Ryan Johnson, Published February 18 2014
All in the details: Fargo man got start with hobby of building small-scale creations at age 7 and hasn’t stopped since
“The only difference between men and boys is the price of their toys.”
In the case of this 60-year-old lifelong Fargo resident, there’s one more difference – the size of their toys.
Before he was even 1 year old, Berg’s father decided he would need a hobby. His father put together an old Model T Ford kit that same year – the only model his father would ever build that now has a place of honor in Berg’s shop.
Berg got his start with the hobby at the age of 7 by putting together model airplanes, cars and trucks, following the directions of the kits to make small works of art.
He was hooked right away, and said he hasn’t stopped in the 53 years since.
But as Berg got to an age when most people start thinking of bifocals and large print a few years ago, he instead picked up a strong pair of “cheater” glasses and did something surprising – he began working with even smaller kits and pieces, creating tiny versions of buildings, neighborhoods and vehicles.
Berg now focuses on HO building, the same size as standard model train kits, in the small 1/87th scale. To put it into perspective, the average model car kit is built in 1/25th scale.
The Fargo city bus driver spends big chunks of his weekends downstairs, hard at work coming up with the next building he wants to make or repainting a car to better fit his vision.
Berg relies on a wide variety of parts to complete his ideas. Many of the vehicles start off as standard Hot Wheels or Matchbox toy cars, though he often will tweak the hoods, engines, windows and paint jobs as needed.
One of his newest creations, an inspired diorama depicting the events of the 1964 hit song “Dead Man’s Curve” by Jan and Dean, started off as little more than a wooden board and a couple sheets of plastic foam.
Berg first dreamt up the diorama three years ago, though it only took one month to finish once he started. The hardest part was finding the right Jaguar car in appropriate scale, he said.
After cutting the foam to the right shape, he glued the pieces together and painted it to look like rocks.
“All of a sudden, it started melting,” he said.
But the unintentional reaction between the foam and paint couldn’t be fixed, and Berg decided he liked how it gave the foam a texture that makes the finished piece even more realistic.
He finished it up by gluing down small pebbles and sand he got from a beach, adding painted plaster for the roadway and, of course, positioning a car to appear to be driving over a cliff after breaking through a small roadside fence made with wooden rods and craft wire. Dryer lint made for the perfect skid marks to show the car had lost control, he said.
Many builders might call it good after putting together a model kit, following the instructions until they have a realistic enough piece they can display.
But Berg is a stickler for detail, and he said he’s constantly keeping one eye open for the little things that might otherwise go unnoticed, like the way a utility meter looks on the side of a house or a resilient tree growing through an abandoned old car out in the country.
Detail is everywhere in Berg’s latest project, an ambitious recreation of the original Mel’s Drive-In restaurant in San Francisco that was a feature location in the 1973 film “American Graffiti.”
He ordered a Mel’s Drive-In kit that supplied the restaurant lettering and many of the props to make the distinctive building come to life. But the booths in the kit weren’t good enough, so Berg built his own out of popsicle sticks, a piece of basswood and a small piece of paper as the tabletop.
The stools are also handmade, as is the restaurant’s large counter and distinctive light fixtures that were created with rhinestones.
The Mel’s Drive-In diorama has a hidden touch of realism – a small battery in the wooden base will illuminate the interior of the restaurant while also powering a set of speakers connected to an iPod that will play the “American Graffiti” soundtrack when he takes the piece to a contest this May in Minneapolis.
Berg has become a pro at improvising when the kits and pieces he could easily order online aren’t good enough. When he was working on a racetrack and scoffed at the $120 price tag for a grandstand, he built his own, piecing together four small bleacher kits and adding a handmade roof.
A burger joint diorama he built needed more realism, so Berg built his own fryers. But that wasn’t enough, so he put some glue on his fingers, ran embroidery thread through the glue and cut it into small pieces to make perfect French fries.
Office staples added detail to a car engine, and when he started working on a Greyhound bus depot and remembered the stations used to have pinball machines, he built his own tiny version of a pinball game.
Hobby-building gives Berg an outlet, sometimes to memorialize friends who have died over the years and occasionally to showcase his own sense of humor.
That includes his so-called “not-quite Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood,” complete with a vividly detailed topless bar located next to a liquor store, a massage parlor, a cheap hotel and an adult bookstore.
Berg sometimes builds a vehicle or diorama for a paying customer, though he said he mostly works on his own projects that are displayed on shelves that run throughout the basement room he’s turned into a workshop for his hobby.
His wife of 27 years, Sharon, knew what she was getting into when they first met – back then, he said he had close to 4,000 models and Hot Wheels cars. Berg said she’s put up with his devotion to the hobby that keeps him downstairs for much of his free time.
“She don’t mind the time,” he said. “But it gets a little expensive.”
One diorama can require $300 or more worth of parts and materials, not counting the dozens of hours of work he puts into it, he said.
But after more than 50 years of building, Berg said he continues to appreciate his hobby that requires a mix of imagination to see the possibilities in materials and a whole lot of patience to work with the tiny pieces.
“One of these days, if I win the lottery, I’m going to buy a hobby shop and open it up,” he said. “But I’m not selling anything to anybody.”
For now, Berg will have to settle for the hobby shop he built for himself – in 1/87th scale, of course.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587