Interview with a Toymaker
Interview with a Toymaker
By Lucy Allen a.k.a @GVPhplay
So many of us are becoming more conscious about the toys we buy for our children in terms of how they’re made, where they’re made and the materials they’re made from. For me, it’s important that I support those small, independent businesses which design and make toys right here in the UK.
I came across Hellion Toys towards the end of last year on Instagram and was immediately hooked on how open-ended, versatile and beautiful the toys are. The icing on the cake was the fact that they’re made by a Mum in her own workshop in the Forest of Bowland, UK. She designs and handcrafts all of her toys herself, using sustainable processes, locally sourced materials and only FSC certified wood.
I’m lucky enough to now call her my friend and today, on her 40th birthday, what better time to introduce all of you to her too?
I grilled Nina about her toymaking from the very beginning, so that you can all understand exactly who you’re buying from, and who you’re supporting when you buy a Hellion Toys product. If you want to see for yourself - just check out her stories on Instagram and Facebook where you’ll be able to watch her making toys, painting by hand, packing up orders and, on occasion, scooting round the workshop on roller-skates.
Name: Nina aka Dr Hellion
Age: 39 years, 11 months and a few days
Star Sign: Leo
Specialist Subject: Hellion Toys
Why did you decide to apply your woodworking skills to making toys in particular?
I started designing toys and then the woodworking came after!
My first toy was aged 18 and it was a sensory toy made from fabric. I switched and swapped materials really for a long time in my practice, and even now I can make using a lot of different materials.
The sticking with woodworking came from the realisation that it was the most sustainable form ultimately. I could craft something from FSC wood and it would stand the tests of time.
So I'm pretty much self taught from years of doing it and I think that's why I identify more as a Toymaker than woodworker. In fact I want to correct people if they call me anything other than a Toymaker to be honest!
What was the hardest part of becoming a toymaker, and setting up your own company?
Honestly, getting a workshop set up to work from. I had the ideas, probably too many. I had the drive and the determination to put the hours in. I'd even had the epiphany after a health crisis that “life is too short not to just have a good old go!”
What I didn't have was cash or much time. Xander was still a baby back then.
My way of doing it was a step a day, to just keep going at it when I realistically could around a baby really. Make something, sell it and reinvest. It stood me in good stead I feel. As building up a dedicated space to work really unlocked my creativity. The workshop is my happy place.
What do you enjoy the most about your job?
All of it. Every bit, every day. Nothing I don't like really, apart from the accounting side of things. My motivation is making and the impact that brings. So all aspects connected to that are just full of joy.
The only downside is the calculator work, making a living is necessary, but isn't what gets me out of bed in the morning. The rainbows do that.
What inspires your different toy designs?
Probably a sense of anarchy really. A rebellion against the status quo of how most toys are made. I want to trouble the notions that it has to be done that way, as I'm not convinced it does.
Also stem subjects, I'm pretty fascinated with technology and the space between art and science. Probably why you see me making space toys!
What was your favourite toy as a child?
I was an arts and crafts kid from young, so it was art supplies mainly. I'm still the same now. I loved construction too, so meccano and Lego also a firm favourite. I didn't really like dolls or anything I felt I was supposed to gender-wise. I found it all a bit tedious really, instead I wanted to go build a helicopter. Who wouldn't?!
Where do you source your materials from?
As close to the workshop as humanly possible. It's like a bit of a mission statement for me. I want everything to have as little negative impact on the environment as possible and a positive one instead on small, local family businesses.
Where do you make all of your toys?
I design and make everything in the workshop now. I started out using maker spaces. I upgraded from what was essentially an old shed, then last year to an old barn conversion on a farm.
I mainly design at home though, then make, paint, stain and pack/post from the workshop.
Why is having an eco-friendly and sustainable approach important to you?
I finished my PhD in design interactions on quite a low note. The conclusion I came to was the Anthropocene was well underway and design had to radically change to meet the moment through more practice.
I felt like the academy was a place to talk about that realisation, but I wanted to try undertaking design differently instead and see what was possible through practice. So parking academia was certainly a big step, but the right one.
Although it certainly felt like an experiment for a time(!) and I was told I was out of step and doing it the wrong way multiple times too.
But genuinely we have to change how we are bringing things into the world. The methods have to be sustainable. The materials, the environment and the costs to the humans who make them all have to be approached with kindness and genuine sustainability
What happens to your waste wood or toys which don't meet your quality control standards?
I don't really have "waste" wood. The pieces of wood I work on just get smaller and smaller until they become unsuitable for toymaking. Then those bits and the sawdust goes out to the local businesses around me at the barn who use it as part of their making processes.
I don't get many whoops accidents really. It's more that some toys might be considered imperfect due to markings in the wood. Finished toys that are not "perfect" typically I donate if I can afford to. I like them to go to the local Food Bank, especially at Christmas so a child has something beautiful and special for Christmas day.
What would you love Hellion Toys to have achieved by this time next year?
To be still thriving away and tackling the backlog of creative ideas I'm desperate to get out, so keeping on with the new releases for sure.
Small, independent businesses are not all the same. They’re run by different people, in different ways, using different processes. I like to know the people behind these businesses and exactly where my money is going.
Hellion Toys products are beautifully finished, they’re designed with child-led open-ended play in mind, produced wholly in the UK and can provide years of play, growing alongside your child.
But when you buy from Hellion Toys you’re not just buying a beautifully handcrafted, sustainably made toy which will stand the tests of time and can be handed down through generations of your family. You’re investing in a person and her family, you’re putting food on her table and a roof over her head and you’re actively helping her to keep doing what she loves and is passionate about. Can you really think of a more worthwhile investment than that?
I absolutely loved this blogpost. I’m a huge fan of Hellion Toys and Nina in particular. All our toys are played with daily and enjoyed by the little one, visitors and myself, who often plays too!