The Internet Craftsmanship Museum Presents

John A. Ackerman
Scale Replica Fire Apparatus Modelmaker
Page added November 2019

 

Introduction

   

John, a US Army veteran and former volunteer firefighter, is a noted model maker of scale replica fire apparatus and fire stations. He has written several how-to articles for magazines and presented demonstrations on the many facets of scratch-building scale replica fire apparatus. His work has been displayed at numerous model shows, libraries, museums, and art galleries such as the Phoenix Technology, Inc, Riverside CA as well as an ongoing display at the Los Angeles Fire Department Historical Society Fire Museum, Old Fire Station 27, Hollywood, CA.

John is a director on the board of directors for The Mini Time Machine Museum of Miniatures, Tucson AZamong. He is a founding and life member of the Los Angeles Fire Department Historical Society where he served as chair of various committeeís, a former member of the Board of Directors and was instrumental in the successful effort to make Old Fire Station 27 into a Fire Museum. As a member-at-large, he continues to be an LAFD apparatus historian and co-administer of the Los Angeles Fire Department Historical Society Facebook Group.

John is actively retired in Green Valley, AZ but continues to make and restore scale replica fire apparatus for public and private collections and is the owner of a technical publishing company. He is the volunteer caretaker of the Tom Showers scale miniature fire apparatus collection, some of which is on display at the Miniature Engineering Craftsmanship Museum in Carlsbad CA. John is involved in the restoration of Tom's miniature apparatus and fire stations, the maintenance of the display at the LAFD Historical Society museum, and the development of a display at the Los Angeles County Fire Museum.

John has been building / collecting miniature fire apparatus since he was 6 years old. His grandfather was a New York city fireman (FDNY 1922-1941) and his great-grandfather was among the founders of his townís volunteer fire department. Johnís father (Altho) didnít follow in his fatherís footsteps but he catered to Johnís passion by carting him around to visit numerous fire departments in his home town (a volunteer fire department), New Jersey and New York City.


Then & Now

 

 

Through the Years ...

You can click on any image below for a larger view
 

At age 6 Johnís love for firefighting was his mother of invention. He had decided that the die-cast model fire truck he had needed some fire fighters. But all he had was miniature army soldiers. Once he re-purposed his soldiers (new paint and sculpting riffles into fire nozzles) he realized they were not the correct scale for the die-cast model. So, with his dadís help and encouragement, John decided to make his own fire truck that would be a better fit for his new firefighting crew. Johnís dad had dabbled in making model airplanes so he suggested that John and he could make a miniature fire engine closer to the scale of his firefighters. They primarily used cardboard and various goodies from around the house. Since this model was also going to function as a toy, it was imperative that it be engineered well enough to hold up for the fires that it would be rolling too. Of course, workable hose was required and modeling clay rolled into various lengths and sizes served well. The die-cast model was nearly identical to one of the two actual trucks at the local volunteer fire company, thus it was kept as an integral part of Johnís operation.

Johnís family moved to Los Angeles when he was 11 and his very first model survived that and subsequent moves. This picture is how the model along with his firefighting crew looks today.

 

 

In High School, during the early 1960ís, while most fellows were making model kit hot rods and customizing, John thought it would be fun to try his hand at some scratch building using balsa wood. These turned out better than his first model but lacked the precision that John was seeking. It was in 1964 that John learned of a local fire apparatus model maker, Phil Da Costa, who also worked from scratch. He was able to meet with Phil who became his first mentor. With Philís assistance John made his first scale piece of fire apparatus, a Water Tower, in his senior year of High School. Phil was instrumental in teaching John how to work with basswood and artistís Strathemore and Bristol Board.

   
 

In 1965 (Johnís senior year in high school) a model magazine presented an in-depth article on the work of Tom Showers who also lived in California. He and John initially corresponded by mail and finally in mid-1966 they were able to meet at Tomís home for John to see his amazing collection. It was the beginning of a great friendship that continued until Tom passed away in 1996.

Some of Johnís early fire model efforts depicted mythical volunteer fire departments. After the Water Tower project in 1965, the next group of models done in 1966 were for his mythical fire department of Sandy Hook New Jersey (not the real Sandy Hook National Park.) Johnís station is based on what real apparatus would be necessary if Sandy Hook was a real town.

While in military service for the US Army, 1966-1969, John had an opportunity to travel as well as find some downtime to make a couple new models. When he was attending training classes at Sandia Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico, John was able to measure and document an aerial ladder truck that served the city of Albuquerque in 1922. Later at Johnís first duty station in Edison New Jersey he was able to visit a variety of museums and fire departments and meet collectors of fire memorabilia. After concluding his military service in Heilbronn Germany, John and his wife settled in New Jersey where John setup a more permanent workspace in the living room of their apartment.

In the early 1980ís a few fire modelers who worked in 1:32 scale embarked on developing individual mythical fire departments within a mythical county. Tom Showers led the way with his Luna Beach fire department and John followed with the Los Cincos fire department for which he made four stations and subsequent apparatus. The respective mythical cities were based on real life target hazards and the apparatus (which were modeled after actual equipment) in turn reflected what would be required to handle these target hazards. The Los Cincos fire department stations and apparatus are currently on display at the Phenix Technology facility in Riverside CA. (yes, they spell it Phenix.)

Part of the modeling effort is doing the necessary research for an actual piece of apparatus one wants to replicate and then the journey of engineering how to actually construct the model. Obtaining enough information to do make a replica as accurate and culturally correct as possible can be quite a challenge. Too often, plans and/or an actual rig are no longer available. Then it becomes a necessary to view as many photographs as possible and literally deduce the actual measurements. For John, the research efforts include visiting fire departments, fire and non-fire specific museums and meeting an amazing array of people.

Perhaps Johnís most significant replica is that of the New York City Fire Department (FDNY) 1965 Super Pumper. Done in 1:16 scale, everything was made from scratch. Being of a larger scale, whatever could be seen in a photo needed to be recreated in miniature. The plans used was the body layout that lacked good information for the large Napier-Deltic locomotive engine that drove the high capacity De Laval pump. Fortunately, one of the last firefighter/engineers that operated the Super Pumper was able to provide the pump plans.

Johnís friend in England checked with the Napier-Deltic historical society seeking information and plans without success. On a visit to the Miniature Engineering Craftsmanship Museum in Carlsbad, California John happened to meet a craftsman who had made a working model of the engine. When asked about plans, he laughed: ďYou get to back into making it with the outline on your plans and many photographs.Ē

It was necessary for John to create his own tooling and fixtures along the way. At times those were separate projects all to themselves. Materials used were sheet and block Styrene plastic, brass and aluminum. A mold for the wheels was made from scratch and the tires were from an old Doepke toy crane (one of Johnís toys from the late 1950ís.) Somehow John knew he needed to save the tires but pitched the body years before. From these the wheels and tires were cast. The Super Pumpers decals were professionally printed from Johnís specifications. After more than 4 years, the 1965 Super Pumper was completed. The model is currently in a private museum in Manhattan, New York.

 

Over the years, John has had the privilege to meet and work with mentors and others who helped him improve and enjoy a rewarding life of modeling. In addition to his dad, Phil Da Costa and Tom Showers, John had the opportunity to learn from other models in other specialties. Appreciating other miniature work enabled him to better understand how things were done. He was always grateful when those modelers would share their way of doing things. Through expanding his interaction with other modelers, John realized it was necessary to learn basic machinist skills.

John felt it was important to be able to accurately operate a lathe and milling machine. While he has become proficient at operating these critical pieces of equipment, John considers himself a hobbyist who happens to operate machine tools. Learning how to work with brass and associated tooling was a major advancement in his skill set. Also crucial has been the creation of the tooling needed to make detailed parts for his models. Learning how to design and build dedicated tooling and fixtures was a fascinating adventure. All this helped in the essential engineering of each project in order to preserve their integrity through the years.

Early on John was interested in the world of electronics and learned the basics of soldering at young age. This certainly paid off when constructing scale fire stations in order to add lighting. Having developed those soldering skills helped as did working with brass. A very distinct sense of realism could be achieved when using brass. He eventually purchased a resistance soldering machine and small torch.

An important aspect of model making for John was the understanding that a replica needed to be not only historically accurate, but culturally accurate as well. For example, Tom Showers not only did a very broad range of apparatus, both domestic and foreign, but he would also include all the necessary tools and equipment that captured the cultural nuances associated with the fire department it served with.

Continuing to expand his expertise, John joined the International Association of Automotive Modelers (IAAM) in the early 1970ís. This is a group dedicated to not only making authentic automotive miniatures but to knowing the history and the real company that made it. John saw that members tended to be proficient with lathes, mills, and artistic skills such as airbrushing. With their encouragement and sharing of their knowledge, John began using an airbrush instead of a paint brush.

Along with the experts John got to meet, there is the family and close friends that supported his model making passion. For their first Christmas as a married couple in 1967, Johnís wife bought him a Unimat lathe with money she had set aside and borrowed from her folks (at the time John was a PFC in the US Army.) His wife figured it was a good investment because it would be cheaper over the long haul for John to make his own parts rather than having to pay someone else to make them. John still has the Unimat.

Whether it was going along to set up a model at a fire station for Fire Service Day, being a cheerleader when in a slump, helping to measure and document an actual fire truck, finding new modeling materials, taking vacations that were also research outings, or archiving the collections of historical artifacts, John has always appreciated the support and encouragement of his family and close friends.

Model making for John provides a productive use of time and a brief escape from the real world. He is quick to encourage others to explore and become proficient in a hobby that can be done individually and to not wait until they retire!

   
 

A timeline of John's progression as a model maker
Some of John's models shown in the order in which they were built

 

1914 American LaFrance Triple Engine
John made this 1:32 scale triple in 1966
using basswood and Bristol Board.
2019.32.3
 

 

1914 American LaFrance City Service Ladder Truck
Built in 1966, this was Johnís first attempt at making wooden ladders using plans and techniques of Phil DaCosta. The ladders are made from basswood with piano wire rungs. The 1:32 scale truck was made with basswood and Bristol Board.
2019.32.4

 

1916 American LaFrance Chemical Car
While serving in the US Army in 1967 at Sandia Base NM,
John made a more detailed 1916 Chemical Car in
1:32 scale using basswood and Bristol Board.
2019.32.5

 

1917 Seagrave Triple Engine
In the Fall of 1968, now married and at his first
Duty Station in Edison, New Jersey, John made this
1:32 scale Triple with far more care and detail
using Basswood and Bristol Board.
2019.32.6

 

1960 Bachert Fire Engine
While stationed in Heilbronn, Germany in 1969, John was encouraged by his second modeling mentor, Tom Showers, to make this 1:32 scale replica of the German apparatus. Working from measurements of the actual rig, John created the Bachert body, Diamler-Benz chassis, and TLF (Tank LŲsch Fahrzeug), using locally purchased balsawood, paint and wheels.
2019.32.7

 

1969 Crown Triple Engine
In 1969, working from plans by Tom Showers,
John made this 1:32 scale basswood model
that also incorporated sheet styrene
plastic for the first time.
2019.32.8

 

1914 Seagrave City Service Truck
After leaving the Army and returning to the US, John made what would be the last of the Basswood and Bristol Board models in 1970. The ladders are basswood with wire rungs and
the gold pin stripping was cut from a larger decal.
2019.32.9

 

1964 American LaFrance Aerial Truck
In 1972 John made his first ďkit-bashedĒ model fire truck.
It uses various parts from the 1:32 scale 1964 Aurora American LaFrance model kit but the body is scratch built using styrene plastic. The working 75í aerial ladder and ground ladders
are made of basswood strip stock. This was Johnís
first use of spaghetti noodles for rungs.
2019.32.10

 

1921 American LaFrance 75 Foot Aerial Truck
This 75-foot aerial was used by the Albuquerque, NM, fire department. John measured and drew up plans for this rig while stationed in Albuquerque in 1967. The model was built in 1981 using styrene plastic and basswood strip stock for the aerial ladder which raises and extends. Some parts, such as lanterns and headlights, are made from brass and turned aluminum. The ground ladders are made of basswood strip stock with spaghetti rungs. 2019.32.11

 

1965 Van Pelt Fire Engine
In 1982 John used a newly acquired vacuum-forming
machine to mold the 1:32 scale styrene plastic cab,
fenders and hood from his hand carved forms.
2019.32.12

 

1925 American LaFrance Chemical Car
Used by the Fox Hills Studio, John built this
1:32 scale model in 1991 using sheet styrene
plastic and turned aluminum, as well as
a basswood and spaghetti ladder.
2019.32.13
 

 

1934 Ahrens-Fox Engine
John Built this model in 2016 using sheet styrene
plastic, turned aluminum, and basswood
for the scaling ladders.
2019.32.14
 

 

New Submissions Welcomed
If you have additional information on a project or builder shown on this site that your would like to contribute, please e-mail mecm@craftsmanshipmuseum.com. We also welcome new contributions. Please see our page at www.CraftsmanshipMuseum.com/newsubmit.htm for a submission form.

 

RETURN TO MUSEUM HOME PAGE

Copyright (c) 2019, The Joe Martin Foundation for Exceptional Craftsmanship. All rights reserved.
No part of this web site, including the text, photos or illustrations, may be reproduced or transmitted
in any other form or by any means (electronic, photocopying, recording or otherwise)
for commercial use without the prior written permission of The Joe Martin Foundation.
Reuse for educational and non-commercial use is permitted.