Special Issues » Made in Michigan

Talking with a Michigan toymaker

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Michigan craftsman Ron Nolan, 68, has been making children's toys out of wood for 35 years. He was brought to our attention by the Michigan Guild of Artists and Artisans, who praised not only his work, but his bone-dry sense of humor.

Nolan, who lives up near Higgins Lake, says the extent of his training was a high school shop class, but that got him started with woodworking. He's worked more than 1,200 craft shows over the last 35 years, selling the children's toys he makes out of hard maple, walnut, and cherry that he dries and mills himself. In his 35 years of tabling craft shows, he hasn't missed the Ann Arbor Art Fair once. "I'm starting to sell to third-generation customers there," he says. "It's like I'm part of the family almost at that show."

Nolan was kind enough to spend a half-hour chatting with us about his work, the craft fair circuit, and the challenges and rewards of selling things person-to-person. Here are the high points of that conversation.

Metro Times: Just how does a guy get into making wooden toys for children?

Ron Nolan: That's one of the strangest stories ever: I taught school for nine years in southern Michigan, and it was all fine, but I'm from northern Michigan and kind of wanted to get back, so I applied to a few jobs in northern Michigan in 1981. I ended up having an interview in Houghton Lake, and the superintendent said, "You're hired — pending the passage of the millage. But we haven't had a millage fail in 15 years or so." That was good enough for me, so I went back and quit the old job.

You can probably figure out what happened with the millage.

So there I was with two house payments and no job, and I've always kind of liked to monkey around with wood. Just to keep myself halfway sane over the situation, I was making various things. I didn't know such a thing as arts and crafts existed, and as the shop kept filling up with items, a buddy of mine was over and said, "Go to an arts and crafts show." And I said, "What's that?"

I started out just doing a couple local shows and through word of mouth heard of better shows. That was at a great time to enter the field: Craft shows were well-attended, and they kept growing by leaps and bounds. It didn't take long for me to think that this was a pretty viable way of making a living. The overhead was so much lower than it is now. The gas was cheap, the motels were cheap, the shows were cheap. It isn't nearly as lucrative as it used to be.

MT: What did you start out making from wood? Was it toys?

Nolan: I really had no direction when I started out: I might make shelves, end tables. I might make a toy as a birthday present for nieces or nephews. But as I got to doing shows, it just seemed like the toys were more consistent sellers, and that was the direction I went in. I still make other things — and kind of like making them better — but because of the method of selling, you know, cabinets and end tables are fine and dandy, but when you're transporting them all over the country to shows, they're a hassle. So the toys are what I specialized in and stuck with.

MT: What's the kind of stuff that sells best?

Nolan: Not to brag or anything, but it's just a matter of fact that just about any show I go to, I outsell any other toymakers, and they often have more intricate things. I'm not really doing this to become an artist; I'm doing this for a living, and there's no money in that high-priced stuff. Customers are looking for something that's going to keep the kid happy for a year or two, and not fall apart. The way I look at it, it's easier to sell Chevys than to sell Cadillacs.

MT: We know a little bit about your "waste-not, want-not" practices. Can you tell us what that's like?

Nolan: If there's any art in me, that's the art right there. I have very little waste. For example, I make animal banks with a stomach area cut out for Plexiglas so the kids can see the money in the bank. And that cutout from the middle of the bank turns into $14 worth of toothbrush holders. So there isn't any waste, which allows me to keep my prices competitive. I get rough-cut lumber and dry it in my own kiln. You get to pick out your own price when you do it that way. That's the whole key to being a businessperson. That's part of the fun of it.

MT: Do you still enjoy seeing the kids react to your toys?

Nolan: Oh, sure. There's the excitement when they come into the booth. They go from one thing to another and the parents are trying to zero in on what the kids like the best, and at that point the kids are so excited they really don't know. It's like the old expression — "a kid in a toy store."

Ron Nolan has no website yet, but he can be reached by telephone at his Roscommon studio at 989-821-7490.

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