Apr 13 2005
BainBridge Island Review -
Meet Robert Combs, model citizen


Architectural model-maker Robert Combs with a little world of his own construction.

For an artisan crafting architectural models, it's a small world after all.
Lilleputians would be giants in Robert Combs' world.
The diminutive inhabitants of Jonathan Swift's "Gulliver's Travels" were 6 inches high, but architectural model-maker Combs builds puny yet precise structures that could house a half-inch human.
Models, most of which are scaled such that 1/8 inch equals one foot, are made with varying degrees of detail, from more generalized forms to exact replication.
Combs' current work-in-progress at his Lynwood Center studio, a model of a private home to be built on Bainbridge, is so detailed that even closet door handles are included.
"It's pretty much the most detail you can get," he said. "(For) this model in particular, they wanted everything, the stairs, the hand railing."
Combs' model even features a myriad of precisely cut-out mullion windows, each 1/16-inch. He placed wall boards around the perimeter of rooms, a detail one would have to press an eye to the window to see, and he sanded door frames so that the pieces would align perfectly.
He builds using surgical tools to slice basswood, a balsa look-a-like that is a higher-quality product with tighter grain.
The basswood sheets are impressed with different building textures, from board- and-batten siding to concrete poured in wood forms.
"It looks better on models," Combs said. "It's easier to cut, it doesn't split, and it's strong."
A native islander, Combs comes to model-making from a fine art and craft background, with study at Gompers carpentry school through Seattle Central Community College and sculpture and jewelry-making at North Seattle Community College.
He worked as a carpenter for a time, but while he enjoyed both sculpture and jewelry making, he couldn't sell much of either product.
"You struggle a lot to get one thing sold," he said. "It just wasn't doing it."
It was only when a friend, island architect Sean Parker, asked for Combs' help in making a model a decade ago, that he found his place.
"I just couldn't believe that someone could get paid for basically doing something that was fun," he said.
The pursuit reminded Combs of the model-making minutia he'd enjoyed as a kid, and so his career path was set.
Learning his trade by doing it has meant that skills are acquired on a catch-as-catch-can basis. Coached by Parker, Combs has only recently learned how to read blueprints.
Inclined to work more hours than he is being paid for, he sometimes still struggles to find the balance between making a piece of art and making a living.
Combs' ideal would be to build six models a year, and his current project will take him 260 hours, or about seven work weeks. But a project from last year took 750 hours.
"I just remember when I started it was cold out, and when I finished, it was hot," he said. "The thing is, I get kind of lost in what I'm working on. Hours go by, and it's midnight."
When the solitary pursuit gets too lonely, Combs might take a break at nearby Tree House Cafe. He also listens to books on tape.
Being handed 30 sheets of blueprint to turn into a building is sometimes still daunting. Some projects are almost completed before Combs can see that they are, in fact, coming together.
"Sometimes I'll think I can't do it, (that) it's impossible," he said. "But this is almost the 100th model I've built, so I'm getting pretty confident that I can decipher what they've written."
As his skill level rises, Combs aspires to a standard of absolute perfection.
"Doing the perfect, perfect model is always what I want to do, everything I can see," he said, "even though it isn't very practical."
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Better homettes
Robert Combs' website is at www.Combsmodels.com.

4569 Lynwood Center Road * Bainbridge Island, WA 98110 * 206-842-0872