Christmas may be a few months away, but there is one man in Gilbert working to build handmade, wooden toys by the holidays.
“I still believe there is a place for heirloom toys,” said John Shepard, a retired Motorola employee who enjoys building the toys.
O Bar 9 Toys has only been open a little while in Gilbert, but Shepard is in the process of building more than 300 hand-crafted push-and-pull toys, rocking horses, children’s furniture, and stick horses.
John and his wife lived in the East Valley for decades before moving to California three years ago. They recently moved back to Arizona to be closer to their family.
O Bar 9 may sound like a strange name for a toy company to many, but it’s the name of the family’s cattle brand for generations, Shepard said.
“These are my father’s patterns, so it only makes sense I would use the same brand,” he said.
The traditional cattle brand looks like O│9.
“My objective is to make enough off of the toys to pay for the shop,” Shepard said, who rents space for his workshop. “So then I can cut up all the wood he (Shepard’s father) left to me.”
It’s a family tradition that’s been passed down from Shepard’s father, who was a master craftsman. When Carl Shepard passed away in 1992, he left all of his designs, patterns, tools and wood to Shepard.
“He passed away at 80 years old in his show working — and that’s my goal,” Shepard said.
Carl was able to create original designs by looking at pictures or creating his own from scratch, his son said. He built a number of family heirlooms, such as a tea cart for Shepard’s wife and a children’s table set that is still in good condition today.
“If you make a joint and you can fit a piece of paper in it, it’s not good enough,” Shepard said his father taught him.
Before he died, Carl Shepard lived next to a lumber mill where he was able to pick out choice pieces of beetle kill pine and cherry wood lumber.
“When you talk to guys who work with wood, they’ll tell you: It feels good, it smells good and it’s comforting and soothing,” he said.
One of the most important patterns he passed down to his son was that for a rocking horse, John Shepard said.
“A normal rocking horse has stiff legs,” he explained. “You usually don’t see them like this,” as he gestured to the 0 Bar 9 rocking horse, which has bent legs like a horse in mid-gallop.
It was this design that was especially important to Shepard’s father, who wanted the pattern only to be passed onto other family members.
The toy designs are simple, with little embellishment, Shepard said, so that children can better imagine their toy.
“Kids play better when they can create their own story,” Shepard said.
Fish, ducks, giraffes, foxes and more animals line shelves of the front of the workshop.
A friend from Catalina Island dresses up as Santa Claus every year and delivers some handmade toys to children, Shepard said.
“He said the parents always tell him these toys are their kids’ favorite over all the other toys they get for Christmas,” Shepard said.
Over the years, he has adapted and created many of his own designs for animal push-and-pull toys.
Living in Catalina Island, the garibaldi fish became one of his best sellers, he said. Children instantly recognized the native orange fish as more than a gold fish.
After visiting the Black Bear Diner, Shepard had the idea for a black bear pull toy.
Prices for toys run from about $15 and up, Shepard said. Basically, they’re helping to pay the overhead costs and contributing to the costs of new tools.
Eventually, he hopes to donate some of his toys, like he has done in the past.
And if he runs out of toys before Christmas?
“I can make about 100 a week if I have to,” he said.
While Shepard is often at his workshop, he asks people to try calling (602) 432-2178 to make sure he will be in. To see additional toys and prices, visit www.Obar9toys.com. Shepard will have an open house at his workshop Oct. 20.
O Bar 9 Toys is located at 700 N. Neely St., Suite 12.
Contact writer: (480) 898-5645 or email@example.com