Wood Toys: They Aren't All Created Equal
When searching for toys and other children’s products, they are often divided into three categories: plastic, cloth, and wood. There is a general conception that all wood toys are comparable. However, this is like saying a solid oak table, a pine picnic table, and a mahogany-veneered table are comparable.
There is a difference in toy quality just like there is a difference in furniture quality.
When you shop for a dining table, you do not go to a store and just buy a “wood” table. You expect to know the type of wood: oak, cherry, pine, etc. Is it solid wood or is it a pressed wood or plywood with a hardwood veneer?
The furniture sold at discount stores tends to be pressed wood or plywood and is the least expensive option. It’s also not as sturdy, damages easily, is difficult to repair and does not last as long. From an environmental and health standard, it is laden with glues. Both pressed woods and plywood commonly contain formeldahyde. They are either painted or they have a thin layer of hardwood called a veneer that is glued to the outside surfaces. This veneer can be stained to take on the look of more expensive hardwood furniture.
(Above)Pressed wood is made by gluing small particles of wood together (think of mixing sawdust with glue and then pressing it into a cake pan to form a sheet). Particle board and MDF are names of common pressed woods.
(Above) Plywood is composed of thin layers of wood glued together. This piece has five layers.
Quality furniture stores specialize in solid woods, with pine being the least expensive option and generally reserved for rustic, country style furnishings. As pine dents very easily, it is typically intentionally “distressed” to hide any future blemishes caused by items being dropped on its surface. Hardwoods (oak, cherry, mahogany, etc.) are the most expensive option and are also the most durable. They are generally left natural with a simple varnish to show off their natural beauty.
Similarly, toys made from pressed woods or plywood are the least expensive option, with pine being one step up, and hardwoods being at the top.
Plywood/pressed wood toys will contain adhesives and be covered with paints, varnishes, or glued-on paper designs.
(Above) At first glance, you may think this puzzle is made from solid wood. A closer look will show that it is actually made from pressed wood (small wood particles that have been glued together). The grain that you see was printed on paper and glued to the top to make it look like solid wood. Note the uniform appearance of the bottom of the puzzle piece and the side of the puzzle base. Over time, this paper will start peeling (see below).
When pressed wood gets wet (for instance, by your toddler chewing on it) it will start to flake.
(Above)This children's art table was made of painted pressed wood. Over time, the paint started to flake exposing the pressed wood to water. The wood buckled and now the pressed wood (and the adhesive that bonded the particles) is flaking off as well.
(Above)This puzzle is made of plywood. You can see the several thin layers of wood that are glued together for both the base and the puzzle pieces. You can also see a thin white glue layer about a third of the way down the puzzle base. The puzzle pieces are painted. The puzzle base is made of a hardwood veneer that is varnished.
Softwood toys (typically pine) will dent and splinter easily. Hardwood toys will be durable and can be left natural.
(Above)This puzzle (by Young Minds At Play) is made from hardwood. The base is solid maple and the puzzle piece is solid cherry. Note the natural grains throughout the thickness of the puzzle base and puzzle piece. No glues, no paints, no varnishes. Durable and safe.
If a wood is not specified for a toy, assume it is made from plywood or pressed wood.
Hardwood furniture becomes family heirlooms, plywood furniture gets handed over to college students, charities, and eventually the city dump. The same is true with toys – family heirloom or the city dump? The choice is yours.