Small Miracles:


Leslie C. McDanielStover KA

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George Luhrs lives on Long Island in New York. But chances are he'd be at home in Lilliput, for George spends countless hours in the very, very small world of the miniature model builder.

Years ago, George built farm engines in ¼ scale. Then he eased into 3/8' bore engines, then ¼' bore.

'But I kept wanting to make things smaller,' he says. 'That's the biggest challenge.'

So he stepped his hobby down a notch: now he's working on 1/8' bore, four cycle, spark plug ignition and throttle-governed engines.

'It gets to be like working on a watch,' he says. 'But I've been unable to get them to run reliably; I can't get them to keep plugging.'

For George, miniaturization is a fine challenge using skills built over a lifetime.

'My hobby has basically evolved from what I had to do,' he says. 'In my younger years, it was a necessity to be able to fix something, get it running. I've always worked on cars; I've never taken one in to get it fixed. Of course, when I work on a real car now, it looks gigantic.'

For 30 years he was self-employed, building parts for the aircraft industry and conducting design, research and development work for private industry. When his equipment was not tied up with customer work, he built models of engines, and equipment for them to run. It was often hard to tell where work ended and hobby started.

'I feel fortunate that I liked what I did for a living,' he says.

George is an active member of the Long Island Antique Power Association, and goes to as many as 20 shows a year. Friends who collect full-size engines loan him engines to scale down, and he's returned the favor by getting them interested in models. He's been gratified by the response.

'I know several guys in their sixties who are finding that a 500-pound engine is no longer appealing to move around,' he says. 'I've sold several engines to guys who have liquidated their collection and then bought models. And there's more and more shows. Models are easier to carry: I can put my whole collection (some 40 models) in the motor home luggage compartment or a Nissan Maxima luggage compartment.'

His hobby takes him on occasional flights of fancy.

'Sometimes when I was experimenting, I'd pretend I was an engine builder from the early part of the last century,' George says. 'It's a challenge to make them that small, in hit-and-miss size, 3/8 bore; I just wanted to see if I could get them small enough to run on a hit-and-miss engine. And by golly, they do run.'

When friends suggested that a market existed for his models, he took a shot at it. 'In a year, I'd put together a list of 50 names of potential buyers,' he says. So, about 10 years ago, he began producing replicas of a Stover prototype.

'For seven or eight years, I would just make 50 pieces of each part, as I went along,' he says. 'Then I assembled all of them ... it took years. That was a lot of parts, a lot of pieces. That's the only engine I've made to sell. I have just about a dozen left now.'

He never really considered producing kits for the Stover.

'When it's small like that, the components for the governor assembly, for instance, are very small. I made fixtures and test stands so I could test those components before assembly. But it would be very difficult for an amateur to make that from a kit.'

George's models are crafted from bar stock rather than castings.

'I've done machining all my life,' he says. 'I love doing that, it's not just a hobby. Professionally, I built precision contour aircraft parts, and on those, you can't have a casting, it'll fracture. I would rather work with a chunk of metal than a casting. It's easier to work with, and you can get more detail. And you don't have to make a pattern; you cut out the middleman.'

He also designs most of the parts and equipment he uses.

'When you're fastening things together, when you get to ¼ scale, you're wanting miniature bolts and screws, and those are hard to come by in scale, to make them look true to scale. I've made different things to thread nuts and bolts, make taps and dies,' he says. 'It's very expensive for a modeller to spend several bucks apiece for a bolt. I've made lots of little gadgets to make miniature bolts and gears; I've developed my own dividing equipment. There are professional ones, but they're hard to use. Mine is easy. I make my own cutters to make teeth on gears - they've very expensive to buy - and I grind my own cutters.

'And I've made miniature gears for a number of years,' he says. 'I've made gear blanks, shafts, and they're all rather small. I use a Swiss screw machine originally designed for the watch industry.'

The tooling a modeller depends on can be quite expensive. George has been fortunate to be able to use tooling from his business to complement his hobby.

'A modeller would want a decent lathe,' he says. 'I have five. And you'd want a decent milling machine: I have five of those ... it's just a lifetime collection. Probably the most sophisticated equipment I have is the Swiss screw machine.'

He also uses some fairly sophisticated components in his hobby.

'I use a special aluminum that's used in aircraft engines,' he says. 'And I use some stainless steels, hard brass, and I make a lot of springs. There's a few plastics involved, like the insulation on the spark plug in a hit-and-miss engine. I use a Teflon material. On the high-speed throttle governor engines, I have to use a material developed by Corning Glass. They use it as an insulator for laboratory test equipment, so it works well as an insulator on miniature spark plugs.'

George and his fellow hobbyists do their best to recruit new modellers. 'And we try to encourage younger model builders,' he says.

The novice, he says, should start with a simple project. 'Then pick machinery, and get some advice from somebody knowledgeable,' he says. 'Pick people's brains. And you've got to have a certain ability to improvise. You can't learn it all by reading a book or getting somebody to tell you how to do it. You've got to be able to look at it and analyze the problem; if you can't do that, you're always going to be frustrated.'

For more information: George Luhrs, (631) 744-3319.