Former dentist builds toys for tots

BLYTHEWOOD – Crafting a scaled-down replica of a Blythewood fire truck… building a detailed pink Barbie Jeep big enough to hop into… constructing a half-pint Half-Track that could rumble right up to the front lines… and all from scratch? It might sound like a daunting reality-show challenge, but for retired Blythewood dentist Dr. Robert Buchanan, it’s child’s play – literally.

Retired Blythewood dentist Robert Buchanan finds new things to do with his new found time…like building life-like wooden toy boxes for children of friends and former employees.

Buchanan, a hobby woodworker who is also well-known for his international wildlife photography, said he’s always enjoyed taking on new projects. So when he heard that the child of a business assistant was in need of a toy box, it struck him as an intriguing task.

“But I didn’t want to make just ‘a box’,” he said. “I decided to do something with a little style and panache. So I came up with the dump truck, and really enjoyed making it.”

After he delivered it to the delighted recipient, though, his to-do list grew a little longer.

“Suddenly there were several other people in the office looking at me and wondering where their kid’s toy box was,” he said with a laugh. “So I just worked my way down the list, and ended up making boxes for four boys and one girl.”

Dump Truck

The boxes were a hit with the children, too, but for a slightly different reason.

“Apparently, instead of using them to store toys,” he said, “they prefer climbing inside to play. The mother of the little boy who has the stagecoach said that he asked to keep a pillow and blanket in there, so that he could sleep in it. Hearing how much the kids like their boxes really makes it all worthwhile.”

Buchanan said that although he designed each box to have a unique look, much of the foundational carpentry work was similar.

“I didn’t use any pre-made parts, or anything like that,” he said. “When I made the firetruck, for instance, I started with a pile of lumber – you can see the pile in one of the photos in the Facebook album that I kept to document my process – and every single piece was made from that lumber.”

German Half-Track

He used three specific types of wood to make the boxes.

“All the larger flat pieces are from half-inch Baltic Birch,” he said, “because it’s a higher grade of plywood, very solid and dense. For the wheels and tires, and some of the more sculpted pieces, I used Ambrosia Maple, and then I had a bit of Basswood in places where it needed to be a little flexible and bendable.”

Each box took about five weeks of steady work.

“Some days I worked eight or 10 hours,” he said, “but then I might skip a day or just work a couple of hours. And sometimes you just have to wait for things. Because of the humidity, each coat of paint needed at least 24 hours to dry.”

Most of the work was quite a bit more detailed that waiting for paint to dry, however. Creating the wheel treads, for instance, proved to be a complex undertaking.

“I realized that it would take forever to hold the disk and cut the treads one at a time,” he said, “so I made a little jig that fits on my table saw, and built a superstructure that I could put the wheel on. Every time I turned it a half-inch, I could run it across the saw blade and it would make a cut for the thread. So all I had to do was keep turning it a half-inch at a time until I had treads all the way around. After that I reversed the setting, to cut treads in the opposite direction on the next disk. Then when the disks were glued together, it had a chevron pattern.”

Pink Jeep

A few final touches and visual elements – such as Disney passengers smiling from the windows of the pink jeep – called on Buchanan’s Photoshop and photography skills as well.

“Those sort of things give it a little pizazz,” he said. “For the control panel on the firetruck, I got some good-quality pictures of the real panel on the Blythewood truck, and then I just reduced the photo to scale, attached it at the right place and coated it with several layers of lacquer.”

He said that keeping the boxes kid-safe was always an important consideration.

“There are no lids, because that can lead to smashed fingers,” he said. “You have to make sure all your edges and corners are rounded over, and you don’t want any moving parts or anything that might pinch or catch their fingers. Anything that opens and closes, they’d probably figure out a way to tear it off! The parts that are sort of added on aren’t just glued on, but actually have dowel pins on the backside connecting them to the toybox. Short of bashing it with a hammer, those aren’t going to come off. So a lot of the things that make it safe also make it durable.”

Personalized license plate

Buchanan credits his grandfather with passing along an enjoyment and talent for woodwork.

“My mom’s father was very proficient at making things,” he said. “He made fiddles, mandolins and guitars, and things like little working pocket knives completely out of wood. So I kind of started doing stuff too. I’ve always made things, all the way back to taking woodworking shop when I was in junior high school.”

Over the years, Buchanan has crafted a wide variety of projects, including furniture pieces, a life-size samurai sword and even replicas of his grandfather’s wooden pocket knives.

“It’s not rocket science,” he said of woodworking. “It’s just thinking it through ahead of time, maybe doing a trial cut before you mess up the real thing. The fun part is figuring out how to do something, working through it with the tools that I have. Each time you make something, you learn a few new tricks and techniques that you can apply to the next thing, and it just expands your repertoire.”

One of his next planned projects – besides, among other things, letter openers styled after the daggers in ‘Game of Thrones’ – will be a playroom “rockasaurus” for his great-niece.

“It will be a rocking horse built to look like the baby triceratops from the movie ‘The Land Before Time’. I don’t really know how I’m going to do it, because I haven’t carved anything to that scale before,” he said. “But I’ll figure it out!”


  1. Carolyn Smoak says

    I just finished reading this week s Voice, but didn’t see this story. What gives?
    Doc is definitely a resaissance man!!!

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