Tiny relics: the Otago maker recreating history in miniature

Sculptor and miniaturist Reynold Turner of Old Relic has a passion for local history and the old gold rush-era relics and buildings around Central Otago. He loves to recreate their homes and equipment in miniature, using the same building methods as the early settlers. Working with his bare hands, hammer, chisel, and tin snips, he shapes schist, river stone, slate, and rusty tin into stunning tiny scenes.


 

 
What do you make?
I make little stone miners’ cottages and other gold-rush era buildings using schist rock and rusty tin, just like our ancestors did during the 1800s and early 1900s.

How did you get into the craft?
I’ve always been interested in the history of Central Otago. This history is disappearing with the development of the land for vineyards, orchards, dams and other developments. I thought that making my pieces were a way to recreate and preserve our history.

Do you have any formal training?
My qualifications are my passion. My passion and skill in working with my hands and with the rock and other materials. In my working days, I was an electrician and also sold sports equipment like fishing gear. I love fishing and used my hands in tying up the flies for fishing. So, that’s where working with my hands comes from.

What are your favourite tools, materials and processes?
I don’t need a lot of tools because when our ancestors came here all they had were their bare hands, picks, and shovels. Basically, I use a hammer, chisel, wire cutters, glue, tin snips and not much else. I try to keep it as simple as possible to reproduce the processes our ancestors used. I love working with the schist. It has taken me a long time to try and master working with this delicate rock. One needs to follow the veins just right and avoid fractures, which run horizontally to the veins, to keep the stone in one piece. Even though I have many years of experience with it now, I still tend to have quite a few shatter on me. It’s part of the job, but isn’t much fun when the piece is nearly finished and it shatters.


 

 

 
What techniques are used?
Splitting the rock is not easy. Like I mentioned earlier, one has to read the veins, like those who work with timber where you read the grain to avoid the knots. Working with it, you have to really ‘feel’ it as you’re working with it. It’s quite easy to read it wrong and then the piece will shatter and be ruined. For the roof of the houses, I used old corrugated iron, that I have to flatten with a hammer and then use the tin snips to cut into small little squares that I use to line the roof. Some of the tin I’ve used in the past has come from old gold mining sites and some of the old ruins of miners’ huts like the ones I make.

What inspires you?
Making my pieces started off as a hobby for me. When I was working in the vineyards, I injured my shoulder and then found it difficult to find another job after retirement. Someone once saw one of my pieces and told me that I should start selling them. Then it struck me that this could be my new form of income. What could be better than doing one’s hobby as a job! I’m inspired by the history and keeping the history alive keeps me going. Even if I won the lottery, I’d still make my little houses. I love it that much.

Is there a philosophy behind your work?
My philosophy is to keep the history of our ancestors alive, yet I put my own angle of creativity into each piece.


 

 

 
What’s your creative process?
Before starting a new piece I want to get everything right, so I do a lot of research. I use the Cromwell library to look at books, magazines and newspapers on the subjects and then form a mental picture of what the scene will look like. It’s not just making the house, it’s also the scenery around the house, such as trees,
tussock grass, flowers, wood piles, gold pans, axes, etc. Some of my scenes also include handcrafted water wheels, carts, wagons, long drops, and other things you would have found around a gold miner’s cottage.

Describe your workspace
My workspace changes quite regularly. Luckily, I don’t need much equipment, so I can take my work to various places that help with my inspiration. I tend to go into the hills or by Lake Dunstan and find a quiet spot to sit and break up the stone or cut the tin. It’s beautiful to sit and just hear the sounds of nature, birds chirping and the breeze blowing. Even in the cold Central Otago winters, I prefer to work out in nature, just like our ancestors did. When assembling the buildings, I have a small workbench on my back patio.

Five words to describe your mind:
Creative, passionate, historian, story-teller, self-believer.

Your favourite feedback from a customer:
When selling at the markets, whether someone buys a house or doesn’t buy a house, I often hear that they have really enjoyed hearing about the history and really appreciate the work and detail that I put into them. That’s a pretty good buzz.


 

 
What are you currently listening to?
When I’m working I listen to the sound of the hammer and the chisel. I also love the sounds of nature around me like the wind blowing through the branches of the trees, the birds chirping, the wildlife, and the waves of the lake lapping on the shore. I like to listen to music at night though. I like Bruce Springsteen, The Bee Gees, Dire Straights, Queen, Village People, Willie Nelson, CCR, Kenny Rogers and Tina Turner to name a few.

Recommend an album:
Bruce Springsteen – Born in the USA.

What’s your favourite childhood book?
The Five-Find Outers series by Enid Blyton.

What are you reading now?
I like to read the Jack Reacher series by Lee Childs now.

What would your advice be for someone starting out in a crafty business?
If I would give advice to someone starting out, I would tell them to put their heart and soul into it and work hard. Make sure you are doing something that you are passionate about or else you will burn out quite easily. I’ve been working with rock for over 15 years now. Good things take time and you probably won’t be
an overnight success.


 

 
Why do you think it’s important to buy handmade and/or locally made goods?
A lot of my customers, especially at the market in Queenstown, are there visiting on holiday. When you buy a piece from me, you are literally taking a piece of the area back home with you. This is the local history, made by a local, with materials that are from the area. It’s a memory that you take home with you and also a piece of our local history that can be passed on to the next generation.

What does it mean to you when someone buys something from you?
It means quite a lot to me when someone buys one of my creations. It means the difference between me sleeping under a bridge or not, and helps me live a slightly better life. It’s a show of appreciation of the work I do and the time and passion I put into it.

What was the last handmade item that you bought?
The last time I was in Thailand, which was a couple of years ago now, I bought a handmade miniature Tuk-Tuk. The frame shape is all made from wire wrapping. Even the springs in the shocks are handmade from wrapping wire. I bought it from a market there where I watched the craftsman make them at his market with not much more than a pair of pliers. It was amazing and I love it.

What’s in store for the rest of 2020?
I hope that the rest of 2020 brings an end to the Covid-19 lockdowns and we can get back to normal of having tourists visit our beautiful country. In terms of my creations, I have plans to make some replica tramping huts that one would find on some of New Zealand’s amazing hiking trails. One particular hut I’m going to make is Sam Summers’ hut, which is just outside Queenstown.

 

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