On a recent blustery day, Bob Nolan warms himself with a free-standing kerosene heater in his Concord garage while he crafts miniature birdhouse ornaments on his lathe.
The small woodblock base is cocobolo, a Central American hardwood he describes as forgiving and very durable. The top is a soft wood, with its inherent challenge offset by the desirability of its light-colored hue.
Wood shavings cascade to the floor as he works with different tools to get the desired weight, shape and configuration. The precise inside dimensions are measured with a pair of calipers. And, the finished product is glued and then shined by a semi-gloss spray finish from "the rattle can."
While Old Saint Nick is putting the finishing touches on toys for all the girls and boys, a group of artisans have been making gifts in local workshops of their own.
Eighteen years ago, Nolan started taking woodworking classes through Mt. Diablo Adult Education, and course offerings span the gamut from wood-turning techniques and tool restoration to toy making and furniture building.
"The classes have motivated me to do more and play more," says Nolan, a retired carpenter, who is an assistant wood-turning instructor at the Pleasant Hill Education Center and who volunteers at Las Lomas High School.
"It all boils down to a trick of one kind or another," he adds. "It's problem-solving and we learn from each other ... It gets to be a community."
And this winter, students can try their hand at crafting their own toys to pass on to their family.
Instructor Gordon Fry has his grandfather's 100-year-old train made of plywood pieces joined by tongue and groove as a model to reinforce the importance of having items from one's heritage.
"This is what we're trying to create with this class," says Fry, a Concord resident, noting projects that will include historically inspired toys with movable legs and jaws.
"We have kids growing up who don't know about working with their hands or using their imagination," he adds.
The students' creations are a cozy contrast to the prevalence of items that are commercially manufactured or imported, notes Rich Schwerin, a retired high school teacher, who has been taking woodworking classes through Mt. Diablo Adult School for the last 10 years.
"They don't have the warmth; there's no love in them," says the Martinez resident, who crafted jewelry boxes for family from pieces of a 70-year-old sycamore in his backyard. "This is something personal."
Walnut Creek resident Bob Barnett, too, has enjoyed offering something handcrafted to family and friends, making jewelry boxes, furniture, and one year crafting more than a dozen nutcrackers that he relishes seeing each year on their fireplace mantle.
"It's all from learning skills in these classes that's allowed this to happen," he says.
Meanwhile, members of the Diablo Woodworkers, who are loyal students and teachers at the Pleasant Hill Education Center, are characteristically altruistic this holiday season.
For instance, Schwerin and a cluster of craftsmen recently made hand mirrors with carved wooden handles for the Bay Area Rescue Mission.
For years, they made toys for foster children before cost-prohibitive federal legislation precluded them from continuing that particular outreach.
Still, their own loved ones are the fortunate recipients of their wares.
Nolan's daughter Julie, now 25, had a prized dollhouse, a child-sized kitchen, a treasure chest and tractors and trucks, all made of wood by her dad.
These woodworkers note that a sense of nostalgia is something central to this particular creative pursuit.
Orinda resident and longtime woodworking teacher Jeff Traeger is seeing an interest in working with hand tools made in the early 1900s.
"(Woodworking) is something that gives you great personal satisfaction ... and that you're creating something on your own," he says.
Classes are held at the Pleasant Hill Education Center, 1 Santa Barbara Road in Pleasant Hill. For more information, visit https//sites.google.com/site/mdaewood1/mdae-woodworking-program.