ketchup packets can transform into a doll. Just draw faces on the white side with a black marker. "It's free, and then you can eat the ketchup," Lupton notes. Or build castles out of cereal boxes—they're colorful on one side, a neutral gray on the other, and kids can cut them up with scissors.
Cuddlier creations are also in the realm of possibility, says Jen Gubicza, 28, another Etsy.com seller whose specialty as "sweetestpea" is chubby animals. Making toys such as her signature penguins and hedgehogs involves some effort, and the finished product probably won't look as polished as toy store stuff—even graphic designer Gubicza describes her first attempt as "lumpy." But the toy is bound to be more memorable. "No one else has this. It's one of a kind," she says.
Of course, just because your toys are coming out of your rec room instead of a factory in China doesn't mean you can ignore health hazards. Ed Mierzwinski of U.S. Public Interest Research Group, which recently released its 22nd annual toy safety survey, advises that hazards can lurk in unexpected places. Pressure-treated lumber is brimming with "gnarly chemicals," so that's a no-no, as are metals that might contain lead and any little parts, like buttons, that might fall off your homemade masterpiece and turn into a choking threat.
But with the right precautions, you can craft toys that can compete with almost anything in a store. For Baker, the greatest satisfaction comes in knowing that the kids playing with his toys will one day be able to pass them on to their children. "I've found something people will remember me for," he says. "Something of me will last after I'm gone." And it'll be something that gives everyone joy.