How I got started building miniatures

I’ve been asked how I got into this line of work. Below is the story of how it all began. 

 

In the fall of 1976, I was unemployed, not in college and living at home. On top of that, I’d taken over my parents’ patio, basement and driveway. They were full of  Camaros and car parts in various stages of being taken apart or being put back together. What would turn out to be my last ever “real job,” that is one where I got a W-2 tax form, was with ATI Racing. I was a gear head. Since I left there months before, I was doing odd jobs and playing with my ’67 and ’68 Camaros. 

 

That fall, my mother got the idea she wanted a dollhouse for her granddaughters. I was asked to build one. This was not something I had any interest in until my father explained that I could make my mother very happy by building a simple dollhouse or I could find somewhere else to put all my junk cars and parts. Message received. We agreed to begin right after the New Year. I agreed to use power tools to cut out the big parts and make whatever moldings were needed. Mom, who liked crafts, agreed to do the busy work of assembling all the details. As long as she was happy, Dad would be happy, and all my junk could stay. 

 

On the Monday morning after the New Year, 1977, we started. Mom had drawn up the plans. Her father had been a carpenter so she was raised with knowledge of plans and building projects. We started building and were busy working away on building this dollhouse when, nearing lunchtime, my old friend Steve, who was home from college, came by wanting to go to Barnaby’s, A Public House, our local bar. Mom made serious devil eyes at Steve, someone I had known since the 2nd grade, because she knew that would mean the afternoon would be totally wasted and there would be no more progress on her dollhouse. 

 

Being somewhat observant I realized the problem and knew I had to keep mom busy. So I told Steve I’d meet him in an hour down at the bar and then grabbed a board of cherry and sawed it up into hundreds of thin floor boards. I showed mom how to glue these on. Then I was off to lunch. If she got done, I told her she could phone me down at Barnaby’s. I knew full well that it would take her days to glue all these random width floor boards on to the plywood base I’d cut out out that morning. But, to my surprise, she finished the next morning. Apparently, she was so excited she worked late into the night and woke up early to get right back at it. Not being in the mood to face Day 2 of dollhouse building, I needed to slow things down a bit. So I drilled thousands of tiny holes, got boxes of tapered tooth picks for her to glue in so her granddaughters would have pegged random width cherry floors in their dollhouse. I mean how could my mom want any less for them?

What this taught me was anytime I didn’t want to work on the dollhouse all I had to do was come up with additional details to keep mom busy. This was becoming quite a nice dollhouse, maybe too nice for little ones to play with? I kept thinking, my mom had to lose interest in this whole thing at some point. But I was wrong. She loved it and as you can guess the little grandchildren never got to play with what became their grandmother’s fine dollhouse. She bought a commercial one for them and they were quite happy. 

 

It wasn’t until nearly 40 years later that one question I’ve been asked the most over the years—Where did I get my patience?—finally get answered. One day, when my mother and I were retelling this story, she explained she would have never lost patience for that project, after all, she pointed out I got my patience from her, my mother!

 

As the project went on my mother was out shopping at all the area crafts stores and miniature shops. Of course, she told the owners all about this dollhouse her son, having just turned 21, was building for her. They all wanted to see it, so we planned a party when the house was finished. Dad told me my commitment to this project was over at the conclusion of the party. 

At the party, I thought it was so strange that all these very normal seeming adults were going nuts over what I had originally built as a kids toy. I mean, the depth of the rooms were the length of my niece’s arm so she could reach the back wall to play. I was simply baffled by all the attention, so I turned to my next adventure.

For years, I’d wanted to go to Florida, so now it was time for my big trip. I had finished building a ’68 Camaro hot rod that fall but knew enough not to risk nearly a years worth of work driving on snow and ice so the car sat parked all winter. It was now spring. The car had a bright red and yellow trick paint scheme, big tires, chrome wheels and a loud powerful engine. So off I went with a few hundred dollars in my pocket for about a 10-day trip to Florida, staying with friends to keep costs down. The first night in Clearwater I stayed with an old family friend and he took me to Jai-alai, a Latin form of racket ball that spectators bet on. I never heard of it before but agreed to put some money into our betting pool. We won the trifecta! It paid $ 3,600! So now I’m a 21-year-old kid with a hot car and a pocket full of money.

 

I had quite a lot of adventures. I hung out down in Key West and had lunch one day with Mel Fisher, the famous treasure hunter that found the Atocha. I even got to hold the pure gold money chain that was on the cover of National Geographic magazine. I rented a plane and pilot to fly out and “see” Cuba from outside the legal limit. Hung out on some neat old power boats and even tried fishing. It was a lot of fun but as the weeks passed, I began to get bored.

The last weekend in April I was driving through Lake Buena Vista, Florida, I saw a sign in the median for the Mickey and Mini Miniature Show. As my car rumbled up the road I got to thinking about my mom’s dollhouse and thought maybe I should get her a little something for it, so I made a U-turn. 

 

I had been hanging out on the beach for weeks and looked a bit scruffy. I had long hair, had on my good cut-offs, sandals, and a clean T-shirt. This is how I looked when I walked into my first miniature show. I scanned the room. It looked more like a D.A.R. convention with quite a few older, white-haired women, some wearing hats and gloves. It was the late 70s, when some folks still dressed that proper when they went out in public.

 

The first dealer I walked up to was Paige and Hatch Thornton. They sold the work of Dennis Hillman (UK)*, John Hodgson (UK)* and the other top miniature artists in the world. “Wow”is about the only nice way I could describe what I saw and the prices. Some of those little pieces were $800! I looked around the show and saw so much I had to tell my mother about so I jumped in the car and put Florida in the rearview mirror. In 21 hours I was back in D.C. loaded with stories to tell. On the long trip home I kept thinking I could make stuff like that, couldn’t I?

This was a time before cell phones. Long-distance, collect calls were expensive, so the whole time I was gone I would make a short call home each Sunday to check in with my parents. I’d let them know I was fine and didn’t need any money. I was only planning to be gone about 10 days and after weeks went by, my friends would drop by their house to see if the folks had heard from me. So when I did talk to them after returning home, to tell of my adventures, it was basically variations of  “you guys wouldn’t believe the miniatures I saw at this show.” They wanted to hear about girls, boats, beaches and things kids my age would be interested in. After a few weeks, one friend said to me, we are sick of hearing about that little furniture. “If you say you can make that stuff just shut up and do it,” they said.

Within days of that conversation, that postcard with the desk pictured on it came in the mail. And I decided I was going to make a miniature of it. I cleared the Chevy Powerglide transmission off my workbench and put down a clean sheet of plywood to work on. Then I made that first miniature desk. That began a life-long career that has taken me on adventures all over the world. Who could have known or imagined?

By the end of the summer of 1977 I was off on a career of building miniatures and had been interviewed for my first feature story in a Washington, D.C. magazine. 

* I should add I later became friends of both these craftsman/artists.

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William R. Robertson | Kansas City, MO

"Details Matter"