Having fun with automation

SUFFOLK toymaker Ron Fuller has a talent for making people laugh. His hand-crafted toys and automata invariably have a quirky quality to them which raises a smile from anyone who handles his inventive creations.

Finding Ron’s idiosyncratic workshop is an adventure in itself. Tucked away at the end of an increasingly narrow and slightly overgrown track, off Laxfield High Street, lies Ron’s house Willow Cottage. It sits alongside a cluster of artfully ramshackle workshops and outbuildings decorated with garage signs from the 1950s and 60s and adverts for engine oil.

Inside, amid the lathes and wood-carving paraphernalia are collections of cogs, wheels and various small machine parts which Ron has rescued from computer printers and laser copiers destined for the waste tip. Ron is very big on recycling.

He drops a frog toy in front of me: “Look at that,” he says proudly. “A hopping frog powered by a solar cell. Look at the motor.” He lays the motor on the palm of his hand and it looks like nothing more than a piece of pencil lead from a chunky pencil.

Ron is a pioneer in the world of recycling. He has been putting bits and pieces of office equipment to more entertaining use for more than 40 years now.

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Above our heads a solar cell is keeping a small toucan aloft. Attached to a small rod it silently sweeps around like an exotic ceiling fan.

This is just one of Ron’s hand-painted creations. He has a larger Puffin version which he says is part of his highly popular Whirly-Gig range.

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But, it is for his hand carved children’s toys that Ron is famous. Ron’s toys aren’t governed by ten minute fads and fashions. These are hand-crafted, hand-painted works of art which range from a simple World War One bi-plane to the brilliantly conceived Sheep Shearing Man – which has a rather robust sheep cutting the hair of a rather trusting passer-by, only, as you turn the handle, it eventually delivers a wonderfully gruesome black joke as the sheep gets too enthusiastic and chops off the man’s head.

Ron likes a laugh and the vast majority of his toys and automata are imbued with Ron’s sense of fun and rather ribald mischief.

“At the moment I am making one of a girl sunbathing on a beach. When the sun comes out she takes her top off and when it goes in again, she puts it back on. A simple toy, powered by a solar cell but it raises a smile.”

Ron has been supplying craft shops and toy shops with his quirky pieces since the mid-60s. A native of Cornwall, he moved to Suffolk in 1972.

“My wife comes from Woodbridge and wanted to come back to Suffolk, so we moved from London in 1972 and haven’t looked back. It’s a wonderful part of the world. I find it very restful, It’s a great place to work in.”

He said that his career has been a wonderful collision of craft and carpentry, a talent for which he inherited from his father. His own love of mechanics and his aptitude for art added the final flourish. “I have been able to meld all my interests together and come up with a career which has kept me happy and busy. I don’t regret it for a second.

“My dad was a carpenter, so I grew up using his tools. I had a friend who went onto be an engineer and he introduced me to mechanics at a young age and we were always taking things to bits. I remember he and I raiding old car dumps, taking magnetos out and wire and making little motors. It started very early on and I’ve never lost the enjoyment of making things move. It’s continued all my life.”

Ron said that he has been a life-long believer in the “make-do and mend” philosophy. “It was recycling before recycling became such a buzz word,” he laughs.

“I make a lot of slot machines for museums and the workings are all from old printers. Copying machines are the best. You get lots of cogs and wheels out of those. Computers are always disappointing – there’s nothing in those.”

He said that although many toy and automata makers like to use stainless steel or brass machinery when the mechanism is on show, if the gears is hidden from view, he prefers plastic because they are light, resilient and quiet. “They are great. They are very durable – last forever.

“The reason a lot of automata makers use metal is because the mechanism is part of the show. They have the workings exposed and then build a little stage above them, where the scene happens. So if you want the mechanism to look nice you use brass or shiny stainless steel.”

He said that many people find the mechanism used to make the action happen just as fascinating to watch as the actual scene itself. Ron said that the scenes he engineers always deliver a surprise, like the Sheep Shearing Man, so the mechanism doesn’t need to become too fascinating.

He said that building in surprises into his work brings its own satisfaction because he knows people get a kick out of being surprised and entertained.

“It’s something out of the ordinary, something they are not necessarily expecting. I did a piece for Norwich Castle Museum. They had an old chest there with a big lock on it. It was an early portable bank. So I made an effigy of a Norman knight – very similar to the kind you get on tombs, lying down, but when you put the money in, the dog lying at his feet wakes up, seemingly because he hears the money go in and starts barking and that wakes the knight up, so he sits up and salutes the person who has made the donation.

“I had great fun playing with that. When you are doing something that complicated there’s no point in showing the mechanism because you don’t want to distract from what’s going on in front of you.”

He said that tackling engineering problems was all part of the fun of his job.

“The way I go about it, is first decide on what you want to do, work out what you want to happen and then find a way of moving it.”

He said that the original Sheep Shearing A Man toy was created 30 years ago for a friend who kept sheep. “I just liked the idea of a sheep shearing a man. I then started to fiddle with it and the bit with the sheep cutting the head off was an after thought – that came later. It started off just shearing all the time; then I added a slow motion cog – so the main mechanism drives all of the main parts, then the slow motion cog is clicked on a notch each time it turns, until the man is forced up and has his head chopped off.”

He said that he has a habit of sometimes going too far and making things too complicated. “You’ve got to know when to stop.”

He said that many of the automata are not intended for young children. The majority are bought by adults who had wooden toys as children or those who just love Ron’s quirky sense of humour which is accentuated by the toys themselves.

He said that he has had a life-long fascination with toys. He wrote a magazine article about toys when he was at the Royal College of Art and that led to him making toys of his own.

The article then put him in touch with other craftsmen from The Toy Makers Guild and that convinced him he could earn a living making toys.

“For the first four or five years after leaving art school I earned most of my money teaching but then I decided to start my own business, get a workshop and haven’t looked back.”

He said that because national service intervened along the way, he didn’t start his career as a toy maker until the age of 30. Despite the complexity of some of his automata, simple model aeroplanes, particularly World War One bi-planes remain big sellers, along with his more recent Whirly-gigs.

“I also make a ship and submarine, the submarine can fire a torpedo and if you hit the button on the ship, it blows apart – that has a lot of play value and has been very popular. But I have always sold a lot through craft shops and now I get people who had my toys as children buying similar toys for their own children.

“I get a lot of people telling me: ‘Oh I had your aeroplane or your ship and submarine. It’s still on the mantelpiece at home,’ and they buy something else for their own children.”

He said that there is something special about having something which is handcrafted and handpainted which makes it different from a mass produced product.

Showing alongside Ron is artist and fellow automata maker Guy Richardson from Lowestoft. Guy and Ron have known one another for 30 years and have shared a number of exhibitions and worked on various events together.

Guy’s part of the exhibition is entitled From Luxor to Lowestoft and is made up of some hand-printed books of his line-drawings from trips to Egypt, a collection of pastel paintings of beach life and some of his trademark peepshows.

“All my work has a traditional handcrafted, seaside/beach theme. It’s all linked in many ways because, for 20 years, I was a Punch and Judy man on Yarmouth beach. But I have always painted and made things. I went to the Chelsea Art School in the early 60s having finished national service.

“I love handcrafted figures. I love drawing, so all my work overlaps my interests. The peepshow is handmade and is very traditional seaside entertainment.”

Ron Fuller and Guy Richardson’s exhibition at Craftco in the Market Place, Southwold runs from this weekend until Thursday September 9.

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