Airplane engineer reveals touching inspiration behind his revolutionary ‘planet-saving’ paper toys

·9-min read
Dad, Keith Finch, 56, with his son, Tom Finch, 16 (Collect/PA Real Life)
Dad, Keith Finch, 56, with his son, Tom Finch, 16 (Collect/PA Real Life)

A former aeroplane wing maker has combined his childhood love of homemade toys with his engineering skills to create a range of fully-functioning, planet-saving paper models of everything from a microscope to a pinball machine.

Dad, Keith Finch, 56, now leads a team of three creative geniuses who are doing their bit to save the planet while entertaining the whole family with an amazing selection of ‘Build Your Own’ moving paper animals, insects and quirky games.

It is the latest unusual career move for Keith, who lives with his school administrator wife Alison, 50, their son, Tom, 16, and their nine-year-old springer spaniel, Bonzo, in Hampshire’s New Forest.

Once employed by British Aerospace and helping to build planes, Keith, who was also a “paper engineer,” creating marvellous pop-up books and is now innovation director of the company Paper Engine,  said: “I have always been fascinated by paper and board and how versatile it can be.

He added: “A fold in the right place and it can be so structurally strong, you can do anything with it.“You can go from a blank piece of paper to this incredible, functioning product and that is magical.”

Keith’s fascination with innovation was awoken in childhood when he would sit in the corner of his bedroom, quietly pulling apart radios and toys to understand how they worked.

He said: “My dad was always telling me off for taking things apart and not putting them back together again.”

Keith added: “I wanted to see how things were made and how they actually worked – I was fascinated by it.

“I was about 10 when I took the front off my old record player to look inside and see all the tubes and understand how it worked.

“My uncle used to have a print business in London, so we went there in the summer holidays too, which gave me this fascination with print and paper.

“I used to use cereal packets to make things and always liked the fact paper was so readily available and easy to use.”

Not impressed with school, Keith would patiently wait for the final bell to ring before running to his local toy shop to eye up the latest toys on offer.

But it was his dad, Gerry Finch, 84, then an industrial chemist, who really nurtured his creative talents, setting his boy to work doing everything from making toy train tracks to helping on their house extension.

He said: “A lot of my skills come from my dad who taught me how to create things with your hands.

“I helped him build the extension on the back of our house.”

I never really liked books that much and suddenly I was bringing these books to life and making them accessible.

He added: “I loved the challenge of understanding and always wanting to get underneath the skin of how something works.”

But Keith’s true pride and joy as a child was his homemade train set.

He said: “My dad built me a train set, with a huge board that folded up on the wall of my bedroom with legs so it could stand.

“We laid out all the tracks on it and built bridges and he made a cardboard post office, engine shed and water tower.”

He added: “It was about a metre off the floor and he created a hole in the middle so you could get underneath and stand inside and watch the trains go round.”

And his dad’s tutelage paid off as, just before leaving school at 16, already well-versed in producing technical drawings for radio controlled boats he made at home,  Keith was accepted for an apprenticeship with British Aerospace  – now BAE Systems – as a mechanical engineer.

He said: “I remember bringing along a drawing of one of the model boats I was making to my interview and they loved it.

“That job underpinned the beginning of my career, working in the machine shops, doing sheet metal work, welding, machining and learning how to do technical drawing and draughtsmanship to a very high standard.”

Keith added: “I was part of the team that worked on the installation of machines to create parts for the aircraft, making the wings for the Airbuses.”

Leaving British Aerospace at 20, Keith worked as a technical draughtsman for another engineering company for a few years, before stumbling on a whole new kind of engineering – with paper.

Invited by a good friend to help draw designs for the publisher David Bennett Books, aged 26, Keith’s one off designs led to a job helping to design pop-up book protypes – combining his loves of paper and engineering.

He said: “There weren’t many computers around, so I started making dummy samples of the books they were designing with paper and card to show them what they’d look like.”

Keith added: “The first set of fully-animated books we did together was The Big Yellow Taxi, using card to make the taxi move across the page.

“It felt so special, because I never really liked books that much and suddenly I was bringing these books to life and making them accessible.”

For two decades, Keith helped create pop-up books, also working on nostalgic children’s classics like We’re Going on a Bear Hunt and a pop-up version of The Very Hungry Caterpillar for its 40th anniversary edition.

But it was not until 2015, after moving to the company Paper Engine that he landed on the idea of making paper toys – inspired by his son Tom’s toys.

Working with a small team of creatives who were equally curious to explore possibilities of designing with paper and board, he said: “Just like I did with my dad, I played with my son all the time,  but when I looked at his toys there was so much plastic.

“I remember sitting around the Christmas tree and the horror of these piles of plastic everywhere.

“Looking outside at the trees and the ponies wandering around, it felt so wrong to be living on the verge of a forest at a time when the planet is in danger and to be using all this plastic.”

Keith started tinkering first with designing a paper microscope, building the tube from card and trying to insert small plastic lenses he had pulled from disposable cameras to create the magnifying lens.

For months, Keith failed to make it work, but then hit the jackpot.

He said: “The hole in the tube was too big, so once I made it smaller, it all came into focus.

“I thought, ‘My God, it’s worked. It actually works as a microscope.'”

After sharing his joy with his team, Keith brought the 25cm paper microscope back for his son, then 10, to try.

My aim is to make something that is both fun and educational for kids to enjoy.

“He thought it was brilliant,” he said.

“We spent hours looking at leaves, grass and petals underneath it, or looking at the words on a ruler that suddenly got really big.”

Realising they had a very special idea on their hands, Keith and his team began to throw ideas for quirky paper toys around, before each diving into designing and experimenting to create what is now the Build Your Own toy brand.

“The first toy we launched was actually the 60cm tall telescope, which was just amazing,” he said.

Keith added: “The next was the plane launcher, which is literally two rubber bands and a lot of cardboard, to launch a plane across the room.

“Working with the team was incredible.

“Every time we went wrong, we’d be closer to getting it right.”

And they all drew on their inner child to achieve perfection.

Keith said: “I try to encourage people not to have the reservations we do as adults.

“When you’re a child, your mind is so much freer and open to things and that is the way to do it.”

Build Your Own’s latest achievement, by one of Keith’s creative designers, Melly Morris, with the support of creative director, Geff Newland, 49, and paper engineer, Jack Strood, 30, is the fully-functioning paper pinball machine, which costs £19.99, although many of the toys like the dragonfly, honey bee and turtle can be bought for under £10.

Keith said: “We all played pinball growing up, so this is a great idea.”

He added: “Melly is brilliant and hugely creative and it took 10 dummy prototypes before we finally cracked it, which is fantastic.

“Two rubber bands, an entirely paper spring, cardboard and five marbles and it takes 60 minutes to put it together.”

With their range now also including mini-build kits, such as Build Your Own ladybirds, rhinos and a range of insects – all around 25-30cm in size – equipped with flapping wings or moving legs, these can be put together by children on their own or with their parents’ help.“My aim is to make something that is both fun and educational for kids to enjoy,” said Keith.

“There is so much education you can get from the kit, whether it is the lenses or the kinetic energy in the rubber bands or the binoculars.

“There is so much to learn through the dexterity needed to build and learn from something, using your hands and your co-ordination.

“We also have a STEM engineer club, standing for science, technology, engineering and mathematics, so kids or teens can build a kit and learn about the engineering, carboard and paper and even get in touch with us to share their advice or ideas.”And while Keith’s son Tom is now studying for his GSCEs, he still marvels at his dad’s cool creations.

Keith said: “He is a very kind boy and always asks what I’m doing and how I will do it. “He would always tell people at school I was a paper engineer and bring me in to teach the other children how we make everything.

“I definitely think he appreciated it growing up. I have more children’s books on my bookshelf than he does!”

With fans already dubbing the paper pinball machine a perfect present for Father’s Day, Keith is not sure what he will be doing that day, but knows he will have fun with Tom.

He laughed: “For my birthday one year, Tom bought me a card saying ‘Happy Birthday, I thought I would send you this piece of folded card.'”

Now, with 16 kits in total for children aged from eight upwards and with others on the way, Keith is looking to the future with plans to create even more magical paper toys.

He said: “The aim is to provide kids with an interesting project that means less screen time and can inspire their curiosity and creativity, without being full of plastic that harms the planet.”

He added: “We aim to give people toys they can build together as a family.

“I know the importance of doing things together as a family as it was building things with my dad that gave me my first real apprenticeship and really made me.”

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