After a long day at work many people enjoy winding down by putting up their feet and watching a few favorite television shows, catching up on daily events, or perhaps reading a good book.
But Bob New, a local man with a gift, isn’t like most people.
New, a maintenance mechanic at E&J Gallo in Modesto, spends his down time hunched over a work bench in his garage — not for himself — but for the children of Oakdale as he endeavors to create something magical for someone less fortunate.
“This was all his idea,” his wife Gloria gushed with proud tears sparkling in her eyes about her husband of 40 years. “He decided to do this and I’m really proud that he’s doing it.”
So what exactly is New doing?
He’s making old-fashioned wooden fire engines hewn from redwood fence posts. That’s right, New is a modern day toymaker.
The fire engines don’t make beeps or bops, flash or exclaim in tinny, mechanical voices ‘there’s an emergency!’ like something you’d see on the shelves in a big box store but they’re special just the same — perhaps even more so — because they were made with tender loving care and attention to detail.
And the kids love them.
With 35 years of woodworking experience under his belt, New got the idea to make fire engines and give them away at last year’s toy giveaway spearheaded by former Oakdale City Police Department Community Service Officer, Ann Farmer. He spent the summer months, just like he’s doing now, to make 75 solid wood fire engines. The fire engines were an instant hit.
The kids didn’t care that the fire engines didn’t come with literal bells and whistles. They were simply enamored with the well-crafted toy.
And so, he’s at it again.
Thankfully, it’s been a relatively mild summer for he’s turned his garage into a workshop where he sits on a stool and creates magic for children he doesn’t know. He ignores the aches and pains, the stiff fingers every morning, and the other assorted bodily complaints because, if you can believe it, woodworking relaxes him.
“I could be mad at the world and when I sit down with a piece of wood I can get back to normal,” New shared, only looking up briefly to answer, his focus on finishing a fire engine’s final touches so he can move on to the next one. Basically, New is his own assembly line and there’s no time for slacking.
New’s love affair with wood artistry started when his cousin encouraged him to finish a caricature of a sea captain. Then while he was enlisted in the Marine Corps he started carving drill sergeants that were very popular. Over the years, he picked up more skill but he realized that it was better to keep the carving as a hobby rather than a profession so he could always enjoy the work.
“I tried selling a few pieces but it was just too expensive and didn’t work out,” New said, shrugging. He’s happy to keep doing what he’s doing without the stress of worrying about a profit margin.
When New decided he wanted to carve and give away fire engines, first he had to find a manageable design. He went to the Van Pelt website, studied the form of the fire engines and then drafted a design that would be easy to reproduce. He ordered the wooden wheels from a hobby website and then burned the details into the wood using a burning knife.
New must make quite a sight tinkering away in his open garage for he admitted sometimes a little crowd gathers to watch him work.
And inevitably, New’s big heart can’t resist sharing.
“I’ve already given away 10 of the fire engines,” he admitted.
So what started New on this journey?
When New and his wife married — after a whirlwind two-month courtship that knocked New’s socks off and caused his heart to beat only for Gloria — they realized with much heartbreak that children weren’t going to be in their future.
But that didn’t stop them from opening their hearts to families and children who weren’t their own and one of those ways was to “adopt” a child or two at Christmas.
“Gloria and I were going to Savemart and drawing names when I decided to give it a shot,” New said of the fire engine carving venture.
Originally, he’d committed to making 40 but decided to keep going until he “ran out of money or time,” he said.
Last year, he made just over 80 fire engines and gave away about 65. The remaining ones he dropped off at the fire station for them to hand out as they saw fit.
He’s averaging 18 fire engines a month and he’ll be making them up until the week of the toy giveaway this year.
New said seeing the kids’ joyful faces makes it all worth it.
“The kids get the biggest kick out of it,” New said. “It’s hard for kids today. They don’t know what an economy is. At Christmas they just want to know what they’re going to get.”
And he wants to do his part to help put a smile on a child’s face, even if it means weathering hot days, cramped fingers, and sore muscles.
“I’d rather give than receive. I have more than I need,” New said, flashing a small smile. “I was brought up the old way.”
Judging by the grateful expressions on the children who are lucky enough to clutch a “Bob New” fire engine to their chest on Christmas day, there’s certainly nothing wrong with that.
New says each fire engine costs $2 to $3 in raw materials. He prefers redwood posts because the wood grain is the appropriate color for the fire engine.
Anyone interested in donating materials, they are welcome to contact Bob and Gloria New at 847-9039.