British toymaker Colin Carlson endured 12-hour days to produce a record number of handmade toys at his Creations in Wood workshop. He has his greatest competitor to thank for the jump in sales: China.
Orders for his wooden rocking horses, snails and motorbikes are up 25 percent over last Christmas, since a wave of recalls hit Chinese-made toys on concerns they either contained excessive amounts of lead or magnets that may be swallowed.
"Everybody but everybody is working weekends," said Carlson, a bearded craftsman and chairman of the British Toymakers Guild who bears more than a passing resemblance to St. Nick. "With the Chinese problem we've seen a huge growth of people thinking, 'Let's move back to British toys."'
Santa's elves across Europe and the United States are benefiting as parents seek out locally-made gifts for their children, naughty and nice alike. American Plastic Toys Inc. in Walled Lake, Mich., hired about 30 additional workers and kept production of its play kitchens and children's desks running a sixth day a week. K'NEX Brands LP in Hatfield, Penn., added a third production shift and extended plant hours to 24 a day, from 16.
Both companies say they are displaying "Made in USA" more prominently on their packaging to grab consumers' attention.
"Parents are scared," said Michael Araten, president of K'NEX, which makes plastic construction kits, including the 5- foot-tall Serpent's Spiral roller coaster, which retails for about $60. "Manufacturing in the U.S. is the only way to ensure the quality and safety of our products is up to our standards."
He estimates 2007 sales rose 30 percent, the biggest gain in at least four years. K'NEX's consumer line was flooded with calls from parents asking where it makes its toys as soon as the first recalls were made public.
Since June, more than 34 million toys and other products made in China have been recalled by companies in the United States. China is under pressure from the United States and European Union to strengthen product-safety regulations.
Mattel Inc., the world's largest toymaker, incurred post- tax costs of $31 million in the third quarter from recalled products. The El Segundo, Calif.-based company makes 65 percent of its toys in China.
Traditional toymakers say the demand vindicates their choice to emphasize high quality even if they have to charge more.
Ian Butler's Croglin Designs in Cumbria, northern England, uses local woods and non-toxic, natural oils to produce geometric shapes that double as toys and art. "The China scare is having an impact," he says.
Craftsman David Plagerson in Devon says he was contacted by Hamleys in August to produce one of his wooden Noah's Arks for the London toyshop in reaction to the interest in British toys. A Hamleys spokeswoman declined to comment on the retailer's suppliers. A beeswax-finished ark with 12 pairs of animals retails for 575 pounds ($1,152).
Mother-of-two Amanda Gray, 35, was at Hamleys choosing blocks made in Denmark by Lego A/S for a seven-year-old nephew. She said she does her best to avoid the cheapest toys.
"I do say no to a lot of the junk they ask for," she said, trying to stop two-year-old George from putting a red plastic guitar in his mouth. "I would definitely prefer to buy something made in Europe, preferably wood and without flashing lights."
It's more difficult to make that choice stick for her six- year-old. "They want what everyone else has," she said.
Traditional options may lead to some tantrums of disappointment on Christmas day.
Some of the hottest toys this Christmas season are sourced in China, such as Hannah Montana dolls made by Jakks Pacific Inc., Mattel's Hot Wheels, Fisher-Price's Dora the Explorer preschool toys and Smart Cycles in which kids play educational games while pedaling, according to Chris Byrne, a contributing editor to Toy Wishes magazine.
"If you're around four to six, the only country of origin you care about is the North Pole," he said. "Kids are writing to the North Pole for the hot toys that they want. If instead Santa brings them a toy carved out of some tree in Minnesota, what does that say about their relationship?"
At Carlson's atelier, he puts the finishing touches to one of his rocking horses, which he sells for between 85 pounds and 350 pounds. He also makes smaller wooden trains and airplanes.
He and his wife Ann have been working 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. in the run-up to Christmas. Some have come from the United States, Australia and South Africa. All their toys carry European certification that they meet local standards for safety and use toy-friendly paints.
"Christmas is normally a good time for us anyway," Carlson said. "At the moment it's just berserk."