You think Santa’s busy? Meet Jim and Teresa England, who coax trains, trucks, and airplanes out of blocks of wood.
By Matthew Vincent Ambrosino
[D]eep in the woods of Dedham, about 15 miles south of Bangor, Jim and Teresa England are hard at work, shaping and sanding pine blocks into toys. Their woodstove throws a warm, flickering light over tables crowded with wooden locomotives, passenger cars, tank cars, and cabooses — classic toy trains that would make Santa proud.
Makers of benches, bentwood arbors and trellises, and other wooden garden structures for 17 years, the Englands credit their first grandson, James Joseph, with turning them into toymakers three years ago, when they presented him with a handcrafted wooden train set for his second birthday.
“He opens it up, and down he goes!” Jim recalls. “In a room full of people, and with other toys all around him, he never even looked up. I don’t even think he had birthday cake. He just couldn’t take his eyes off the train.”
While Jim watched James Joseph play, he decided to craft a storage case “that the train could sort of roll in and out of.” The signature product of the Woodshaper Shop was born: a wooden suitcase packed neatly with a train. “Kids seem to love the case almost as much as the trains,” Jim says.
The Englands’ business evolved out of what was their longtime hobby. Jim once had a recording studio on the property, where he met Stephen King, who had come in to record some audio books, and he soon found himself on the road as a keyboardist and guitar technician for the Rock Bottom Remainders, whose members included King, Amy Tan, Dave Barry, Barbara Kingsolver, and other well-known authors.
Later, Jim converted the studio into a hobby shop, where he and Teresa made their garden structures. One year, Jim took a week off from production to make toys for a Christmas charity drive. “I had a blast,” he recalls. “Everything that we made we donated to different charities, and it just felt great to be a part of. I never felt like I was working.”
In addition to trains, Jim makes various trucks and planes. Jim uses only Maine pine and assembles the toys with an eco-friendly glue. Teresa coats each piece with orange beeswax, which protects the wood in a way that’s safe for toddlers who might put the toys in their mouths. “I love preparing them,” she says. “Maybe it’s a mothering thing, but I love knowing that the toys are soft and gentle on the hand.”