Sam McManis

At Carlsbad craftsmanship museum, a fine line between avid and obsessive

The intricate 
1/6-scale 1932 SJ Duesenberg dual cowl phaeton resides at the Joe Martin Craftsmanship Museum in Carlsbad.
The intricate 1/6-scale 1932 SJ Duesenberg dual cowl phaeton resides at the Joe Martin Craftsmanship Museum in Carlsbad. Joe Martin Craftsmanship Museum

People tend to throw out the label “obsessive” far too freely, saddling this dismissive adjective on anyone who has a passion and pursues it avidly. That’s why I try, almost obsessively, to avoid branding people enjoying all-consuming pastimes with such a clinically loaded diagnosis.

But I’m sorry, when you step foot in the Joe Martin Foundation Craftsmanship Museum in a north San Diego County business park, no other description suffices.

This veritable hall of fame for “excellence of craftsmanship … at the small end of the size scale” is overflowing with painstakingly assembled, intricately designed and, above all, fully functioning engines and motors powering model cars and boats, trains and planes. There are matchstick renderings of the Taj Mahal and other wonders of the world, a miniature telescope from 1823, all manner of examples of metallurgy forged really, really small, from pistols to pistons.

In all, more than 300 items of metalworking and modeling prowess line a converted factory floor made possible by the largesse of the late Joe Martin, the miniature machine-tool magnate, who parlayed his purchase of a lathe and tool company into a profitable business and, in 1997, honored his fellow hobbyists with a museum where they could all geek out.

I had always wondered what a generation of hunch-backed suburban dads actually did when they retreated to their basement workshops on nights and weekends, amid strange sounds of circular saws, welding torches, hammering and, often, muttered profanity.

Now I know.

I know, too, that these men – and, yes, nearly all the doodads on display here are produced by those with a Y-chromosome – really know their way around a lathe and mill and apparently have an abundance of free time.

But I hesitate stamping them with the O-word. At times like this, before getting all judgmental, I try to remember the quote from Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer that hangs in my work cubicle: “I have told myself a thousand times not to be shocked, but every time I am shocked again by what people will do to have fun, for reasons they cannot explain.”

Finally, I had to give in when Harvey Rushfeldt, the kindly docent, led me to a glass-enclosed display case housing a 1/6-scale 1932 SJ Duesenberg dual cowl phaeton, once the height of automotive luxury. At first glance, from a distance, the model car looks impressive enough, bright blue and shiny and all, but hardly seems to qualify as the work of a single-minded monomaniacal personage. But the more Rushfeldt shared about the mini-Duesenberg and its creator, one Louis Chenot, of Carl Junction, Mo., the more I had to break down and say, OK, OK, this is one obsessive guy.

“It took him 10 years and 20,000 hours (of work) and everything is accurate right down to the hubcaps,” Rushfeldt said. “Every detail is accurate. Unbelievable detail. Extreme accuracy. Look at the inside interior seat covers. Even the sewing machine he used to do the seat covers are to scale. See, you can’t have a regular-sized stitch. It’s got to be tiny.”

Rushfeldt whipped out a blown up photo of the model car’s hub cap.

“See this picture of it, where it says ‘On and off’ and it says ‘Duesenberg,’ and says ‘Right and Left?’” Rushfeldt asked. “Everything is exactly like the real Duesenberg. Every tire has raised lettering on it that says ‘BF Goodrich,’ along with the tire size. Look at these ‘suicide’ doors. They open this way, which is very dangerous. So, suicide doors, by law, had to have a double click, a positive click and then another to make sure they were closed. This model has that positive double click. Took him months to do. The mechanism on the inside of the door, if you turn one handle, it doesn’t turn the inside handle. It’s unbelievable.

“Oh, and this radiator cover? It’s his ninth attempt at it. Number eight is over in another case there. Eight was perfect, too. Probably Number 7 was perfect, but not for this guy. Everything on this thing works except for the miniature gauges. It’s harder to miniaturize electricity and fuel. It runs on (propane) gas.”

By that point, I wanted to know more about the man than his machine. I broke my rule and threw out the O-word. Rushfeldt just smiled.

“You want to hear obsessive? Look at these headlight lenses,” he said. “All the lenses are accurate Duesenberg design. He actually etched the steel, heated it up, then cast it in a waffle-type thing. It’s beyond me.”

Chenot, who recently retired after a 40-year career as a mechanical engineer, has done many scale models (and full-sized reproductions) of classic cars in his “spare” time, but he told Rushfeldt in 2011 on a visit to the museum to accept the Joe Martin Metalworking Craftsman of the Decade Award, that it took a lot of research, including trips to the Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg Museum in Auburn, Ind., to pore over original drawings and even got permission to photograph Jay Leno’s Duesenberg for research purposes.

“He described the whole thing to us,” Rushfeldt said, “took it apart and showed us about how everything works. Then he went home and wrote us a four-page email of all the items he forgot to tell us about.”

Well, of course he did.

I was unable to reach Chenot in Missouri – maybe he was down in the basement – but he touched upon his motivation in a Duesenberg Club newsletter in 2006: “My basic drive seems to be learning how to make something where skills must be developed. … It doesn’t bother me a great deal to start again on something if it isn’t suitable. Nine starts were made on the radiator shell.”

Just hearing about Chenot’s work on the model Duesenberg was worth the cost of admission – OK, so it was free – but Rushfeldt said it wasn’t time to leave. The noontime live demonstration was about to begin.

He led a half-dozen visitors back to the machine shop, where a blue-coated engineer named Dave Belt greeted us and fired up something called the “Do Nothing Machine,” a Rube Goldberg-type of contraption with scores (764, if you must know) of levers and chains, nuts, bolts and gears, all going in different directions, with tacked-on items such as a bicycle reflector. One of the three motors formerly powered a slot machine. It’s the brainchild of the late Lawrence Wahlstrom, a landscape gardener from Los Angeles, who worked on it for years in the 1940s as an elaborate joke.

Belt flipped the switch and pistons and levers churned, well-oiled chains cranked along, but the machine serves no purpose, powering only itself.

“See the clutch assembly right there?” Belt asked, pointing to a tangle of metal somewhere in the guts of the machine. “I’ve had to repair it at least a dozen times, and it’s bothering me because I’m beginning to understand it now.”

Not being mechanically inclined, I had no clue as to the lingo Belt was spouting, fast and furiously. Later, in the main museum, I was better able to wrap my head around the tiny sculptures (Taj Mahal, Eiffel Tower) of aerospace engineer Ronald D. Remsberg, of nearby Vista. He uses only matchsticks, Elmer’s Glue and a razor blade. And a card explaining his motivation was also understandable:

“Looking for another way to relax in the evenings …”

Call The Bee’s Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145. Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis

Joe Martin Foundation Craftsmanship Museum

3190 Lionshead Ave., Carlsbad

Hours: Tuesdays - Saturdays, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Cost: Free

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