At first glance, Bob Hundemer looks like he might be Santa's helper, surrounded as he is by bunnies and clowns and toy dump trucks and such.

But wait a minute! He's trying to yank a teddy bear's nose off with a steel torque device! And look -- most of his other toys have been scratched, gouged, boiled or otherwise mutilated. And what about those dolls with their arms ripped off? Is this guy Scrooge?

"I'd prefer to describe myself as a toy tester par excellence," says Hundemer. He's the man in charge of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission's toy testing laboratory in Gaithersburg, where 900-odd toys are torture tested each year to see if they'll break into small, sharp or otherwise dangerous pieces.

Many flunk miserably. If they do, Hundemer wants them recalled for redesign or banned, not under your Christmas tree.

"We're especially concerned with choking hazards," he says, displaying what he calls his "photo op" bear. The torque device has scratched its nose, and feeler gauges have been poked under its glass eyes in an attempt to pluck them from their furry little sockets. The bear is battered but unbowed.

"If the eyes or nose had come off, we would try to coax them into a small-parts cylinder with an inch-and-a-quarter opening. If they fit entirely inside, that would represent a choking threat."

Hundemer, who says his own 3-year-old is extremely fond of putting things in his mouth, offers this heartfelt

advice:

"If the toy has parts smaller than, say, a plum, don't buy it for young children. Marbles and balloons are the worst offenders -- especially balloons. Kids like to chew on them after they've popped."

One more thing:

"I've learned this firsthand from my daughter," says Hundemer. "She's a year old -- a stage when children enjoy watching things fall. That's why we perform the impact test."

The test is simplicity itself. Toys are held aloft and unceremoniously dropped onto a concrete floor covered with vinyl tile. If they survive 10 drops from 4 feet 5 1/2 inches and four drops from 2 feet 11 1/2 inches, they're okay.

Don't try these tests at home.