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Through His Toys, Craftsman Fashions Self-Esteem, Values


Gene West is a master woodworker whose passion is to make toys--the old-fashioned kind that require not batteries, but imagination.

His creations spin, roll and bob. "They have to be toys that do something, that you interact with," West said.

The Oxnard resident uses his toys to teach everyone from preschoolers to senior citizens about physics, the value of handmade goods and what can be accomplished with knowledge and a little elbow grease. But he does not sell them.

West doesn't just build toys, explained Tish Brennan of the Braille Institute where West teaches woodworking to senior citizens. He builds character, self-esteem and confidence.

"He's so quiet you don't realize how much energy that he ignites in other people," said Brennan, an independent living skills instructor.

A lanky, white-haired grandfather of 12, West has become a local legend by logging hundreds of visits to day-care centers, schools, convalescent homes, libraries, churches, synagogues, museums and the Ventura County Fair.

In July, West's expertise and public service were recognized nationally when he received the $5,000 grand prize in the Community Craftsman Award program organized by the New Jersey-based Minwax Co.

West, a New Jersey native, began crafting model airplanes and simple toys when he was in elementary school. He went on to become a mechanical engineer, working on rocket engines and ships, while woodworking remained a hobby that came in handy when his family needed furniture.

Nine years ago, West started making toys again. He began with simple plywood designs, but after a neighbor invited him to a meeting of the Channel Islands Carvers he began carving and the toys took on much more elaborate and multidimensional looks.

Six years ago, he retired from the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Port Hueneme and turned to his hobby full time. West, 69, now spends much of his time in a converted garage behind his house marked by a sign that says, "Grandpas Shop," turning scraps of mahogany, alder and poplar into beautifully crafted toys.

Early on, West decided not to make trains and trucks. Everybody does that, he reasoned. But he did want to make action toys.

He has carved carousels and mazes and bobbing birds. He has made Ferris wheels, wooden box drums and a mountain climber that works her way up a rope with the user's help. And he has designed mechanical devices to teach kids how gears and levers work, several of which are on display at the Gull Wings Children's Museum in Oxnard.

"These are toys that are made without batteries. These are toys that use nothing but old-fashioned energy and the child's imagination," said Linda Cravens, who chairs the child development department at Moorpark College. "I think he's teaching them the value of their imagination, that they can make things work and they don't have to depend on the battery."

West's most popular toys are towers that allow marbles to roll across ramps, spirals and xylophones on their way to the bottom. The largest is about 4 1/2 feet tall and has switchable tracks and a crank-operated elevator lift to bring the marble back to the top after it completes its wild ride. Each tower took West about six weeks to make, working four to five hours a day.

"The kids just line up and they fight over marbles," West said. "That's the only problem I haven't figured out--how to get the kids to share."

West comes up with some of the ideas himself. He gets most of them from books and gift catalogs, though, usually adapting simple plywood designs to his more complicated carving style through trial and error. He even finds inspiration in the newspaper, and once modeled a toy after a photo of an Olympic gymnast bending backward on a balance beam.

He often gets intrigued by ideas, whether the various types of sundials or the anatomy of horses, and delves deeply into research before even picking up his tools.

Despite the time and effort involved in each toy, West happily packs them into boxes and takes them to children throughout the county to play with.

He patiently stands back as kids hit them and shake them and pull them, coming forward only if they need help figuring out how a toy works. When the toys break, he just fixes them or builds a new one and faults himself, not the children.

"Toys are to play with. If it can't stand the test of a child playing with it, it's not a toy," West said.

Children are naturally drawn to the toys, but some of West's best experiences have been with seniors, a much tougher crowd.

"Going to convalescent homes can be kind of discouraging sometimes because some of the patients are almost comatose," West said. "But then every once in awhile you get a big smile out of one of the patients and they'll start interacting with a toy. It's just neat seeing them come out of their shell."

When West displays his toys at the Moorpark College Child Development Center's Discovery Days, Cravens sees just as many parents as children playing with them.

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