The smell of friction-scorched wood fills the air inside the Menz Shed on Racecourse Road. Conversation tries to rise above the buzz of power tools. It’s almost exactly like Santa’s workshop as a large group in matching blue coats makes toys – all that’s missing is the North Pole.
The toys, too, are like something out of an old story: Hand-made sausage dogs on wheels, pushcarts for moving a small person’s stuff, aeroplanes the perfect size for a tiny hand to zoom back and forth. Only the bright red rideable fire engines show any hint of the modern age: nameplates laser-etched at the Library Makerspace.
All these toys are destined for Santa’s Cave at Te Manawa, where they’re being sold in the new Christmas Shop.
When Andrew Ritchie began volunteering at the museum, he discovered a connection just waiting to be made.
“I mentioned that I volunteered at the Menz Shed. Te Manawa had been considering something like this: getting groups in the community involved with the museum. We already had plans for a lot of toys, so we said ‘no problem’.”
Andrew and the rest of the Menz Shed team drew on their repertoire of toymaking projects to create a range of patterns.
“We met with the Exhibitions team to see what we could do and what they wanted,” recalls Andrew. Items could easily be scaled up or down so they’d take up just the right amount of space under the tree.
The little planes and helicopters seem to have a bit of complexity to them, with moving propellers and other spinny bits, but the men have got the process down to a bit of a fine art, creating something of an assembly line.
“Once you’ve got the pattern it’s just a matter of drawing it out on a piece of wood and cutting it up,” says Andrew. “Each one takes about up to an hour, which includes finishing and staining.”
Things like the fire engines take longer, as they’re bigger and painting is a bit more involved than a simple coat of wood stain.
The sound of machinery dies away at morning tea as everyone stops for a cuppa. Conversation turns to reminiscing about Santa’s Cave in days gone by.
“I still remember going to the old Cave,” says Murray Fletcher. He’s talking about before it was Farmers, when it was still the original Collinson and Cunninghame store, where Santa’s Cave lived between 1918 and 1983.
Someone wants to know how many people visit Santa’s Cave these days. Surprise at the answer – between ten and twelve thousand on average, peaking at seventeen thousand during the centenary year in 2018 – quickly gives way to mirth. “That’ll keep the old bloke busy!” “He’s going to have a sore knee by the end, isn’t he?”
Toys made by the Menz Shed are on sale in the special Santa’s Cave Christmas Shop. A percentage of proceeds from sales will be returned to the Menz Shed, to go towards buying new materials and helping keep the lights on.
Santa’s Cave is open until 24 December. Check our website to find out when Santa himself will be in residence.