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Toy Maker of Lunenburg creates designs to pass on through the decades

Elke Uribe, left, and Ray Syvitski, owners of the Toy Maker of Lunenburg, make wooden toys, games and brain teasers to inspire young imaginations. ALLISON LAWLOR
Elke Uribe, left, and Ray Syvitski, owners of the Toy Maker of Lunenburg, make wooden toys, games and brain teasers to inspire young imaginations. ALLISON LAWLOR - The Chronicle Herald

Watching her father tucked away in his workshop busily making wooden pull toys, boats, trikes and rocking horses, it wasn’t a stretch for seven-year-old Noemi Syvitski to ask him, “Are you Santa Claus?”

To her disappointment, her father told her that while he did make the wooden toys and games that children love, he wasn’t Father Christmas. Instead, Ray Syvitski and his wife Elke Uribe are the owners of the Toy Maker of Lunenburg, a small company committed to designing and making safe, durable, ecofriendly toys, games and brain teasers that aim to inspire young imaginations and creativity.

With their old-fashioned charm and appeal, the wooden toys might be the antidote to the more widely popular, high-tech items that made this year’s hottest Christmas toy lists, such as Fingerlings, a line of animated baby monkeys who respond to touch and sound by blowing kisses, blinking and chirping.

“Customers immediately know they are not cheap foreign imports,” Syvitski said of his toys during an interview at his home in Hatchet Lake, just outside downtown Halifax. Made from locally-sourced wood and coated with non-toxic stain that comes from Germany, the toys Syvitski makes by hand are built to last so that they can be passed down through generations of family and friends.

A NEW PATH

Syvitski didn’t set out to become a toymaker, but becoming a father and losing his research job made him take stock of his life and options. He found his way to toymaking after a circuitous journey that saw him first earning his PhD in physical chemistry.

Originally from Thunder Bay, Ont., Syvitski turned to woodworking and model-shipbuilding as an escape from his studies while at graduate school at the University of British Columbia. When his daughter Noemi was born in 2010, he and his wife looked for non-plastic, environmentally- friendly toys made in North America, and toys that would encourage free thinking and creativity. They were disappointed by how little they could find.

“Our tendency was to purchase toys that would last a while,” he said.

Before long, Syvitski was making toys for his kids. Three years after Noemi was born, they had their second child, Sebastian. Friends started asking if he could make them some toys in his free time. Back then, he was working full-time at the National Research Council in Halifax, focusing on drug development and quality control. Uribe also worked with him at the council. But in 2014 everything changed. Due to restructuring, the couple, along with several other colleagues, found themselves without jobs.

Out of work, with two young children, they quickly accessed their options. They could look for academic work that would take them outside the province, or get creative and find an alternative.

“Our main thing was that we didn’t want to leave Nova Scotia,” said Uribe.

STICKING IT OUT

Originally from Mexico City, Uribe came to Halifax to do her PhD in biochemistry and fell in love with the province. Having lived in Halifax since 2003 when he came to Dalhousie University to do his post-doctorate, Syvitski also didn’t want to leave.

After deciding they wanted to work for themselves, they turned to the Centre for Entrepreneurship Education and Development in Halifax for help. Syvitski completed a 40-week course and learned everything from marketing and finance to sales and legalities.

In 2014 he started his company, Woodchacallit, and focused on making outdoor play equipment for daycares. Daycare operators looking for natural, durable play equipment were eager to buy the wooden play huts he made from local hemlock. Made in the shape of a teepee, the huts, which cost about $1,000, are used as indoor reading spaces or also outdoors. Built with a heat shield on them, the huts are designed to stay cooler on the inside.

Many of the skills they developed as academics and researchers have come in handy building their business and products.

“The trial and error until you get it right, it’s the same thing we would do in the lab,” said Uribe.

“It’s the same procedure and attention to detail that is required,” Syvitski added.

Syvitski may no longer be dealing with molecules but he is still working on developing something. Now his focus is on products made of wood.

“We’re using our scientific understanding to design products,” he said. “We try to design things that don’t have a fixed purpose, so they are more open-ended.”

Wanting to expand his business and get some advice, Syvitski contacted Kevin Vickers, then theowner of the Toy Maker of Lunenburg. To his surprise, he discovered that Vickers and his wife Peggy wanted to sell the company they’d started in 1979. Syvitski and Uribe went to Lunenburg and after a three-hour lunch the Vickers decided the younger couple would be ideal to carry on the company’s tradition of making high-quality, handmade wooden toys. They sold them the business in 2015. In Lunenburg, Syvitski still uses the 2,400-square-foot workshop Vickers created to make toys.

During the busy craft show season leading up to Christmas, Syvitski and Uribe left their workshop and home office to meet customers in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. They met grandparents looking for the perfect toy that would last, and parents with teenagers who bought the brain teasers and games they make, hoping to lure their kids away from their screens.

In January, they headed to Toronto with the Nova Scotia Designer Crafts Council to attend two trade shows, with the hope of grabbing the attention of retailers in Ontario and other parts of Canada. Locally, you can find their toys and games in Halifax stores like Nurtured, Woozles and Carrefour Atlantic.

-ALLISON LAWLOR

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