Phyl Newbeck, Contributor
When Patrick Slater started making wooden toys, his hope was that baby boomers would buy them for their grandchildren. He was right about the first part.
Baby boomers are some of his biggest customers, but they are keeping products from Slater’s Vermont Wooden Toy Factory on their own desks and coffee tables, rather than giving them away.
After college, Slater got a job as a financial analyst, but six months later, he met the head of the company’s IT department who was also the commissioner of a fantasy football league. When Slater successfully automated the league, he got offered a job in that department and embarked on a career in IT which eventually moved into hardware and the back end of websites.
Slater dabbled in woodworking throughout his life but never had the time or tools he needed to do more with his hobby. He and his wife moved to Charlotte in 1992 and after a stint in Shelburne, they returned in 2008. Slater wanted to take a hands-on approach to building the family’s new home and that got him reacquainted with his woodworking tools.
When he left the IT world in 2016, Slater dedicated more time to his craft. His first goal was to carve a spiral in a dowel. It only worked half the time, so he contacted a woodworker he had been following on YouTube for assistance. When the man told him he didn’t think it was possible, Slater decided to prove him wrong.
Slater doubted there would be much of an audience for what became the Marblelous Wooden Spiral, but a friend convinced him to put it on Etsy and Vermont Wooden Toy Factory was born. After the spiral, Slater created the Crank which allows users to propel a marble upwards before heading down a spiral. Then came the Mother-in-Law which has one crank and two spirals.
One of the joys of toymaking is the time Slater spends at craft fairs. He recalls an event at the Billings Museum where a young girl repeatedly ignored her mother’s entreaties to keep moving, even rejecting an offer of ice cream so she could continue playing.
Slater used to purchase wood from suppliers in Bristol and Essex, but in 2018 he and his wife downsized and bought a 20-acre wooded parcel on Lewis Creek. Slater took down the trees that were in danger of falling. He started milling using a chainsaw mill but found it too time consuming, so he invested in a bandsaw mill. This year, the apple, black cherry and white and red oak that he milled is dry enough to work with, fulfilling his goal to be self-sustaining on his property.
In addition to his own designs, Slater takes requests for new creations. He made a series of saxophone reeds at the suggestion of a musician friend. His stacking stones began as a request from his niece who is a special educator. Initially he only made two sets, but they became really popular at craft fairs, so he has been making more.
Slater said he often hears from people who want him to recreate childhood toys. He made a letter opener with marbles for a woman from Missouri and it has become a popular holiday gift. One customer in Australia asked him to replicate a marble cannon she remembered from her youth in an orphanage. Slater said he was willing but warned her that, in addition to being labor intensive, shipping would be incredibly expensive. Since then, she has purchased each of Slater’s toys, with some of them going to the children’s hospital where she works. One of Slater’s creations was purchased by a museum in London, and another was a gift to former NHL star P.K. Subban from his sister.
For now, Vermont Wooden Toy Factory is just Slater with some seasonal help from his wife and two of his daughters. He recently turned down a student in France who wanted an internship. He has received inquiries from people who want to buy wholesale, but at this point, he doesn’t have the set-up to mass produce items, and he’s not sure he wants to go that route.
Slater is currently working on a modular marble run activity for the library which would include several different parts that kids could put together. He envisions 10 different runs and six different diversions with perhaps a marble lift or elevator.
“For me to be stimulated, I need to do new things,” he said.
For that, kids — and their grandparents — are grateful.