The perfect Christmas gift for the scientifically minded child

A Victoria designer carves a niche for himself in medieval toys


Nik West

Better not cry | Derek Wulff demonstrates one of his da Vinci-inspired toys in his Metchosin workshop

A Victoria designer carves a niche for himself in medieval toys

Derek Wulff jokes that he has something in common with Apple founder Steve Jobs. “He started his toys business in his garage, as I did,” says the 59-year-old designer behind Victoria’s Pathfinder Toys, “and then he became gloriously, fabulously wealthy, and I’m still in my garage.”

But anyone who has helped a child painstakingly glue together the wooden pieces of one of Wulff’s catapults, or watched said child discover hydraulic power with one of Wulff’s syringe-operated robotic arms, would be happy that the Metchosin-based toymaker stayed true to his roots. “Kids enjoy spending time making something that does something, other than just having an onscreen experience,” he says. “So I try to make this an intergenerational experience so we can have families together in some kind of real activity that’s not virtual.”

Wulff, who taught science at several Toronto elementary schools, moved to Metchosin with his wife, Mary, and their young son in 2002. Unable to find a teaching job, he decided to set up his own school in his garage and invited parents to bring their home-schooled children to classes. “They weren’t saying, ‘Give me curriculum,’ they were saying, ‘Give my kids experience and skills,'” he recalls, “so that’s what I did.”

He began designing medieval catapults, with arms that would fling small objects, and auto­mata, with a crankshaft to make parts move. “I like the kinetic aspect of things,” he says. “So when the kids would make dioramas in my class, they had to put in a mechanism to make the animal jump or move. We mixed science with art.”

The parents urged him to make kits for other home-schoolers across the country.

He came up with a few simple hydraulic machines, and a line of medieval siege engines including a trebuchet and a siege tower, and started making boxed sets in his garage. In 2005, a toy distributor from New York saw them and picked up the line, followed by one in Toronto. He had too many orders, so in 2007 he began working with a broker who lined him up with a family-owned factory in Taiwan. He insisted on paying workers a living wage and using only Forest Stewardship Certified wood.

Now Pathfinder kits are available in 27 countries, and he makes about 250,000 boxes a year, most of them priced at about $25. Wulff also manufactures sets for retailers who use their own packaging and brands. Currently he is working on a series of mid-size working models of da Vinci designs, including the vertical ornithopter and the aerial screw, for the Leonardo da Vinci Museum in Florence, Italy. Visitors will be able to play with the moving parts.

“I do take some artistic licence—he’s not around—but when I’m making stuff that has Leonardo’s name on it, it’s got to be good.”

A few of the top toy trends of 2016 

“Tech: Drones, Robots and Toys-to-Life” (robots/robotic pets; smart tablets for toddlers; augmented reality; flying nanodrones)

“Ultimate Creator” (food and baking sets; jewellery making; building sets; videography sets)

“Brain Boosters/STEAM” (toys that teach science, technology, engineering, arts and math)