Master Miniaturist Just Keeps Thinking Smaller and Smaller

The Christian Science Monitor

David Edwards is a successful professional cellist. He has, however, virtually given up playing. He does recording work; he plays for pleasure. But he spends his days making rolling-pins and mustard pots, hairbrushes, egg cups (complete with egg and spoon), pepper mills and spools of thread (in 25 colors).

Small, ordinary household items. Only Edwards’ objects are far from ordinary--though small they certainly are. Very small. They are miniatures: minuscule replicas, one-twelfth normal size.

And they are not just run-of-the-mill miniatures. Beautifully designed, with a “timeless” Victorian-cum-Edwardian flavor, their quality is unbelievably exacting: They are “absolutely right to the nth degree” said Robert Clark, then director of Glasgow’s Scottish Design Center, when he exhibited them in 1982. They are made in fine and appropriate materials--various woods like box, plum, holly, pear (all selected and seasoned at home by Edwards), as well as silver, gold, silk, stainless steel, brass, ivory. (The ivory is recycled scrap: old hairbrush or knife handles.)


David Kilpatrick, Europe’s leading miniature collector whose museum at Oban, Scotland, is attracting thousands of visitors, unhesitatingly rates Edwards’ work “A-1.” “I know of nobody better--put it that way,” Kilpatrick says. “There are literally thousands of miniaturists . . . but I don’t think he can be bettered.”

Edwards chuckles: “A lot of people thought I was bonkers when I started doing this full time. Sometimes, I think I am absolutely mad!”

But Edwards is probably saner than the rest of us: His new career, in a field that has greatly expanded this decade (little things having become big business), is a marked success, both in personal satisfaction and financial reward.

New Zealand-born Edwards broke away from his career as a cellist six years ago. “There was no problem. I had plenty of work,” he says. He had played with top-class chamber and symphony orchestras and was most recently co-principal cellist with the Scottish National Orchestra.

He says he is not sorry to be free of continual traveling. Now he goes to work by climbing the steep stairs to the attic of his sizable Victorian house where he lives with his wife and two daughters. Here, two former bedrooms--not overly large--act as office, dispatch depot and workshop.

When he was still a full-time musician, the spare time he used to have in strange cities was not wasted. His early interest in making model ships was already developing into the challenging occupation of amateur miniature-making, starting with miniature kitchen chairs and tables. So when he was playing in Chicago, he naturally grasped every possible moment to study the remarkable miniature Thorne Rooms at the Art Institute, with their astounding period detail.

And it was when he was playing in Liverpool, England, in the ‘70s, that he bought his superb “Unimat SL” lathe. (“A turning point in my career.”) With this tool (he had never used a lathe before), and chisels kept incredibly sharp, he found he had an extraordinary ability to make turned wood and ivory things smaller than anybody had ever attempted. “When you don’t know it’s impossible, you find ways of doing it,” he says.

He can’t conceive of employing someone else: They simply couldn’t meet his standards. His is a one-man craft, a one-man business. He sells to the trade only, restricting the shops he supplies to about 15 worldwide, with Britain, America, and Japan heading the list. He has a range of more than 60 items, introducing a new one every three months in time for the only advertisement he places in a miniaturists’ magazine.

“You have to concentrate,” he says of his work. “If you don’t, something goes wrong.” He is, after all, often working to the very limits of his materials, measuring his accuracy by the test that “if you magnify it 12 times, you could use it.”

His toothbrush for example, though it is a mere 15 millimeters long, has real bristles just like a full-size one. But not only that. The bristles are in tufts. It took him at least two years of thinking and experimenting to work that out. They feel right, too. “If you don’t get it right,” he says, “it sticks out like a sore thumb, even that size.” It’s the same with his clothes brushes and hairbrushes. He makes a hairbrush for “Gentlemen,” one for “Ladies,” and as if those weren’t small enough, he makes one for “Babies.” He feels strongly that a miniature must reflect light in the right way. Sometimes the material or finish used for full-size objects would be quite wrong for a miniature.

Most of his objects are recognizable enough--thimbles, corkscrews, pepper mills, potato peelers, wooden spoons. Other objects are not so often encountered: the lemon squeezer (boxwood), the Scottish oatmeal roller, the darning mushroom.

Among the more obscure objects--things you might find in museums of Victoriana--are a baby’s teething ring, in ivory, with a fine silver handle. Strangely, this item is particularly popular in Japan. He makes buttonhooks (irresistible to collectors of full-size buttonhooks), and, according to one of his customers--Jacqueline Farnsworth of Oakland, Calif.--his holly-wood egg rack for 12 ivory eggs is particularly British.

Farnsworth, who buys and sells miniatures from all over the world, can hardly speak highly enough of Edwards’ work. “I just don’t know anything to equal the quality of his work. No one--in this country--even tries. There is no comparison for his ivory work, for his fine turned wood.”

Edwards guards some of his secrets. Ask him how he does certain things, and he says “Aha!” mysteriously, and changes the subject. He won’t tell anyone how he does the bristles, or how he saws his diminutive ivory comb so that it has two sizes of teeth, or how he makes his eggs.

He is secretive not, one suspects, because he fears competition (though some people are now beginning to copy him), but, by his own account because he wants to preserve the “magic” of what he is doing. “I mean, a conjurer wouldn’t tell you how he does his tricks, would he?”

He generally starts with a real-life prototype, though not always, and he adapts it to his taste, and to be convincing as a miniature. His preliminary drawings are full-size--if he drew the object at one-twelfth scale (now accepted as the standard scale for serious miniatures), the pencil lines would be too thick.

Edwards is not making his miniatures for children. They’re too fine, too small--and too expensive. (The toothbrush sells in the United States for $14.95, a spool of thread for $2.50). They are adult collectors’ items.

Richard Jennings, publisher of a new magazine in Britain, “The Doll’s House World,” whose wife collects miniatures, believes that some collectors are principally attracted by the “antiques” aspect of the thing. “You’d have to be incredibly rich to be able to completely furnish a period house in the way you can with miniatures.”

And what makes miniature-makers tick? “Some miniaturists are very inward, very introspective,” Kilpatrick told me, “not David: David is just David!” With him, it’s clearly the challenge to make something minute with the utmost precision that counts.

He can look at miniature-making with a cool objectivity--for a moment or two--but he’s probably in the grip of a fascinating preoccupation no less than his collectors, some of whom have everything he has made.

“You should see them,” Edwards laughs (he’s a stamp-collector himself), “they get completely obsessed. They’d go to any lengths to get a particular miniature.”

He adds: “Sometimes they get it out of proportion!”