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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: He’s keepin’ on truckin’ in wood

This toymaker likes heavy-duty equipment.
Tom Van Ermen (Warren Gerds)
Tom Van Ermen (Warren Gerds)
Tom Van Ermen (Warren Gerds)
Tom Van Ermen (Warren Gerds)
Tom Van Ermen
Tom Van Ermen

PHOTO: Tom Van Ermen of Green Bay poses with one of his elaborate creations made of wood, a well-drilling unit of about 100 handmade pieces. Warren Gerds photo

GREEN BAY, Wis., (WFRV) – There’s something about the wooden toys of Tom Van Ermen.

He says at craft shows, “I get a lot of guys come, and they just stand in front of me and just stare. They say, ‘I can’t believe you can make something like that. How do you work with those small parts?’ I say, ‘It just takes time. I’ve got tweezers and forceps and just little by little glue them together’.”

Van Ermen makes a lot of boy toys – heavy-duty equipment.

He makes bulldozers, backhoes, excavators, fire trucks, front end loaders, fork lifts, truck cabs that pull long flatbeds, cement mixers, cranes, combines and well-drilling units.

The parts on them work. They swivel, slide, turn, move up and down, connect and disconnect – whatever the original function of the piece is meant to be.

Van Ermen said, “When I started out, I made small toys. You pile blocks one on top of each other – You can call it a car, you can call it a truck. But I found, especially with kids, they like something that will move. If you have something that moves, it keeps their interest in it because they can find more things to do with a toy than just driving.”

I’ve seen guys, upon seeing Van Ermen’s muscular equipment on display in a room, call to a buddy, “Hey, you’ve go to see this.” The buddy comes in, and they both marvel.

“Everything works,” they’re told.

“Really?” they say, practically in unison.

Van Ermen’s most elaborate piece to date is a well-drilling unit (in the picture above).

“My niece works for a company that sells parts to well drillers. She said to me one day, ‘Uncle Tom, could build me one of these trucks?’”

Soon, he spotted one on the cover of Toys and Joys magazine, which specializes in patterns for woodworkers.

“It took me probably 3½ months to build the first one. My niece lives in Wausau, and she took that over to the company, and all of a sudden they packed it up and shipped it up to their parent company in Minneapolis – and they came back and said, ‘How quickly and how many can you make?’ So as fast as I can build them, I get about two a year because there are many, many parts, and they all have to work.”

It takes about 80 hours to make a well-drilling unit. Parts include the truck, the boom that locks into place, a crank unit for the pipe and the drilling unit run by a cylinder. The piece has a hammerhead for hammering the pipe into the ground. Everything swivels. Pulleys run cables.

“I try to make the equipment that goes on it pretty much as real I can. We have our air compressors, condensers and everything. And I kind of wired it to make it look like it’s an operational unit. There’s probably 100 different pieces in it, and some of them are pretty small. When you glue, you can only glue so much. So it takes quite a while to do this. But hopefully when I retire I can do more because it’s a lot of fun, you know. A lot of guys retire – they don’t want to do anything. I want to retire so I can work with the wood. I enjoy doing that. I enjoy seeing kids when they get them. Or when I go to a craft show and see their eyes as they look at you: ‘You built that?’”

It all started at Green Bay West High School.

“I took a woodworking class, and it kind of stuck with me. As I got older, I just started to dabble in it. When nieces and nephews came along, I used to build toys for them as gifts. And my wife (Dotty) wanted stuff. It just blossomed from there. Everybody said, ‘Oh, you ought to do some craft shows.’ And I started that, and it just kept going.”

Van Ermen recently participated in craft shows in Pulaski and Howard. For information about his toys, Van Ermen may be reached at tve2@msn.com.

In addition to the heavy-duty equipment, Van Ermen makes “doll cradles, high chairs, strollers, bunk beds, playpens for dolls and a lot of small toys – cars and stuff for younger kids. I also make trucks that are a little bit heavier for younger kids to play with. The trucks can crash a little bit, and they don’t break as easily.”

Many – but not all – of the designs come from Toys and Joys and Better Homes and Gardens Wood.

“I built some forklifts by looking at the forklifts at work and kind of measuring them and breaking them down. Then I made my own pattern. I have some small chairs that I designed myself.”

Van Ermen is a plant manager at a metal-working firm.

“The company I work for makes parts for the paper industry, and we design our own parts. It’s a lot of making the small parts for paper machines…” with the process translating to his home workshop “where I can make my parts out of wood.”

Van Ermen has a number of places around his residence for the different toy-building phases, with the heart being spaces for his wood storage, cutting and initial refining.

The woods he uses include purple heart, yellow heart, oak, maple, hickory, ash, walnut, cherry and teak – each with a property that’s important to the look and function of the final piece.

“I pick up pieces here and there wherever I can find them. I go through woodworking stores. I have catalogues and order. If I find some wood lying around when somebody throws something out on the street, I look to see what that is. I have people who come and bring me wood.”

Van Ermen has built up his equipment over time, as his interest and needs blossomed.

“I have a table saw, a band saw, joiner, lathe, drill press, thickness sander, radial arm saw, router and more.”

This is serious equipment, indeed.

“I lost my thumb twice. They (doctors) told me that if I would do it again they weren’t going to put it back. So I’m really careful. The first time I came across right at the knuckle and went to about an eighth of an inch left of the finger – went through the bone, and it just dangled there. The second time I decided I’d try something different, and I pushed it through the band saw and it took me a little bit of plastic surgery to give me a thumb back… It works. No feeling in it, so you’ve got to be really careful.”

Tom Van Ermen is basically a cheerful person. He told this with a good measure of glee.

He likes working with wood because “it’s forgiving. If you’re cutting and oh geez, you made a mistake, it isn’t like a piece of steel – you’ve got to go out and buy a new piece of steel. With wood, you just modify it a little bit and it will fit.”

The joy in making the toys is “seeing kids play with them. When I sell a toy – and a lot of parents say, ‘I’m meaning this for my son or my daughter, but it’s too good to let them play with’ – I don’t want to see it sitting on a shelf. If you buy it for a kid, let ’im play with it. If something happens to it, bring it back to me and I’ll repair it and I won’t charge you for it. I’d rather see the kid playing with it and having fun than sitting on a shelf and just letting ’im look at it.”

Woodworking is an important part of his marriage.

“My wife and I do a lot together. When I cut, I cut boxes of parts. I don’t just make one of anything. I make it multiples. My wife always gets the first toy. When I make trucks, she gets the first trucks. She and I, you know, sometimes there ain’t too much on television, and we’ll sit and we’ll sand parts and get them ready.”

It’s easy to find a happy ending to this story.

“My grandkids love coming over because they’ve got a lot of toys to play with.”

You may email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air features on WFRV at 6:45 p.m. Thursdays and every other Sunday between 6 and 8 a.m. (usually around 7:45 a.m.)

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