The Return of the Wooden Toy

July 28, 2020
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The tradition of creating toys has lived in Ukrainian culture from time immemorial. Clay, wood, fabric, straw, vine, dough — this is far from an exhaustive list of traditional Ukrainian toys. Despite such diversity, only two state museums are dedicated to this kind of folklore function in Ukraine: in Kyiv and Lviv. At the same time, Ukrainian wooden products are gaining popularity all over the world. For example, there are UGEARS or WUMBA whose “toy” startups on the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter for financing art projects found supporters quickly.

Andriy Bondaruk from Kniahynynok village in Volyn is doing his best to revive and increasing the popularity of the traditional Ukrainian toy. He does not only study its history but crafts products himself in a small workshop in his garage, as well. At first, he used to make toys just for his friends, but later he began to create them for sale. Together with his wife Iryna, Andriy launched the project called “The Ukrainian toy”. Its team shares the history of Ukrainian toys, organizes workshops, introduces the work of ethnographers, and also represents Ukraine abroad.

Andriy and his Museum

Andriy Bondaruk heads the historical museum of Kniahynynok village. The institution is only a few years old; however, its director has been reviving and popularizing Ukrainian wooden toys for more than a decade, having transformed the passion of his youth for folk crafts into the business of his life.

— I have been promoting folk crafts, particularly pysanky (Ukrainian decorated Easter eggs), for many years. I was wondering what kind of thing I could come up with so that it would be relevant all year round because the Easter egg is more seasonal — only before Easter. But a toy is interesting for children both in summer and winter. And I started flipping through the ethnographical literature, looking for some collectible pieces and fell into the reproduction of toys myself.

At the age of twenty Andriy obtained a painter’s education at a specialized art school. Ten years later he began to master the profession of historian, so he could study Ukrainian toys on a scientific level. Having acquired two degrees, Andriy eventually launched the creation of the museum in his native village.

These days, almost all the master’s time is absorbed by work in the newly created museum. Andriy Bondaruk knows the history of each exhibit, and he shares the descriptions of the techniques by which this or that toy is made. He cares for the future of the exhibition. It is important for local historians that the museum be relevant.

— A permanent display is being formed in the second hall, while in this one we change displays so that there is always something new and interesting for visitors. So it won’t be like this: “We’ve already been to that museum, and we’ve seen everything there”.

Among the museum exhibits some toys are over a hundred years old, and there are also samples of the middle 20th century. The oldest toy — a rattle — dates back to 1894. It stands out by its miniature size so that a baby can hold it.

The museum of Kniahynynok also represents items that are traditional not only for Ukrainian culture:

— One of the most interesting exhibits is one of those traditional wagons that were widespread in Ukraine in the XIX century. Such carts were typical for all of Europe. For example, we have relatives in Germany, and they say: “And this one is like a Kinderwagen”.
In general, carts were used not only for children’s games. Children were transported by them quite often. Wooden carts were reliable means of transport because their wheels could withstand heavy loads.

Andriy finds exhibits for his museum in different ways. He can buy some things on the Internet, other things are brought by the local villagers, and still others have to be borrowed for the museum expositions. Along with the toys, their owners sometimes offer old photos.

Among the exhibits are Andriy’s products as well. He doesn’t only reproduce toys. The craftsman explores their history, studies the ancient tools used to create traditional wooden toys. He uses new equipment, nonetheless, without changing the manufacturing technique.

The master himself hasn’t played with toys for a long time; however, he talks about each of his works with some special warmth. Among the exhibits of the museum — a tiny shuttle, rakes, hammers, rocking chairs, “vurkalo”, and many other playthings. All of them are stored in an open showcase, which children love so much:

— This showcase is the visitors’ favorite, because most of the visitors consist of kids. They come — and drum, knock, and play.

The most beloved toy of the young visitors is a ring with a small ball that is called “popadalka” (similar to a cup-and-ball game) in the museum:

— We’ve been to different festivals abroad, so this is such an international language of the game. Another version of this toy is a cup-and-ball. One of the French kings even played with this toy during state receptions. I mean, it’s an international toy that is typical for various European nations. Ukrainians say, “This is our ancient toy”, but somewhere else the French may say, “This is our toy”. The European name for it (in French style) is bilboquet, Ukrainian — cup-and-ball.

Andriy’s wife Iryna Sardak-Bondaruk is an artist and illustrator. Together with her husband, she organizes workshops on creating and painting wooden toys in the museum. Usually, such events are not only interesting to children, but also to their parents.

— At these workshops kids draw a toy — a simple, concise — and then they later film it on their gadgets. Next to the computerized toy, the wooden one will still be interesting because it’s warm, manual, and natural. This craft is alive, and I think it’ll live on. The traditional, Ukrainian, wooden toy.

The Types of Folk Toys

One of the exhibits of the Volyn museum is little hammers made in the 70s and 80s of the last century. The working principle is very simple: they take turns hitting the center of the toy. The peculiarity of this toy is that it’s crafted with only one knife and no more tools. The whole construction is fastened by small blades laid on the back. This toy was carved out of a young oak by a man for his daughter. Even though it’s made of raw wood, the little hammers still hold heaps.

Another type of toys is cars. One car was donated to the museum by a man who found it as a child in the woods. He fixed it and brought it to Andriy. Another car together with a cart was made in the 1930s for his children by one inhabitant of Bukovyna. You can see that many generations of children played with this car: the bottom of it is rubbed and polished, and the wheels have been changed many times.

The museum presents some other toy vehicles, such as a boat made of willow bark. Andriy says that such toys have been widespread since people began to swim by the real boats. There are also some wooden cradles. They used to be hung up with ropes to a beam in a house and tied with a red ribbon as an amulet from evil spirits and different troubles.

Both traditional rocking horses and sledges were popular. Even though there is no rocking horse in the museum, the sledges found their place in the exhibition. It is interesting that the tree for them wasn’t bent in any way. The master just found a suitable curved branch, carved it, and then cut the sledges out of it.

There are not only wooden products among the museum exhibits but also metallic ones For example, a toy iron of the mid-19th century is made of sheet metal. This technology was widespread before irons began to be made of plastic.

Noise toys are widely represented in the exposition. For instance, the vurkalo has been known since ancient times. A small toy with a rope untwists and makes quite a loud sound. It used to be not only a plaything. It was a noise-making ritual instrument for the peoples of Australia and Oceania.

Such a toy as a rattle or “derkach” (scraper — tr.) or “polokhalo” is also known in Ukraine. It had some practical use: children scared birds away from the harvest with it. Another noisy toy is “calatana”.

In Ukraine, toys were popular that were miniaturized versions of everyday things: little knives, hammers, wooden utensils, rolling pins, troughs. Folk craftsmen often produced rocking toys in shapes of tractors, horses, and cows on wheels. The simplest rocking toy is a wooden pole with wheels. Children also like peg-tops that have been widespread on the territory of Ukraine since the times of Kyivan Rus.

Andriy says that one time even puzzles used to be produced in Volyn.

— This is a puzzle of “moroka” (trouble — tr.). Here in Volyn, they said: “pine cone”, in some other regions “pine cone” was a different puzzle. It’s a task to make some spatial composition of six bricks. Most often such toys were made by shepherds. With only a knife they created toys and gave them to their younger sisters and brothers as presents.

The Workshop in the Garage

It would seem that such filigree work as making toys requires a large spacious workshop with a lot of equipment. However, Andriy works in an ordinary garage. His plans include a full-fledged workshop with “all the gadgets”.

All the tools in his workshop are mostly modern, although there are also some old ones. These are better to use for work with raw wood — to polish it better. But most often the master uses dry boards, works them, and then makes toys.

The main equipment of the workshop is a lathe. Andriy makes almost everything with it: from small blanks to full-fledged products. These days all you need to get the work started is to press the button and to adjust the speed. In ancient times the craftsman had not only to sharpen the tool and to choose the wood. During the work, the master had to stand and set the machine in motion with his foot. At first, the flywheel moved, and it forced the workpiece to work that was clamped on the machine and from which he carved various objects with a large cutting tool: table legs, details of cornices, bowls, and other.

Andriy’s collection includes not only a modern lathe, but also an old one. The master identified the age of the old lathe by type of bolts:

— If you look at these bolts — they are square, so most likely it’s from around the interwar period. Because after the war there was a lot of broken equipment, and to make something new a blacksmith would not have to forge that bolt. You could simply go and take the bolt you needed from some German tank or car, and use it.

In the process of his work Andriy cares about safety precautions:

— In fact, many old masters had one or another injury: both carpenters and blacksmiths injured their fingers and eyes, and quite often they developed lung disease from inhaling sawdust.

The Birth of the Wooden Toy

For every turned product first of all you need to make blanks. For example, for a bowl, you need round “pancakes”; for elongated products bricks are cut out. It’s important to mark and center a future toy correctly, and then make a hole straight through the middle of it.

When making toys a craftsman often needs to use a strict tool like calipers. Especially when two details must be identical — for instance, wheels — because if he makes a mistake the toy won’t go.

One of the main processes in the toy-making is turning. Andriy uses templates only for mass production of souvenirs, but he grinds toys just by eyeballing it. This way they turn out more interesting and original:

— The toys that are ground somewhere in China and delivered [to Ukraine] are all identical, made on a copier, I mean they don’t have any individuality. And when you take some different templates — it’s like the same toy, but one is a bit longer, another has bigger or smaller handles, and that makes the toy more interesting.

Andriy says that at one time a master used to live in their village, and he could cut the product with just one cutter. Nowadays there are very few specialists who could make a product so simply with the help of only one cutter.

— Now nobody works wood like that. For example, when creating toys I use a lathe, you saw with a jigsaw, and use a planer or milling machine. And a man who was staying and sharpening all day long, he had such a level of training, that today there are simply no masters like that.

The penultimate stage of production is polishing. This process is monotonous; it requires time and patience. The master spends less effort on turning the toy, than on its grinding. And besides, different species of wood require some special approaches:

— In order for the product to be sanded very well, first, it is wet, dried, the pile rises, and then you grind it when the pile has risen. Because there are some wood species that if it isn’t wet it doesn’t grind well.

The final process in making a wooden toy is painting. Wood has its specifics: it absorbs various substances well. To prevent the toy from becoming a carrier of infection, it must be treated. It’s good to cover it with a linseed oil: the toy remains protected and can be washed easily. But the best option is still paint:

— Acrylic paints are really popular now: they are considered to be safer than oil or alkyd ones. And you can cover a toy with acrylic paints and then wash it — nothing would happen to it. If the toy is covered with acrylic paint, it can be colored later on.

The Request for the Toy

Andriy Bondaruk admits that he did not immediately realize modern people’s need for traditional wooden toys. At first, it was a hobby, his desire to explore and reproduce an authentic thing, and after that came the realizing of the utilitarian function of the toys.

— As I started working with the toys, I didn’t even set a goal to make 10 or 20 of them. I was interested in reproducing each toy in one copy, and simply demonstrating for children the toys that existed in the past, and to draw their attention to the folk culture this way. And then I realized that people need the toys.

In 2018, Andriy was honored to introduce Ukraine through his project “Ukrainian Toy” abroad, in Poland and Turkey. The Volyn resident believes that the toy is a product which may be a symbol of our country. In his opinion, the production of the wooden toy can be established in his native Volyn, which is rich with forests, and it would support authentic Ukrainian traditions and provide jobs.

— It’s as if it’s all forgotten, and even if we produce something, then in a little amount. And the shape of our turned products, some carpentry or toys — we lose it, and it’s too bad when the authentic stuff isn’t supported.

Andriy Bondaruk has big plans. He wants to complete designing the museum’s permanent exposition, make a new workshop, and launch large-scale toy manufacture. And the most important — to continue promoting Ukrainian toys. Even such a small thing as a children’s toy retains a great memory after all.

— Today the wooden toy is fashionable. This fashion comes from Europe and America. Such classic toys — horses, tractors, cars — they are still all around the world. Maybe not as much as in the old days, but still the wooden toy remains unchanged for many people.

The material is prepared by

The author of the project:

Bogdan Logvynenko

Author:

Sofia Panasiuk

Editor:

Natalia Petrynska

Producer:

Olha Schor

Photographer:

Oleksii Karpovych

Cameraman:

Oleg Sologub

Pavlo Pashko

Film editor:

Yuliia Rublevska

Director:

Mykola Nosok

Photo editor:

Oleksandr Khomenko

Transcriptionist:

Olia Stylii

Translator:

Inna Chaiko

Translation editor:

Richard Benton

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