Working on the railroad Authentic: Hampden man creates intricate model railroad layouts for the rich and famous. Some can cost $40,000

September 23, 1995|By Glenn Small | Glenn Small,SUN STAFF

Jeff Springer plays with model trains all day.

And he gets paid for it.

Mr. Springer is one of fewer than 20 people in the United States whose full-time occupation is building model train layouts.

With the light touch of an artist, and great patience, Mr. Springer, a gangly 29-year-old with glasses and a quick wit, designs and builds complicated model railroads for wealthy train lovers all over the world.

In the tidy basement of his home in Hampden, he infuses the layouts with realism and details that sometimes speak only to his customers.

For example, there was the Virginia physician, who wanted a replica of a French-German border town of the late 1940s built with fall foliage because that's where, and when, the doctor met his wife.

Mr. Springer gets $500 to $40,000 for a complete design and layout, with the average being $10,000 to $15,000.

"That's the price of a car," he said. "So, obviously, most of my clients are pretty wealthy."

It's a risky, niche market that requires talent to make money, let alone a living.

"I would say there's no more than a dozen" who do the work full time and make a living at it, said Jim Kelly, managing editor of Model Railroader magazine, which has a monthly circulation of 230,000.

Mr. Springer is thriving, with more customers than he can handle. He could expand his business and hire employees, but is content to toil quietly alone.

Of course, Jeff Springer didn't plan to be a train man, but he's happy he is.

"It's been my hobby forever," he said. "It's great. I'm making a living doing what I love to do."

The son of a U.S. diplomat, Mr. Springer spent a few years living in Washington in the early 1970s.

It was there that he began to enjoy model trains and became an Orioles fan.

For the next 11 years, the young Mr. Springer lived in Europe -- Italy, France, but mostly Switzerland. As a teen-ager, he began building model railroads.

With a talent for art, and a passion for trains, he found he was pretty good at it, and that he enjoyed it.

But when planning his future, he did not include model railroading.

His interest was art, and when he was looking for a school to attend back in 1984, he chose Baltimore's Maryland Institute, College of Art.

He wanted to be a graphic artist.

And close to his beloved Orioles.

He didn't plan on settling here, but fell in love with Baltimore and met his future wife, Gayle, also an Orioles fan.

Her occupation?

"She's a computer geek," Mr. Springer said with an impish smile.

Five years ago, by accident, Mr. Springer got into building model railroads for pay.

A model train enthusiast in the area told him he could make money building train setups for people.

VTC So he began building them part time. Eventually, he found he was making more money with the trains than as a graphic artist.

Two years ago, he plunged in full time.

"I don't get a lot of customers per year," he says. "But I only need 10 to 12 a year."

He prides himself on giving people exactly what they want, and sometimes takes months researching areas and time periods, looking for the details that tell.

With the layout for French-German border town, he tracked down what the border guard uniforms looked like in the late 1940s, and carefully painted the uniforms onto human figures about a half-inch tall.

"It requires a vast amount of patience," he said.

To make his business work, Mr. Springer also had to learn how to locate unusual or hard-to-find trains and other elements of the layout.

He spent weeks searching for models of two rare German cars, Horsch and Messerschmidt, to add to the realism of the physician's border town layout.

For another customer, he created a Pennsylvania coal town of the early 1950s, complete with signals unique to the old Pennsylvania Railroad.

"He had to have those Pennsylvania Railroad signals, even if they cost him $75 per signal," Mr. Springer said.

His clients seem happy with his work.

"It was everything I wanted," says Frank L. Parchinski, 58, a Philadelphia-area resident who paid about $6,000 for an intricate 10-foot by 14-foot layout of the Pennsylvania Railroad of his boyhood.

Mr. Parchinski, trained as a civil engineer, suffered a stroke five years ago that forced him to stop working and left him using a wheelchair He also lost the use of his right hand.

Bored with television, he wanted something interesting to do with his time.

He thought of a model train layout, but no longer could build one himself.

After consulting with layout builders in Chicago, Florida and New Hampshire, Mr. Parchinski settled on Mr. Springer last September.

By November, Mr. Springer was setting up the elaborate model railroad in Mr. Parchinski's home.

It includes three trains that operate on separate controls, working switches and lights, cars, people, a passenger station, and plenty of coal cars, just like the railroad of his youth.

The layout is of a mythical small town, but it's close to what Mr. Parchinski can remember of his early boyhood, when he sat on an aunt's porch and watched trains rumble by for hours in Dickson City, in northeastern Pennsylvania.

"This is kind of an escape world for people," Mr. Springer said.

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