BENNINGTON — Bob Pinsonneault had a pile of pine lumber in his yard he purchased years ago to make a barn. It was getting old, and he had to do something with it.
"It was a few months before Christmas and I was looking for a gift for the grand kids," he recalled. "I thought, 'What can I make them with these pieces of lumber?'"
Out of that pile of lumber grew the idea for Vermont Wooden Blocks, a new startup company founded by Pinsonneault that sells building block kits. Like Lincoln Logs, the blocks have notches to rest on top of one another. But Pinsonneault said his blocks are more versatile and allow people to build larger, sturdier things. He sells kits to make toys and furniture, like a doll crib and an end table. Larger kits marketed to classroom settings provide enough pieces to make clubhouses, forts and furniture that children can sit on or climb into.
A retired project engineer, it's now his full-time gig. He handcrafts each wooden piece at his home from regionally-sourced Northern White Pine. He's brought some to local daycares, and kindergarten and pre-school classrooms. The response from both kids and adults, Pinsonneault said, has been great.
"Everyone tells me how much they love them," he said in his home workshop recently.
He spoke of wanting to promote a product with a low environmental impact. He also said he wants to offer an activity that encourages families to turn off the computer, TV, or iPad. Toys like his encourage critical thinking and get kids interested in the world around them, he said.
"You have to let them try things, see how they work," he said.
Pinsonneault retired in May after almost 35 years with what's now Kaman Composites.
"Woodworking has been a hobby for a lot of my life," he said. He learned it in junior high from a family friend and has had a wood shop in his home for years. "I've always been interested in the process. Over the years, I've upgraded my equipment."
The test batch of blocks he made a few years ago was a big hit with his grandchildren, Avery and Luke. He also gave some to his daughter, Jessica, who runs a daycare.
"She said, 'Dad, you should sell these,'" he said.
He's fine-tuned the design, incorporated the business, launched a website, and is ramping up a social media presence.
He starts with raw lumber, which he cuts, joints and planes in his workshop. He then cuts notches that allow the blocks to stack on top of one another. The blocks come in four different sizes.
Through the website, he sells kits to make a small stool ($65), a log cabin ($85), a doll crib set ($100), and an end table with a shelf ($280). Classroom kits start at $220 and run to $430.
Each kit includes enough pieces to make a specific structure. But he's quick to point out that there's no limit to the possibilities. Pinsonneault said he would also fill custom orders.
He said people he met through the Lightning Jar co-working space in Bennington were helpful as he founded the business. And Dimitri Garder, co-founder of Global-Z, helped him with business ideas and strategy.
Pinsonneault said he hopes to someday expand and offer more products.
For more information, visit www.VermontWoodenBlocks.com or on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/VermontWoodenBlocks. Orders can be made online, by calling Bob at 802-447-8360, or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contact Ed Damon at 802-447-7567, ext. 111.