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Handmade Tales: Jean and John Barberi, Vermont Block-N-Toy


Published July 16, 2008 at 5:11 a.m.

John and Jean Barberi - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • John and Jean Barberi

There’s something about wooden blocks that draws all ages, say Jean and John Barberi, the husband-and-wife team behind Vermont Block-N-Toy. Once, after a dinner party in their Williamstown home, they found an adult guest hunkered down on the living room floor with a set of their blocks. “You know what he does for a living? He’s the captain of an oil rig!” John, 51, exclaims with a laugh.

It’s particularly hard to keep one’s hands off the couple’s heirloom-quality blocks. Cut one at a time from Vermont-harvested maple, lightly sanded and finished with a kid-safe mineral oil, they beg to be stacked into, say, a miniature town hall. And then, of course, knocked down. And then returned — in neat layers — to their homes: rolling trays or crates made from ash with trademark cherry plug accents, walnut boxes with antiqued hardware, or individually sewn drawstring bags. Jean, 46, who understands the need to play, provides a space for building and knocking down next to her farmers’ market tables in Waitsfield and Richmond.

If Chittenden County customers want to visit the Vermont Block-N-Toy shop, it’s a bit more of a trek. The Barberis live near the end of a miles-long dirt road somewhere in the winding reaches above the Rock of Ages granite quarries. Their backyard is 200 acres of wilderness and swamp. John, a carpenter and head of Barberi Contracting since 1979, cleared the land himself, milled the wood on-site, and built the shop and nearby house, which he and Jean designed together.

John was born and raised in Barre, where he returned after three years in the army. Jean, a Massachusetts transplant, first came to Vermont 20 years ago to earn a degree in liberal arts in Goddard College’s single-parents program. The two met online in a Vermont chat room eight years ago.

One of the couple’s three grandchildren was the inspiration for their toy business: John made his granddaughter, now 3, a set of blocks for her first birthday party. “Thirty people were invited, and all the parents had bought presents at the stores,” he recalls. “When they saw my gift, they all wanted to play with it.”

With John’s builder skills and Jean’s flair for crafts — she designs bead jewelry, too — the two have managed to fine-tune their new business in record time: They started making products only four months ago, and Jean is currently putting the finishing touches on the company’s website.

John selects rough-cut wood at Tom Lathrop’s Exclusively Vermont Wood Supply in Bristol; it’s all Vermont-grown except the walnut. He cuts 1000 blocks at a time and planes, joins and sands them into precise 1.5-inch cubes, or increments thereof. The basic unit makes for easy building, John says; Jean adds that it’s a good way to teach kids fractions.

Jean uses a drill press with an attached branding iron to burn letters into the alphabet sets, which the Barberis offer in addition to blank cubes and big-block sets. Branding instead of painting the letters ensures that they don’t rub off, Jean explains, and it eliminates the risk of toxic paint. Four sides of each block are stamped, and each letter occurs on four different blocks, so with a single set “You can spell Vermont but not Mississippi,” she notes. After lettering, all the blocks are dunked in cutting-board oil and drained 300 at a time on a rack John built. One set of blocks is part of a game: Tic-Tac-Toe to Go. The nine cubes, each branded with an X or O, come in a drawstring bag that Jean sews and paints with a grid.

Volume is already an issue for Vermont Block-N-Toy. The 20 sets of alphabet blocks Jean stamped over the last two weeks are sold; she needs to make 20 more before the weekend. What will the couple do as orders begin to exceed capacity? “Well, I have a daughter, and John has three sons and a daughter,” Jean says with a laugh. (Two of the sons already work for their father in construction.) Serious again, she adds, “We could have a machine in here in five years, but I’d rather hire someone to do it manually who needs the job.”

“It’s such a simple toy,” John chimes in. “We want to try to keep it all as low-tech as possible.”

Click a photo above to see the location.