From Trees to Toys: Creations of an American Folk Artist

The similarities are obvious: fluffy white beard, workshop littered with exquisite wooden toys in various stages of construction. No, I’m not visiting the home of Kris Kringle, I’m in Trumansburg calling on master wooden-toy maker Gunther Keil.

For nearly 40 years, Keil has been creating “American folk art with a European touch, and whimsical wooden animal toys, organic and durable,” says his website, Among his signature pieces are Noah’s Ark and the Nativity. Each piece is carefully created by hand in his effort to express “the fragility and exquisiteness of life,” something he believes is too easily forgotten in our increasingly technical world.

Gunther Keil emigrated from Berlin in 1968, and today raises sheep and bees on his 55-acre farm. Making toys may be his first love, but Keil is also a college professor and renowned authority on German literature.

The first toys he made were for his children. Later, when he began selling his wooden figures at craft fairs, Keil quickly realized that if he wanted to make a living as a toymaker he had to elaborate on his product line.

For ideas, he turned to his books on mythology, German art, plants and animals, and silhouettes. He was inspired by their illustrations. “Books with illustrations are better resources for me than photography books,” he explains. “When the pictures go through my mind rather than through a mechanical lens process, my creations have a better form; I can imagine them interacting with other things in their environment.”

For raw materials, Keil harvests the trees growing on his property. He tries to match their particular grain patterns and colors to the characteristics of the animal he’s creating. It’s a process that takes a lot of thought and experimentation, but is well worth the effort. He uses sumac with its green and brown/gold stripes to make crocodiles, and sycamore with its range of brownish-white to pale reddish-brown for giraffes. Other colors are added as needed using natural wood dyes.

Keil hires a logger to fell the trees, and then sends them to a saw mill where they are made into boards. The boards return to his farm to dry for about a year in his translucent solar drying kiln, “my greenhouse for wood.” When it’s ready, Keil and his assistants get to work. They trace the shapes of the creatures on the wood and carefully cut them out with a band saw. Each one is meticulously sanded, colored with dye if needed, and sealed. When the toys are completed, they’re packaged and shipped to customers all over the world.

Classics and misfits
His creations, especially his highly polished wooden animal banks, and his dragon and climbing-bear pull-toys, stand the test of time both in style and durability. “They’re made to last, and you can give them to anyone for any occasion,” he explains. Sadly, other ideas have been short-lived. Keil opens a drawer to reveal a polar bear habitat that includes a puffin, seal and arctic fox; and a Western habitat with a buffalo and wolf. We are both surprised that these unique toys are the least popular that he’s created. Today, they remain in limbo, too cherished to throw away, but not loved enough to be placed under the Christmas tree.

It’s just one of the many challenges of being an artist, Keil concedes. Another is keeping everything going financially. “What’s happening in the world can have a huge impact on how people buy gifts, particularly art,” he notes.

Keil confesses to having a love-hate relationship with technology. He has to love it since most of his orders come from e-commerce sites. At the same time, simple computer tasks give him trouble – he forgets to “save” things or can’t find them when he does. “I work in tangibles so virtual reality is tough for me,” he admits.

For help, he turned to the Community Arts Partnership in Ithaca, and enrolled in a business course. That’s where he found out about Etsy, an online marketplace where artisans sell their wares. Since opening his Etsy shop, Arks and Animals, his sales have increased by 300 percent. After observing that many people surf websites looking for toys that are produced naturally in the United States, Keil says he’s happy to provide these online shoppers with quality products from the tiny village of Trumansburg.

Whatever the future holds for Gunther Keil, it’s not retirement. “I like to be useful,” he explains. “I want to remain part of things. I don’t want to end up in my own used-toy drawer!” In terms of introducing new products, he’s considering reviving his simple full-size wheelbarrow, recalling how popular it was at craft shows. It’s too bulky and heavy to mail assembled, but he believes there may be a market for wheelbarrow kits. And, since it’s December, he’s thinking about a design for a wooden Christmas tree advent calendar.

Gunther Keil creations are in the permanent collection of the Toy Museum in Nuremberg, Germany, and have been displayed at the “Toys for All Ages” Show at the Smithsonian, and the “Objects for Use/Handmade by Design” show at the American Craft Museum in New York. He hopes to someday see his toys exhibited in the Strong Museum of Play in Rochester.

Keil’s Noah’s Ark is modeled after the highly detailed toys created in Germany in the 19th century, which even featured a pair of tiny insects. Keil’s Biblical boats come with 30 pairs of intricately created animals, plus Noah and his wife. Along with the traditional ark animals are two llamas and two kangaroos because, on his ark, Keil wants every continent represented.

He’s committed to making his animals and people look as natural as possible by portraying them in action rather than as immobile statues. The allusion of movement, along with their engaging expressions, makes his wooden figures more interactive and thought-provoking. The Virgin Mary in his Nativity scene, for instance, can sit in a chair when an angel visits her, or perch on a donkey to travel to Jerusalem. Other Nativity figures are bowing, and a shepherd is portrayed walking towards something rather than standing still.

In all the familiar stories Keil tells with his figures, he adds a special touch unique to his work. In the case of the Nativity, it’s the addition of dog. He feels it’s been strangely missing from most Nativity scenes, given the vocation of Christ’s visitors. “The shepherds had to have a dog to help them with their sheep!” the toymaker asserts.

To learn more about Keil’s toy company, Wild Apples, visit or call 607-387-6315 (toll free: 866-291-2882).

by Sue Henninger

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