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Today is October 4, 2022

No batteries? No problem

Bill Bannister’s toys are powered by imagination

By Debbie Stringer

No batteries? No problem

Bill “Papa Bill” Bannister builds timeless toys for all ages at his home in Jackson. Each piece is made from a variety of hardwoods to achieve a colorful effect.

    Bill Bannister’s handmade toys have no sound effects, flashing lights or electronic controls.
    Or batteries.
    Yet they can pull a load of lumber, haul coal or move passengers—with the help of a child’s imagination.
    Working in a small shop at his home in Jackson, Bannister designs and builds “Papa Bill’s” all-wood toys. His work is distinguished by its fine workmanship, durability and natural wood colors.
    A single toy may be made of a dozen different kinds of wood, carefully selected for their color and grain. Bannister shuns wood stains, preferring clear polyurethane and lots of sanding to produce smooth, shiny finishes that enhance the natural colors and iridescence of the wood.
    Bannister’s toys seem destined for display. But he insists he builds them to endure the rough play of youngsters. These are hands-on toys that can survive at least one childhood, and maybe more.
    “Sometimes it’s hard to convince customers they are meant for kids,” Bannister said.
    Bannister ventured into woodworking about 12 years ago when he built his first piece of furniture. His inspiration was the discovery of Norm Abram’s “The New Yankee Workshop,” an instructional woodworking show on public television. “For three months or so, I watched every episode. Then I went out and bought some shop tools.
    “I ordered a butler’s tray table kit from Abrams, but this is not the first thing you need to start with,” he said with a wry smile.
   Bannister finished the table with its hinged top and found he enjoyed the process as much as the results. Soon he was devoting off-hours from his job as a transportation refrigeration mechanic to building furniture of his own design. “If I wasn’t at work, I was in my shop.”
    The home he shares with his wife, Marsha, is filled with furniture Bannister has built through the years.
    His toy making was prompted by the births of the couple’s five grandchildren. Bannister admits his first project was almost his last: an elaborately detailed bulldozer with a low-boy trailer, built from plans. Its construction was painstaking. Each segment of the bulldozer’s two tracks was individually crafted for an exact fit.
    Yet Bannister persisted. Now he builds World War I biplanes, helicopters, trains, Le Mans-style race cars, Conestoga and buckboard wagons, antique cars and trucks, pull toys and games.        
    Bannister continually improves his designs based on his own grandchildren’s experiences in playing with them.

    “What’s really fun is to have a child come up and grab one of the race cars, or an airplane. They just fall in love with it, and want to play with it then and there,” Bannister said.
    The magic of these handmade toys works on grown-ups, too. Few can resist trying out the cricket pull toy.
    Bannister enjoys the challenge of designing, so he welcomes custom orders. For one customer, he designed a foot-long wind surfer, with a tall cypress sail and three rudders.
    For a customer wanting a gift for a law enforcement officer, Bannister recreated the 1935 Ford black-and-white police cruiser in wood. It is the only toy he has ever painted. “I told them, it’s very hard for me to paint this,” he said with a laugh.
    Bannister’s stockpile of wood planks is his version of an artist’s palette. A wide variety of wood types is represented, including oak, hickory, bird’s eye maple, walnut, cherry, lemonwood, purpleheart and mahogany.
    “You can get any color of wood you want: red, green, blue, black, yellow, brown—and it’s all natural color.”
    A couple of coats of polyurethane on the finished toy intensifies the colors and makes them “pop,” Bannister said.
    Although he produces many toys in a limited number of designs, no two are alike; each is made unique by variations in wood types, color and grain pattern. 
    Bannister is obsessed with wood grain. It was the beauty of perfectly aligned wood grain in hand-built furniture that first sparked his interest in woodworking. In building toys, he strives to make even the smallest joins invisible by carefully aligning the grain of neighboring pieces of wood.
    Or, he may use a wood with a prominent grain such as zebrawood to create decorative effects, like stripes on car seats.
    In 2010 Bannister became an exhibiting member of the Craftsmen’s Guild of Mississippi. The guild awards membership only to artisans whose work meets high standards for artistry and craftsmanship.
    Now through Dec. 27, Papa Bill’s toys are being featured once again in an art exhibit at the Mississippi Library Commission in Jackson. Last year’s MLC show nearly sold out, to his surprise. That left him scrambling to build more toys for his booth at the Craftsmen’s Guild’s Chimneyville Crafts Festival, also in December. “I went into panic mode, but I managed to get about 40 boxes of toys made for Chimneyville. I sold all but one box,” he said.
    After this year’s Chimneyville show, Bannister’s pace will slow a bit. Winter is the time to ponder new toy designs. “I’ll sit out there in the shop and put down ideas I’ve had during the year. Then I’ll start experimenting to see how they look.”
    Toy sales have allowed Bannister to scale back his employment to a part-time job at a local home improvement store, so he can spend more time working in his wood shop.
    When one is engaged in an enjoyable, creative activity, it’s easy to lose track of time. Some nights, his wife will call to remind him to come to bed.
    “I’ll be concentrating on a something and I just lose myself. I’m relaxed and listening to music. To me, that’s my therapy. I can go out in the shop after a hard day at work and it’s just me and the toys.”
    Contact Bill Bannister at 601-624-6620 or bbannister1@att.net. See more of his work at the Chimneyville Crafts Festival, Nov. 30 - Dec 2 at the Mississippi Trade Mart, in Jackson. Details are available at www.mscraftsmenguild.org. For information on the Mississippi Library Commission show, and the opening reception on Nov. 27, call 601-432-4111 or email gloriajw@mlc.lib.ms.us.

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