Watching a child fumble with a puzzle and seeing their eyes glint with happiness upon solving it, is a special feeling that is hard to articulate to others.
Playing with puzzles and wooden toys was a staple of our childhood. As time ticked on, everything became plastic. While the new toys may be tooth-friendly and easy to clean, they don’t quite have the charm of wooden toys from days gone by.
Enter Scott Snella: a computer programmer by trade, he partook (as many adults do) in various hobbies. Between creating SimGalaxy and wooden bowls under the moniker Berkshire Bowls, he started to experiment with new ideas and wooden puzzles were the result.
Upon discovering Etsy, Snella realized that the platform would be a great storefront for someone who creates toys from wood as a hobby. The initial costs were minimal and the customer base, large—perfect! It was on Etsy that I stumbled across Snella’s toys, and decided to ask him a few questions about his designs and creative process.
NWC: What is your artistic process for choosing designs for your toys?
The process of designing a toy or puzzle varies. Typically I try to brainstorm ideas, perhaps by myself, maybe with friends. I jot down all the ideas. When I have some time to sketch ideas, I can just look at the list. Where the ideas come from is anyone’s guess. Sometimes I get on a theme like ‘construction’ or ‘the jungle.’
Most of the time, I will get a subject, look up some pictures online and start sketching it in my notebook (just a regular, old college ruled notebook). Sometimes the idea takes shape quick, sometimes I have to draw several sketches before I get something I really like. I can browse back through the notebook and either start sketching a subject again, or even just take one I had already drawn and make it.
Once I have the sketch, it usually isn’t the correct size. At that point, I scan it into the computer. Once in the computer, I can use photo editing software to scale it to be as tall, long or big as I want it. Then I can print it out.
NWC: How do you create your toys? Did you teach yourself how to do it, or did you use online resources, or help from friends?
I am completely self-taught. While I have taught myself things in the past by watching videos, reading books or watching others, with the puzzle making, I have learned on my own. This has been a journey of trial and error, what works and what doesn’t. Things like tear out, sanding, what wood to use to make them sturdy, etc., all came with experience. I am not against using online resources. I really don’t like to even look at other people’s work. I don’t want to inadvertently incorporate someone else’s good idea in one of my designs.
Each puzzle is handmade. While that is nice, because as a customer you get something that no one else has, it is impossible on this end to create another piece for a puzzle.
A lot of my puzzles are created from 3/4” hardwood plywood, which allows them to stand when completed (for use as décor). I just cut out the pattern that I have previously created.
NWC: What has the reaction been to the toys from children and their parents?
Most of the feedback I have received has been fantastic. A lot of these toys are throwbacks to years ago when everything was made from wood and metal. I really think that there is something special about playing with those materials. That’s especially true when it is hard to find wood toys. The few that you do have are going to make an impression.
NWC: What age group do you recommend the toys for?
I really try to stay away from recommending any age group. There are some puzzles that have small pieces, and very small children shouldn’t play with them as they pose a choking hazard. The great thing about many of the puzzles, though, is that they are also décor for a child’s room. So, while I wouldn’t suggest that an infant play with a bumblebee puzzle, the beauty is that it can stay on a shelf in a room until they are a little older and can actually play with it.
As far as completing the puzzles, I think there are several that could be done by kids that are as young as 3 or 4. Again, it is tough to say as parents know their children best, and what might be doable for one 3-year-old might be too advanced for another.
Again, since the puzzles are designed to be décor as well, there are a number of adults that purchase the puzzles for themselves or other adults.
The state puzzles and some of the non-standing puzzles are quite a bit more difficult. After all, even a 25 piece puzzle that is just wood grain is challenging. So, those types of puzzles are more for older audiences, grade school through high school.
NWC: What has the response been from the children in your life? Does their input impact what you create?
Funny thing, I don’t have any children. So, the hands-on market research is a bit thin. I have had some friends who have picked them up for their kids or as gifts and much like the overall response, the feedback has been very positive.
I am always looking for ways to improve and frequently incorporate feedback into changes. For example, when sending packages overseas, I found that the international postal service is quite a bit harsher on them. So, additional packing material was required to secure safe passage.
NWC: What do you wish you knew about Etsy when you first started selling your creations on it?
That’s a tough one. I guess how to get items in front of the correct eyes. Teams, searching, categories, forums, and blogs are all part of the equation. Add to that the fact that the crew over there is constantly changing the rules on how to get your things in front of people, and it is practically a full time job. It would have been nice to have the knowledge when I started that I do now about such things.
NWC: What were your inspirations for creating the wooden toy puzzles?
I did wood turning (and actually started the business without puzzles at all). I opened up the shop, sold a few things. Then I bought a new saw and said, ‘what could I make with this thing?’ Puzzles were one of the answers I came up with. It started with natural wood puzzles (no paints). Most of those were thin puzzles (didn’t stand). I actually had a little bit of success selling those puzzles in my Etsy shop, which encouraged me. As I started exploring color, finishes, standing puzzles, etc., my style started to evolve. I don’t think I have reached the end of the journey yet, but, I do think that many of the puzzles I do these days have a look and a style to them.
NWC: What are the benefits of playing with wooden toy puzzles over the myriad of choices a parent can find at Walmart?
I think I have kind of already touched on some of that above. I have done a lot of research online about this very topic. There are even educational theories about children playing with all natural toys. I don’t know if I want to get into those specifically here. I will say that I went into Walmart one day during Christmas (actually kind of a fact finding mission to see what was hot with kids). I noticed something kind of disturbing. The majority (and I would say well over 50%) of the toys were tied into some TV show or movie somehow. Star Wars Legos, WWE action figures, Big Bang Theory board game, the list went on and on. There were very few toys that started children with a blank slate of make believe.
I don’t think many of the toys in department stores are meant to be played with for generations. They are plastic, they break, you throw them away. I could easily see my puzzles lasting for generations of play. Plus, there is something about the warmth of a toy that is made out of wood. In a way it brings the child closer to their roots in nature. That may sound a bit corny but, I think there is something to it. There is a balance in life between being inside and being outside. Natural wood toys help kids not only develop their imagination, but also return to those roots.