Pasco woodworker giving Santa a helping hand

By Dori O'Neal, Tri-City HeraldDecember 23, 2012 

PASCO -- Rusty Biglin might not have a red suit and white beard, but he's definitely a merry ole soul.

The 86-year-old Pasco man could be the Tri-Cities' own Santa Claus, because he spends most of the year making toys for kids then gives them away at Christmas.

His toys are all made of wood. There are log trucks, train sets, Model Ts, tractors, fire trucks, Army tanks, dump trucks, antique roadsters and his newest creation, a paddle boat fit for a cruise down the lazy river.

Biglin said he's always loved tinkering with wood. When he retired from the Army in 1966 and went to work at Hanford, he started making toys in his backyard shop in his spare time.

"When I first retired from the military (as an Army major) I decided I wanted to learn to fly, so I got my pilot license then certification to be an instructor," Biglin said. "But the first student I took up in the air for a lesson scared me so bad I quit."

He worked as a technician at the former Fast Flux Test Facility, then took over as the landlord manager for the 300 Area, he said.

But through all the different jobs, toy making was what he loved the best.

"I don't need to sell these toys because I get much more enjoyment giving them away," Biglin said. "I'm 86 years old and making these toys keeps me going."

A Toy Shop sign hangs in front of the door to his workshop, which his son Michael built for him a few years ago. The shop houses all sorts of tools for his trade, including a band saw, drill press, table saw and professional sander.

He cranks out about 200 to 300 toys a year. It takes about a day to make one, or four days to make a train set of three cars and an engine, he said. Sometimes he'll sketch out a design on paper for a toy before cutting the wood, but most of the time he just sees it in his head. Sometimes it takes several tries before he is satisfied with the prototype.

He admits his hearing is bad and pain in his feet prevents him from standing too long, but his eyesight still is good enough to operate his machinery.

"I'm lucky one of my sons lives with me," Biglin said. "He not only builds things for me, he's a darn good cook."

The shop also has a Santa room with a couple of chairs, two windows and a wood stove to sit in front of when he wants to take a rest from his toymaking.

"I spend most of my day here in the toy shop and love to come sit in this little room by the fire when I get tired," he said.

Biglin smiles shyly, then laughs out loud when asked if he feels a bit like Santa Claus. He admits he could never fill the real Santa's boots.

He gives his wooden toys to several different nonprofit organizations from the Tri-Cities to Spokane for their fundraising efforts, as well as anyone else who might want one.

Michael Biglin says when he and his father go camping they give toys away to kids at the campgrounds.

"I'll carry a box of the toys around and ask campers if they have kids," Michael said. "It's funny because people are real leery at first, thinking we're trying to sell them. As soon as I tell them they're free, everything's OK and the kids are all over them."

Rusty Biglin says his favorite toy to make is the Model T roadster, which is also the first one he ever made and the most difficult. The antique Ford's complex construction makes it more delicate to handle, so he gives those to adults instead of the kids.

"I restore old cars too, so the Model T is special to me," he said. "The pieces are more intricate, so it would break easier with kids playing with it. I once made 50 of them for the national Model T meet in Spokane several years ago, which were used as door prizes."

He uses all kinds of wood to build his toys -- cedar, pine, fir and any other scrap lumber he can get his hands on. He once got a truckload of scrap lumber from a home improvement store at no cost when they learned Biglin gives his toys away.

"I certainly never expect (giveaways), but I was very grateful for that wood," Biglin said.

He says the most popular toys he makes with little boys are the tanks, jeeps and sports cars. Though most of his toys have moving parts, those three are able to handle rougher treatment by younger children.

Biglin said he plans to relax on Christmas Eve and let Santa do his job. Then he'll spend Christmas day with family and bring along a box of wooden toys for the grandchildren.

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