Carpenter spends joyful hours making toy trucks for needy children

In his shop near Sherwood, Ore., in fall 2020, Phil Westover cuts wood destined to be part of a toy truck to be given to needy children at Christmas. (CNS photo/courtesy Jan Routt)

PORTLAND, Ore.—Phil Westover is a man of standard size, rounded ears and deep voice. But he’s a good part Christmas elf.

Westover, a 70-year-old member of St. Peter Parish in Newberg, Oregon, spends joyful hours in his wood shop, building toy trucks. With features like tilting beds and payload straps, the breadbox-size vehicles go to disadvantaged children free of charge.

This pandemic-tinged year seemed to fuel Westover’s elfin energy. He made 23 rigs. A typical year sees just a half-dozen come down the tiny production line.

Catholic Community Services of the Mid-Willamette Valley, Oregon, distributes most of the play trucks to children in need.

A carefully handcrafted toy that will last for a long time in the life of a youngster, even being passed to later generations, can enhance the wellness of a family, said Josh Graves, executive director of the agency, based in Salem, Oregon.

Graves observed that children in low-income homes tend to receive cheap plastic toys with little lasting appeal. By contrast, he can imagine Westover’s trucks being played with for years and proudly placed on the shelf of a teen’s room.

That sign of enduring love and joy, Graves said, could even make a difference as Catholic Community Services works with youths to prevent the cycle of poverty.

“I wish I could see the joy that I think my trucks give,” Westover told the Catholic Sentinel, newspaper of the Portland Archdiocese. “You never know; maybe someday one of those kids will be a professional truck driver.”

The sturdy lorries are almost all wood, a plus for parents who want to avoid potentially toxic plastics.

Phil Westover sits with a fleet of toy trucks he built. Catholic Community Services in Salem will distribute the sturdy vehicles to needy children at Christmas. (CNS photo/courtesy Jan Routt)

Friends often ask why he doesn’t sell his work. “I always answer, ‘If I sell them, it’s no longer a hobby,'” he said. “I love making them for my grandkids and mostly donating them.”

Westover gave a moniker to his retirement hobby: “Canter Lane Woodworking,” after the street on which he and wife Jan live between Sherwood and Newberg, an hour southwest of Portland. Here’s his business plan: Lose money by giving away everything he makes. Given that, Westover has been extraordinarily successful.

“At least it keeps my 70-year-old brain engaged,” he said, adding the hobby kept his mind off pandemic anxiety, election nastiness and other woes.

Born in Portland, he is the son of a man who worked in the timber business. Away from Catholic practice for many years, he visited St. Peter Parish in Newberg on a whim and met Father Don Gutmann, the pastor then. Westover began going to Mass again and Jan became Catholic.

“Neat people,” said Father Gutmann of the couple. “Phil is a top-notch guy and a good part of the church there. He and Jan are good at living their faith on a daily basis. It’s always enjoyable to be around them.”

It’s not lost on Westover that, as a carpenter, he labors in the tradition of the Savior. He calls Jesus his role model and mentor, in the wood shop and the rest of life. Years ago, a priest gave him a short script for a play in which Jesus fashions a cross from wood — symbolizing the Lord’s real work of sacrifice for humans. Westover hung the page with that scene in his shop.

He started building trucks in the early 1980s. “I’ve always been fascinated by trucks of all types,” he said.

He worked for 50 years in manufacturing dental equipment and spent many hours with engineers. He not only feels satisfaction with the end product but gets a thrill from creating tools to make the work go more smoothly.

His latest gadget is a computerized laser that will burn designs into wood. He is planning a box truck with a Catholic Community Services logo on the side.

Lori Simpson, program director at Catholic Community Services, oversees distribution of Westover’s trucks, including to children at St. Joseph Shelter in the small town of Mount Angel, Oregon. “I know some little 2-year-old guys who are going to flip their 2-year-old lids,” Simpson said.

She was overwhelmed when she saw Westover drive up with almost 20 trucks packed in boxes and labeled.

“With handmade toys, you don’t always know what to expect,” Simpson said. “It was so incredible to see the care and the love that went into these trucks. This was a professional deal.”

Westover has 10 truck designs — including a dump truck and a log truck — with another 10 or so designs in the works. His latest idea: a police tactical vehicle. “I see a truck going down a highway and say, ‘Oh, there’s an idea,'” he said.

Westover retired in 2017 and created a woodshop for himself as a retirement gift. He had tried other hobbies, including motorcycle riding and reviving an old British sports car. To Jan’s delight, he settled on woodworking.

Westover does not track manufacturing time since he crafts out of wholesome happiness. But he guesses that each truck takes about two hours of labor. He listens to music as he saws, drills, routs and sands. He rarely spends more than five or six hours a day in the shop.

In the end, his faith and his woody hobby are linked in a lot of ways. For children’s catechesis at his parish, he built a kid-sized kneeler and a small version of the church’s altar.

By Ed Langlois, managing editor of the Catholic Sentinel, official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Portland.