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Challenged by making something out of wood, Begley takes on Santas

Friday, December 17, 2010 | 10:07 a.m. CST
Wooden Santas line the counter in Kevin Begley's workshop. He said he started making Santas because of his interest in the holiday and has been making them for more than 25 years.

COLUMBIA — Wooden Santas dressed in red coats line the shelf of Kevin Begley’s basement shop in his Columbia home, waiting to be delivered.

Begley's production is small and local, but his customer base isn't. Begley knows that some of his Santas have been bought by people in California, Arkansas, Kansas, Iowa and, of course, Missouri.

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The retired elementary school teacher and principal started making these Santas about 25 years ago after helping his father-in-law build a wooden rocking horse for his son.

"I wanted to challenge myself and see what I could do with wood," Begley said.

Since then, he has made hundreds.

“No two are alike,” Begley said. “I’ve tried to duplicate them, but they don’t turn out the same.”

Begley makes his 18-, 27- and 36-inch creations from a pattern he designed. Each Santa is made out of 38 to 40 pieces that fit like a puzzle, no matter the size. It takes Begley about 15 hours to cut out each Santa, but with drying time, the process stretches out for days.

Begley uses pine and fir, and particularly prefers white pine. Soft wood is needed to carve the beards, he said.

The Santas all start out as a 2-by-6 or 2-by-8 piece of pine. Begley then cuts out the body and attaches a 1-by-10 or 1-by-12 piece of wood on each side of the body for the coat. Once the bodies are made, Begley carves the boots and head, making notches for the beard.

Before gluing the pieces together, Begley hand-paints and antiques the Santas. All of the Santas have red coats and hats, although he has received requests for other colors.

“I want to keep the old, primitive look, even though it’s made from a brand-new piece of wood,” Begley said.

He also applies several coats of polyurethane so people can easily dust them.

Begley’s favorite part is making the beards.

“They give each Santa a distinct personality,” he said.

The Santas are all unique, and customers say they’ve never seen anything like them, Begley said.

The Santas aren’t all the same color. If Begley runs out of one shade of red, he mixes together what he has, creating a new shade of red.

“They’re done in batches of five, so the next five probably aren’t going to be the same color as the last five,” he said.

He’s made rabbits for Easter and witches for Halloween, but nothing else stuck.

“I’m a big fan of Christmas, and I only want to make Santas,” Begley said.

Making Santas is just a hobby for Begley, who has no intention of going worldwide with his creations. But he knows that his Santas have homes all over the country due to word-of-mouth advertising.

Begley usually makes between 20 and 25 Santas a year, but this year he’s made 35.

“I’ve been really pleased, somewhat surprised and very gratified by the response statewide,” he said.

Next year, Begley is charging $80 for an 18-inch Santa, $100 for a 27-inch one and $150 for a 36-inch one.


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