Posted on

My Miniature Process Part 5: Putting it all together

In the last entry in this series, I’m reviewing my history working with miniatures and discuss how I finished my last work, which at this point has accrued over 500 likes on the IGMA: Miniature Community’s Facebook page.

In one sense, I’m very new to the “Miniature” community, but my journey creating goes back at least 50 years. When I was a kid my passions were all about making things. I avidly created models, mostly cars and airplanes at first, using classic Revell kits. I also tried my hand at balsa and tissue paper airplanes and my favorite “toys” were Erector Sets and electronic project kits from Radio Shack.

I was also obsessed with learning how things were put together. I took apart and reassembled almost everything I could get my hands on, which invoked the ire of my parents occasionally. I learned I could make money by getting broken radios, phonographs and anything else that had mechanical parts, taking them apart and figuring out what was broken and how to fix it, then selling the refurbished items.

During my childhood years I dabbled in many crafts. I got into rock tumbling, jewelry making, macrame, electronics, woodworking, photo-illustration, airbrushing, screen printing and other crafts. My father was always accusing me of never finishing what I started, but I was just moving on to the next thing I wanted to try. My mother took advantage of it though, asking me to put together most of the National Handcraft Society Fad of the Month Club kits she received in the mail.

By the time I was a teenager my most prominent skill was being able to draw photo-realistic illustrations. When I graduated high school, I studied graphic arts at a college in Chicago for just a year (no, unfortunately not the Art Institute). At the time I thought I would pursue a career in fine arts, but one thing led to another and I eventually became a computer technician and programmer. Although I continued to draw, I didn’t get back into crafts and woodworking for almost 20 years until my daughter wanted me to make her a dollhouse. I bought and built a commercial kit from Michael’s and eventually tried making 1/12 scale furniture. All my skills from the past returned and I found I was really good at it. Alas, that lasted less than a couple of years and major life changes resulted in being away from miniature making for almost 25 years.

My love for woodworking and making things never left me and around 15 years ago, I finally began putting together my dream workshop, eventually taking up our entire garage. For a number of years I concentrated on making cribbage boards until sometime last year when I rediscovered the joy of making miniature furniture.

At the beginning of this week, I completed the piece I had shown glimpses of in former entries to this series, a miniature dental cabinet:

This project began around March 4  when I began designing it in Fusion 360. Here are a few images from that process:

When I was ready to begin building this piece, I selected two 2″ x 2″ x 18″ Jobillo turning squares and sliced them into various thicknesses. In previous posts I outlined the steps involved – from the design phase to cutting parts. This project resulted in a little over 200 individual parts. Here are most of the used part sheets:

Getting from the design process to cut parts is only the start. Next comes the hard work of assembling it.

Every part has to be cut out and sanded on all six sides (at least with the rectangular/square parts). That can be quite tedious, and it wasn’t until after the first couple of miniatures I made this way that I realized I could sand the top and bottoms BEFORE removing them from the sheets. The sides of the parts are sanded on my True Sander

I didn’t realize until I was working on this one that what I basically did was make my own model kit from scratch. The parts sheets are just like what you get in a commercial Revell model kit, with all the parts on sprues that need to be cut off.

Attaching the parts is done with either super glue or translucent wood glue, depending on what type of joint and hold is needed. All the drawers had parts that needed dovetails cut into them using a custom modified micro chisel. Other details that could not be implemented in the CNC process had to be done by hand.

My initial plans for the arms on the swing out trays was to 3D print them. The first prototypes printed well and looked good, but they proved to be too brittle and would not have held up long. So I spent a couple of days doing research and testing, and found out how easy it is to solder brass parts together. The hard part is devising methods to hold them together while soldering. Toothpicks inserted into drilled holes and masking tape worked wonders for this.

I long dreaded making the curved rotating cover for the trays. At first I thought I would find some sort of small glass bottle or vial that I could cut. However I wasn’t able to find anything that either was the right size or thickness. While rooting around in my supplies I found some 1/16″ acrylic sheets. I remembered acrylic can be formed with heat, so I turned a form and wrapped the acrylic around it with a heat gun. The turntable rotates within two tiny 1 mm ball bearings. The mirror on the top is from an old camera I disassembled a few years ago. You can get all sorts of great parts from old cameras.

Unfortunately I didn’t take many pictures during this build, but here’s one as I neared the end:

I finally finished it on May 11th. As with every piece I’ve made before, there are a couple things I would have done differently if I started over, but I’m mostly happy with how this turned out.

Posted on

My Miniature Process Part 4: CNC

I previously mentioned my CNC router. The parts it created are the subject of the first entry in this series. This one details the journey I undertook that led to finding my current use for it.

About 10 years ago, I spent three years making and selling nearly a 150 cribbage boards. I drafted the pattern for each board by hand, routed the inlets with a handheld Dremel router, cut the inlay by hand with a knife and ruler and drilled thousands of holes on my drill press. The drill press was the most stressful because one hole out of alignment by 1/32″ would be obvious. I drilled a hole in the end of each board and used a hole plug to hold the pegs, but envied boards that had slots with a slide in panel.

I burned out and stopped making cribbage boards for a few years.

About the same time, CNC routers came to my attention. They were just starting to become available for hobbyists with a limited budget. I heard about the CompuCarve machine (later to become the CarveWright) which was introduced by Sears as a Craftsman product. With visions of this machine doing all the drudgery of drilling holes and cutting inlets, I ordered one at around $1,200. Then I began to read reviews. The technology was too young and new adopters were apparently having a rough time with the maintenance of these machines. So I cancelled the order.

Two years later after doing a massive amount of research, I purchased RockCliff CNC machine plans. This was a modest machine that could be built for under $1,000 in parts. The body was made of MDF with hardware that could be purchased through industrial supply sites such as MSC Industrial Supply and McMaster Carr. The motors and electronics from ProBotix, were in a kit that required assembly and soldering. I’ve had many years of electronics experience as a hobbyist going back to childhood, so that wasn’t a problem.

After a few months work, here is the result:

It worked well enough. It was a bit fussy, but produced a few nice things. But it just wasn’t good enough to provide the precision I needed. So with the knowledge gained from building it, I used it to build another one. Since I didn’t work on it constantly, between building the first one and then the second – it took about three years. Finally it was completed:

I now had a machine that would do what I wanted, but it took me another couple of years of development and testing before I was ready to use it for my cribbage board comeback. I also found it immensely useful in making custom shop jigs and other projects.

A couple of years ago I also got into 3D printing, which resulted in my learning to use CAD software. My wife suggested we make a small bedroom cabinet and I had the idea to design it in CAD and make a miniature mock up. Building that brought back all the wonderful memories and enjoyment of building miniatures 25 years ago. Back then I made them with just a miniature table saw and a TrueSander. It wasn’t long before I figured out the design and production process to make miniatures with all the tools and software at my fingertips.

I had some good results, but I again found the machine was short of the demands I was placing on it. So I spent another round of rebuilding it with more precise components, upgrading software, some hardware and adding a fourth axis to do carvings and sculptures.

Here is the machine today:

And finally, here is the process I use to cut parts:


Posted on

My Miniature Process Part 3: Software

Twenty five years ago, even after a few years making miniatures, my two basic tools were a Microlux Table Saw (which I still use) and a Northwest Short Line True Sander (again, which I still use). The only woods I had were purchased from MicroMark. Working with a two-page illustration in a magazine describing how a roll top desk was constructed, I managed to create this:

I can’t remember exactly how long it took me, but it must have been a couple of months. I started with one part and cut each piece guessing at the size. I made a lot of mistakes and had to make some pieces multiple times before getting it right. Construction by trial and error.

A couple of years ago, before my return to miniature making, I got into 3D printing. My design needs led me to Computer Aided Design (CAD) software. I learned to use Fusion 360, which is free for students and hobbyists. When I finally began to design and make miniature furniture it suited my needs perfectly. It allows me to design both simple and complex pieces without any trial and error. Here’s a screenshot showing the piece I’m currently working on:

This took me about five weeks to finish designing. Once that was done, all 175+ parts were exported into a line drawing file, sorted by size. Here are all the parts that will be .08″ thick:

After outputting this to a PDF file I imported it into Vcarve Desktop. This program is for designing and cutting parts on a CNC router. Each part is primarily assigned cuts for routing pockets and profiles. You have to define the size and type of the cutting bits as well as the depths of cuts, among other parameters. The wood I was using was 2″ x 9″ so I had to separate all these parts into five different jobs. Here’s one of them:

Before exporting the code to the CAM software that runs the CNC machine you can preview how the cutting job will look:

Once I was satisfied with the results. it generates a text file (sometime tens of thousands of lines long) for the Mach3 software I use to drive my homemade CNC. I will highlight that in a future post.

Posted on

My Miniature Process Part 2: Wood and Tools

In this entry, I’m highlighting a few tools I use to create the parts I mentioned in my previous post. When I first made a number of miniatures 25 years ago, I was limited to only what wood was available from Micro Mark and other suppliers, such as walnut, mahogany, cherry and basswood. And they usually only came in a few thicknesses.

Now, I can use any wood in my stockpile of exotic woods. To begin, make sure the piece is perfectly flat:

Then I move to my bandsaw:

Then to my MicroLux drum thickness sander:

This is a great tool, but it takes a lot of maintenance and careful handling to produce wood good enough for miniature projects. For the current one I needed wood in .0325, .04, .0625, .08, .09375 and .125 inch thickness. For anyone who may consider using this drum sander for their own projects, the best advice I have is the longer the wood you have to feed through. the better. Having one smooth side is very important to getting good results. After each time I slice wood on the bandsaw I make sure to put it back through the planer before the next cut. Generally I have to feed the wood through the drum sander 5 to 10 times to get just the right thickness.

I do most of my cutting on my homemade CNC machine, which I’ll get to in another post, but when I don’t want to bother with two sided jobs I turn to this:

That’s a Dremel drill press which I’ve modified with a 3D printed mount for a Proxxon rotary tool and an XY table to use as a milling machine. I wouldn’t try using it to mill metals (I have a real milling machine for that) but it works fine for wood and doesn’t weigh 20 pounds.

I have power tools for just about any kind of work, but perhaps the most useful tool I have for miniatures is this humble “True Sander” I purchased from Micro Mark almost 30 years ago:

It’s the absolutely best way to precisely size parts and ensure they are perfectly square.

And here I have arrived at finishing the first two parts for my next piece, a couple of raised panels and the shelf they will attach to:


Posted on

My Miniature Process Part 1

I’m likely among many others who find they have a lot of extra time for hobbies right now. Before this pandemic, I was spending 75% of my home time designing and making things.

Now as I mostly work from home, I can use some of the extra time into blogging about my hobby work.

This project, which I will not give a name for just yet, began about two months ago. I started designing it with CAD software (I use Fusion 360). That took about five weeks working on it whenever I could fit in a few minutes of design work. After another full week of work preparing the plans with a CAM program (VCarve Desktop), I prepared about 10 slices in various thicknesses from 2″x2″x18″ pieces of Jobillo. I was ready to start cutting parts.

After 10 hours in the shop, I created about 110 of the 175 or so parts I need to build this: