COLUMBIA — Hazy sunlight brightened the multicolored patchwork curtains at Creative Days on Wednesday during a field trip of third- and fourth-graders from the Windsor Street Montessori School.
Activities and toys were set out for the giggling children to play with after they finished their painting projects. Fourth-grader Robert Hunter, 9, headed to the far corner of the play area and picked up a toy. More of his classmates became curious, too.
Finally, third-grader Kendra Boone, 8, asked Robert, "What are you doing?"
He wasn't playing with the newest iPad or Halo video game or gadget. Rather, he had a Timberworks building block set, old-fashioned wooden toys meant to engage children by expanding their imagination.
"A video game isn’t going to foster creativity in a child," said Chris Heston, founder of Timberworks Toys. "Timberworks allows for kids to have open-ended creative play."
Inspired by watching his young son play with building blocks, Heston, a cabinetmaker, got the idea to make bigger, more stable building blocks in his workshop. Although he initially intended to make only a small number of sets, his idea grew into Timberworks Toys, a growing company that emphasizes quality products and local production.
"I showed it to some people; I was only going to make a few," Heston said. "Then to do the job right, I bought some equipment, and it started to snowball the process into going all out."
In an era in which the U.S. toy industry generates $21.47 billion in revenue, according to NPD group, a consumer data website, Timberworks Toys is beginning to carve a successful niche.
Timberworks Toys has been in business for less than a year, so it doesn't have anything to compare this holiday season's sales to, but Heston has definitely noticed an increase over earlier in the year.
“Our sales have quadrupled in the last couple of months,” said Lyndsey Mertzlufft, an MU senior who is Heston’s assistant.
Heston isn’t worried about the traditional nature of his product in a digital age.
“You have your people who like gadgets,” he said. “But there is a growing trend of people wanting to get back to basics. Those are the same people who won't let their kids play video games."
According to the NPD group's findings in 2009, building sets increased in revenue, while electronic toys decreased.
Heston's sets include different-sized wooden blocks that interconnect; some sets also have wheels. He makes these in the back of his cabinetry shop off Business Loop 70. "This is 'Toy World,'" he said, laughing as he gestured past the woodworking machines and noisy saws he uses for his cabinetry business to an area where the sets are assembled.
Heston sends the wooden toys to be sanded at a Moberly business, but he handles the rest himself, relying on specialized machines and a labor-intensive series of steps to create the grooved blocks. He uses maple wood.
“Hard maple is a premium wood," he said. "Timberworks Toys uses hard maple, while other do not. These materials are the best you can use.”
Recognizing there are other building-block companies such as Lincoln Logs and Legos, Heston is trying to make a product different from the rest. Besides using higher quality wood, he also wants his toys to be able to grow with his consumers. A small child can use them because the parts are too big to be swallowed, and an older child can still be satisfied by the challenges of making them work together.
"The size of the timber is unique," Heston said. "The large size allows smaller children to stack them, while the unique interlocking construction attracts older children."
It took two years from the time the first Timberworks set was built until the first one was sold. Heston used this time to create a solid infrastructure for his company to grow.
"The whole reason I started this company is because I wanted to build a quality product. This is not a disposable product — it will outlast my lifetime," Heston said as he knocked on wooden toy pieces used to hold his computer towers.
Heston's toys range in cost from $79 to $399 on the company website. Three Columbia retailers, Anne’s Teacher Store, Creative Days and Butterfly Tattoo, sell them.
“We have sold a couple of pieces, but there has been a lot of interest” said Butterfly Tattoo owner Amanda Vandertuig, whose own children play with them. “They are high-quality, local goods.”
Creative Days co-owner Katy McDonald is a member of Columbia Locally Owned Retail & Services, an organization for small businesses in the city. “We are a small business,” McDonald said. “We are all for helping other small businesses, and we love his product, too.”
McDonald has noticed that the Timberworks building blocks are among the more popular play items at Creative Days.
Heston said his biggest point in selling the toys is that they're 100 percent American-made. “I am a big proponent about buying American and supporting your local businesses,” he said.
He has also helped the Missouri Children’s Museum in Columbia by giving it a Timberworks set for little visitors to enjoy.
This year, Timberworks Toys received a national Parents Choice Award, which gives recognition to toys that extend learning outside the classroom.
"After the holiday season, Timberworks Toys is going to try and expand their market beyond being a Christmas specialty gift and focus on schools," Heston said. "We have lesson plans that can be used with the sets on our website, and they have the durability to withstand schools."