Early Companies in America

Posted in Uncategorized on May 21, 2009 by funmusics

3473239938_f80c92986c_mIn 1936 Marshal H. Larrabee II founded the Skaneateles Handicrafters, a toy company which made wooden toy trains and wooden tracks. The gauge was very similar to that used by most companies today, and so the rolling stock is compatible. However, the connections for the track pieces were of a different design than the jigsaw style “peg and hole” system used today.Trains were usually left unpainted and unstained, the parts being made of maple. In 1956 Playskool took over the sales for Skaneateles Handicrafters keeping the design style and track connecting system well into the sixties. Marshal H. Larrabee sold his company to the Germany based HabermaaƟ GmbH in 1980. It was renamed to T.C. Timber and kept producing in Skaneateles until 2002, when the production line was closed down.

2744012401_6014d6738e_mDuring the fifties the Jack-Built Toy Manufacturing Company had an own range of wooden toy trains (ca.1956-62) under their brand name “Jack Built Snap Trains”, that were manufactured in Japan. They were compatible with the products from Skaneateles Handicrafters in size and make except for the coupling system. Although the rolling stock could thus be used on either tracks, neither the tracks or the rolling stock could be combined. Jack-Built used a snap system for both the rolling stock and the tracks. California based Ben Orel filed US patent #2847798 in 1956 and was granted the patent for his “snap coupling” system two years later. In the US patent #3013726[7], submitted by Ben Orel in 1960, he describes how the track could be rotated and thus a “rail” and a “road” side could be used. This is quite similar to what Learning Curve later used for their “Thomas & Friends” range. Already in 1958 Ben Orel submitted a patent for magnetic couplings, this may have been the earliest attempt to use magnets with the wooden toy train system. By the mid sixties though production seems to have stopped and the company disappeared from the toy market.

Early Companies in Europe

In 1958, BRIO, based in Osby in southern Sweden, introduced its wooden toy train system with wooden tracks in Europe. It may have been the first company to use the “peg and hole” system, used to connect the track pieces, in mass production. The metal hook system for the rolling stock has since been replaced by magnetic connectors. BRIO was also one of the first companies to use beechwood for such products.



Posted in Uncategorized on May 21, 2009 by funmusics

The Nineties, new Companies and new Ideas

509294069_9f6565ac20_mThe “Thomas & Friends” version of James at the The Toy Train Depot in Alamogordo “Thomas the Tank Engine” is a character created by the Rev. W. Awdry in The Railway Series of children’s books. The books were first published in the U.K. in 1945. In 1984 a television series called Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends was made adding to the popularity of the “characters”. It was first shown in the United States in 1989. John W. Lee founded the company “Learning Curve Toys” in 1993 with a wooden railway system called “Thomas & Friends” based on the Thomas the Tank Engine characters. This made the wooden toy trains even more popular than before. Learning Curve introduced some new designs for the track surface, such as the “Clickety Clack” rails patented 1995 and the newer tracks in 2003 with a relief to supply better traction grip for battery powered four wheel drive trains patented in 1998.

With the popularity of the toy system rising due to the success of Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends new markets outside of the traditional groups and countries where opened. While companies such as Mapple Landmark adjusted its existing line of “Name Trains” to the gauge of the vario system in 1993 others such as Whittle Shortline established in 1997 started producing rolling stock based on more realistic designs of existing American examples. [22] While Brio and Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends clearly favoured the steam engine era, Whittle Shortline expanded into heavy duty diesel engines of designs hardly known in Europe. In the product line “Trains of the World” shown in the Brio catalog of 1998, Brio presents several historic steam engines, such as the Mallard or the Flying Scotsman along with several modern high speed trains such as the Shinkansen, TGV or ICE. The only diesel unit is from the Santa Fe line. Another project based on real life prototypes is the “New York City Subway Wooden Railway” by Muni-Pals. Other companies concentrated on related items such as Nilo and KidKraft, that make train tables among other things. Suretrack sells its track securing clips and Choo Choo Track & Toy Co., founded in 1999, have concentrated on producing and designing tracks and accessories.

Electronics and Asian Production Sites

Although the original push along trains made mostly of wood still resemble the core idea of this system toy and as of 2006 is the base of all the involved companies production lines, electronics have gained access to the wooden world. After introducing battery powered engines in the nineties, remote control has been added by 2002 and so called smart track has introduced plastic parts to the wooden track pieces. In 2006 Brio even introduced a theme resembling electronic networking with some electronic gadgets. Altogether this has led to some new track designs allowing better traction for the self powered trains or means of communication between the tracks and trains by some magnetic or electronic gadget.

Asian Production

As with other toys, many wooden trains and track are manufactured in China and other Asian countries as of 2008. The lead paint problems of 2007 have brought this to public awareness. The connections are a lot older though. Already in the fifties the Snap-Trains of Ben Orel were made in Japan.

Probably the first major brand that was manufactured in China was the Chicago based “Thomas and Friends Wooden Railway”. Some of the design, such as the character faces and the spoked wheels have stayed unique to the brand while other things, such as the modular build of the units with a rectangular single block wheel holding chassis and individual buildup on top, have become widespread designs in china and elsewhere. Another major brand is Maxim. Starting with traditional rather plain and abstract designs, Maxim sold products under the name “Tumble Tree Wood” for retail stores. They have since adopted the current design with the winged number on their rolling stock. The main supplier is a factory in Dong Guan, China. The trains with the winged numbers are also sold by other brands such as Babalu in Germany. In 2004[24] Brio of Sweden moved most of their production to three factories in Guangdong Province, China. A more recent brand is Melissa & Doug that is also produced in China. Smaller projects were the short lived ventures of Remus or Europlay.

A producer that has sold its products under very many brands including its own name is Mentari Massen with its main factory in Surabaya in Indonesia, founded in 1988. Their items have been sold as sets or individually bundled under such brand names as elile, FunToys, Toytopia, The Toy Company, Bino, Snap on Tools and Bigjigs as well as Mentari Toys or Mentari Group.