When Naphtalie Onstot read an online study earlier this year about toxins in plastic teethers, she freaked out. A self-described “crunchy granola,” the mother of two didn’t want her then 6-month-old teething son to ingest harmful chemicals, and she took to the internet to find an alternative. That alternative was wood. And, as luck would have it, her husband Jon had just started dabbling in woodworking after receiving a scroll saw from his brother-in-law. Once his wife told him the news, Jon disappeared into the garage and emerged 30 minutes later holding a wooden teether shaped like a pair of brass knuckles. Bathed in sawdust, Tough Love Teethers was born.
TLTs are non-toxic teething toys designed to soothe aching gums while “helping children avoid chemicals hidden in plastics.” Also, to make babies look tough. They’re made of 100 percent maple wood (to order) and are billed as antimicrobial and self-healing ⏤ which means no bacteria, and no splinters. Jon, who owns a construction business with his dad and brother, makes the teethers on the side ⏤ usually before and after work and on weekends ⏤ in the family’s Santa Paula, CA, garage.
The rough-and-tumble brass knuckles design is what stood out and caught fire on social media. In fact, the best part of the story may actually be how a single wooden teether made on a whim turned into an improbable family business. According to Naphtalie, “Jon casually said, ‘I wonder if any of your mom friends on Facebook might be interested in these?'” To which she responded, “Hell yes” and then posted an ad on a local buy/sell/trade page. Ten people ordered right away; then 50 people ordered. “Retailers were messaging me asking to carry them,” says Napthalie. “And the orders haven’t stopped since.”
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After he traces, drills, cuts, and routes each one, the teethers are sanded “satin smooth” and hand-rubbed with a mixture of organic coconut oil and beeswax. The whole process takes between 20 to 30 minutes and ends up being a family affair. “Our 4-year-old daughter Emma has some pretend power tools and a little work bench next to his in the garage and will help him sand teethers. We literally cut hang tags to prep them for shipping while the kids play at our feet.”
In addition to the knuckles, Tough Love Teethers sells two less-edgy designs: a heart (with a rattle) and a baseball diamond. Each runs $15. More designs are on the way though, including one that resembles a piston ⏤ presumably from an engine, and not Bill Laimbeer. Naphtalie and Jon are also playing with vegetable dyes to add some color, and plan to introduce both a wooden beaded teether clip and attachable drool rags in some Sailor Jerry tattoo inspired fabrics. “It’s important to us to stick with more ‘manly’ designs,” says Naphtalie, “because Jon doesn’t really want to make bunnies and flowers.”