It’s a small world after all, and Rick Sterling is in charge of it

Visitors to Rick Sterling’s home can’t help but notice a distinctive decorative feature. The ledges above nearly every door, window and archway are lined with three-dimensional miniatures of local structures, historical buildings, sculptures, bridges, people, Biblical figures and vehicles. Others occupy shelves and end tables.

He estimated his home collection exceeds 250 pieces.

“There’s not much area that isn’t filled,” Sterling said.

He made all the replicas himself, using scanned and digital photos applied to wood cutouts. Sterling finishes them by sanding, painting the edges and applying a special sealant to the artwork.

He got started in 2002, about a year after retiring.

In 1961, Sterling came to Tiffin from the Chicago area. He and his brother opened a toy store at Westgate Village. Although the business was short-lived, Sterling stayed and found employment at Gold Bond Furniture. After 30 years there, he spent another 10 working for Deckers Furniture, retiring in 2001.

Sterling said he was “handy” and had done some woodworking, but he had no serious hobby.

Shirley, his wife, had collected a number of the commercial historical replicas; however, she wanted a particular building that was not available. She thought Rick could make one for her. He did not like the stylized graphics of the commercial pieces, preferring something more realistic.

“My computer will do that, but I don’t care for them. I’d rather have a picture. So I figured out how to do it, which took a long while to perfect it, but I made one for her. She fell in love with it and, gradually, she got rid of all the other ones,” Sterling said.

After the first miniature, he kept going. The reason for the long learning curve was Sterling had no experience with computers.

“I had never, ever touched a computer. I had never turned one on. … I had no clue. My son and my grandson said, ‘You’ve got to learn how to do this.’ They helped me buy one. I started playing with it and decided it would be fun to work with photos. Of course, once you have that, you really have to have a new camera,” Sterling said.

Whenever a problem arose, he would call his grandson to work it out. Sterling said he taught himself to use a Microsoft photo program. He still hasn’t learned everything it can do, but combining its features to get the results he wants has become “second nature.”

Sterling said he does not want to graduate to Photoshop because it would mean starting from scratch. For now, he is content to keep his older software. Although he started making the replicas for Shirley, other people learned about his work and asked him to make miniatures of their homes and other items.

“I never advertised, but the word just spread, quicker than what I wanted, because I don’t want a business. I work at it whenever I want to. It’s strictly a hobby,” Sterling said.

He has compiled a catalog of all the pieces he has done. His collection includes the gazebo on Frost Parkway, statues of Josiah Hedges and the Indian maiden, the cemetery angel commemorating the 1913 flood and a few other landmarks, such as Kiwanis Manor, the original library (now the juvenile/probate court) and the present library.

Sterling often borrows old photographs to create models of places that are no longer standing. Examples are the former jail downtown, the B&O train station and bridges that have been replaced with newer spans.

“My wife likes black and white. I do not, so if it’s a black and white, I color it,” Sterling said. “Almost all of these have history on the back of them. That takes more time than anything else, trying to find it. I was never a good English student. I really have to work at it and bring it down to the size that will fit.”

When the county commissioners stopped funding the Seneca County Museum, Sterling wanted to help the historical society with operating money. Brian Courtney and other volunteers had been a great help with the research he needed to print on the back of his miniatures.

Museum director Tonia Hoffert asked Sterling to make some replicas of the museum to sell. Having done the museum previously, he wanted to take new photos and try a different version for the fundraiser. He used a shot of the parlor for the back side of the exterior picture. He delivered a dozen to Hoffert and told her to price them at $20.

“The next time I was in getting some history, she said, ‘I really could use some more.’ So, I made 24 more,” Sterling said.

The project continued with Sterling making about 60 miniatures and donating them all to the museum.

When shooting his own pictures, Sterling tries to pick a day when the sun is not glaring. He said shadows are difficult to remove from photos. He has learn to let the camera adjust for the light. A wide-angle lens also helps for difficult shots, he said.

“I’ll take at least 10 pictures and put them on my computer to see which one I like best,” Sterling said.

An exception was Tiffin Middle School, which he captured from 25 angles. When he heard Hopewell-Loudon School was to be demolished, he made sure to get photos of that building. He also has made the two Monroe Street schools that came before Columbian High School.

For the Seneca County Court House, Sterling crafted one replica with the modern clock tower and obtained an old photo to make a second with the original domed spire. He also used old photos to replicate the first and second courthouses, to make a set of four.

Churches are a favorite subject for miniatures. Sterling pointed out his replica of Egbert’s Church on North SR 101. He noticed the structure on numerous trips to Clyde to buy apples.

“When you’re looking at a church, you do not see the beautiful windows,” he said.

He wanted to add the stained glass art to the miniatures, so he started going into the churches to photograph the windows. Then, he cut out the images on the computer, reversed them and added them to the exterior shots of the church.

From there, his interest extended to making free-standing Biblical scenes, which often appear in church windows. A friend sent Sterling a book of Christian poems with illustrations he liked. He scanned them and went to work creating miniatures of scenes from the life of Christ and printing Scripture verses on the back.

A current project is a photo of the Leo Tunes Pure Oil service station that once stood at Frost Parkway and North Washington Street. Sterling chuckled at the sign that advertises a pack of cigarettes for 24 cents and another for Top Value stamps.

He brought up another old photo of Gray and White Poultry. Part of the Adams Street building still exists, but it has been remodeled multiple times.

“When I go to cut this out, there’s so many lines. If I don’t outline it with red and stay inside of the red, I can make a bad cut … and when you have the picture on there, there’s no touching it up. You just throw it away,” Sterling said.

The process he has devised came from extensive experimentation for the multiple steps. Sometimes, Sterling removes a tree or other object in a picture, if it blocks the view of the main element. Once he is satisfied with the composition, he prints it on paper and glues the paper to a piece of plywood. His small workshop in the basement holds power saws, clamps, props, sanders and a joiner. A pegboard on one wall holds an array of handtools.

“I cut it out with a band saw. Then, I will sand all the edges on it. Paper and wood does not cut the same way, so I not only have to sand the edges, I have to clean up the paper because it’s ragged all the way around,” Sterling said.

He uses a special sander for that. Next comes a special coating. Sterling said nearly all the finishes are water-based, so they will cause the inks to bleed if the paper is not sealed. Three coats of urethane go over the sealant. That process must be repeated for the back of the piece.

Wood filler is spread over the edges to smooth the surface before black paint is applied. Sterling sands by hand the black edge before adding another black layer. Two more coats of urethane go over the black. Everything is sanded again with steel wool to get a smooth, hard surface.

The final step is a special polish that bonds into the finish, which is Sterling’s own formula.

“Everybody wants to know about that, but I don’t talk about that,” he said.

Crafting the replicas made Sterling take a greater interest in history. He said he wishes he had asked more questions while his father was alive. Born in 1895, his dad could have told many stories about events in the early 1900s.

“I never asked him if he rode horses to school,” Sterling said.

One of Sterling’s miniatures is the first powered fire engine at the No. 2 fire station. His research exposed him to a book by the late Richard Steinmetz, narrating the history of the Tiffin Fire Department’s human- and horse-powered fire equipment.

“Also, I got into the trolley cars. I thought they were fascinating and … the politicians getting involved and one wanting horse-drawn and another wanting electric,” Sterling said.

He pointed out a double-decker trolley car replica. Records show it was purchased in Chicago and brought to Tiffin. Sterling said he was surprised to learn the electrical power station had been in Bascom. Another discovery was that some of the street cars carried grain and other freight.

“I thought they all carried people, but not true. They went all over Tiffin and Fostoria,” Sterling said. “Fostoria was a hub because of the railroads, so they had cars that carried all kinds of different things, like a regular train. I never realized that.”

Other miniatures have more personal meanings for Sterling.

On a Caribbean cruise with family members, he shot photos of the ship and created a miniature. He also has one of the USS Midway, the aircraft carrier on which he was stationed while in the Navy during the Korean war. That vessel is now a museum, so Sterling was able to take his family there and show them where he worked.

An endless supply of subjects promises to keep Sterling busy for as long as he is able.