By JEANNIE WILEY WOLF
In Robert Essinger’s world, nothing is used for its intended purpose.
Toothpicks become the spokes of a tiny wagon wheel. A worn-out leather wallet transforms into a carriage seat. The back of a pierced earring doubles as part of a lantern.
Essinger, of Findlay, can work magic with bits and pieces. A retired carpenter, he adds them to carefully shaped pieces of wood to create scale models of antique farm equipment and horse-drawn carriages.
“It’s the perfect retirement job. All it takes is about $5 worth of materials and hundreds of hours,” he said.
The models, ranging from a corn sled to a haymaking tedder, mean a lot to Essinger, 77. His father was a farmer, and the family grew up on a farm southeast of Jenera.
“Most of the farm machinery I’ve made models of I’ve used at one time or another growing up, so there’s some memory involved,” he said.
Essinger said he did woodworking in school. After graduating from Arlington High School in 1956, he took up carpentry as a trade.
“I was always very mechanical. I built a lot of things, toys and things like that, on the farm,” he said. “I even made a motor scooter and put a motor in it, a Maytag gasoline engine on it. I was just always building something, that’s why I wound up being a carpenter.”
Working mostly in the southern portion of Hancock County, Essinger built houses for a while.
“I had a lot of guys working for me, but the quality went down and I just couldn’t handle that. So we just started pushing more into the cabinet business and antique restoration,” he said.
Essinger was drafted in 1961 and served in the Army on an Honest John outfit, a long-range artillery rocket capable of carrying an atomic or high explosive. He served in Germany and patrolled the Czechoslovakian border.
After three years of service, Essinger returned home and met Sharon Loy. They married Jan. 16, 1966 and recently celebrated their golden wedding anniversary.
He ran a cabinet shop in Arlington for 40 years before retiring.
In 2010, Essinger’s first project was a one-third scale wooden Civil War cannon.
“I built it to put it out in the yard,” he said. “After I got it built, I decided I couldn’t set it outside.”
He also decided the model, which measured about four feet in length, was too large and he donated it to the Hancock Historical Museum where it’s now part of the Civil War display.
Later, he made a model of the Honest John rocket he had worked during his military service.
“My daughters had no idea what that was. I said, ‘It’s hard to explain.’ So I thought, I’ll build a model of it. So that’s kind of what got it all started,” he said. “That turned out pretty neat, I thought. Then it just kind of grew from that.”
Essinger doesn’t use kits; all of the individual pieces are made from scratch. And most of the models are built from pictures from the Internet, he said.
“I never had any positive measurements to start one,” said Essinger. “I have to stare at photographs for a long time to figure out the actual size of something.”
He said one of the most important dimensions to determine is the diameter of the wheels and the wheelbase, which is the length from a front wheel to the back wheel. With those measurements established, he draws up a blueprint.
“Once you get that on paper, then it becomes pretty easy after that,” he said. “It’s like a puzzle almost. You start putting pieces together and finishing out the drawings, then you get to start.”
Essinger’s models are on a scale of 3/4 inch to 1 foot. He said it’s an easy conversion factor from the prototype to the model.
Then he heads to his garage workshop where he cuts, drills and sands each small piece of wood.
Essinger uses hard maple for his models because the wood is extremely hard.
“You don’t have to worry about grain direction too much. And it turns out on a lathe very smooth, so when you get to painting it, it looks really good,” he said.
The models are 99 percent made of wood. Pieces of metal, rubber and leather help make up the accessories.
“That’s my finest compliment when someone says, ‘where’d you get your parts?’ Well, you don’t get them,” he said. “You make everything.”
It takes Essinger an average of 12 hours to build a set of four wheels.
“You have to turn the hubs out first, then make the spokes. Then you glue the spokes into the hub. That’s all done on a lathe,” he said.
The rim of the wheel comes next. Essinger made many of the jigs he uses in his work. Jigs, he said, are devices that hold a piece of work and help guide the tools.
His preference are horse-drawn pieces of equipment and vehicles. He said his father, Peter W. Essinger, didn’t get his first tractor until 1946 because of his love of horses.
“If it isn’t horse-drawn, I kind of shy away from it. I really have a love of horses. My dad loved horses, too,” Essinger said.
His collection includes a hay loader, grain binder and a corn husker/shredder. All have working parts.
“The hay loader loaded the hay from the ground up into the wagon,” he said. “I told my wife when we built this one, it’s got to work. It’s such a unique movement. It would rake the hay up and these walkers would walk it up this rack and dump it in the wagon.”
Essinger also has a threshing machine that was used to separate the grain from the stalks and husks.
“We didn’t own a threshing machine,” he said. “Back then they had what they called threshing rings. There was a whole group of farmers that would go together and buy one threshing machine. Then they would go from farm to farm to farm and thresh everyone’s wheat. They shared the costs.”
Each model offers its own challenges, he said.
“Sometimes I’ll make a piece four or five times to get it to work right,” said Essinger.
Once a model is put together with mini nails and screws, enamel paint is used to finish it.
“I’m a stickler on everything being proper and correct. I want it to look like it does in the picture,” he said.
Essinger is also part of the Hancock County Memorial Squad, a team of volunteers that provides military funeral rites for veterans. So he works on his hobby as he has time available.
“I enjoy it. I can get so wrapped up out there,” he said, referring to his workshop. “If I’m not busy, I’ll usually work probably six hours out there (at a time).”
He said he’s been blessed with good eyesight and steady hands, a requirement for working on such small pieces.
“But if I don’t do one of these for a month, I lose that touch so to speak. Once you get back into it, it takes another week to get settled down again,” he said.
Pieces of Findlay history are included in the collection, like a Buckeye steam traction ditcher. The machine, made in Findlay, was designed to dig ditches for agricultural drainage tile. Essinger’s model of the ditching machine took 188 hours to complete.
He also recreated a horse-drawn San-A-Pure Dairy milk wagon. The dairy opened in the mid-1930s, and milk was delivered to Findlay residents in these horse-drawn milk wagons until 1965 when they were replaced by a fleet of milk trucks.
“I only had one picture of that one to work with. But with my love of horses and how wagons were built, there was enough information on that one photograph that I could get it to work out,” Essinger said.
He also constructed a dump wagon reminiscent of those used by National Lime and Stone Co.
“They used to use those building roads,” he said. “It has a clamshell bottom and opens up so they could haul rock and dump it out.”
A favorite of Essinger’s three daughters is the 1902 State Landau carriage that carried Kate Middleton and Prince William on their wedding day in 2011.
The model took Essinger 137 hours to complete.
“My girls really love that one,” he said. “It’s got red velvet seats. Sharon (his wife) said you have to put that one in a case … because you can’t dust velvet.”
Essinger has never sold any of his models and doesn’t intend to. He keeps track of the date each is finished and the number of hours it took to complete. To date, he’s invested 1,786 hours in his models.
“I’m a very modest person, but when I talk about these things, it’s difficult to be modest,” he said. “Each is a one-of-a-kind creation.”
His 28th and current project is a Wells Fargo stage coach. Essinger said there’s no end to the vehicles still left to make.
“Good grief, they had hundreds of horse-drawn carriages, different types of surreys, stagecoaches. I think the next one will probably be a Conestoga wagon, a covered wagon that the pioneers took out west,” he said.
Essinger said he’s glad to have found this hobby in his retirement.
“It’s just a joy to do this. It’s just a great feeling to say, I built this. Look at this,” he said.
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