DeKALB – Bob Myers has an eye for detail.
Myers, a former firefighter who once flew Air Force jets and remote-controlled planes and has a background in mechanics and aerodynamic engineering, understands how machines work.
He uses his knowledge of engines, nuts and bolts to create highly detailed wooden replicas of locomotives, steam tractors and Sycamore Fire Department’s 1923 Stutz fire truck.
His replicas are all designed and created by hand, taking as long as a year to be completed. Myers does as much research as he can to make the replicas as life-like and accurate as possible, from placing a miniature ladder on the fire truck to adding his resized pen and ink drawings to decorate the train passenger car’s walls.
Myers met with MidWeek reporter Katrina Milton to discuss his wooden replica designs, how he makes them and how he makes every replica unique.
Milton: When did you first start making replicas?
Myers: I started about 20 years ago. I’ve made about 15 replicas. Most are steam trains, but I have a few diesel trains, the fire truck, a steam tractor, a train passenger car and a caboose. The replicas are made to fit where they’re going, like on a desk. One of my bigger works is about four feet in length. I work on commission and make replicas for friends. I donated a replica of a steam tractor made in Sycamore to the DAAHA [DeKalb Area Agricultural Heritage Association] museum. I also made a replica of the train that traveled from Sycamore to Cortland. It is on a shelf at the old train station, what is now the DeKalb County Community Foundation.
Milton: How do you make the replicas?
Myers: I make them with a saw called a scroll saw. A friend of mine is the owner at Hardwood Connection, and he showed me how to use the saw. The saw has a 5-inch blade like a sewing machine. You can sit at the table, use the saw and cut around curves. The more I practiced and practiced, the better I got at it. The first replica I made was a steam engine. I ordered plans, but as I was working on it, I thought, ‘Why not draw my own plans and make my own?’
Milton: Why did you decide to make your own plans?
Myers: I have a background in mechanics and am a former fireman, so I know what everything is supposed to look like. I was in aerodynamic engineering before the age of computer assisted drawing. Back then, I had to draw my own plans.
Milton: Why didn’t you use a simple, easy design?
Myers: It’s not me, it’s not what I do. I also do pen and ink drawings. Detail is something I’m known for, something that’s important to me. People notice things like that. … Everything is done by hand, and I design all the plans myself. The replicas are hand-lettered and hand-painted. On the fire truck, I painted the emblem, the logo, myself. Everything is handmade, so it would be impossible to make the same design twice. They would definitely be different.
Milton: What type of wood do you use?
Myers: It depends on what I’m designing. For the fire truck, I used redwood. It was once a brilliant red, but now it’s darkened with age. I also use zebrawood because it bends easily and oak. I start with big pieces of wood, but I don’t throw anything away. I know I’ll use the small pieces sooner or later. The logs on the steam train engine are from a stick from my neighbor’s tree. Since I’m friends with the owner of Hardwood Connection, he sometimes saves some wood for me, or I tell him what I’m looking for.
Milton: What are examples of replicas that you’ve made?
Myers: Doug Roberts, the president of Zea [Mays] Holdings, his grandfather or great-grandfather owned a stone quarry in Ohio. Two train engines, The Colonel and The Judge, were used to haul rocks out of the stone quarry. The locomotives were like four-wheel drive trains and could go up and down hills. He asked me if I could make replicas based off of pictures.
Milton: Can you tell me more about the fire truck?
Myers: It’s a 1923 Stutz fire truck, a replica of the one at the Sycamore Fire Station. I took photos of under the fire truck, and even underneath my replica is completely detailed. There are leaf springs and drive shafts. There’s even a suspension, break lines and a plug to drain the oil. The hose on the fire truck has a kingsman loop, so that when the hose is taken out, the coupler won’t flip around and the hose can be pulled straight out.
Milton: What are unique aspects about your replicas?
Myers: I think for a long time about what should go on the replica and how to make it look a certain way. If you look inside the fire truck’s engine, there is copper tubing and an old radiator in there. The ladder is a 24-foot extension ladder, there’s a pike pole, a roof ladder to grab ahold of the top of the roof and an ax. I do research when I’m making the model to make it as accurate as possible. When I made the passenger car, I added curtains and shrunk some of my pen and ink drawings to be used as paintings on the walls.
Milton: Do the replicas roll and move?
Myers: All of the replicas are made out of wood and were once fully functional. I make sure all of the arms move freely and work like they’re supposed to, and then I glue everything. They do not roll, they’re not toys.
Milton: How long does it take you to make a replica?
Myers: I have a shop in the backyard. I spent the winter and spring drawing up plans. Since the shop is unheated, I only work out there in the summer. By August or September, I’m done making it. I used to take the finished replicas to the Sandwich Fair. I took four or five items, and they won big purple ribbons, the Best in Show, every single time. But it’s been about 10 years since I last entered.
Milton: Why do you make replicas?
Myers: I enjoy it. It’s my way of relaxing. I can spend hours at a time working on it. I can spend five hours working on a wheel. A lot of people would lose interested in that amount of time, but I enjoy it. I see making them as a challenge. I see a picture and I have to figure out how to make it on a much smaller scale. I love how seeing the replicas brings out peoples’ memories. They see it and say, “I remember those,” or “My dad worked on one just like that.” I think other people get enjoyment out of what I do, and that’s a good thing.
Milton: What are your other hobbies?
Myers: I also do drone photography. I am FAA certified, and I have taken aerial photography for the fire department and police department. I will teach drone classes at IVCC [Illinois Valley Community College] this summer and also maybe at Kish College. My wife [Sue Breeeze] is the county historian. She’s shown me photos, and I’ve used my drones to find where the photo was taken, take a matching photo and compare them. During last year’s DeKalb County Barn Tour, I took photos and videos with my drones. This year, I will be offering drone lessons to help farmers check their crops, flooding and building roofs.