Petaluma woodworker recreates history in miniature

Little things are a big deal to Petaluma woodworker Christian Wall.

No, we’re not talking about the everyday stresses of pandemic living (though those sometimes can creep up, of course). We’re talking about models that depict pieces of Petaluma’s past: intricate replicas of carts, trucks, trolleys and storefronts from yesteryear.

Wall, 68, is a master of the miniature, and for the last 13 years has applied woodworking techniques he learned from a family shipbuilding business to create tiny models for all to enjoy. Some of his work recently was on display in an exhibit at the Petaluma Historical Library & Museum. More of it likely will be coming this year.

The way Wall sees it, models are a way to wow people while educating them about the past. They’re also a way to celebrate the history of interesting places, and Petaluma fits that bill.

“In a sense these models bring history back to life,” he said. “I like that I get to do that for people.”

Inspiration for a hobby

The mustachioed Wall has always been a woodworker. The native of Guam learned the craft from his grandfather at the family shipbuilding business as a child growing up in Southern California.

Model-making, however, is a new pastime — he picked it up after moving to Petaluma in the late 1990s.

He built his first kit — a horse-drawn carriage he picked up on a trip to Spain — back in 2009, and fell in love with the process of creating smaller versions of things from the real world. Over time, friends and colleagues gave him wood. Wall simply kept building.

Over the 13 years that have followed, Wall estimates he’s created more than 25 different models of varying size and detail.

Some of these pieces — including a beer wagon, a covered wagon, and an egg cart— were on display at a recent exhibit at the Petaluma Historical Library & Museum. The exhibit, titled “The Imaginative World of William Caldwell,” juxtaposed some of the 1950s-era folk-art wood carvings of William Caldwell with models from Wall to show visitors a range of styles in woodworking.

Another of Wall’s pieces, a replica of an old Petaluma trolley named the Windsplitter, sat in a case by itself. This piece was incredibly detailed with individual seats, wheels, luggage and railings. Wall estimates the model took about 80 hours to complete. He created it from a photograph.

A third piece, a replica of the first truck to make the transcontinental drive from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, was purchased for an eventual exhibit at the Sonoma County Library.

According to Collection Manager Solange Russek, the detail in the pieces is mindboggling.

“The painstaking details he puts into his artwork are amazing and show his level of compassion,” she said.

Clint Gilbert, one of the directors of the museum, agreed. In a recent social media video interview with Wall for the museum’s website, Gilbert noted that Wall’s work was an “asset” for the facility in how it brings history to life.

“I find these models interesting and a concrete way to visualize history,” Gilbert said. “It brings history right into the moment.”

Fittingly, Wall donated the trolley and other models to the museum in the hopes that the museum would sell his work and raise money. At last check, Russek said she and her colleagues had in fact sold some of his pieces, raising “several hundred dollars” that would be added to the museum’s general fund.

Wall’s woodworking process

The 80 hours it took Wall to build that trolley was no exception; even for the smallest piece, there’s quite a process.

First comes the research — usually from photos but also from books, magazines and websites.

Next comes the building.

Wall does most of his work in a section of his garage he has converted into a makeshift studio. In the winter, however, when temperatures drop below 50, he moves his operation inside and works off a hobby table that he rolls around his living room.

When he creates a new model, Wall’s first steps are to do some rough sketches and decide what kind of wood to use. He still has some of the wood he was given at the start of last decade. Friends and colleagues are always giving him bits and pieces of new wood, as well — on New Year’s Day he was gushing over some walnut wood he’d just received.

One of the biggest challenges is finding materials. When Wall first moved to Petaluma there were six hobby shops in the area; now, sadly, there are none. Sometimes this means he is recycling old washers and springs as accent pieces. Other times it means he must fabricate details from whatever he can find.

As he works, he cranks up the classic rock and incorporates other tools such as clamps, glue, a low-speed drill, sanding machines, a portable band saw and fasteners.

“It’s work, but it’s relaxing for me,” he said of his routine. “I just zone out and create.”

When Wall needs to bend wood, he wets it, lets it get soft, and little by little he bends it to keep in shape. He uses thick rubber bands to get the wood to keep its new shape as it dries. Sometimes, if there’s no metal involved, he also steams the wood in a microwave.

Over the years, Wall has shared some of these techniques with Petaluma High School students; for a stretch he volunteered in the wood shop there, and strived to pass along skills such as wood-bending to a new crop of woodworkers. He also spent nearly a decade working in the local Friedman’s Home Improvement. (His day job today is salesman for several local vendors.)

What’s next

Wall’s next big project wraps up this weekend.

The piece: A 1900s saloon and tobacconist shop for the Petaluma Museum. This assignment was inspired by a photograph Russek found of a watering hole formerly known as the Philadelphia Saloon. The building’s address was 108 Main Street, but Main Street doesn’t exist anymore. Wall said it probably stood somewhere near where the AMF Boulevard Lanes on Petaluma Boulevard stands today.

Wall built this model from scratch, crafting a bar, chess tables, bottles and other details as he imagined they would have been in the year 1903. He worked on it for 50 or 60 hours over the course six months and was planning to hand it over to the museum by Monday.

“In general, models are easier when they’re square,” Wall said. “I still managed to spend a bit of time on the bars and the details in this one.”

Once he turns over this model, he has nothing on the docket — a rare break after a busy stretch.

Wall said he’s excited to take a few months off to let his mind wander and come up with new ideas. Of course, he said he also is open to commissions.

However his schedule fills out, this summer Wall will begin a bucket-list project: A train for beneath his Christmas tree. It’s something he’s always wanted to make, and he said he’s “excited” to get rolling. Even dream weavers have dreams of their own.

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