Thursday, June 19, 2008

Crafting Phonograph Toys and Precision Tool Boxes

Dan came aboard our coach “Dolly’s Pride” on the day we pulled into the Catskill town of Accord, New York. He noticed us as Ed positioned our coach in the municipal parking lot. He could see us from his shop window. Dan didn’t seek us out; rather it was Ed who went calling. Curious about the large building nearby, Ed went to check it out. That’s how he came to meet Dan Zalewski and invite him to come to the coach to meet me. We were his boondocking neighbor.

“I haven’t had a Rollo in years,” Dan said as he unwrapped another chocolate caramel from the candy dish. Then, he softly verified what Ed enthusiastically said about Dan.

Dan is a craftsman who makes precision tool boxes. They are wooden with perfectly interlocking corners. Each box is specially lined to protect very expensive, very small measuring tools. Dan works alone in his shop amid the stacks of wood, shelves, saws and tables.

“You have got to see his shop and his boxes,” encouraged Ed. Dan said he made phonograph toys too, an oddity that captured my attention. What exactly are phonograph toys? I would have to see one to understand, so I arranged to visit Dan.

The buzz of his wood saw prevented him from hearing my initial knock on the shop door. He was so engrossed in his work that he didn’t see me waving through the window. I didn’t want to leave without seeing Dan so I waited until he paused his machine then I pounded on the door.

The air in the shop hung heavy with June humidity and the scent of sawdust and glue. Dan looked hot and dusty too. There was no air conditioning in the building. And, without the saw slicing through the wood, the room was quiet.

Dan showed me patterns for the tool boxes and the raw pieces of wood that he would cut, shape, sand and smooth into a finished product. Some boxes still needing a final natural color stain sat in neat rows on carts.

A couple already completed looked like small treasure chests with a shiny stained sheen and brass latches. They would, after all, eventually hold tools worth a small treasure.

There is a very narrow, niche market for Dan’s boxes. Manufacturers of precision tools contract with Dan to hand craft the boxes. They in turn add the tools and sell them to technicians and engineers who use the devices. A catalogue the size of a Houston Yellow Pages featured photos of Dan’s boxes with the lids open revealing the precious tools.

Dan’s phonograph toys cater to a narrow market too. A phonograph toy is a figurine with dangly jointed arms, legs and feet. The torso is rigid. Dan hand tools these toys in his shop and he showed me the step by step process. He takes a cylinder of wood, shapes, cuts, assembles and paints it to turn it into a replica of the U.S. Uncle Sam or Vaudeville dancer. The toy then fits on top of a record spindle. When the record spins, the toy performs a tap dance throughout the song. The toys are amazing and delightful to watch. Dan acknowledges that in the age of MP3 Players and music downloads, few people have use for his phonograph toy, yet he sells them in select specialty toy stores and where people can buy antique Victrola phonographs.

Throughout the visit, I admired Dan’s exceptional, unique craftsmanship. Then, as I said goodbye to Dan and thanked him for giving me part of his day, he surprised me. He handed me a finished box.

This gift, my wooden box, won’t hold precision tools, but it will hold many small priceless treasures I find during our road trip travels.

June 6, 2008

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