Fairytale toys are crafted in Molovata Nouă, thanks to EU and UNDP support
The craftsmanship passed down from generation to generation made Maxim Alexei from the village of Molovata Nouă to open a workshop for crafting wooden toys. The folk craftsman teamed up with Irina Agafița, a marketing specialist. That’s how PINO toys were born. With the support of the European Union and UNDP, provided under the EU Confidence Building Measures Programme, the entrepreneurs purchased modern equipment.
“Coming from a family of woodworkers, as my great-great-grandparents were woodworkers, at first, I played with some cubes, then I started making doors, stairs, tables, like any woodworker. When my first child came along, my father said: ‘Let’s go into the workshop and make him some toys’. I have since then changed direction and now we produce exclusively wooden toys in this workshop,” Maxim Alexei recalls of his journey into the world of toys.
A car, a dozer and a crane – these were the first toys Maxim created, with which he relaunched his woodworking business. Since then, he has made hundreds of models, turning log woods into toys. He’s been doing this every day for more than 12 years.
“I don’t make any drawings or sketches. I imagine what I want a toy to be like and then I take a piece of wood and transform it. If I like the result, then I continue, if not, then I put it on the shelf and leave it there. I can make several hundred toys a day, sometimes I make a toy in two days. It all depends on the model and how complex it is,” says Maxim Alexei.
A friendship turned into a business partnership
For many years, Maxim crafted toys and displayed them at fairs where he was invited as a folk craftsman. He didn’t have a brand or a proper business until he met Irina Agafița.
“I met Maxim when he was selling his toys in the street. Even then I had the idea of making wooden toys. Then, as now, I was in charge of organising folk craftspeople who wanted to participate in events, festivals. That’s how I met him and over time we became friends.”
Irina and Maxim’s collaboration, but not their friendship, came to a standstill when the pandemic hit, as Maxim had only sold his toys at events until then. The uncertainty made Maxim seriously consider settling in another country because he was unable to support his family. Irina then proposed to Maxim to launch an online shop where his toys could be displayed and sold. That’s how the PINO toy brand was born.
“I find Maxim very talented. For me, his talent is something special. When he told me he wanted to leave, I was like: ‘No, no, no. You’re so talented, you can’t just leave.’ That’s when I suggested we sell online, as I have a degree in management and marketing. He was very sceptical at first but accepted. I created the visual identity, and he was making the toys. I told Maxim that it would be a good idea to expand the range of toys, but he said that he didn’t have the right machinery, so we thought we had to do something about it,” says Irina Agafița, the administrator of the business and the online shop.
From scepticism to the excitement of a new beginning
Excited about the new beginning, Irina Agafița started looking for solutions. That’s how she participated in spring 2022 in the grant competition launched by the EU Confidence Building Measures Programme, implemented by UNDP. The application was successful, and Irina and Maxim were awarded a grant of €15,000, with which they bought the equipment needed to manufacture wooden toys.
“Maxim was sceptical, he thought only others could get funding, not him. He was very happy when we got the first grant, then another. He understood that it’s possible and, more importantly, how much easier it is to work with the new equipment. That’s how we’ve increased productivity: now he manages to make a lot more toys and, most importantly, he works safely,” says Irina.
A CNC router and a wood planer were purchased from the grant. “‘Before we had a very unsafe equipment. I was nervous to work on that equipment. Now everything is safer, more efficient, the wood comes out cleaner, it doesn’t splinter as much, meaning that we now have a good and efficient equipment,” says Maxim.
The wooden toys from PINO are an example of sustainability
Maxim Alexei has always opted for a sustainable way of producing toys. The wood used in the production of the toys is bought from local people in and around Molovata Nouă. Maxim most often uses wood from fruit trees to give the toys a special texture. It’s also a way to reuse natural resources.
“People who want to get rid of a tree call us and we then go and cut it down for them or take the log. We make it into planks, we dry them, and then we make toys. Walnut, cherry, mulberry, pear – practically any type of wood growing in the area is suitable for our toys,” says Maxim.
Although he buys wood from locals, because of the war in Ukraine, the price of timber has increased.
At the same time, Maxim stopped producing tank toys, although until then, it was one of the most popular and best-selling models.
“When the war started, I simply couldn’t bring myself to make this model anymore. I gave up, even though it’s just a toy. I gave up, even though wooden tanks sold better than cars or planes,” notes Maxim.
Apprenticeship out of fashion?!
Maxim doesn’t have enough time to both make toys and participate in fairs. The folk craftsman is keen to expand his business and employ more people in the workshop. Having learned the woodworking trade from his father, Maxim now has no one to pass on his skills to, as his children are too young. The village youth, Maxim notes, are no longer interested in apprenticeship.
“Unfortunately, it’s a bit hard now. We can’t offer young people as high salaries as they would like, plus many are leaving the country. We hire women, seniors, people with no previous experience. Some work tasks only involve sanding or joining parts.”
“We are really in demand. Very often, we sell everything we have,” says Maxim. The woodworker also organises creative sessions for children, who get to make the toy they want: “They then go home twice as happy because they have made their own toy and gained an insight into the process of making it.”
Maxim would like to have a larger workshop to host events and have more visitors of all ages.
Another idea for the future is to arrange a “fairy tale” space for children from both sides of the Nistru river.
“On the bank of the Nistru river, Maxim has a plot of land surrounded by pine trees and we are thinking of building a workshop with an open area where both children and parents can reconnect by playing in nature. It’s a grand project that we dream of,” says Irina.