NEWPORT BEACH — When hobbyist Russell Cross volunteered to craft a wooden train for his granddaughter's grad night party, he didn't realize the scope of his offer.
The 27-foot-long, red and black locomotive became the largest project he's ever made or designed. During the last two months, the 66-year-old retired Long Beach police officer clocked in some 300 man-hours over the last couple months building the replica train.
Improvisation plays a large role in his work.
"There's no plans," Cross said. "There's no pattern. I just kind of build as I go."
On Thursday, Cross's creation will serve as a walk-through entrance to Newport Harbor High School's circus-themed graduation night, "Under the Big Top."
"I want to thank my grandfather for building something that's going to be so memorable for all my classmates," said Victoria "Tori" Schmidt, the builder's 18-year-old granddaughter.
Cross, a Rossmoor resident, started making the train's engine and adjoining animal cage car piece by piece in his garage. Later on, the project's size forced him to take parts out onto his driveway.
He first took woodworking classes as a high school student in the 1960s. Trial and error and reading trade magazines helped him build up his skills.
Cross said he doesn't like to make furniture, but he designs his own "oddball projects" — like a Barbie-sized barn for his granddaughter's toyhorses and a 3-foot replica of his church.
"I like designing whatever I'm building, and I like figuring out how I'm going to put it together," he said.
The sturdy, large locomotive will tower over an estimated 500 graduates who are expected to walk through it on their way to the grad night event, Cross said.
A photographer will snap their photo in the engine window, and in the animal cage, while a clown on a unicycle circles them, said Jenniffer Manavi, Cross's daughter and a grad night committee member.
"I think this is going to be the most elaborate grad night Newport Harbor's done in a while," she said.