Woolwich & Wellesley Township's Local Community Newspaper | Elmira, Ontario, Canada
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Channeling Santa’s workshop

When walking down the long hallways at Chateau Gardens Long Term Care Residence in Elmira, you may pass a door that simply looks like the entrance to a storage closet. It is not unlike the other doors in the hallway: beige and unassuming. But if you take a look inside, you might just get a glimpse of something a bit like Santa’s workshop.

The walls are adorned with carving files, chisels, and bandsaw blades. The desk is cluttered with small wooden wheels, dowels and an assortment of bells and chimes. This is where residents Norm and Sue Weber spend countless hours working with wood, gluing and painting, adding to their vast collection of handmade toys.

Many of the items were on display this week in the front entrance of the residence, inviting passersby to pick them up and check out the intricate craftsmanship.

“My favourite one is the tortoise and the hare,” said Norm. “If you turn the wheel at the side, the tortoise moves slowly along and the hare dashes around quickly.”

This is the premise for a number of Weber’s toys: the turn of a wheel sets off a chain of events that can propel the round-and-round movement of a Ferris wheel, the pirouette of a ballerina, or lay the tracks for the age-old race between the two seemingly mismatched animals.

Norm’s fascination with wheels began at a very early age when he observed the threshing machine on his family’s Elmira-area farm. They had a number of horses hitched by long wooden arms to a wheel and their constant movement powered the machine.

RIGHT DOWN TO THE SMALLEST DETAIL His lifelong fascination with wheels and gears is reflected in many of the toys made by Norm Weber. He and his wife Sue can often be found in the workshop at Chateau Gardens in Elmira.

“When I was three years old, I would stand beside the machine and watch those wheels,” he said.

“The turning of one would make the other one go faster. I was so intrigued that forever I had these wheels in my mind.”

Later, his uncle invited him to come down to their family’s farm to help pick apples. In the evenings, his uncle took Norm out to the woodshop out back and taught him how to run a lathe.

His ideas for toys were put on hold while he raised a family, worked on his farm and drove a school bus, but the wheels were constantly in his mind. The long drive home from his bus route gave him ample opportunity to think of creative new ideas.

“I kept thinking, ‘Well, how will I do it? Where will I start?’” he said.

Then, about 25 years ago he set out to make his very first toy, a steam engine that he demonstrates on the residence’s tiled floor.

Now, with the help of his wife Sue – an artist in her own right who has painted a number of pieces that hang on their living room walls – Norm has made almost 70 toys, all of his own creation.

“I had nothing to copy, no pictures or anything,” he said as he pointed to his temple. “It all had to come from up here.”

And the ideas can come from anywhere, he explained. Made mostly of wooden wheels, plywood, bicycle spokes and elastic bands, the theme for the toys often came from knickknacks or ornaments he would find on store shelves. Small children’s toys often decorate the wooden structures.

Over the past number of years, before the couple moved into their new home, Weber would take any chance he could get to work on his toys in the woodshop behind their home.

“If I had any spare time – even after supper sometimes – I would go and get a start on the next toy.”

Now, his work is contained within the woodshop at Chateau Gardens – a transition that suits the Webers, who will celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary next year, just fine.

“We have the shop all to ourselves mostly – Sue and I,” said Norm. “I will build and she does the gluing and the painting.”

Encouraged by the feedback of visitors who have stopped to admire his collection, Norm said he won’t be stopping his woodworking anytime soon.

“I am always thinking ‘Well, what will I make next?’”

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