Les Gifford: the Western Slope’s master toymakerDec 02, 2019 01:01PM ● By Arlyn Macdonald
When it comes to toymaking, Santa might have some competition.
Walking into Les Gifford’s toy shop in Montrose is better than a visit to the North Pole. The beauty and variety of his handmade wooden toys overwhelm the senses. He even has a Santa-like twinkle in his eye.
Gifford, 88, has created toys since he retired in 1985. After 20 years as an electrical contractor, he began his woodworking career making furniture and cabinets for his wife, Virginia. He possesses a unique talent: all he has to do is see a picture of something in order to create it.
His toys are quite intricate. Some have moving parts, such as cranes, trains, tractors and a Ferris wheel. Even then, he doesn’t work from plans but instead relies solely on his own imagination and talents.
Gifford loves working with wood. His favorite is white pine because it's soft and easy to shape. He accentuates his toys with other woods in different colors, such as walnut, redwood and turquoise- and orange-colored wood. He also uses a lot of beetle-killed pine milled off his own property.
“It’s straight from the tree to the toy,” Gifford said, adding that he uses little metal in his toys.
Wooden toys are more durable and long lasting enough to be passed down through the generations. The first toy he ever created was a wooden dollhouse with all the furniture and fixtures for his granddaughter in Houston. That same dollhouse is now being enjoyed by his great-great-granddaughter.
One of Gifford’s favorite toys in his collection is a copy of the B25. Before he was a contractor, Gifford was an Airman First Class in the U.S. Air Force assigned to the first air refueler squadron.
It's in the details
Gifford is a member of the Creative Corner Artisan Co-op, 344 E. Main St. in Montrose, where he sells a number of his toys.
It’s the details that make his toys world class. In his toy sports cars, he included a miniature wooden steering wheel and gear shift. He also crafted a toy-sized replica of the Galloping Goose railcar, which took lots of research.
“It takes more tools to make toys than to do construction. It’s very detailed work,” Gifford explained.
Gifford's toys aren't just found on the Western Slope.
"I have toys all over the world," he said, “in Hungary, Iraq, Australia, and Germany, among other countries.”
He usually makes at least six of each pull toy at a time—including ducks, moose, pigs, butterflies, hound dogs and camels—because of their popularity. He also creates trains with engines, cars and trucks.
Other toy favorites include the pull-apart jalopy and the traditional hammer and nail bench for toddlers.
Gifts for grandkids
In Gifford’s toy shop, the pull toys are just the start. Whimsical birdhouse, airplanes, VW buses, cribbage and checkerboards, helicopters, bull riders, giraffe banks (the coins go down the neck), exploding banks, cranes, Jeeps with trailers (a best seller) and cars of all kinds are just a sample of the wooden toys in Gifford’s shop. He has even made cradles and working spinning wheels.
Virginia is an integral part of the toy-making process, doing the fine sanding and oiling on each toy to bring out the beauty of the wood. Growing up, their daughter Jenny used to help her parents when they attended craft shows around the region.
“I loved to go so I could play with the toys in the aisles,” Jenny recalled.
The Giffords no longer attend craft shows, but you can still find their toys displayed at Creative Corner and the Covered Bridge Ranch’s gift shop during the holidays. They also take orders by phone, and their daughter is in the process of developing a web store for online orders.
To place an order, call Gifford at 249-2327.