- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Norb Lustine would go halfway around the world and deep into his kitchen drawers to bring history to life.

His quest to craft the perfect bust of a crusader knight has taken him from Turkey to the Greek island of Rhodes and to Malta in search of the most obscure details of those crusaders’ lives, such as how they wore their swords or painted their shields. His tools can be as advanced as surgical scalpels and as rudimentary as modified paring knives.

“It really is an obsession,” he says.

Mr. Lustine, a retired lawyer from Silver Spring, is president of the National Capital Model Soldier Society, a group of people who share a passion for making figurines. The hobby centers on the making of miniature military figures and scenes — an art as old as war itself — but also includes other historical figures and even characters from fantasies such as “The Lord of the Rings.”

For Mr. Lustine, the hobby has created a new life beyond the courtroom and brought him friends from all over the world and an interest in history.

“This hobby has just opened up a world for me,” he says.

The society has 50 paid members and about 30 who drop in occasionally. Some of them like to play complex strategy games with scale models of soldiers; others construct elaborate busts or dioramas.

They meet on the fourth Tuesday of each month at Immanuel United Methodist Church in Annandale to show off their latest creations and share techniques for historical research, painting and molding the figures.

Some members gather on the Saturday before each meeting at Granddad’s Hobby Shop in Springfield to work on their latest projects and host a clinic for any novice modelers who wander in.

Each year since 1961, the group also has hosted a major show for the public. Its 44th annual show is set for Saturday and Sunday at Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale. Group members also display their creations at national shows and in public libraries in Bethesda and the Kingstowne area of Springfield.

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The local club is one of many, not just in the United States but worldwide, focusing on the hobby of making miniatures. Global exhibitions organized by hobbyists, manufacturers and retailers — the first in Washington in 1993, the most recent earlier this year in Boston, and the next in 2008 in Girona, Spain, near Barcelona — assure that all that artistry gets a proper showing.

Yet in spite of the passion for meticulous detail these modelers bring to their figurines, the hobby itself is loosely structured, with no national or international governing body and intergroup contacts that are at most free-form.

“Most of it is very informal,” says Glenn Merritt, chairman of this weekend’s show committee for the NCMSS. “This all started out from the bottom, and it’s kind of worked its way up.”

On a recent Saturday at Granddad’s, Mr. Lustine — who is fascinated by medieval history and has done extensive historical research on the period — worked on a bust of a crusader knight. The molded resin parts came from a kit he had purchased, but they aren’t nearly enough to satisfy his desire for realism.

Using techniques learned from icon painters he met in Istanbul, Mr. Lustine decorates his knight’s shield with an image of Jesus. He sprays the helmet with metallic silver paint for the proper glint before carefully sculpting and painting the face to bring the figure to life.

He says he started working on the knight a year ago and hopes to have it ready in time for the show. He set back his schedule a bit when he decided to sand off the image on the knight’s shield and redo it.

“I just didn’t like the way it looked,” he says.

To guide him, Mr. Lustine keeps a notebook full of articles and pamphlets containing tips for painting, sculpting and finishing military miniatures. Each page is full of Post-it notes and Mr. Lustine’s own handwritten experiences.

He’s also never far from his tool kit. Mr. Lustine has adapted many common household tools and a few unusual ones, such as medical scalpels, to the task of bringing his crusader knight and other figures to life.

When he finds a spare moment, he says, he’ll pull the tools out and go to work on his knight, even in public places such as hospital waiting rooms.

“This guy’s a friend now,” he says.

When he’s not working on anything in particular, he’ll think about one he would like to do.

“I’ll paint a figure in my head,” he says. “It just stimulates all kinds of conversation. People are fascinated by miniatures.”

John Osgood, a geologist, has gained national fame in the hobby for the intricate detail of his historical miniatures. Photos of the samurai warrior busts he has painted have appeared in national magazines specializing in military miniatures.

“It takes me a good year to do a figure,” says Mr. Osgood, head judge for this weekend’s show.

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Makers of military miniatures and plastic models account for about half of the sales at Granddad’s Hobby Shop, says owner Robert B. “Doc” Thatcher. Most are manufactured by companies outside the United States. A British company called Games Workshop, for example, has created a popular fantasy war game for miniatures called Warhammer.

A typical kit for a military miniature can cost $10 to $100 and take about two months to complete.

“Watching these guys paint is just fascinating,” Mr. Thatcher says. “There are some world-class artists building these models.”

Sometimes it can be more than just a hobby. Many of the club’s members sell their work at shows and to private clients.

Ron Kelly of Burke is making a scale diorama of a 1947 football game between Penn State University and West Virginia University under contract to Penn State’s All-Sports Museum. It will celebrate the game’s 60th anniversary in 2007.

The diorama will feature the Penn State stadium as it looked on that day, with spectators in the stands and players on the field. Mr. Kelly has to cast and paint each of the thousands of figures to resemble the players and spectators, and he has asked club members to donate any figures they don’t plan to use.

Those figures would come from personal hoards. Hobbyists can buy molds with which to cast large numbers of figures out of metal or plastic. Mr. Lustine says many hobbyists tend to buy or cast more figures than they can paint because the painting process is so long and detailed. He calls his own stockpile the “gray army.”

Mr. Kelly says his 45-square-foot model goes well with a book he’s writing about Penn State football for the university, his alma mater. He admits to being frightened by the prospect of having an audience much larger than any for his other creations: The All-Sports Museum is one of Penn State’s biggest attractions, with more than 114,000 visitors since it opened in 2002.

“It’s neat, it really is … but it’s also kind of ‘be careful what you wish for,’” he says. “It’s a very public venue, and it’s kind of intimidating.”

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John Antkowiak of Manassas keeps with him a thick file containing nearly two years’ worth of research on a single moment from the 1944 D-Day invasion of Normandy that he’s re-creating in plastic.

Inside the file are design drawings, letters from survivors and pictures taken from the Internet showing a single group of U.S. Army engineers who participated in the invasion. Mr. Antkowiak plans to capture in a diorama the moment when they hit Omaha Beach.

Mr. Antkowiak, a mapmaker and former National Park Service ranger, says he was drawn to the hobby by a love of history and the desire to bring it to life.

“It’s an amazing amount of stuff that’s out there,” he says. “The more I researched it, the bigger it got.”

The tabletop-sized project involves a scale model of the landing craft, its three crew members, 35 soldiers and an M29 Weasel amphibious cargo carrier — all done with painstaking detail and attention to accuracy.

Each 2-inch-tall soldier takes 10 hours to complete. Mr. Antkowiak works from pictures of the actual soldiers, carefully trying to re-create the color of uniforms stained with seawater or the proper angle of an officer’s helmet as he leads his men ashore.

“You can’t just build the stuff straight out of the kit,” he says.

For the M29 Weasel, there was no kit. Mr. Antkowiak obtained plans for the vehicle off the Internet, plotting the dimensions on a spreadsheet to scale them down to a size that matches his soldiers. It’s slow work assembling the model from plastic sheets and tubing cut to fit the exact scale on his new plans.

Mr. Antkowiak had hoped to have the entire project finished by this year’s show, but it has grown too large to wrap up just yet.

“Maybe next year,” he says, smiling.

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