Gifts from the heart: For last-minute shoppers there is still time to find a heartfelt, handmade present

Posted in: Santa Maria Sun


It’s not a pleasant feeling, when December rolls around and you still haven’t made a single holiday gift purchase. It’s a fear that hits you right in the gut, like too much fruitcake.

But don’t give up hope just yet, because the Sun has brought you once again the annual Last Minute Holiday Gift Guide! Among this year’s suggestions for last-minute gifts that will

CRAFTING AND CARVING: The Santa Maria Valley Discovery Museum’s new collection of toys crafted by Gene West include simple mechanisms, hand carved animals, and unique designs.

make you a hero to your near and dear, we offer ideas that fall into a more traditional style of giving: gifts that were crafted by hand and are truly unique.

Not everyone gets a rush from wrestling an item from the clinging fingers of marathon shoppers at big-box stores, so instead we suggest items that required some thought, care, talent, and expertise to create. These kinds of gifts—even when purchased last minute—always say a bit more about how you feel about the receiver.

From authentically simple toys to beautiful decorations, the inspiration that follows welcomes all procrastinators to consider these boutique crafts as stocking stuffers, bringing back the charm of holiday seasons gone by.

Handmade, hand played

That’s why the museum was more than enthusiastic when a retired aeronautical engineer and 1948 Santa Maria High School grad named Gene West offered to donate a part of his huge collection of wooden toys, explained museum Executive Director Chris Slaughter.The Santa Maria Valley Discovery Museum has long held the mission of getting kids engaged in the world around them through the various play areas, creative work stations, and other attractions at the children’s museum near downtown Santa Maria. These attractions are designed not just for fun, but also to foster curiosity and creativity.

“We’re a hands-on learning and educational facility, and part of that is figuring out how things work,” Slaughter said. “Technology is a very important part of our industrialized world, but when you come down to it, kids need to know how things work.”

West began crafting the wooden toys after he retired, he told the Sun, working at first from templates out of books and also crafting his own designs.

A lifelong engineer, West designed the humble toys to exhibit a certain mechanism, with some toys being much more elaborate than others. This allows the kids to learn about design, mechanics, and physics all under the umbrella of simple play.

Anyone hoping to buy some of West’s toys, or “simple automata” as he calls them, will be a bit disappointed to learn that he doesn’t actually sell the handcrafted toys.“I like to watch

SIMPLE TOYS, SIMPLE FUN: The Santa Maria Valley Discovery Museum’s new wooden toy collection is fun for various ages and interests, fostering interaction and good old-fashioned fun.

SIMPLE TOYS, SIMPLE FUN: The Santa Maria Valley Discovery Museum’s new wooden toy collection is fun for various ages and interests, fostering interaction and good old-fashioned fun. 

the kids play with them and explore,” West said. “They find lots of different ways to make them move that I didn’t think about, but then I show them how it was designed to move, and they get so excited.”

“I’ve never sold a toy in my life,” he said. “The way I see it is, if I sell these, only a few kids get to play with them, but I give these away or display them and over 100 kids get to see the toys.”

So the only way to get one of these toys in the hands of a youngster you hope to gift to, would be to give the gift of a membership at the museum, Slaughter explained.

The toys are available for kids to play with every day, Slaughter said, which is as often as members are welcome at the learning center. The toys also receive upkeep from a member of a local wood carvers group, Slaughter said, who makes sure the toys stay intact after days of rigorous play.

“We believe in the power of play, and this is the perfect example of the power of play,” Slaughter said. “It shows what kids can learn by interacting with the toys and by taking a role in their learning experience through play.”

On a recent visit to the Santa Maria Valley Discovery Museum, 7-year-old Patterson Road Elementary School first grader Mateo Gamboa spent the better part of an hour exploring each toy, explaining how they worked, and playing with a friend he made that day, Calli Ramsey, who also enjoyed the toys.

“I like building,” Mateo said. “It’s so cool to build, and these toys look so fun.”

“When I see toys, I just always come, because I love toys,” he added. “They’re pretty much my favorite thing.”

Contact Arts Editor Joe Payne at This is an excerpt from the Sun’s Dec. 10 cover story. Do you, or someone you know, want to play with Mr. West’s toys all the time? Become a Discovery Museum member! Call us at (805) 928-8414  for more info or visit our online shop.


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