Wooden toys - Lincoln Logs, Tootsie Toys, building blocks and puzzles -  may be an overlooked wood manufacturing niche, but opportunities in this segment will grow as owner Mattel expands U.S. sales of its global phenomenon, Thomas the Train.

Thomas the Train is pretty much all wood: the 3-inch engines and cars, the interlocking tracks, and the "high end eccessories" like round houses and turn tables, with some plastic doors and other elements added on. Its platform and specifications match those of an older brand, Brio, founded in 1958. The current version is amrekted under the Fischer-Price brand and has its own microsite. 

Thomas the Train originated in a British TV show, and the spin-off toys for Thomas & Friends ranked number one in the preschool toys category in the U.S. and made the top 10 for the entire U.S. toy industry in 2010, according to Wikipedia. It's popularity has spawned wooden licensed trains from Lionel and even Major League baseball and NFL football-themed trains.

In January 2011, Thomas & Friends ranked as the number-one preschool toy property in the U.K. for the 11th year in a row. Thomas is also a top-seller in Australia, Germany, Japan and Korea, according to an extensive Wikipedia entry.

In the age of the iPad as babysitter, the mystique of the wooden toy seems to know no bounds. While the total traditional toy industry in the United States increased 1.9%,Thomas & Friends toy sales increased over 47% according to Licensing Today magazine.

Thomas train parts had been made in China until 2007, when - familiar story - lead was discovered in the painted surfaces. Production then moved to Thailand.

The simplicity of the product and its broad appeal has caused others to manufacturer variants on the Thomas sets, skirting patents and trademarks. Choo Choo Track & Toy of Pacific, MO, which produces parts and accessories from American Beech, some priced over $100. An online dealer of many wooden toy train brands is Trainsgalore.com.

Could a domestic manufacturer arise to take up this production opportunity?

When Lincoln Logs was acquired last year, its new owner said it would like to reshore production of its tiny logs to the U.S., if it could find a domestic supplier.

Could that be you?

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