Why Miniatures?–Uncle Cecil’s Wheelbarrow

Uncle Cecil’s Wheelbarrow

The other night I was eating out with friends in Portland, people I have known for years through my life as a poet. They had another friend along who was visiting town, one of those people who thrives on asking questions. The wine arrived and he began to drill into the whats and how-comes of my life. Inevitably the topic of miniatures came up. As he pried open the miniatures box with more enthusiasm, I brought out my Ipod to show him photos. Of course it got passed around the table, and soon even my long-time friends were passing the pictures back and forth. By their response it seemed that for the first time they really “got,” and were impressed by, miniatures and the kind of work Noel and I did. The visitor’s big, squashy question of “Why?” went unanswered as we left the restaurant and headed out for ice cream. But why people connect with and/or make miniatures is the question that’s always interested me.

It was early 1986 when we got home from delivering the Whittier bungalow. We were slated to teach at the Guild School in June, which meant the class prototype needed building so the kit builder could get to work and we could figure out how to teach it, plus we had two commissioned pieces to get going. Then a letter came asking for a donation piece for the Guild School Auction. The fact that all would be done by the end of the year gives me a headache to even think about, but at the time it felt doable, and we set into our work. If I go by our scrapbook as the time-keeper, I started building a wooden wheelbarrow for the auction—the least important item in the triage line. Motto: postpone disaster for as long as possible

The real McCoy–Uncle Cecil’s very own wheelbarrow

This was not just any wheelbarrow, it was Uncle Cecil’s wheelbarrow, probably close to 100 years old–simple and totally functional. It had belonged to my friend Sydney’s Uncle Cecil in Oysterville, WA. I came upon it one day in his yard as we were walking around the town. It struck me as being a near duplicate of the one my father had when I was little. It had a big spoked iron wheel for negotiating rough terrain, and, the best apart, sides that came off for accommodating wide loads. Dad used it mainly to transport firewood out of the woods behind our house, wood that he and friends would cut in the spring from trees felled by the previous winter’s storms. They cut and stacked it in the woods to age, then Dad loaded it out of the woods to the house, where it was stacked again and eventually carried into the house to warm us. That was where I came in, following Dad into the house with a small load of kindling in my arms. Eventually the wheelbarrow went the way of all things, but on that day seemed to be reincarnated here in Oysterville. So, the wheelbarrow came with a story, one I wanted to continue in miniature.

Construction materials–note diagram upper center

I measured and photographed the original, but was mostly aiming for the finished piece to look convincing, like it had served its purpose for many years. The hardest part was finding the wheel—I wasn’t a metalsmith, and didn’t have the time to start that particular process. I finally found some manufactured wagon wheels–maybe in one of those handy NAME Houseparty favor bags. The rims were too thick, but I thought I could make it work. After filing out as much excess metal as I could, I used a rasp and Exacto to make rust shavings from our collection of rusted metal, things like old cheese graters, tin cans, discarded tools, and pieces of car bodies (rotted-out by the salt air) that fall off along the road (another motto: never pass up a good piece of rust). I painted the wheel rust-color (burnt sienna tube acrylic with a little raw umber), then painted it with Elmer’s, and rolled it in the shavings, a technique we would use in many projects to come. The framework, brackets to anchor the sides, and metal brace legs, were rusted strip metal, touched up with more rust.

My version

The wood was from our stash of aged and rotted wood, embellished with studio-made rot, and tiny iron nails. I’m sure Noel carved the handles, handles that were too far apart for my arms as a child to grasp simultaneously.  The best part was still that the sides came off.

Wheelbarrow with Garden Shed project

It was crude, functioning, and fun, and took way too much time out of our need to generate income, but it was one of my all time favorite projects. It reminded me of my dad, and those years trotting around after him in the woods. Maybe that’s why. Or one of the whys.

About smallhousepress

In 1974, my husband Noel and I began building aged miniature houses for collectors and museums. We were 70's dropouts. We quit our careers in advertising--art director and writer, respectively--and escaped Los Angeles in a VW camper and a Bug for a simpler life on the coast of Washington State. From a tiny studio in our home, we built 64 houses and buildings. Our specialty was aging--making a structure that reflected the scars and wrinkles of time, the elements, and human habitation. In the 80s we began teaching our techniques in workshops around the country, and I began to write our how-to's in Nutshell News and Miniature Collector. In 2000 we migrated across the Columbia to Astoria, OR, where , in 2011, we retired from miniatures. We are Fellows of the International Guild of Miniature Artisans and taught at their annual school in Castine, ME. By avocation I am a writer and poet. The blog is my way of working back into a writing routine, as well as recording what we did, and what we learned along the way.
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8 Responses to Why Miniatures?–Uncle Cecil’s Wheelbarrow

  1. Linda Master says:

    There was one just like this at the farm where I worked. (in the MIracle Chicken story) Though I don’t remember if the sides came off—Yours is fabulous and brings back many memories. I’ve always wanted to recreate it. But I never dig out my pictures, too sad—

  2. Jennifer Wyley says:

    It is an interesting question…why miniatures. I have asked myself that many times. And I always wonder why more people aren’t obsessed. I know for me it started in New Orleans when I was a little girl on vacation. In a shop I spied a tiny Rocking Chair. I still have it. It is beautifully made and it inspired a lifetime of “mini love”. For me a sink has always been a doll’s swimming pool and a puddle a doll’s lake.

  3. Sandy says:

    I can imagine so many theses behind miniature love, but one thing I am pondering right now is if when we are young, we may have felt like small creatures and when we discovered something mini, it seemed even more wee and worthy of wonder and reverence. A world that can be contained inside a hand, viewed in whole, not beyond comprehension (unless you let your imagination instead expand all the invisible in betweens, which is like another quantum marvel!)

    Never commented here before but I will be back — your world here is so beautiful, I must explore when I have some leisure!

    • Yes Sandy, Noel has a similar theory, that the first thing we were given as a child was a miniature–a toy, a baby spoon, etc.–and that we never get over holding this small, complete piece of the world, when everything else felt so big.

  4. Mindy Yates says:

    Simply amazing. Also a main reason I do minis, too.

  5. Philmaker says:

    The first photo on this blog inspired me to make a similar scene in Blender:

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