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Caruso’s workshop offers a slice of North Pole

Mass. toy maker builds business from woodworking hobby

Vinny Caruso of Pembroke, Mass., a landscaper in the warmer months, is a self-taught woodworker who has been making toys for 36 years. (AP photo by Greg Derr/The Patriot Ledger)

Dana Barbuto
The Patriot Ledger

Pembroke, MA (AP) — The air is filled with the smell of fresh-cut wood, and workshop shelves are stocked with pegs, wheels, axles and other tiny toy parts.

There are walls of screwdrivers, chisels, levels, pliers and other tools. There’s sawdust on the big machines: a table saw, a band saw, a drill press and a sanding machine.

There’s no buzzing or banging going on, but there will be. Orders for wooden toys are waiting to be filled, and Christmas is right around the corner.

This might sound like a description of Santa’s workshop at the North Pole, but the toy maker is Vinny Caruso of Pembroke. The magic happens in a windowless workshop in his backyard.

“This is my dump,” Caruso said, before proudly showing off his collection of wooden creations: trains, haulers, flatbeds, dump trucks, sewing machines, pull dogs, airplanes, wagons, blocks, hook-and-ladder fire engines, potty chairs and stacking rings. It seems there is nothing Caruso can’t make out of wood, except for an American Girl doll.

“That’s the last toy I bought in a store,” he said. “It was for my granddaughter.”

Over the years, Caruso has specially made a wooden doll cradle and a high-chair for one customer. A woman in Michigan wanted a fold-up ironing board.

“Send me a picture,” he said, “and I’ll come up with a design.”

The appeal of Caruso’s wooden creations is that, in an age of high-tech toys for even the littlest children, the toys he makes are timeless classics and nods to nostalgia.

“The toys remind me of the quality of toys I had from when I was little,” said Rosemary Traveis, a grandmother from Marshfield, Mass. “The quality of his work is incomparable.”

For Christmas, Traveis bought a hook-and-ladder fire engine for her grandson and an ironing board for her granddaughter.

“The toys are something they can pass on to their own kids,” she said.

Caruso produces his own toy designs and then makes all the pieces in batches. He has to cut, chisel and sand the wood.

Later, he’ll put all the pieces together for the finished product. He might build dozens of trains one day and then spend another sanding.

“It’s easier to do it this way than make one toy from start to finish,” Caruso said.

Each toy is hot-branded with Caruso’s “Wooden Toy Junction” stamp.

Caruso, 57, started making toys 36 years ago, when his oldest boy was a baby, and just kept right on doing it.

“I’ve been a woodworker since I was a kid,” he said. “I worked nights for 30 years, so I made toys during the day.”

Caruso has three grown children and four grandchildren, and his fifth grandchild is on the way. He said he remembers that when his grandchildren started to walk, each would take steps with one of his pull-dogs or ducks in tow.

“They’re my testers,” Caruso said. “They test by flying the toys against the wall. Then I can see what falls apart and what doesn’t and make them better.”

All the toys are made out of pine that’s been dried for two years.

“I have a thousand feet of 2-inch pine in my mother’s basement,” Caruso said.

He figures he uses about 800 2-inch wheels, 1,500 pegs and about 5 gallons of carpenter’s glue in a year.

The toys don’t feature lots of lights and sounds, but that doesn’t make them any less interactive. Caruso leaves them unfinished so kids can paint them.

Caruso is a self-taught woodworker.

“My great uncle was a master carpenter back in the day when carpenters were carpenters,” he said. “He built a birdhouse that looked like the White House, and I wanted to do that, too.”

When he was younger, a big night out for Caruso was going to buy a piece of wood or a tool.

“I would get a 4-foot-long piece of wood and file it down to a pile of shavings,” he said. “I learned by hand. If you can’t cut a board with a handsaw the right way, then you won’t be able to use the power stuff.”

He paused, held up his hands and, wiggling his fingers, said: “I still have them all.”

Toy making is a real labor of love for Caruso. He not only makes the toys by hand, he handles the packing and shipping of orders. He’ll even deliver local orders himself, just like Santa Claus. He also makes toy donations to local charities.

“I want to make a lot of kids happy,” he said. “I don’t do this to get rich. I wish I could make the stuff and give it all away.”

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