Timeline of a Model Maker’s Career
Proof that being in the right place at the right time really does matter
Written by Mitch Heynick
(continue reading from E-Newsletter)
I never really intended to go into model making – like I guess most of us – but perhaps some childhood tendencies could have already presaged my future. I just had to figure out how things worked, so I took apart virtually every toy I ever got – which of course means I broke them. As I got older, I learned to put things together as well, mostly stuff like model car kits and trains. It was the process that interested me the most, not the finished product; once done, I was not all that attached to my models. Later, as an adolescent, I took great joys in blowing them apart again with firecrackers…
We were lucky to still have school shop programs back in the day, and in seventh grade I fell in love with metal shop. In the eighth grade I took a more advanced course where I learned how to run a mill, a lathe and a shaper (yes, a shaper!). I started imagining myself becoming a machinist. There were no further shop electives in ninth and tenth grade, but in 11th there was an advanced metals class offered. Unfortunately, that conflicted with my schedule, so I took an architectural drawing class instead, planning to take the metals class the next year.
But I fell in love with the architectural drawing class, especially because we could also build models. It was a pretty dark period for me, I was not happy in school, and this class was the only bright spot. Mr. Burns, my teacher, to whom I will ever be indebted, recognized that and let me hang around in the classroom at lunch and after school and did his best to keep me sane and on track.
So naturally I decided to apply to architecture school. There was Cal Poly at San Luis Obispo which was more the “trade” school and Berkeley, which was higher level and more theoretical. I resolved that I couldn’t hope to get in to Berkeley, so I was only going to apply to Cal Poly. My dad, on hearing this, pulled out a $20 bill (what it cost to apply to Berkeley in those days) and said “You apply.” I did. I didn’t get into Cal Poly. I did get into Berkeley.
My first job, or accidentally stumbling into the right place at the right time
Fast forward to mid-1976. I had just finished my undergrad in architecture/photo and was freeloading at my parents’ house in Palo Alto. Due to the mid-70’s oil crisis, there were no starting jobs to be had in architecture – I really didn’t want one anyway – and no photo studio in the area had openings for an “apprentice”. So I thought , “What is it I can really do?” I was a pretty decent model builder in architecture school – in fact that’s probably what interested me the most – and I remembered that the woman who ran the local hobby store had told me that there were professional model building companies. So one day I made a list of all the model makers I could find in the San Francisco Bay Area yellow pages, and decided to hit them all. I threw the last architecture model I had from school in the back seat of the car along with my portfolio of photographs, and started driving north on the freeway. The first stop was just a couple of miles north in Menlo Park, a place called Scale Models Unlimited.
I went in, told the secretary I was looking for a job. You know how this usually works, you fill out the form and they tell you “Thanks, don’t call us, we’ll call you…” Much to my surprise, after filling out the form, I was asked to go into the conference room. The vice president of the company came in and started interviewing me. I showed him the model and the photographs. He said “Hang on a minute…”, left and came back with the president of the company. I showed him my stuff, we talked briefly and then they said – “OK, when can you start?” I almost fell out of my chair. I later found out that the company photographer had quit the day before. As soon as they saw I had photo skills, that was it!
So I started at $2.00 an hour as a model maker trainee and accessorily the company photographer. I knew nothing about what a pro model maker did, all I had ever done were car and train kits and architecture student models out of cardboard with an X-acto knife. I’d never used a table saw in my life! So I learned from the ground up. Fortunately, I had some very good teachers amongst the senior model makers, and again, I owe them a great debt of gratitude. So here’s a large thank you to Tim Collins, Kami Kiani, Chris Stanley, and others.
Despite my background in architecture, I gravitated immediately to the “technical model” side of the business, which to my mind offered far more interesting work and challenges. Three months after starting, I gained official “assistant model maker” status and a grand raise to $3 an hour! Three months after that, I became a “real” model maker – they were already calling the job title “master” although I was anything but – and a raise to a whopping $5.00 an hour! I was rich!
However, at the same time, I got my first major project to manage all by myself – a huge industrial plant model budgeted at 800 hours. I went into the president’s office and said “I’m not ready for this, can’t you give it to someone else to manage?” He said “Nope. Everyone else is busy. You have to do it.” Gulp. Well, the project lasted 3 months and I think we went over the budget by double, but it was on that model that I really learned the trade. By the time it was over I could read concrete, steel and piping drawings, talk to clients, write change orders and really plan, build and finish stuff. My “education” certainly cost the company some money – I hope I paid it back later in productivity.
Job number two - being in the wrong place at the right time
Fast forward again about 7 years… At that point I was managing most of the technical jobs in the Scale Models shop, spending most of my time doing job estimates, tracking, and managing jobs – and occasionally building a few things… I realized I had a decision to make – either I stayed with the company and became a “lifer”, or I needed to move on. I elected to change. I got hired as a model maker by a local ID firm for a decent salary, but I was so naive I never looked at the contract nor the working conditions. After all, I only had looked for a job once, it took me about one hour and it was a success! Why should this one be different?
Different it was. The first Saturday after I started, I was at home and the phone rang. It was the boss of the company. “Where are you?” “Ummm, I’m home, it’s Saturday…” “So? We have work to do! Get in here!” Then I began to find out that I had only 4 paid holidays per year (state minimum), zero sick pay and zero vacation. I had just assumed all those were “given”. Well, that job lasted exactly one month. But again, it was going to be about being in the wrong place but at exactly the right time.
Working with me in this horrible ID office was an intern, Pam Greene. She was a brilliant designer/artist who I later went to Stanford with and who now works as a senior designer at Nike. At the time she happened to be going out with one of the designers at Frogdesign, then the hottest design firm on the planet who had landed the Apple contract and opened a California office. I cried on her shoulder about how unhappy I was and she said, “I’ll see if I can get you an interview at Frog – I know they’re always looking for good people.” So I got an interview and I got hired.
Job number three - Being in the right place, period…
Again, what a life-changing experience. A completely different way of making models than I was used to, with a high degree of precision and level of finish – as well as an enormous amount of work with very short deadlines. The German model makers there were all skilled pattern makers, and they had great toys, including lots of fine German machinery – including a CNC Mill. This is where I first learned to program a CNC, and it was love at first sight (touch). As we had the Apple contract at the time, in and amongst other stuff, I built a LOT of Macs.
When I had started thinking about leaving Scale Models, I also started thinking maybe I should go back to school. I applied to the Stanford program in design at the time but I was too late and my application was deferred for a year; then I got the job at Frog. The next year I received a vague letter from Stanford saying financial support had been denied, and the way the letter was worded sounded like an official rejection of my application. That was that, or was it?
Late September in 1985, I got a call at work. It was the professor at Stanford. “Where are you? We had our pre-school meeting for all incoming masters design students and you weren’t here!” “Umm… I got this letter from Stanford and thought… “ ”Nonsense, they send that to everyone! You got in, you have a TA job and everyone here is waiting for you!” Again, gulp! What to do? Although I loved working at Frog, the idea of getting into Stanford Design was just overwhelming. Talking with the Frog folk, they kindly agreed to let me go on a moment’s notice, so I left for school the next day.
Job number four - back to school: being with really right people…
It wasn’t the d.school yet at the time – just the Stanford program in design. We were a crew of maybe 25 people, both from the engineering and the art side. The program was all about need finding, research and development, and very hands-on. Our teachers were David Kelley, Bill Moggridge, Rolf Faste and Matt Kahn. We had the complete run of the student shops, overseen by Dave Beach, one of the finest professors I have ever known. We built a lot of crazy stuff. We had a lot of fun. It was heaven.
Job number five - moving right along… to Europe
As I was finishing at Stanford, I had lunch with the head model maker at Frogdesign – still a good friend of mine – and he asked me what I was going to do after school. I said - ”I dunno… Nothing planned.” He said “Well, I’m getting transferred back to the German office, why don’t you come work over there? Try if for a year or so, see if you like it. No obligation after that.” So I did, and thus began my European odyssey.
While in Germany, I learned that one of the main designers was leaving to become the chairman of product design at the newly-opened Art Center College of Design European campus on the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland. I told him I would be interested in working in the student model shop there if they ever needed someone. He told me he already had a guy, but that he would keep me in mind.
Job number six – living aloft in limbo
A year later, having crashed my motorcycle in the south of France, sent the bits back to the US along with myself, rented a loft in Berkeley, gone back to work for Frogdesign (part-time), and rebuilt the bike I got a phone call at 2 a.m. It’s the guy at Art Center Europe calling to say “Our shop manager just quit, you still want the job?” I told him I would consider it and get back to him. Back at Frogdesign, I told them what was happening, They said, “You know, our shop manager is leaving to start his own shop, and you’re in line for the job.” Again, it was a choice of becoming a “lifer” at Frog (good, solid job with good pay at the time) or doing something far more romantic and risky - another country, another language. I chose romantic… and motorcycling.
Job number seven – landing right in seventh heaven
Art Center (Europe) was a dream job; great team, international student body and staff, incredible level of talent and skills of both. In my free time I started making sculpture again. I toured Europe on my motorcycle. I fell in love, got married. Life was good.
And then, the Art Center Pasadena management decided to close the European campus due to lack of money and “political” support from the US. Within two weeks of the announcement, the school closed and I was out of a job. They really wanted me to come to the “mother ship” in Pasadena. But being from the SF Bay Area, I hate southern California. In addition, I was so angry at the management of the school for closing the campus, I wouldn’t have worked for them anyway, no matter where in the world they were located.
Job number eight – building the right place from scratch
I thought I would get another job pretty easily. Wrong. This would be my first and only experience with unemployment (so far, at least). But again, you never know where the things you do will lead you. While Art Center was still running I had rented a small workspace to do my sculpture projects. For a while, on unemployment, I made sculptures and sold a few. A bunch of ex-Art Center staff and students who were still in the area kept asking me to make models for them. I refused, saying “No, I’m out of that business, I don’t want to start my own model shop.” As the end of the unemployment period started to loom large for me, I gave in and started taking on those jobs. Over time, I developed a client list.
One day, the engine blew in my car. The dealer said “Don’t repair it, you’re throwing money away, buy a new one”. I was just about ready to sign on the dotted line for a brand new vehicle when I thought, “This is stupid, you should be investing in your business, not a car.” So I found the cheapest guy that could fix my engine and took the rest of the money I had planned to spend on the new car and bought a used CNC.
That changed my whole business. It also forced me to find and learn a 3D CAD program so I could model and edit parts for my clients. This is how I got started with Rhino, at that time still in 0.9 Beta. My love affair with Rhino has now lasted 15 years, and my knowledge of and passion for that program has itself opened more doors for me than I can count.
After a couple of years of working alone in my shop, the feeling that I had isolated myself was becoming overwhelming. I called up the big model shop in my area (4 people!) and invited them to come over and see what I was doing. They weren’t really my competition anyway, as I was completely hi-tech CAD/CAM/CNC and they were mostly manual - they had a small funky desktop CNC is all. So began a new relationship with the model makers in the area.
I became a member of the local equivalent of the APMM, but a much smaller one with only 30 members. In that group were also the people who ran the shop at the polytechnic university in Lausanne. One day, I got a call from one of them. “We’ve got funding for buying some 3D printers, and with it a 60% time position for a technician to run them. You’re the Rhino guy, you know a lot about 3D modeling and digital fabrication, we think you would be a great person for the job - do you want it?
That was a real tough one. On the one hand, I knew this was an opportunity that comes along once in a lifetime, the chance to work in a federally funded university that’s the equivalent of MIT, with great working conditions, lots of vacation, sick pay and a federal pension. On the other hand, there was my shop which I had built from the ground up over eight years and which I was very proud of and attached to.
Job numbers nine and ten – the unbearable lightness of being (in education)
I knew at the moment I signed my part-time contract with the university that I was also signing away my model making business. I continued for a year, but you just can’t be an independent model maker at half-time - you really need time-and-a-half! So in the end I closed my shop.
A year or so later, the head of the shops at the school retired and I got promoted to his position. I also started teaching Rhino – a couple of workshops at first, then a couple of weeks, then finally a full semester. What’s hardest about teaching? I’ve lost my fear of standing up in front of 150 people and making a fool of myself, that’s not it. What’s hard for me is getting a question where despite the fact that you are supposed to be “the” expert, you have to admit you don’t know the answer. I don’t expect to know everything. But sometimes my students expect that I should.
I transformed my model shop business into Rhino sales and support, which I run part time out of my house.
So here I am. What’s next? I’ve always dreamed of being a motorcycle guide in the Alps, so maybe when I retire… who knows.