A Matter of Scale

Hobby requires creativity and focus

Story and photos by Rodger Nichols

Hobbyist Fred Davis holds a working glider he built with a plastic straw and turkey feathers.

By day, Fred Davis was Wasco County’s facilities manager for 22 years, sharing responsibility for more than a dozen buildings spread throughout the county, handling a 6-figure maintenance and repair budget, and helping manage a staff of 6 employees.

By night, he preferred challenges on a smaller scale.

Fred built miniature models, some of them incredibly tiny and detailed. He built a bamboo fly fishing rod, for example, small enough that the leader is a hair from his daughter’s head.

Fred grew up in a rural area outside of Junction City, where he was the youngest in the family.

“I had older twin sisters who started college the same year I started first grade,” he says. “Between older siblings and my parents, I had five or six adults supervising me nearly all the time.”

Fred graduated from the local high school and attended Judson Baptist College in Portland, where he met his wife, Vicki. After Fred earned an associate degree, the couple married and moved to Eugene, where he worked in a machine shop.

“We made hydraulic cylinders and pneumatic cylinders for mining, for timber, for the mills to adjust their saw cuts,” Fred says.

He became involved with a group called Craftsmen for Christ.

“That was part of the conservative Baptist Association of the Northwest,” Fred says. “There would be a team of 3 or 4 guys who would go somewhere and start building the church the residents were hoping to get built.”

Ultimately, that led him to a maintenance position at his alma mater, which was preparing to move from a 25-acre campus in Portland to a 65-acre facility in The Dalles that had an interesting history.

In 1959, the Oregon State Legislature established Columbia Park Hospital and Training Center in the former Eastern Oregon Tuberculosis Hospital in The Dalles. It was Oregon’s first hospital devoted exclusively to chronically ill and geriatric patients.

The institution underwent many name and mission changes, gradually becoming the primary care facility for adults with developmental disabilities. The facility closed in 1977 and was sold in 1980 to Judson Baptist College.

Fred’s college basketball coach, Bob Davis, was in charge of the transfer from Portland to The Dalles.

A tiny airplane in Fred Davis’s hand shows the scale of many of his projects

Unfortunately, the private college eventually closed. A bank had agreed to lend the college $5 million but later backed out of the deal, leaving the institution cash-strapped with declining resources and declining enrollment. The final graduating class was in 1985.

Fred stayed on, working for the bank that foreclosed on the property.

“I was the next to the last guy out the door,” he says.

Fred then joined Sawyer’s Hardware for a few years, followed by a stint with a John Deere dealer before joining Wasco County.

Although Fred retired from his job at the county several years ago, he hasn’t given up his hobby.

“The comment I always get from my projects is, ‘Wow, you’ve got way too much time on your hands!’” he says. “But it’s the same amount of time everybody else has.” Fred works on freeform miniatures he designs himself, and on paper models, transforming flat sheets of paper into highly detailed 3D models.

“I don’t like soft mediums,” he says. “I like the challenge of structural things. But the paper just blew me away. It was so unique to see something as flimsy as paper become something fairly structural. Even though there’s no real strength, it works as a model.”

Fred coats his paper models with a matte finish fixative to make them stronger. It also prevents the colors from washing away. Fred buys plans on CD or downloaded from the internet, which he prints on his inkjet printer.

“Using a computer and printer gives you a lot of versatility,” Fred says.

He has been able to add parts of his own designs to existing plans and match the colors perfectly.

That’s not the only tinkering Fred does with the designs.

“A lot of them are designed not to have moving parts,” he says. “The wheels are usually glued on there, but I choose to modify that. A car needs to have wheels that turn.”

Not all of his projects are paper-based. He created a miniature copy of a Remington 700 rifle, carving the wood for the stock, and machining the tiny parts for the barrel and trigger.

A table in Fred’s living room holds tools and some of his completed models.

More recently, he has experimented with 3D printing, including a vintage car replica he adjusted by designing axles, differential housing, and other parts for the car’s underside.

Fred also works in larger sizes. One of his projects is a cigar-box 3-string guitar, complete with microphone pickup and an audio jack port on the bottom to use with an amplifier or to record output.

“It’s just a matter of staying focused, and that’s really hard for super-creative people,” he says. “I’m saying ‘super-creative’ in lieu of ADHD, which runs deep in my family.”

Fred uses a visor-style jeweler’s loupe to see his work clearly. It provides a series of tip-down lenses to increase magnification. The tools he uses are simple.

“I’ve got these tiny little mustache scissors, but embroidery scissors would work fine,” Fred says.

He also uses an X-Acto knife, roller cutters normally used to cut fabric, and scrapbooking tools for cutting circles. Fred uses plain wood glue or Elmer’s glue applied sparingly with a pin. Tacky hobby glues often don’t penetrate the paper enough.

He also uses a pair of needle-nosed pliers without teeth to hold the joints together for the 30 seconds or so needed for a serviceable bond.

“It’s amazingly simple as far as what it takes to do it,” Fred says. “It’s just a real neat hobby. If you screw up, you just throw it away and start over.”