The Internet Craftsmanship Museum Presents:

William R. Robertson

Joe Martin Foundation "Metalworking Craftsman of the Year" award winner for 2015

Added to museum: 2/3/14

 

  In this TED talk Bill shares his story about his historically accurate body body of work featured in museums all around the world.

In this presentation Bill Robertson shares details of the painstaking approach to the work in creating his astonishing miniature creations.

William R. Robertson. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

   

Historically correct perfection in miniature

 “For me the process starts with the study and research of the original object.  It is important to understand the ways, tools and methods used by the original craftsman… When I reduce an object to a smaller scale I must be careful to maintain proper proportions while at the same time adding an artistic interpretation… Even after 30 years I enjoy working in my studio which can at times be either peaceful or very challenging as I strive to make each new piece better in some way than anything I have done before.”

—William R. Robertson

From candlesticks and telescopes to chests full of tools, objects of all kinds are reproduced by William Robertson in authentic detail at 1/12 scale. (Click on photo to view a larger image.)

William R. Robertson’s World in 1/12 Scale

In the world of “miniatures”, which to those who build and collect dollhouse and miniature room furnishings usually means 1/12 scale (1"=1'), William Robertson’s work is some of the most highly sought after in the world. He has been making a living working full time at this since 1977. At auction some of his tiny pieces command prices in five figures. He works in both wood and metal and creates not only individual pieces but also complete rooms. His work has been displayed by institutions like the Smithsonian and the National Geographic Society. A large body of his work can be seen in the National Museum of Toys and Miniatures in his home town of Kansas City, Missouri. The display is one which he also helped design. In fact, he has been consulted on the proper display of miniatures at a number of museums and contributed significantly to the design of the Kentucky Gateway Museum in Maysville, Kentucky as well as (now closed) museums in Dallas, Texas and Naples, Florida. Mr. Robertson has traveled the world to share what he has learned with many others in schools and seminars in the USA, Europe and Asia. He does a lot of research into his subjects with the aim of having every detail historically correct in addition to being represented to perfection down to the tiny working lock and key on a tool chest.

Seen here is the "Wm. R. Robertson Fine Arts Rotunda" at the Kentucky Gateway Museum Center, Kathleen Savage Browning Miniature Collection in Maysville, Ky. Wm. Robertson designed the round gallery as a showcase to fine miniatures with inlaid marble floor, Venetian Plaster walls and a domed ceiling with a oculus (like the Pantheon in Rome) under a fiber optic starry night sky. Bill is pictured with his parents at the opening in 2008. He thanks them for all the support and encouragement they have given him throughout the years. (Click on photo to view a larger image.)

Getting an Early start

As a young boy growing up in Washington DC, his parents would often drop him off at the Smithsonian where he would spend the day. His interest was not only in the models, but also how they were displayed and presented. At the age of 15, William was working in a hardware store and building models of his own, working on everything from race cars to electronics. A neighbor asked him if he could repair some wooden puzzles for $100.00. He thought the offer very generous until she arrived with the back of her huge Olds Vista Cruiser station wagon full of wooden puzzles to be fixed, many with missing pieces. After a week of hard work with a jeweler’s saw he had certainly earned his money. The experience may not have increased his appreciation for puzzles, but it did start a life-long love of doing precision work, and the jeweler’s saw is still one of his favorite tools. He will spend hours hand sawing the tiny dovetails and intricate details of his miniature cabinetry and still finds the process very relaxing.

A Chester County spice chest from the 18th century is shown both assembled and with all the various pieces in an exploded view. This display shows how much custom cutting goes into making all the dovetailed joints in the cabinetry as well as the tiny knobs, locks and hinges. (Click on photo to view a large image.)

A workshop dominated by hand tools

At 1/12 scale, the advantages of power tools are minimized and the precision of hand tools is often called for. Power tools are good at removing large amounts of material rapidly, but the delicate control provided by fine hand tools or small precision power tools is usually what is called for with extremely small and detailed parts. He makes small metal parts on a lathe, and grinds his own tiny router bits in order to make up scale moldings, but as he notes while working with one of his small hand planes, “A scale plane takes a scale shaving.” He has a Rose Engine ornamental turning lathe and is a big fan of Rivett lathes and any other fine tool, but like his work, most of his tools are small. The one full-size tool project he took on was to reproduce a large and historically accurate drill press for a display in a replica of Wilber Wright’s workshop. It was a pretty massive piece, especially compared to his usual scale. It turned out well, but in describing the project he later said, “What was I thinking?” Obviously, smaller is better in Mr. Robertson’s workshop. What all his tools have in common, though, is quality. While good tools won’t turn a hacker into a master, even someone with great skills cannot reach their ultimate potential when hampered by poor or dull tools.

The creative process

William R. Robertson notes, “For me the process starts with the study and research of the original object. It is important to understand the ways, tools and methods used by the original craftsman.” From there he goes on to note the next challenge is to select the correct materials that represent the grain and color of the original in miniature. Next is the reducing of the parts to scale size, a process that involves both mechanics and artistic interpretation. Some of the smaller parts can be extremely challenging just due to the physics involved. Keep in mind that 1/12 scale means a cubic volume reduction that is 1/12 as wide times 1/12 as long times 1/12 as high or 1/1728th of the original part size.

William R. Robertson's miniature tool chest was featured in Fine Woodworking magazine. (Click on photo to enlarge image.)

Miniature tool chest featured in woodworking magazine

Some years ago, William completed a miniature 18th Century Hewitt gentleman’s tool chest. It was featured, among other places, in Fine Woodworking magazine in 2012. (CLICK HERE for the article.) It is complete with all the planes, chisels and saws a craftsman of that era would have used, reproduced in miniature down to the finest detail. Even the key lock on the chest is functional. This is the piece that first brought his work to the attention of the foundation, and the piece showcases both his wood and metal working skills. Over 1000 hours were invested in the construction of the tools and toolbox, but it illustrates the lengths to which William will go to get every detail right—down to the 5-leave hinge on the tiny folding rule. Even the label on the underside of the lid is printed (in perfect scale) on actual 18th century paper.

Passing on his skills to others

William R. Robertson is a teacher as well as a craftsman. He shares his skills and techniques in schools and seminars around the world. He is a regular at the International Guild of Miniature Artisans school in Castine, ME and “Miniatures in Tune,” just south of Copenhagen, Denmark. He posts often on the Practical Machinist web site at www.practicalmachinist.com under under “Antique Machinery & History” sharing his work and some of the antique tools from his collection.” He posts under the name of “rivett608” in honor of his favorite lathe. He also travels to Europe and Asia to pass on his skills to those interested in making fine miniatures. He notes, "For me best part of making miniatures has been the wonderful opportunity to meet, share work and techniques with collectors, artists and historians from all over the world."

A grouping with a variety of pieces by Wm. Robertson. The standing desk is copied from Fredrik VI of Denmark, early 19th century. (Click on photo to view larger image.)

A closing word about fine miniatures and who makes and buys them

Often called “Dollhouse Miniatures,” this term is a little misleading. The 1/12 scale work of this highly skilled group of craftsmen, of which Wm. R. Robertson is certainly among the most highly respected, is not intended for the kind of toy dollhouses a child would play with. At the top end of the collector market, these are miniature worlds reproduced to the highest level of perfection possible and with great historical accuracy. Often displayed in the setting of a miniature room or rooms with one wall removed (much like a dollhouse), these pieces are collected worldwide by those who appreciate the kind of fine craftsmanship demanded by accurate work in miniature. Quality and price vary tremendously depending on the skill and reputation of the builder. Whereas a beginning collector can start with a simple room kit and purchase a few inexpensive mass produced pieces of furniture to decorate it, at the top end of the scale collectors will spend many thousands of dollars to create perfect miniature worlds of museum quality. This is the world where William R. Robertson’s pieces reside and the quest for perfection continues. He notes, “Even after 30 years I enjoy working in my studio which can at times be either peaceful or very challenging as I strive to make each new piece better in some way than anything I have done before.”

Investing in art

One of the goals of the Joe Martin Foundation is to see that fine craftsmanship is recognized and appropriately appreciated and rewarded. One gauge of that appreciation is the price people are willing to pay for a craftsman’s work. For reference, a 1¼" wide walnut-cased drafting set by William R. Robertson recently sold for $18,750 at a Leslie Hindman auction in Chicago featuring a large collection of miniatures. In addition, a 1" rodent trap built by Mr. Robertson in 1985 sold for $13,750, and a 2-3/8" high maple and wire bird cage with a peaked top and swinging canary also sold for $13,750. Like other fine art, miniature pieces at this level of master craftsmanship continue to increase in value, making them a good investment for the collector.

Craftsman of the Year Award Winner for 2015

Each year the Joe Martin Foundation selects one person as the outstanding metalworking craftsman. An award of $2000 plus a plaque and engraved medallion is presented to the winner. Normally, the presentation is made at the North American Model Engineering Society Expo in the Detroit area in April, but due to a conflict with another show on that date, William R. Robertson was able to travel to California to accept his award at the Craftsmanship Museum in Carlsbad on February 28th. While at the museum, he spent the day talking with visitors, explaining his techniques and demonstrating the art of cutting tiny dovetails for wooden drawers. Bill is the 19th winner of the award.

Craig Libuse (left), Director of the Joe Martin Foundation and museum curator presented the foundation's highest award and check for $2000 to Bill Robertson at the Craftsmanship Museum in Carlsbad, CA on February 28th, 2015. (Click on the photo to view a larger image.)

(Above) Bill Robertson demonstrates and explains his dovetail cutting technique for visitors in the museum's dollhouse room on February 28th. Also shown are a few of the miniatures he brought with him to show. Included are a brass and steel plane, a pair of Union roller skates and an 18th century craftsman's tool box complete with tools. The previous three items were left for temporary display at the Craftsmanship Museum. If you are in the San Diego area, come by and see them in person. (Click on any photo above to view a larger image.) More photos of his work can be seen below.

Here are some examples of William R. Robertson's work:

(Click photos for larger images.)

1/12 Scale Miniature Rooms

 

The drafting classroom

Drafting instruments and drawing boards from a drafting classroom well before the days of computers. Even the photos on the wall and instructions on the blackboard are drawn from real life of that era.

An architect's office from about 1900.

"Twin Manors" is one of a pair of 1/12th scale miniature 18th c. American Georgian style houses made from approximately 75,000 pieces complete with working locks, etc. One is on display at the The National Museum of Toys and Miniatures in Kansas City, Mo.

 

Kitchen from "Twin Manors" at Christmas

Philadelphia drawing room from "Twin Manors" at Christmas
The staircase and landing in "Twin Manors" presented quite a challenge with its curved handrail and many stiles supporting it.

1/12 scale Miniatures

A Chester County Spice Chest from the 18th century with hand cut dovetails and working lock shown in exploded view. The chest is just 1-1/4" tall.

1/8th scale Machinist's Chest circa 1880, with working tools. On a more personal note, the miniature photo of the two women in the lid of the toolbox is made from an old photo of two of Bill's relatives.
Some additional photos of the toolboxes taken at the February 28th, 2015 presentation of Bill's Craftsman of the Year award in Carlsbad, CA. The second photo shows the 1/8 scale toolbox on the right and a 1/12 scale gentleman's tool chest on the left along with some of the tools from the box. The third photos shows a selection of tools from calipers and angle gauges to machinist's jacks and a height gauge that Bill displayed.

Demonstrating the making of miniature dovetail joints

Bill cut a number of dovetails for visitors who came out to meet him on February 28th at the Craftsmanship Museum. He uses only an X-acto knife and a good jeweler's saw from Rio Grande along with #0000 "LaserGold" blades also from Rio Grande. He made a simple tapered block and a board with a "V" groove cut in it that he clamped to our conference table. The tapered block is placed on the board where it overhangs the table and holds the drawer piece to be cut at the correct angle so that when he works the saw straight up and down, the correct angle is automatically cut on the dovetails. Once the angled cuts are made and the board to be joined is marked with the X-acto knife he removes the tapered wedge and makes the rest of the cuts straight up and down using the "V" cutout of the board clamped overhanging the table. Needless to say, after all these years of doing it, he makes it look easy, and all the joints he made snapped together perfectly with virtually no space between any of the dovetails. It was a pleasure to watch a true master at work. The final photo shows one of the visitors, who also happens to own some of Mr. Robertson's work, watching to see how it's done.

Louis XV style microscope. This miniature is copied from the one in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. where they let Bill Robertson examine the original, which was made by Claude-Simeon Passement, Paris. The 2" tall miniature is made of 24 k gold, nickel silver, wood, glass and shagreen. It has a functioning 3-element lens, coarse and fine focus adjustments. The ivory, wire and mica slide is made of 9 pieces. There are over 100 parts in the microscope. It is screwed and riveted together. The finish is burnished with dogs teeth as pure gold will not take a polish. Five of these were made in 1998.

The microscope has been exhibited at a number of museums around the world and is on display until Feb. 22, 2015 at the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. Following that it return to the permanent collection of The National Museum for Toys and Miniatures.

 1/12th and 1/6th scale copy of a 18th C. Ladies French Table Top Spinning Wheel for Silk. I this case Bill bought the original to use as a model. (It can be seen in the background in the third photo.) These are made of gold, gilded brass, steel, vespel, kevlar, pear wood, Bolivian rosewood and antique velvet. Vespel, a very high-tech plastic that is used for the round "leather" bushings that are mortised and pinned through the wood turnings.

Shown is the flyer assembly. You can find the story of making these on the IGMA forum, at
http://www.fineminiaturesforum.com/index.php?/topic/116-making-a-miniature-18th-c-french-spinning-wheel/

The last photo shows the two spinning wheels packed in their beautifully crafted, lined wooden case to protect them during travel.

Fireplace andirons, tools and fender. A postage stamp is used for size comparison in this and some of the following photos.
Wine pourers are seen next to a full-size wine cork for size comparison.
Two ornate 4-poster brass beds in miniature.
Two brass hall tree coat racks with close-ups of base and top.

This hearth scene shows candleholders plus a clock jack, 18th c. automatic BBQ spit turner.

The second two photos show the clock jack itself assembled and individual parts.

Miniature octant in a hinged box.
This tiny brass sundial is sitting on the 1774 original. The miniature measures about 5/8" square.
Goldsmith Chandlee surveyor's compass, late 18th century
Vintage metal Union Hardware Company #5 roller skates with leather straps and a skate key on a string from the age before skateboards.
A tiny brass coffee grinder is seen with several full-size coffee beans.
Sewing clamps
Sewing kit with thread bobbins. The top
Wood planes. The third photo also shows a sample of one of the handmade dovetailed joints Bill Robertson demonstrated during his visit to the Craftsmanship Museum in February, 2015.
Machinist's height gauge with "K" initial in the frame.
Emmert Pattern Maker's Vise. It opens/closes, tilts, turns, jaws taper, rotates, dogs slide up, etc. It  has 17 white bronze castings made from the brass patterns shown, then all parts are machined and assembled.
Early European Chests, made from 18K gold and ebony as well as one from steel, brass & bone, both with working locks.

The third photo shows two bone and steel boxes along with a tiny bobbin and pincushion that clamps to a sewing table. A US dime is used for size reference.

Veneer saw with ornately carved handle.
Painter's and draftsman's tool boxes. In the first photo, a painter's toolbox sits atop a small chest.
Belt-driven 1/48th scale Bardons & Oliver turret lathe.
Holtzapffel & Deyerlein treadle powered watchmaker's lathe from about 1810.
Brass bird cage with canary on a swing.
Metal wire mesh drafting room waste basket and the fixture to form and solder it. There are 1020 solder joints in each basket.
An architect's desk from 1770 at the top and a fly rod and reel in a fitted box at the bottom. Also shown to the left is a tiny balance scale and it's box.
At the left is an embroidery stand with a sewing kit clamped to the right side. At the upper right is a tall, green leather covered seat that turns into a canopy bed when folded out. In the foreground are two spinning wheels--one in 1/8 scale and the other in 1/12 scale. At the right are several brass candlesticks. These items were shown at the Craftsmanship Museum in February, 2015 when Mr. Robertson was here to accept his award as craftsman of the year.
William R. Robertson at his workbench finishing up a miniature cabinet.
Latest Project! A 1/12 scale English Architects’ Table, circa 1770

William Robertson at work finishing up the scale miniature architects' tables.

This is a type of table found in a Gentleman’s Library for drawing or displaying manuscripts or books. The utilitarian table is made in a simple Chippendale style popular during the Georgian period. Features include squared straight legs with internal Tuscan columns ending in brass castors. The internal edges have a delicate molding on the inside of the legs and aprons. Upon unlocking the lock with a tiny key, the front of the table including the front of the legs opens to reveal a leather covered writing surface. This has two half-moon hand holds to help push it back into the body of the table exposing the inside of the drawer fitted with compartments. These are dadoed together and have cupid’s bows detailing the top edges. The trade label in the back compartment is printed on 18th c. paper and true to the period contains a scratched deletion. To the right side is a small hidden dovetailed drawer often used to contain ink. A pair of candle trays pull out from each side with cyma curves allowing the light emitted from the candles to be as far forward as possible, thereby illuminating the working surface without shadows. (This feature among others was discovered while sitting in my candlelit study examining two of these full scale tables). When a spring- loaded button latch on the opposite side is pushed, it allows the table top to tilt upwards. There is a hinged rest that fits in a series of carved notches to hold the top in position. One of the most fascinating features of this table is the book rest: when the table top is in the down position the rest is retracted, leaving a flat surface for drawing; when the table top is tilted upwards the rest rises up to support books or papers from falling off the slanted surface.

The miniature is made of Swiss pear wood, it is fully jointed with mortices and tenons, dowels, dovetails, dados and other joints. The moldings are cut with specially made cutters. The hardware including lock, latch, castors and spring mechanism are all machined out of brass and steel and function like the originals. The tables are stained and have a carefully hand rubbed lacquer finish. There is an engraved name plate on the bottom of the piece, and it is also signed on the hinges and label.

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