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Alexandria man's version of beating swords into plowshares

Retiree turns his brass cartridge casings into miniatures.

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Alexandria resident George Weatherwax shows how the roofs come off the cabin made completely from empty ammunition casings. (Karen Tolkkinen / Echo Press)

ALEXANDRIA โ€” What to do with the empty brass cartridge casings from hunting or a visit to the shooting range?
Some people reload them. Some toss them.

George Weatherwax, a retiree from Alexandria, turns his into a miniature scene from the Civil War era โ€” two cabins with chimneys, a pot-bellied stove, chair and banjo, table with tiny utensils, and many other pieces. His cabins have won top awards at the Douglas County Fair.

"I shoot a lot of guns," Weatherwax said.

He said he always saves his brass. "I think the thing a lot of people don't understand is everything is made out of them."

If Vining has its artist who makes gigantic sculptures out of lawnmower blades, Ken Nyberg, Weatherwax is Alexandria's counterpart in miniature.
Weatherwax's hobby started in 2019 or thereabouts, when he started fiddling with empty shells and thinking they could fit together like the corners on a Lincoln Log building.

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He's got a degree in industrial arts and spent 32 years fixing things for 3M in Alexandria. He knew he had to notch out the shells to get them to fit together properly, but it took 12 attempts before he finally got them how he wanted.

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George Weatherwax's miniature cabins made from empty brass shell casings have taken top prize at the Douglas County Fair. (Karen Tolkkinen / Echo Press)

When he got the first cabin done, he took it to the Elks Lodge to show some buddies. A police officer who happened to be there asked him if he could use more casings, and now he's got buckets of brass casings.

He makes everything in his basement shop, which is equipped with a lathe, a Dremel tool, an old farmer's anvil, a sodering iron, drill press, and other tools. He makes his own wooden jigs and molds, which help hold the pieces of brass until he can soder them together.

All the roof shingles are made with .223-caliber casings hammered flat and cut. A little teapot with a top that comes off was made from a .270-caliber Winchester magnum, which was suitably fat and round.

Many of the pieces came because of his own past. He grew up skating with clamp-on skates, a mini anchor symbolizes his Navy time, and an ancestor, Thomas Jefferson Weatherwax, served during the Civil War in a Minnesota regiment.

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George Weatherwax shows the type of shell casing used to make the canoe. (Karen Tolkkinen / Echo Press)

When he was young, Weatherwax served in the Navy. His job was to fire 3-inch, 50-caliber guns, and the huge brass casings would get discarded over the side of the boat. He saved four of them; one he turned into an ashtray in 1975 to accommodate all the smokers in the Navy. That was his first project.

He's been inspired by trench art, art created by World War I soldiers often from shell casings and other military byproducts during times of inaction, imprisonment, or convalescence. He first saw trench art in a museum in Cody, Wyoming.

"It's unbelievable how talented those guys were," Weatherwax said.

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In his shop, there are dozens of things a shell casing can become. An intricate woven basket. A treasure chest with tiny bits of gold coins. A pot belly stove with a door that latches. Rifles. A canoe. A telescope. Lanterns. A scythe. A cannon.

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George Weatherwax demonstrates how the pump handle moves on a well pump made from spent brass cartridges. (Karen Tolkkinen / Echo Press)

There's also a much more modern sign โ€” a peace symbol, which was first designed in 1958.

"It is supposed to be a dichotomy from beating your swords into plowshares and make your empty casings into peace signs," Weatherwax said.

It's his most recent creation, but that's because it took him a while to figure out how to make it. He finally made it from .223-caliber bullets, which he says are the ones used by the "knotheads" often involved in mass shootings.

The peace sign reflects his complicated views on war. He served during Vietnam, but he wasn't stationed there. The closest he came to action was in October 1973, when his ship headed to Israel to evacuate Americans during the October War. Still, he began to see war as an unfortunate thing mostly over resources.

"It's just too bad that everybody fights over natural resources," he said. "That's basically what war is; someone trying to take someone else's natural resources and it's too bad that's what happens. But just because people like me don't believe war is the answer doesn't mean someone won't come over and try to take our resources. That's what's happening in Ukraine right now. (Russians) want their wheat fields and whatever else is of value."

Reporter Karen Tolkkinen grew up in Plymouth, Minnesota, graduated from the University of Minnesota with a journalism degree in 1994. Driven by curiosity and a desire to learn about the United States, Karen Tolkkinen has covered local news from Idaho to New Hampshire to Alabama and landing at the Echo Press in Alexandria in 2017.
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