STORY BY SHARON VERBETEN | PHOTOS BY HEIDI HODGES
In 1950, Berlin, Germany, had about 3.3 million residents. Imagine a child of about five or six, walking across this post-World War II city, simply to get to a hobby shop.
That’s what Gunter Reiche and his young pals did more than 60 years ago.
As a child, Reiche’s parents took him to a fire engine show, where he decided he must have a model of a fire engine. So the boys made a grueling trek to that shop, far across the city, where they ended up buying a model of a fire truck and a model VW.
“I have no idea where I got the money,” Reiche recalls, laughing, but he does remember getting in trouble for this little outing. Still, it was enough to cement his love of models forever.
It was many years later, in the early years of the Cold War, that his beloved city was divided by the infamous Berlin Wall.
Reiche still has family in Germany’s capital city, and he has fond memories as well. One special one is when his daughter, Heidi Hodges and son Eric Reiche, visited the city in November of 1989 while the Berlin Wall was being torn down.
“I always knew it would come down,” says Reiche, who visited his home city just a year later to see the change and upheaval for himself--the city he freely crossed, as a young child, to purchase his first model.
But of all his adventures—both overseas and here at home in Door County—there’s nothing he enjoys more than “puttering” around in his workshop.
But it’s not just any workshop. It’s far from puttering. And it’s much more than a man cave, although it readily serves that purpose.
Reiche, a machinist and tool maker by trade, has spent more than 60 years as a premiere craftsman of precision scale models of ships. His 1,600-square foot machine/model building shop is located just steps away from the Sturgeon Bay home he shares with his wife of 52 years, Kay. And he doesn’t need much a reason to venture over.
In his confident and slight German accent, he graciously invites this reporter to visit his studio…and the amazing craftsmanship to be revealed inside.
A PASSION FOR THE SEA
A native Berliner, Reiche moved in his youth and grew up in the port city of Hamburg, which may help explain his love of the sea and all things nautical. While that love of ships sparked an early interest in model making, he initially envisioned a career on the sea.
“I wanted to be a sailor, but my folks said, ‘No, you might as well learn a profession first, a trade. You can always go on a ship later on.’”
Turns out, that might have been wise advice. “I always wanted to be a navigator, but everywhere I get lost,” says Reiche, who has two grown children and five grandchildren.
As a teen in the 1950s, he apprenticed at Stührmann, a German model-making company contracted to make scale replicas, including those of the massive fleet of shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. “You take pride in knowing that you worked for what was considered the best (model-making company) in the world,” Reiche says. That experience at such a young age honed Reiche’s skills, compelling him to continue refining his craft.
A few short years later, he got his journeyman’s card and worked at a dive shop, machining and building parts. They were additional skills he would later bring to his career and hobbies.
Through his early years working, “I got to know everything from chemistry to watchmaking,” says Reiche, whose other passion—scuba diving—also relates to his love of the sea.
“I always had a passion for water, an obsession for Viking ships and 13th-century sailing vessels,” says Reiche, who as a young man first pursued snorkeling and scuba diving in the seas of northern Germany.
“It started in the pool, diving for rubber rings,” he recalls. “I liked that feeling; it’s like being in a different world; when you’re making a shore dive; you feel like there’s no footsteps there; you’re the first one to see this. It’s the exhilaration of being in a different world.”
His first scuba dives were made using old escape unit scuba gear from WWII German submarines. He eventually brought his creative skills to diving; soon he was in the workshop making his own underwater lights, camera housings and even his own rudimentary, but workable, dive suits.
He continues to dive today and has explored the shipwrecks of Door County. And he hasn’t let age slow him down; he recently partook in a diving excursion to Denmark (the country, not the nearby town) with an old dive buddy.
CREATIVITY CROSSES THE POND
When Reiche, then 19, came to the United States to visit his sister, Rita in 1961, he didn’t realize how drastically his life was about to change. On his visit to Iowa, he met Rita’s co-worker Kay, whom he later asked on a date. Just eight months later, he returned to Germany an engaged man.
By 1963, he and Kay had married and settled in Cedar Rapids, where he took a job in heavy machining, which was much different than the small parts machining he was familiar with.
“I didn’t know anything about it,” he recalls. “I just bluffed my way in.”
But as hard as he was working, Reiche longed to continue his other passion, diving. Unfortunately, Iowa wasn’t exactly a prime maritime location.
It was then that the couple joined a dive club excursion to Door County, a trip that ignited the couple’s love of the peninsula. And when Reiche wasn’t able to find machining work in the area, they traveled south—following Lake Michigan’s coast—to Kenosha, where the couple spent most of their life. Back on the water again!
In Kenosha, Reiche did machining, toolmaking and worked in research and development with different companies. Then, 16 years ago, after 30 years at Snap-On Tools, he retired—and moved to Door County the same day to break ground on a new home.
Reiche notes, “This whole area (the coast of Lake Michigan) is like a carbon copy of the coastline on the Baltic Coast, [and] a big part of my heart is still at the Baltic Sea.”
MODELING HIS FUTURE
In a pile of well-thumbed photo albums, Reiche points out a black-and-white photo of himself, around 8 years old, holding the first ship model he built.
Over the years since, “I went through a lot of stuff that got scrapped,” he admits.
But perhaps he’s just as proud of that first model as he is of the many displayed in his shop, the ones he helped make for Onassis or the custom ones he’s made for clients—like a 6-foot model of the schooner Lomie Burton, built for Charlie Voight, owner of Charlie’s Smokehouse in Gill’s Rock.
“I always wanted my own model shop,” he says. In Kenosha, he had just that—a place where he could create both original and custom precision models in his garage and, later, basement. But they were small spaces. When the couple moved to Sturgeon Bay 16 years ago, Reiche knew a proper model shop would be part of the plans.
His “play room and think room” are decorated with sundry, quirky and meaningful accouterments—from faded photos of his mother and father to a cross-stitch of the Serenity Prayer, Donald Duck toys and a 1920s guitar belonging to his father that Reiche repaired. “I left the imprints of (my father’s) fingers,” he fondly recalls.
The German flag proudly greets visitors in the front room, as do cases of delicate miniatures he has handcrafted for his models. One room is entirely consumed with lathes—including one he built himself--and machines weighing tons. Another workspace houses models in various stages of completion, as well as small tooling machines, including an original watchmaker’s lathe from the German company he interned at more than 50 years ago.
There’s nothing basic, easy or quick about the models Reiche crafts. It starts with photographing, in great detail, the boat he’ll be replicating. He makes his own patterns, meticulously creating the body out of bass wood. Every last detail—from the paint to the lettering to the tiny details like steering wheels, wires, portholes and engines—are hand-tooled and hand finished.
All are built to scale, which requires a lot of math and precision. Ironically, Reiche recalls with a laugh, “I failed math.”
“But my jobs at Snap On, Hamilton Beach and Modine consisted of nothing but math,” he pointed out.
Each model could take literally a year or more to finish, depending on the detail. But Reiche’s years of experience and multiple machining jobs lent familiarity with mathematical and mechanical precision as well as attention to detail—all important aspects he brings to his model building.
“It’s something creative that I like to do,” he says.
And even though he is now technically retired and doesn’t make models for customers anymore, he’s still building for himself. “I would like to finish the ones I started 30 to 40 years ago,” he says.
“There’s a passion that I have for it,” he says. And it’s obvious that this careful craftsman doesn’t just keep tools in his toolbox; he also has to pack patience. “There have been many times when I have to put everything back, put down any hammers, and walk away slowly…you see something beautiful but you have no idea how much cursing and cusses [happen] before it gets done.”
Aristotle Onassis made his living thanks to the sea—he said, “We must free ourselves of the hope that the sea will ever rest.”
It’s much the same for Reiche, who spent a lifetime chasing the sea, reveling in it and replicating the mighty vessels that sailed on it.
It’s likely he’ll never rest either.