Crafting a Low-Tech Legacy

By: Lee Stevens

Paulo DeSousa is a major presence at Apple Country Woodcrafters, crafting hundreds of heirloom toys, including dragons, vehicles, and other playthings with moving parts.
Photo by Karin Strickland

Paulo DeSousa was born in Portugal and has lived in the U.S. since age 16. He was a language teacher in Rhode Island for 40 years before retiring with his wife to Hendersonville, and he didn’t develop a love for woodworking until he was in his fifties. 

He dabbled in projects, trying different things. And then he made a wooden truck for his grandson: “His reaction to the gift was the impetus.” 

Photo by Karin Strickland

A teacher’s love of toymaking had taken off.

Photo by Karin Strickland

DeSousa is a member of Apple Country Woodcrafters, a Hendersonville-based group of professional and hobbyist woodworkers who make wooden vehicles, puzzles, pull toys, keepsake boxes, cradles, wooden pens, pendants, games, and more — a wide range of handcrafted gifts for kids from toddlers to teens. Members meet in a fully equipped, 3,750-square-foot workshop that also includes a resource library and supply of lumber.

This time of year, the toys and keepsakes are gathered for Apple Country Woodcrafters’ annual Toy Campaign. Since the group’s inception in 1985, these beautifully detailed, decidedly low-tech gifts have been distributed to more than 25,000 local children.

Karl Schultz puts the finishing touches on a beautiful doll carriage and uses equipment at the Woodcrafters’ fully appointed workshop.
Photo by Karin Strickland

Over the last five years alone, the group has produced about 2,000 toys each year. In 2021, DeSousa made 136 of them. “Paulo is in a class by himself,” offers Gary Mach, marketing director. “Most members pick patterns for the toys they make from our club library. Paulo designs them himself.”

For DeSousa, it’s about the process. He may be inspired by a random image — a moving dragon, perhaps, seen online. From that picture he makes a prototype out of wood. “It sometimes takes two or three times to get the proportions and the mechanisms of movement right,” he says. “But that’s what I love about it — the trial-and-error process of going from picture to finished working toy.” 

Photo by Karin Strickland

After the toys are completed, the embellishment team — club members who paint and decorate — step in to finish the wood pieces into beautiful, original products. 

Distribution of toys is done annually at a party, a collaboration with some dozen social-service agencies that specialize in helping families in need. The club’s toy chairman reaches out to these groups to gather information about the ages and preferences of the children in the families they serve. The agencies then get tables at the party to display and distribute toys that meet particular needs. This year, toy distribution happens at the Elks Lodge in Hendersonville, and 13 agencies will participate. 

“At the toy party, each agency has the opportunity to tell us about their mission and how the toys are distributed,” explains Mach. (For instance, the Prison Ministry at Craggy Mountain Correctional Facility in Waynesville has arranged for inmates to personally hand their young children toys.) 

While most who join Apple Country Woodcrafters have previously worked with wood in some way, membership is also open to complete beginners. “I wasn’t a woodworker until I joined the group,” reveals Margi Jenks, current president. “But after a career as a librarian, I asked myself what I wanted to do in retirement. I was always drawn to wood, so the choice was easy.” 

A fleet of vehicles by DeSousa.
Photo by Karin Strickland

Membership now stands at 230, with a new member reportedly joining about every week, and makers from Transylvania and Buncombe counties being added to those from Henderson County.

Besides getting access to the woodshop, resource library, and lumber supply, members also attend monthly meetings, periodic field trips, educational workshops, and participate in various club teams (the lathe group, the carving group, etc.). 

While the benefit of year-round membership  enhances knowledge and provides fellowship, it’s the December culmination of all that communal crafting that members find most rewarding.

 “People in the club are artists who make practical toys that will last,” says Mach simply. “We bring joy to kids who most need it.”

Apple Country Woodcrafters, Hendersonville. The Toy Distribution Party happens Wednesday, Dec. 8, at the local Elks Lodge. For membership inquiries and more information, call  828-707-0598, see applecountrywoodcrafters.org, or find “Apple Country Woodcrafters” on Facebook.

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