Set in the desert foothills of the Franklin Mountains, surrounded by rocks and shrubs, the modest white building is the farthest thing from the North Pole one could imagine. But inside the headquarters of the Woodworkers Club of El Paso, there’s an elvish flurry of activity, punctuated by the steady hum of sanders and jigsaws. When I visit on a Saturday morning in June, Christmas is more than six months away, but already the shelves are filled with hundreds of handmade wooden toys—tops, helicopters, tanks, rocking horses, and an actual Noah’s ark, complete with miniature animals. The club is on track to deliver 1,500 toys to military families in need at nearby Fort Bliss this holiday season.
The Woodworkers Club of El Paso started in 1985. After the Army shuttered its woodshop at Fort Bliss, 37 senior officers banded together to create the club as a social outlet and a way to give back to the community. Today membership—which is open to anyone aged eighteen or older—has grown to 100 people. Dues are $72 a year and include access to the workshop four days a week, commercial-grade tools, and member-led classes. No prior woodworking experience is required.
“We have a variety of people from all different walks of life,” says Frank Morales, the club’s president and a Vietnam veteran with a salt-and-pepper mustache.
Over the years, the club has taken on various community projects. It has partnered with the Boy Scouts of America to hold a pinewood derby, built Little Free Libraries, and made lecterns for local churches. The toy-making effort for El Paso’s Operation Santa Claus is one of its longest-running and most popular endeavors. But it’s not without its challenges.
Starting in January, the club creates an inventory list with all of the toys it plans to make for the year. An entire room is dedicated to keeping the various pieces organized, and every third Tuesday of the month is set aside for assembly. Everything is volunteer-based, so participation varies. Sometimes the club gets four people; sometimes fifteen show up. On average, the group can churn out ten toys an hour.
Coordinating so many moving parts—including some very small parts, such as wheels or propellers—is a feat in itself. But the club’s output is all the more impressive considering the events of the past few years. Demand brought on by a building boom has made the pine two-by-fours and two-by-sixes the club uses to make toys scarcer and more expensive (Morales estimates that the materials alone cost around $3,000). Plus, the COVID-19 pandemic led to a decline in participation among the club’s aging, high-risk members.
That morning in June, the four members of the club’s executive board mull over these issues while seated at a laminate folding table surrounded by floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with their creations. Thalia Howard has been with the club for nearly two decades and has been secretary for sixteen of those years. She’s considered the unofficial historian of the group and part of the female minority (roughly 85 percent of the club is male). Treasurer Leroy Pickens is the oldest of the bunch, at 88, and first learned about the club while shopping for sandpaper at Harbor Freight. Vice president Gilbert Sheldon is a soft-spoken former engineer. It’s clear from the way they tease one another and finish each other’s sentences that they’re more than just board members; they’re friends.
“A lot of times older people tend to isolate themselves,” Sheldon says. “Most of us have a workshop at home, but we choose to come here and work within the group.”
At a time when social media can seem as though it trumps in-person interactions and technology feels like the toy of choice for two-year-olds, the woodworking club is a refreshing outlier, and charmingly old-school. The club has a closet-size library from which members can check out old magazines and DVDs on woodworking techniques using the honor system. Dave Wieters, a retired professor who oversees the toy program, is also responsible for Woodchips, a monthly, four-page printed newsletter that lists new members and records their progress: “Leroy Pickens donated 52 toy motorcycles”; “John Vanden Bosch made 14 mobile toys for the gallery which were turtles, grasshoppers, old car design and racer cars, and frogs.”
And while the average age of the members hovers around sixty, there are younger people who have stumbled upon the club and benefited from decades of combined experience—like the twentysomething who wanted to convert a panel van into an RV or the millennial dad determined to build a dining table for his growing family. Members are free to work on their own passion projects, and many make toys or other items that can be purchased by the public in the club’s on-site store.
As I scan the shelves, I’m taken aback by the prices: $5 for what is likely a doll stool but, to me, looks like one of those mini tabletop “risers” everyone seems to have in their kitchen of late. There’s also a turtle with an intricate shell and a doll stroller—both for $20. A $6 semitruck fitted with holes for crayons reminds me of a similar toy my great-grandfather made that my mom now proudly displays on her bookshelf.
“When I was growing up, my grandfather was a tailor,” Morales says. “I used to take these little wooden spools, put soap on them, and blow bubbles. It was down-home, simple, and a lot of what we make is the same. It can take a pounding from kids and still be something that can be handed down from generation to generation.”
The next time I speak with Morales, it’s late November. Earlier in the month, the club participated in the annual holiday bazaar at Fort Bliss, a separate fund-raising event at which the public can purchase the woodshop’s toys. He’s giddy as he informs me that the club not only sold a “boatload,” but also hit its goal of raising $1,200 for the toy program. Before we hang up, I ask him about his plans for the holidays. He says the members will take a few weeks off before starting to game-plan for 2024.