The Making of a Miniature

It was about 55 years ago that the disease struck me: I have not recovered and apparently there is no cure. Miniatures are a disease so I decided to make the best of it and improve my condition as the years went by.

In 1935, or thereabouts I first came across some "minies" in a show in New York. Since I was literally born in a metal shop and spent my after school hours there while still in high school, I did have some knowledge of fine craftsmanship. It was a sheet metal shop and the only equipment related to a machine shop was a huge Buffalo Drill and a big grinder with an overhead transmission. There were some hand tools: a hacksaw and a couple of files, a limited number of drill bits, the smallest being one eighth of an inch in diameter and a few odds-and-ends. Bar stock was at a premium but I had a friend in school whose parents had a junk yard and there I managed to find a couple of pieces of 1/4 inch hot rolled iron bar. I had decided to try my hand at making a mini.

David Kucer in "the old shop" on Mackay Street, Montreal about 1970

I came back to the shop with a fist full of metal and declared my intentions to my father. His reaction probably should have been expected: YOU'RE NUTS. It did not deter me and working from a photgraph of a gun (I cannot remember what model), I started hacking away and this was my downfall. Nevertheless, I did manage to make something re-sembling a mini but I realized that it took a lot more skill and equipment than I had. The idea never left me, but high school and helping the family make a living were the priorities so I shelved it until I came back from the War in January 1946.

Again, I joined my father in business but I took another direction. I started tool making and general machine work. A small grant from the army helped me buy some equipment such as a small Burke miller, a small Southbend lathe, a drill press, an Altas shaper, and of course measuring tools.

David Kucer's first miniature, a quarter-scale copy of his Colt Model 1911 carried as a service handgun during World War Two.

While in the army I was an armament artificer and worked on everything from the .22 practice rifle to the biggest howitzers. My personal side arm was a M.1911 Colt semi-automatic pistol, and almost every time I took it in my hands I would dream of making a 1911 Mini. It was sometime around 1952 when I decided that the time had come to start my adventure into minies. Of course by that time I had a little more equipment and a lot more experience.

I stripped down my trusty 1911 (which was never fired in anger), to its barest and started sketching and measuring the frame. My first step as on any mini, was to surface grind a piece of cold rolled steel to its exact outside dimensions. The scale of that mini was one third of the original and my problems began: cutters of the size I needed were not available. I managed to get some 1/16 inch end mills which were pretty expensive for me at the time as I was just starting in business. After many heart-breaking nights I managed to do most of the machin-ing of the frame except for the opening for the mag-azine. For this, I had to drill two holes in the magazine opening from either side and smaller ones in between in order to remove most of the material. I then surface ground a file to the same size as the magazine and used this to complete the opening. After many more back breaking evenings I had the slide on the frame and knew that the piece was setting in. When I started making the other parts I realized that my existing equipment was not designed for making minies and I started to work in the direction of equipping a shop at home just for minies.

Old (first) vertical milling machine built about 1950 to 1/3rd scale of a bridgeport Miller.

My first requirement was a miller. I examined my Bridgeport at work and started on a set of wood patterns for a one-third scale Bridgeport type min-iature. After several weeks of work I finished the patterns and had a local foundry produce the parts for me in cast iron. This was a wonderful adventure in the making of a machine. I used a motor from an electric lawn mower which ran at about 10,000 r.p.m. I used some timing belts and pulleys with a three to one ratio tied into a Dremel hand-tool-type control which gave me speeds for a half inch end mill up to 1/32 inch at full speed.

I completed the machine including a small, 40 to 1 dividing head, and I adapted it to take jewelers' lathe collets. I also attached the dividing head to the lead screw on the table and this gave me the equipment to make the broaches for rifling the barrels.

This machine and the dividing head are still in use and I consider them to be my most important pieces of equipment. However, I still had problems with duplicating the small parts and after some thought I realized that I needed a small pantograph.

Preis Pantograph modivied with cross slildes and 3-D attachment.

Luger P.08 frame with miniature and related pieces.

After searching the used machine dealers stores and warehouses I found a box of parts for a Preis Pantograph Utility Engraver made by the Preis Engraving Machine Co. at Hillside, N.J. It was a table model and after several months of night work I completed the machine and with a few of my own innovations such as cross slides on both tables to set the positions of the pieces accurately, I was closer to being efficient. I usually find ways with wedges or screws to hold the pieces down on the table and the raw material I sometimes hold in place by soft sol-dering it to a piece of sheet copper which I then melt off when the operation is finished. Almost any piece can be made in 2 dimensions with the pantograph except for those with sharp corners which have to be filed by hand. I made a set of fingers from 3/8 inch, round, cold rolled steel with increments of 0.0025 inch from 1/16 inch up to 3/8 inch. The cutters are set to the same ratio as the "panto". The cutter sharpener can be adapted to any grinder with a small slide and rotating chuck.

As I have said, these two machines are my most important pieces of equipment and they look after almost all of the machine work. I still use a 10 inch bench lathe for bigger turning such as barrels and cylinders but some time ago I bought a small jewelers' lathe with a cross slide, at a flea market, and on this I make most of my screws and small round parts under 3/16 of an inch diameter. For threading I use a set of Swiss-made jewelers’ taps and dies with metric threads.

One other important piece of equipment is a drill press. This I also made to my own require-ments. It has the capacity to handle drills from 3/16 of an inch down to the smallest, at high speed. The rheostat and motor which control it came from a flexible shaft.

Jewelers Roll for reducing annealed spring steel to the required thickness, and a Bandsaw with ger reducer to cut either metal or wood.

After many years of making minies one learns how to improve one’s lot but it has reached a point now where I spend more time on details and have become much more critical of my work.

Returning to equipment, I have to go back to a very basic project — how does one cut a number of pieces of 3/8 inch thick cold rolled steel and not get too tired to continue working? For this, I acquired a small bandsaw designed for woodwork and put on a reducer with an electric control so that I could then cut up to 1 inch of steel or 3 inches of wood The wood requirement is because one often has to make boxes for the minies. To compliment this machine I bought a combination belt and disk sander for both wood and metal.

After acquiring most of this equipment I man-aged to complete my machine work on the M.1911 and proceeded to do the hand fitting. The number one requirement is patience and good hand-held tools. A set of small Swiss files, a flexible shaft or the small electric hand pieces of a dental technician, a set of dental burrs, and some small rotary grinding wheels are a necessity. I make most of my mechanism parts in tool steel and when they are almost fitted, harden the parts and finish fitting by stoning on a wetstone.

Another important piece of equipment is an electric furnace with a pyrometer. This is important if you want to have good springs and there is really no alternative. Even when I make a coil spring from piano wire I always harden it to make the coils more lively. I usually use annealed, water hardening steel (rather than the more usual oil hardening). The temperature to harden this steel is 1525F and quench in water then for tempering, heat to 710F for 6 minutes and quench. This covers the hardening of all springs. I always buy annealed material, but some configurations have to be bent hot by heating to a cherry red color, and go through the bending and shaping process using my furnace. The furnace has a 4x4x4 inch capacity and is designed to be used in the jewelry trade for burning out the waxes used in lost wax casting.

The two ton arbour press used for broaching barrels.

Having arrived at the point where I have the frame, slide and mechanism, I must look to the barrel. The barrels are turned on the lathe and drilled and then reamed with a reamer placed in the lathe tailstock to about .002 inch smaller than I want. Then I proceed to make my broach on the miller. This will be used to cut the rifling grooves in the bore. I set the gears to the right twist and use a small mounted saw to cut grooves at the right twist in the broach or bullet as it 5s known. It is tapered at both ends after it is cut off, hardened and given a high polish. To get a mirror finish inside the barrel, you simply put on a little oil and hammer the broach through the barrel with a drift punch or in a small arbor press. This will produce the grooves and a give mirror finish inside the barrel.

The magazine construction is not easy unless you have some experience in sheet metal work and oxyacetylene welding.

The material that I have been using is cold rolled steel shim stock and the thickness is of course to scale with the original. The first thing I do is make a mandrel, or form, for shaping to the size of the opening less the thickness of the material. This mandrel is usually hardened as I must hammer the shim stock around the mandrel with a wooden mallet. The jaws in the vise in which this is held are either smooth or copper covered, and I put masking tape wherever it is needed to avoid any unnecessary scratching. I usually weld the back edge of the magazine and file the residue material from the inside. By the way, the mandrel is also prepared to act as the anvil for bending the lips on the magazine. The angle on top and bottom of the magazine is marked with a protractor and cut with a one inch cutoff wheel which is 1/32 inch thick, operating on the flexible shaft. The bottom of the magazine is then silver soldered in place. The next step is to bend a sheet metal channel to fit over the magazine to produce a drill pattern or jig for the holes.

The springs are also bent on a mandrel and again hardened in the furnace to make them lively. The platform is straightened if necessary and put into the pantograph. I often have two parts handy, one bent and the other in the flat. I also like to have two guns handy one assembled and the other in parts so that I can check the operation of the mechanism although this is not always possible because of the rarity of some the pieces I make.

Last, but not least, are the grips. These I also shaped on the pantograph but the checkering is done by hand and many of the checkering tools I make on the milling machine.

This is a somewhat composite summary of how I made my first Model 1911 auto with refinements that were added as different models of gun were produced. I have made many since that first one but my methods have not changed too much. I should note that when making the moving parts, I usually make more than I need in case I make a mistake. On each part I leave a piece of material to hold it by in the vise until finished fitting then I cut it off. This idea of leaving a piece of material for gripping is especially useful when a part is to be shaped by hand as was done on the flint lock mechanism from the Museum Restoration Service "Logo Gun".

The new miller made about 1980 and the wood pattern used in making it.

Actually, machining and fitting all the parts to the finest tolerance still require hand finishing. This operation is very critical as it is the first thing one sees before trying the mechanism. There are many ways to polish but I will record my way.

The first thing I did was make emery boards. I bought water proof (wet/dry) emery sheets with paper back in six grits: 80, 120, 220, 320, 400, and 600. I then bought, at the local hobby shop, some 1/16x3x24 inch wood used by model makers. I then sprayed the emery cloth with spray-on contact cement and glued the wood to the emery. After a few minutes the board can be cut with a knife into boards 1/4x11 inches for "emery sticks.â"With these, I can polish all flat surfaces starting with No. 80 grit to remove all machine marks and proceed to the finer boards until arriving at the 600 grit for a super-smooth finish. I always keep a razor blade handy to sharpen a point onto the sticks when it is necessary to get into difficult corners. The finish obtained with 600 grit is usually what is found on the best commercially finished weapons.

I never use a polishing wheel of any kind on flat surfaces. On the other hand, I use rubber wheels in various grades of coarseness on the contours. Here again there is always a progression from coarse 80 grit through 600 grit as with the emery sticks. If I want a finer finish I can use a polishing or crocus cloth on the flat surfaces and a small felt buff with compound on the contours.

After many years in the machine shop and die-making business you learn to improvise and create methods within the restrictions of your capacity and equipment. The exercise of producing a minature is an adventure in metalworking. It is not possible to recreate the methods that were used originally in mass production — the jigs, fixtures, and holding devices used for each operation is out of the question when you are called upon to make a few minis. But the adventure continues when it is necessary to make miniature holding devices or special contour cutters. By examining the parts you can sometimes find a clue about the methods used originally but alas, for minis you must substitue a dental bur for an end mill and an emery stick for a surface grinder.

If I may repeat, after more than half a century the disease appears to be worse than ever. Nevertheless, I have enjoyed it and will continue as long as I am able.

Sixty years of ...

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