Fueled by Family: Craftsman creates wooden toys that bond family, community

Carroll Snyder shows the process he uses to make his current project, a doll changing table for his granddaughters, Jan. 28 in Allendale, MI. Snyder uses a variety of books to get intructions to make his various projects.

A single overhead bulb hangs over a wooden bench with a worn-down stool. Dusty Mini-Wheats boxes sit on the floor filled with different-sized wood scraps instead of cereal.

This is where Carroll Snyder spends hours a day crafting detailed wooden toys. His creations range from trucks to trains to checkerboards – all of which are moveable and mostly held together by glue.

Snyder has spent 15 years creating these toys. Over those years, he's had to build more shelves in his basement workshop to store dozens of his creations. The ones in the workshop are only a fraction of the total number of toys he's created. Many of the rest have been sold at the monthly Mount Pleasant Markets.

His hobby turned passion all started with help from his family. To this day, it continues to be supported and shared with others in the community with their help.

"If I can help someone, that's what it's all about," Snyder said.

While Snyder has always been a craftsman in his own right, woodworking didn't come into the picture until he was introduced to it through his son-in-law, Stephen Mowat - who has been a woodworking fanatic since his high school shop class.

Years ago, Stephen passed along "The Great All-American Wooden Toy Book" to Snyder. The guidebook contains diagrams, photos, material lists and detailed step-by-step instructions for constructing classical wooden toys. 

Snyder was inspired to begin after seeing Stephen create toys for his new grandson. 

"He started making toys because I was making toys when my son was a toddler," Stephen said. "I made my son some train sets and my father-in-law saw them and was interested so he asked to borrow the book."

Overtime Snyder became hooked on creating simple but timeless wooden toys. 

Although he resides in Grand Rapids, he makes it a point to come and support his daughter, Michelle Mowat, who runs a monthly festival for artists in Mount Pleasant. Mount Pleasant Markets allows individuals like Snyder to sell local, handmade items to residents within the community.

Michelle said she had tried to convince Snyder to sell his toys for years. Finally, the opportunity rose when she created the event. Now, Snyder gets to pass on his carvings to parents and their children.

"When I was coming up with the idea to start these markets, I thought this would be the perfect location for my dad," Michelle said. "It's a safe place, It's like me inviting him so if he could stay with me he's not having to find something on his own."

Carroll Snyder shows a young boy one of his handmasde wooden toys during the Mount Pleasant Craft Market, Saturday Feb. 12, in Cornerstone Church, Mount Pleasant, Mich. The boy would take a great interest in Snyder's toys throughout the market, coming back multiple times just to look and play with the toys.

Snyder's visits to Mount Pleasant gives him an opportunity to not only sell his toys but also visit with his family.

One of Snyder’s favorite things to do when he visits Michelle is to help Stephen work on tractors or in his woodshop.

Stephen said the difference between their working styles is what makes them mesh so well together. Snyder tends to stick to the pattern while Stephen is more non-traditional.

“My dad's obviously an important part of my life and so is my husband," Michelle said. "To see them enjoying doing something together - it just means a lot to me because it's two people I love so much.” 

Snyder used to be a Machinist at Gardner Denver for about 20 years and worked with steel and aluminum. He made air pneumatic tools, like drills, wrenches, and nailing and stapling guns. 

From changing his own oil to doing his own brakes, Snyder was a handyman that did it all.

“He was constantly finding ways to fix something or use something,” Michelle said.

Working as a machinist allowed him to understand the importance of patience because, "if you don’t do things right, they don’t work at all," Snyder said.

He puts that patience and care into each of his wooden creations.

When starting a new project Snyder must first envision the toy he wants to make, then assess how much wood is needed. The next step, Snyder said, is when accurate dimensions are most important because one small error could lead to disaster. 

Snyder doesn't consider himself a perfectionist, but every toy must meet his standards.

“Making the toys is my joy,” Snyder said. “I take pride in what I do because I want it to look nice. When all is said and done I want to say, ‘Boy that looks good.'”

A young child puts one of Carroll Snyder's handmade toys back on the table, Saturday Feb. 12, in Cornerstone Church, Mount Pleasant, Mich. The child took a liking to the toys all throughout the market, prompting his parents to buy him a train set from Snyder.

Snyder's workshop is filled with different tools but the one that means the most is his uncle’s table saw. It's between 70-80 years old and had to get its blade shaft redone because it wouldn’t cut straight. Nevertheless, Snyder still uses it to make the toys. 

It's a reminder of the importance of his family - of his son-in-law who got him started with woodworking and of his daughter who convinced him to share his creations with others.

"Having my family's support means a lot, I think all the kids have been supportive even though they're all spread around the country," Snyder said.

Even though he doesn't see all of his kids as much as he likes, he still appreciates their constant support for more than just his passion for creating art.

Every day Snyder goes to visit his wife, Jan, who is battling Alzheimer's in a care facility to have lunch together. They have been together for 56 years. 

Stephen said that she still remembers him and that proves they are the love of each other's lives. Woodworking has also become that reminder.

"It keeps my mind off things when I'm here alone a lot so the hobby has been a real blessing to me," Snyder said. "Woodworking has been a real help to me that I was able to do something and not have to sit here and do nothing."

Snyder will be at the next Mount Pleasant Markets craft show on March 12. The proceeds from vendors who purchase a booth are donated to a different local nonprofit each month. This month's organization is the Potter's House Food Pantry.  

Carroll Snyder shows a young boy how one of his toys operates, Saturday Feb. 12, in Cornerstone Church, Mount Pleasant, Mich. The boy would continuously return to Snyder's table, prompting his parents to secretly buy him a train set for his birthday