To The Best of Our Knowledge

                   Public Radio International

Made by Hand - May 1998


Host, Jim Fleming     Guest, John Michael Linck, Toymaker


Jim- Computers, Automated assembly lines, mega corporations; they all threaten the solitary craftsman. For woodworker John Linck the competition is particularly tough. His competitors, with names like Mattel and Lego have already won the hearts of parents and children. Linck makes his living making toys. He works alone in his basement shop. Recently he told me he has consented to advertise his trains and doll beds on the world wide web, but when it comes to his handiwork and his materials he sticks with tradition.


John- All my toys are made from hardwoods. Most of them are from Wisconsin. I use a lot of black cherry, black walnut, hard maple, red oak; all good strong woods that can take a beating. There is always the unfortunate flight down the basement stairs, maybe not always but often enough that you want to plan for it. And hardwood is pretty durable. It will take that.

Jim- Trains are a part of what you make, a pretty big part I would guess.

John- Trains are one of my first toys, along with blocks, and they continue to be best sellers, because they are traditional toys that continue to be fun for kids. They have a lot of play value.

Jim- Well, tell me about some of the cars that you brought here, you brought an engine. That was logical, you can't carry a train around without bringing the engine.

John- My engine is modeled after an old steam locomotive and it carries something a little ironic. It carries, the first car you see is an automobile carrier which probably wasn't often pulled by a steam locomotive. The next car is a box car that has a sliding door to get the cargo inside. Another car, that probably is one of the more popular, is the circus car with a gate on one end to hold a tiger or a lion. But, I have twelve other cars too. I have everything from log cars, to cabooses, to tenders and people tend to choose it over time. People will start with two or three cars and as a child grows the train grows.

Jim- The other thing that you have brought with you is the classic wooden toy, although with some variations that I've not seen before. That's your set of blocks. Tell me about this.

John- This is one of the two block wagons that I make. This one is a pull toy, it has a string on the end, with a ball on the end to pull it around the house.

Jim- A wooden ball we should add.

John- Sure. Its made of black cherry and it contains red oak blocks. These are unit blocks. Unit blocks were designed or discovered shortly after the first world war by a woman who taught nursery school. And the most outstanding feature they are all proportionally shaped. Each block...

Jim- Is it OK if I pull a block out of here?

John- Oh, please play all you want. Each block is a multiple or a fraction of the next one, so two small blocks equal one big one. It makes it very easy of the child to stack them quite high and make shapes.

Jim- Most of the time you spend working on your toys is time you spend alone, Isn't it.

John- It is a very solitary business. I work alone. I'm the janitor, the woodworker, the marketer, the postman. I do it all. Which is kinda unusual these days. To do everything well is difficult, so there are always a couple of balls in the air that are sometimes dropped. But its been OK, I've been able to make a living these years. As I grow older the boards get heavier, I see, maybe an apprentice coming, but not yet.

Jim- When you have finished a toy and you present it, especially with a new one, do you test them at all, do you try them out. You used to with your own children, do you try them out on others?

John- I do. In fact around my house are a collection of early prototypes that didn't quite measure up. I tried to make a wooden sled for years and for three winters the neighborhood children got free sleds because they were testing all my prototypes. I was trying to make this elegant, delicate looking wooden sled, kinda on the order of snowshoe furniture. But I also knew that toy to meet my standard lifetime guarantee had to survive a three or four kid sandwich when they jump on altogether. Unfortunately, I never could solve that problem in a way I could make it at a reasonable price. You can do a lot in wood if you have infinite time and unfortunately I have to watch the clock, to make a living.

Jim- These toys are designed for kids.

John- Certainly.

Jim- But my guess is that in addition to appealing to the kids they appeal to the kid's parents about as much. Is that right?

John- Jim you would be surprised at the people I meet who come up to me and say, "My father or my grandfather made one of those for me or gave me one of those as a child and I wish I still had it. It got away from our family at some point." And they look at my toys, a simple wooden train, a simple set of blocks, a simple doll bed and they think, "I remember that." And it probably isn't exactly what they had, but it suggests what they had. The emotion in their voice, and the memories come through very strongly. And, boy I hope my toys give those kind of memories.

Jim- And the kids. When they approach your toys, now these are kids in 1990's America who have a lot of stuff they can see on television to play with. Do they take to these immediately?

John- Immediately. I know of no child that doesn't want to sit down and push a train or build something with blocks. Maybe when they are older and they discover computer games you lose some of them, but not all of them. A lot of children will choose blocks or building far longer than you would expect. My own son gave up his blocks when he went to high school. I almost think it was peer pressure because he still loves to build. Now he does it in architecture class.

Jim- Each one of these toys must take you a lot of work to put together.

John- You can't rush it. There are no shortcuts in fine woodwork. You can automate your machines a bit, you can add a few more motors, but in the end the quality comes from your hands. I am limited in my production and my income by how many I can make and its a finite number each year. I get calls from catalogs and now with my introduction to the world wide web I get calls from overseas; people asking me to sell them toys. One today was from Hong Kong, last week it was from Brazil. The want my wholesale terms and how to ship the container to Brazil. I laugh and I email them back saying, "You don't understand the scale here. I'm not that big." I don't wholesale. I sell all the toys I can make each year at retail.

Jim- You have some things here; you could hire help and make more. Why don't you?

John- I don't want to be a manager. I want to be a woodworker. A lot of the work in these toys is tedious. A lot of it is sanding and shaping. It could be done by someone less skilled. I could bring in five or six workers and increase my output quite a bit. Then I would have to spend more time marketing, traveling, wholesaling. Pretty soon I wouldn't be doing the woodwork anymore. And that's not a bad direction, its just not one I've chosen.

Jim- The pleasure for you is in keeping your hands on the wood.

John- I like to finish the day with a beautiful toy that I can touch and stroke and think, "This is fine and its going to last, and a, maybe it will give somebody a memory.

Jim- John Linck is a toymaker in Madison, Wisconsin.

Its, "To The Best of Our Knowledge," I'm Jim Fleming.

Made by hand show. - - - PRI - Public Radio International

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John Michael Linck - Toymaker - 2618 Van Hise Avenue - Madison, Wisconsin 53705

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Telephone 608-231-2808

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