How cool is this Grain Belt Beer delivery truck toy? Everything you see here was made entirely by the hands of a master toy maker by the name of Brian Cowdery using depression-era techniques. I owe Bill Morford of Wm Morford Antiques a big thank you for making me aware of this man and tonight had the distinct pleasure of speaking with Brian on the phone so that I could learn from an expert at his craft.
As someone who works with metal for a living (my main gig is metal cabinetry and tool chests), I was mesmerized by this man’s attention to detail and skills as a metalsmith, which Brian has been doing for 30 years now. Metal is an extremely difficult medium in which to work and Brian makes these new pressed steel toys look like they were made 100 years ago. His toys are so remarkably handcrafted and historically accurate to the time period in which were originally made that they appear to look like NOS (new old stock) pieces discovered in a box somewhere and opened for the first time.
Brian started out working on restorations of original toys that he would find in poor condition but which deserved an afterlife. And so began his quest to secure as many early pressed steel toy vehicles as he could, with an emphasis on collecting ‘Buddy L’ brand of toys. This now classic line of toys came about when in 1921 the owner of the Moline Pressed Steel Company, which was manufacturing truck bodies for the International Harvester company, decided to make a miniature realistic detailed toy of an International Harvester Truck for his only son Buddy. He took the specifications, reduced them in scale and produced a sturdy replica made from heavy pressed steel, not cast iron, to stand up to many years of wear and tear.
In four short years more than 218,000 toys were placed on the market and by the end of 1927 the company’s new slogan “Over one million Buddy L Toys now in the possession of satisfied boys” was known through the entire world. That year the company would manufacture fifty toy models featuring exact miniature reproductions of auto trucks, passenger cars, dump trucks, aerial fire wagon, passenger buses, locomotives and other working types of apparatus of interest to children with a mechanical turn of mind.
As Brian began collecting and restoring these toys and had collected all seven different models of Buddy L 'Flivver' toys that were made, he remarked
"After you’ve collected all of them you are at an end. I got to thinking ‘What might have happened if they keep making more of those had the depression not begun to take its toll on the company?’. And so I decided to make a sedan, something they never manufactured.”
Having no prior background or experience in tooling or toy making Brian sought out the advice of someone who did have the experience who helped estimate what resources and money would be needed in tooling, materials and time. Unfazed by the challenge, but uplifted by the encouragement he received, Brian dove in head first.
“I went into making these in sort of a naïve fashion and before I knew just how much of and realized just how much it would take to actually make these … the actual cost of making the first Flivver toy was going to cost 6X more than estimated I was so far in over my head that that I had no choice but to finish. Before it was over I ended up having to mortgage whatever I could to come up with the money to do this. Finally after three years I had finally built and sold the first batch of all 250 toys that I made, which brought in just about enough money to break even with the original tooling costs, but all of the labor needed to build and paint the toys, pack them and ship everything was essentially donated.”
Although the venture did not generate any cash, Brian’s work on his project became so well regarded that that he was featured in a cover story in ‘Antique Toy World’ magazine. After that everyone in toy collecting knew who he was and
“I started to have well known and establish collectors reach out to commission me to make them one-of-a-kind creations for their collections”. To this day many of his pieces are one-offs. “Some are built in multiples, but never more than a couple dozen or so, and mostly a lot less than that”.
Brian is very animated about reproductions and fakes and there are some people that might see the handcrafted work of his cars and trucks as "reproductions". Nothing could be further from the truth. Brian’s original designs are not only a work of art expressed through metal, but all of his designs are new versions of different models of cars and trucks that he conceives as new creations.
When collectors first heard about Brian was thinking about doing, at first, they were skeptical. But after looking at his own unique creations, all of which identified him as being the maker, and how he was marketed these as companion continuation pieces of Buddy L toys, collectors understood the difference between copying something original and passing it off a fake and an original piece of work.
There are many parallels between what Brian is doing at ‘Cowdery Toy Works’ and what I am doing at ‘The Small Batch Sign Company’ which is the reason why I was excited to speak with this genius of a metal-crafter and learn from him. We both share a distaste for makers who have no regard for authenticity and unscrupulous sellers who knock-off products that they pawn off as originals.
Brian now speaking directing to me:
“It seems to me that you (Small Batch Signs) are doing things very similar to me in making something that a collector-obviously an advanced collector who is used to buying nice stuff, but their collection is highly restricted to acquiring items of quality and rarity. These collectors need their fix now and them to fill out their collections, so these one of a kind pieces speak to them. If they can buy something new from you that is gorgeous, authentic and well-made it will fall right into complementing and filling out their collections”.
“What you are doing (with Small Batch Signs) I just cannot believe it! Because there is so much involved in making these signs, all of which is lost on the average person. But you are dealing with enthusiastic people (collectors) and to me that is always fun because they understand and appreciate the kind of quality you do. I had a wonderful client for many, many years … and when visiting his home was confronted with an entire collection of things I’ve made. At first it was a weird experience, but it was a really, really fun thing for me. It is a true joy when you have a customer that is so pleased and proud of what you have made that it takes a prominent place in their collection”.
If you would like to learn more about this talented man and his work, please visit Brian Cowdery at his website: