Jonson Kuhn | North Forty News
For Ralph Knox, making toys isn’t just a passion, it’s a way of life, and for the past 50 years, he’s been making toys that have lasted for generations.
“I did not believe that here 50 years later we’d still be making wooden toys, infused with the magic of longevity, softness, luster, and warm of Light,” Ralph said. “Here a few weeks ago we surpassed 40,000 toys, that is a lot of wheels.”
On January 20, 2023, Ralph will celebrate 50 years of his shop Santa’s Wooden Toys being in business. Originally from Rhode Island, he’s been in Northern Colorado since 1972 when he got out of the war. When Ralph first got out of the service in 1973, he purchased a wood shop in Steamboat Springs with the intention of building furniture, but when a friend showed him a wooden toy from Nebraska, little did Ralph know his plans of making furniture were about to change.
“I looked at this toy my friend was showing me, and I thought, ‘man, that’s kind of neat. I wonder what it would take to build one of them.’ From there I built my first toys and away we went,” Ralph said. “It’s been a compulsive, wonderful thing I’ve developed.”
Since then he has built over 32,000 planes, trains, and automobiles, as well as rocking horses, cradles, block sets, and more. For a time, Ralph settled in LaPorte where he purchased a wood shop in 1977 and has been happily making toys ever since. Ralph would eventually move his shop to the shady elms of Rabbit Creek Ranch, off of 1401 County Road 37 North in Livermore to an old two bay restored garage with new electrical and wonderful lighting, along with a few windows and an older wood stove to warm the heart of his shop.
For many years Ralph worked at Taylor Kohrs in Denver as a construction superintendent before leaving in 2008 to attend law school and study mineral law. Since 2009 he’s been working in the legal end of the oil and gas industry, but if you ask him, he’ll tell you his real interest still lies in making toys.
“There’s a lot to it, to see the little kids light up and to see the toys they get excited about, there are no toys like what I make anywhere in the world basically,” Ralph said. “To see the grandparents be happy with their grandkids, it’s such a wonderful thing. I love doing it and I love the toys.”
According to Ralph, the wood comes in boards that he then cuts into smaller thin pieces in order to sand and laminate them together. He relies on a wide variety of different woods which helps not only the color but the durability, as well. For instance, one truck can be made from as many as 10 different woods such as black walnut, birch, canary wood, teak, bloodwood, coca bola, padauk, pella, bamboo, and purple heart. The toys are then glued and rubbed with non-toxic oil to highlight the colors of the wood. With average costs varying anywhere from $20 to $60, it takes Ralph roughly three to seven hours to build each toy. Ralph says the toys often last long beyond the initial person they’re given to.
“I have parents coming back to me that have kids now that had my toys when they were little. And a couple of grandparents that have come back that were given my toys when they were younger, so that’s been interesting,” Ralph said. “The kids know that this toy shop is magical; it’s almost like I can hit upon what’s going on inside their mind when I can pick out a doll or a toy or something for them and it’s what they’ve been looking for.”
At the young age of 70 years old, Ralph said there’s never a shortage of things to keep up with on the ranch, however, he doesn’t ever let that stand in the way of business, the business of making children happy, that is.
“I feel blessed to live on the ranch that I do, it’s a little bit of a challenge to live out here and being somewhat of a recluse, but it’s kind of like Santa Claus, he’s a little bit of a recluse himself,” Ralph said. “When the kids ask about Santa, I tell them he had to go back to the North Pole for a few days and he’ll be back. I’m just his head elf.”
Growing up, Ralph said his Uncle Harry was also a toy maker for FOA Swartz, so you could say to some extent it’s a family business. Where Ralph grew up in Rhode Island he said there was a dairy farm on the verge of suburbia sprawling where at the age of six or seven he would work on various job sites picking up pieces of scrap wood in exchange for doughnuts and coffee. The experience of working with wood carried with him into the seventh grade when Ralph said he was taking extra woodworking courses that weren’t even a part of his curriculum and even continued doing so all throughout high school. Ralph has been working with wood for so long that by the time he became an adult and began pursuing his passion as a career, the passion had become a science.
“The thing about making wooden toys is it’s all about durability and functionality,” Ralph said. “They’ve gotta stimulate and they’ve gotta be special and you don’t get that often. Lego blocks are a lot of fun and they’re a hoot. I had millions of them when I was a kid, but it’s a different thing when you’ve got a block set or a train full of blocks and you unload the blocks and then you load up your little animals and your horses and everything.”
While he keeps his shop well stocked with toys, Ralph said he still takes requests quite often, with custom toys such as rocking horses sometimes running as much as $2,800. But Ralph isn’t all just about profit, he also makes it a point of donating any toys that haven’t sold by Christmas to the Safe House in Fort Collins.
Santa’s Wooden Toys shop is located at 1401 County Road 37 North in Livermore, and is open year-round from 8 am to 5:30 pm on weekends and by appointment during the week.