‘September onwards is now non-stop reindeer making’
- Credit: Mark Slattery
From Desert Storm and PTSD to helping troubled children in Hertfordshire, St Albans’ Paul Holop is a teacher, mentor and reindeer maker
What would you expect to find a former US Marine doing at this time of year? Probably not top of your list is making wooden reindeer. Meet Paul Holop of St Albans, soldier turned Santa’s little helper. But, needless to say, he didn’t start out making reindeer or living in the UK.
‘I served in Iraq during Desert Storm before returning to Boston, and taught scuba diving in the Caribbean for several years,’ he says. Appropriately, for a man who makes Santa’s sleigh pullers, he ‘moved to the UK on Christmas Eve 2001, ‘and landed in Hertfordshire’.
It was our good fortune that he did, and not because the county was short of wooden reindeer.
‘I joined a special needs school in Bushey as head of science. We help children with social, emotional and mental health difficulties. It got me outdoors where an ex-Marine is probably more at home than most with a compass, making things, setting up camp and teaching survival skills.’
Among other things, Paul has taken the children scuba diving, sailing, and camping in local areas such as Phasels Woods, Rickmansworth, and Cassiobury Park.
In 2011 he met his wife-to-be, Liz, at Christ First Church in Watford, and between them they now have seven children, of which three are living at home. together with two dogs, a cat and two gerbils. A few reindeer in addition was never going to be a burden.
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The idea for making woodcrafts was a fairly recent one. ‘It came about because when my wife’s eldest daughter got married a few years ago. I made a wooden sweet trolley. It was so popular I was having to rent it out, so I began carving some Bible verses into wood which went on sale in a local Christian bookshop.
‘I found some wood in the nearby woodlands – deadwood on the forest floor, I never use a live tree – and I made a reindeer to amuse the kids. Word of mouth soon meant I made 10 that year for others.’
Paul, who overcomes arthritis to make his creations and whose craft skills are self-taught, put a reindeer outside his house. People stopped, they talked and they asked. People returned with children or grandchildren, or were dragged by them to see. The year after his first reindeer, Paul found himself making 40. Now he’s busy in his garage workshop from the end of summer to Christmas.
‘September onwards is now non-stop reindeer making,’ he grins. ‘I charge a small amount for the things I buy like the eyes and the power tools, but if you bought these characters in a garden shop, you’d be paying several times more. I use teddy bear eyes, and fashion their ears, tails, antlers and legs, and each one, being handcrafted, has its own personality. I ask people to give them names and then I put their names on tags around their necks. One gentleman even asked for his to be a boy reindeer so I had to gently hint at that! Another man ordered eight. He runs a dog business – walking, day care and training – and he wanted them for his customers as a unique gift. One woman’s dog became very attached to her reindeer. ‘When she put her reindeer away in the shed after Christmas the dog pined! So,she had me make another to keep the dog company.’
Now Paul’s Wonky Woodcrafts are travelling beyond the county. ‘I got an order from Spain! I might look a bit like Santa but I don’t have a sleigh, so I had to package it up and put it on a plane. It is my only flying reindeer so far.’
A recent idea is to make a ‘moose head’ version – a head without the body to hang up.
‘Some people said they’d love a reindeer but don’t have a garden or enough space. I thought maybe a ‘moose head’ version for the front door or somewhere inside, possibly with a garland for Christmas time. I’ve been asked to make a baby reindeer too because people tell me it would be good to have a family of them.’
Currently, woodcraft is Paul’s hobby not a business concern, so he has not given up his day job, meaning Liz now laughingly calls herself a ‘wood widow’. But as a fellow teacher, she sees the pleasure his woodcrafting brings. And his family influence his work too.
‘My daughter is now 13 and when I saw her trying on false eyelashes, I thought I could do that for the reindeer.’
His success is limited only by his available time and by resources such as finding enough suitable dead wood. When he retires the 56-year-old thinks there may be avenues that combine his teaching skills with his craft.
‘Its something that I can do after retirement and it’s therapeutic for me. I’ve branched out and made chairs and even a wooden ‘mud kitchen’ for a little boy. That took me a week to make and was a labour of love, but it was worth it for the look on his face!’ Paul has also made bee houses, bird boxes and feeders, planters and Adirondack chairs, all at non-commercial prices.
As for the reindeers, some people are becoming collectors and building up a herd. ‘I get repeat orders, and one woman even told me she’d found her own antlers, so I left the wood bored ready for her to insert them.’
And he’s now looking at how he can share the pleasure he gets from his hobby. ‘I wonder about a Wonky Woodcraft Academy where I can show people how to make their own unique gifts with pre-cut parts. Or even a Wonkywood Café where you come in and make stuff. The fellowship and joy of being among others and learning as a pleasure is what appeals to me.’
This generous approach is common both to his hobby and his teaching career. Alongside his science background Paul is trained in Hertfordshire Steps – positive behaviour management in schools and other settings.
‘I’ve had boys who just could not communicate, who were totally shut off. It takes weeks to get through to them sometimes. One lad I finally got to come out with us to the woods. We made marshmallows, set up a fire, climbed trees – the change was amazing. His confidence, self-esteem and trust all came from physical, hands-on engagement.’
For a man whose character and woodwork are eminently stable, why call his craft shop Wonky?
‘If you look at deer, they stand awkwardly, not planted solidly like cows. Each leg has a specific angle. But it is more a comment on life. I’ve suffered from PTSD, based on my own experiences, and inside many of us are a bit bashed-up or weathered. That’s why I called it wonky.’
He says the children he teaches and helps give him the inspiration to keep giving back. ‘They have taught me as much as I have taught them. That’s what I get from it all. This simple thing I do brings out the best in people. It gives joy and that’s what sustains me.’
Head here to order a reindeer or another of Paul’s hand-crafted wood works.