Making Classic Toys

Made in America, Odd Jobs, People, Traditions
on November 16, 2008
David Mudd Dean Helfer Jr., founder and president of Channel Craft in Charleroi, Pa., often involves daughters Allison and Tessa in testing new toy ideas.

Brian Rudovsky, 40, blows air through a train whistle he’s made from hand-sanded birch and sassafras wood, cleaning out sawdust and testing the whistle’s sound.

The whistle is one of hundreds of handcrafted toys, including tin-box games, Tiddly Winks, dominoes and wooden tops, made at the Channel Craft factory in Charleroi, Pa. (pop. 4,871).

“I love it,” says Rudovsky, a 15-year veteran of the company, whose products are sold at small retail shops, historical sites, national parks, museums and national retail chains such as Cabela’s and Cracker Barrel. “I wouldn’t want anything else. A lot of handiwork goes into these toys.”

The company’s genesis dates back to 1983, when Dean Helfer Jr., a student at West Virginia University in Morgan-town, bought a 1972 Ford step van for $200 and installed his grandfather’s 1930s jigsaw and sander in the back. He then began crafting wooden boomerangs in the van, traveling to craft and toy shows across the country to sell his flying toys.

That first year Helfer made $6,500, and by the time he graduated in 1985 he was making $65,000 a year. That’s when he realized there might be a bigger business in handcrafting a variety of classic toys.

“It became quite apparent that there was more to this business than boomerangs,” says Helfer, now 46.

In 1985, Helfer moved Channel Craft out of his van and into a house in Morgantown. Three years later, he moved the business to Pennsylvania, first to Ellsworth (pop. 1,083) and then, in 1991, to Charleroi. Today, the company employs around 35 people, and makes puzzles, pick-up-sticks, jump ropes, treasure chests, three types of boomerangs and numerous travel-size games.

Many of Channel Craft’s products are classic American toys, such as jacks, spinning tops and Tiddly Winks, which require dexterity and skill. Other games include lessons on history or nature, such as the tin-box game “The Woods are Full of Them,” which allows players to learn interesting facts about bears.

“They’re not just about the play value,” says Helfer of Channel Craft’s toys. “They’re also about the educational value.”

Helfer, who serves as company president, often involves his own five daughters, ages 8 to 18, in the process of formulating and testing toy ideas. A few years ago, while on vacation, the family came across a Wonderball, an old-fashioned toy that has a ball of yarn wrapped around small toys, charms and trinkets. Soon Helfer made a prototype of the toy and tested it on a trip with one of his daughters and her friends.

“They were taking it apart, putting it together, taking it apart again,” Helfer says. “It amazed me that this would keep a 13-year-old’s attention. And these are kids with iPods, GameBoys, the whole deal.”

Helfer is proud of his company, and he knows customers value the “Made-in-America” label when they’re shopping for toys.

“It is a unique situation to have an authentic American toy company that still makes toys in America,” Helfer says. “The heritage of American pastimes is very important to me. That heritage has got to continue, and that’s why I stay in business doing this.”

Retailers that sell Channel Craft’s classic toys are aware that they’re a hit with both children and adults. “These toys bring back a lot of memories for adults and provide for parents to share those memories with their children while they play together,” says Karen Smith, a toy buyer for Lebanon, Tenn.-based Cracker Barrel. “It’s really all about bringing back family play time and the opportunity to engage in wholesome fun together.”

Many of Channel Craft’s employees also buy the toys for their own kids and grandkids. General Manager Denise Yurkovich, 52, says her grandchildren enjoy playing with the toys.

“My granddaughter is 8 and is just learning to play jacks, and my grandson would love to have a boomerang,” says Yurkovich, a 20-year employee. “It’s so nice to say you work for a company that’s proud of what it does.”