Hobby led to business, but it's all child's play Former teacher makes day-care furniture

April 12, 1993|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Staff Writer

Kids are rough, tough customers, said Vince DiPaula, a Randallstown businessman who has spent the last 15 years appealing to the imaginations of thousands of Maryland children.

The 62-year-old furniture maker even managed to amuse former President George Bush, who visited a Catonsville Head Start center in January 1992 and delighted the youngsters by making a pretend phone call from the "tree loft," one of the child-sized pieces of furniture Mr. DiPaula has created.

Because day-care furniture and toys get hard use every day, Mr. DiPaula's constant search for new ideas is tempered by the demand for sturdiness and for safety, as required by state and federal laws.

"These are not like ordinary toys, which are played with a while and put down. When one kid puts something down, another picks it right up, all day long every day. They have to be strong, and they have to be safe," said Mr. DiPaula, who started making rocking horses in his backyard shop at the request of a friend who knew of his woodworking skills. The friend sold the rocking horses to area day-care centers.

"I didn't know what a day-care center was, but we were making 50 horses a week, sawing and sanding, just Bobbi [his wife] and myself. We couldn't keep up," Mr. DiPaula recalled.

His horizons expanded as he learned more about day-care centers. He visited a Woodlawn center to see what kind of equipment was in use. The owner bought from a distributor in Howard County, who bought from manufacturers around the country. When the day-care operator asked Mr. DiPaula if he could match quality and price, he said he could. The result was Vince's Wooden Toys.

Mr. DiPaula said he borrowed a catalog "went home and told Bobbi we were going into a new business. I made up my mind that I would put out a product that would put the other companies to shame."

Word spread, orders began to arrive. His product line expanded almost overnight. His favorite piece was a "castle" for Chicago's first subsidized day-care center.

"It had to have turrets and dungeons and a drawbridge with chains and a moat," he said.

Once the design was approved, he trucked the parts to Chicago and assembled the castle, along with a post office, a barbershop with a twirling barber pole, and the stock of routine day-care equipment. The city gave him a certificate for his "service to the children of Chicago."

Eventually, the volume of work forced him out of his backyard shop to his present plant in the Deer Park Center in the 9600 block of Liberty Road. Four employees make the furniture.

"I'm the only one in Maryland who makes the furniture and distributes it, too," said Mr. DiPaula, a native of Baltimore. "The others are just distributors."

He has won several contracts for child-care furniture and toys for public and private schools, including schools in Harford, Frederick, Washington and Carroll counties.

"We manufacture all of Baltimore County's prekindergarten equipment," he said.

Dr. Wendy Harrison, president of Mother's Choice, a new day-care center in Belair, said she was referred to Mr. DiPaula, who has not only built the furniture and toys for the center but also a playground with a theme of Walt Disney characters.

"We went to see him, and when we saw what he makes, how sturdy it is, we ordered all kinds of things. It's really top quality," said Dr. Harrison.

The tree loft, which so amused President Bush, was actually a response to bureaucracy, said Mr. DiPaula. Regulations require a certain amount of space for every child. The storage area for the children's pallets was deducted, he said.

"So I invented the loft, with space underneath for the cots and steps up to a platform where the kids can play," he said.

"We love it, and the children enjoy it," said Barbara Hall, a teacher at the Emily Harris center.

For furniture and toys, Mr. DiPaula uses maple and three-fourths-inch birch plywood, hardwoods that do not chip and splinter. Each piece is sprayed with three coats of polyurethane to give it a plastic coating. Playground equipment is made of pressure-treated yellow pine for strength.

Among the favorite items are child-sized play sinks, refrigerators, stoves, microwaves, washers and dryers.

"I always had a talent for woodworking," said Mr. DiPaula, who said he built his first boat, a 19-foot cruiser, when he was 16, and a 28-footer six years later.

A graduate of the Peabody Conservatory, Mr. DiPaula spent 15 years teaching music in Montgomery County public schools. He left teaching in 1972 to play piano full time in hotels and clubs in Washington, D.C., and spent two years as music director aboard the cruise ship Bermuda Star. He still does gigs around Baltimore on the weekends.

An inveterate amateur inventor, he rues the one that got away.

In 1973, Baltimore and other large cities experienced epidemics of false fire alarms. Mr. DiPaula and Joseph L. Casseri, an electronics engineer from Parkville, devised a vandal-proof fire alarm box that detained the alarm-puller for three minutes. Fire officials from various cities examined the prototype and expressed interest.

Meanwhile, Mr. DiPaula said, they were offered $1 million for the idea. They refused it, anticipating potentially greater profits. But the project never took off.

"What's that about a bird in the hand?" he asked with a wry smile.

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