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Meet Craig Libuse of Miniature Engineering Craftsmanship Museum in Carlsbad

Today we’d like to introduce you to Craig Libuse.

Craig, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
Life turns out to be pretty good after all. You start with whatever basic talent you are blessed with, but a lot depends on who you meet along the way. I feel I’ve been very lucky in that regard.

After receiving a degree in Industrial Design from UCLA in 1968 and spending four years in the U.S. Air Force, I started and ran a one-man graphic arts studio in San Marcos from 1973 to 1996. One of my first clients was Joe Martin, the owner of a tool company called Sherline Products Inc. that was located in the same industrial park as my shop. Joe had recently purchased the company from its Australian founder, Ron Sher and was in the process of bringing production to the USA. He needed the Australian instruction manual, which was all done with black and white photos, reworked to meet the standards of Sears Roebuck, his first big customer. (All Sears instruction manuals are required to follow a certain format that included line drawings rather than photos.)

That first instruction manual was my introduction to Joe, and he remained a major client until 1996, by which time his company had grown to the point he needed a full-time graphics department to produce ads, sales literature and attend trade shows. He asked me to join his staff as a permanent employee, which I did in February, 1996 after closing down my own business. He was also one of the early visionaries who foresaw the potential of the Internet, so one of my first tasks as an employee was to figure out how to design, produce and maintain a web site at www.Sherline.com. (All html, no WYSIWYG web design programs back then.)

Over the years, Joe and I had become good friends, going windsurfing together on weekends and sharing some of the passion of his “need for speed” with racing sailboats and sports cars. Becoming an employee instead of an independent contractor changed the relationship somewhat, but we remained not only employer/employee but also friends, although some of our views on politics were polar opposites.

We also co-produced a book titled “Tabletop Machining.” He wrote the copy and I did the editing, page design, typesetting, photography and illustration. It is now in the fifth printing.

As a craftsman himself and now a manufacturer of precision miniature metalworking machine tools, he appreciated the fact that the craftsmen of the world were under-appreciated considering their important contributions to our quality of daily life. He felt they were also seriously under-paid compared to sports and entertainment figures and personally funded a non-profit foundation in 1997 to support and encourage craftsmanship. The initial project of the foundation was to be an on-line museum where the work of craftsmen from around the world could be displayed for all to see, free, 24 hours a day. I began collecting stories of craftsmen, what inspired them, how they worked and photos of their work to feature on the museum web site at www.CraftsmanshipMuseum.com. Having sold small benchtop machine tools used by craftsmen to create small engines and other miniature engineering masterpieces, it was only natural that we decided to feature hand-crafted works of art in miniature. As the site gained popularity after opening in 2002, we started getting inquiries from craftsmen willing to donate some of their work for actual display. What do we do with them?

Starting with a simple lobby display at the Sherline factory we soon realized that the fine projects we were getting merited a dedicated display area, so a portion of the factory was walled off and a 4300 square foot museum and demonstration machine shop was built in 2006. It was staffed with a retired machinist, Tom Boyer, who was tasked to demonstrate the machining skills needed to build miniature, running engines, and I would walk over from the marketing department and help out if we had visitors. There was also one volunteer, Larry Simon, who helped out too. At first there were only a few visitors a week, but that soon began to grow as word got out among model engineers, car clubs and local craftsmen.

Meanwhile, Charla Papp at Sherline had been trying for years to move the foundation from its initial status of a 509(a)(1) organization to a 501(c)(3) charity for tax purposes. With not only a web site but now a physical museum we could show that we provided a significant benefit to the public and that status was eventually awarded.

After a few years, contributions had continued to stream in, and the 6000 square foot area was soon filled to capacity with displays and shop tools. Being located in a factory in an industrial area at the end of a cul-de-sac also limited attendance, so it was decided to move forward with the purchase of a new 18,000 square foot industrial building in Carlsbad as the new home for the Craftsmanship Museum. It opened in February, 2011. In addition to my job as marketing director at Sherline Products, I was tasked with establishing the new museum, managing the display of new items and taking on the role of both curator and overall director. This involved also maintaining a record of all displays, both loaned and donated, called an accession. This is the official list of all items maintained by a museum, and the numbers had grown to the point where special museum software was needed to keep track of things on a more official basis than just an Excel spreadsheet. None of us had come from museum backgrounds, so we learned as we went along and grew with the success of the new museum. The board of directors now consists of five people from backgrounds in finance, graphics, education, machining and model engineering.

Joe Martin passed away a few years ago after contributing several million dollars of his own funds to the foundation and museums, and just before his death he mentioned that he was still disappointed with the attendance, which was then averaging about 19-20 people a day.

He stated that if he could just get 30 people a day to come see the displays he would be satisfied that his contribution had been worthwhile. He realized that miniature engines and models were not something that everyone appreciated. However, the appeal of miniatures of all kinds—from engines to dollhouses, guns, models and tools—seems to be universal, and it was less than 6 months after his passing that we achieved that goal of 30 visitors a day. As of the third quarter of 2017, we are now hosting an average of 53 people a day on a consistent basis and about 80 on Saturdays. I only regret that Joe did not live to see the success of his vision.

In addition to the museums (online and physical), the foundation also makes contributions to the world of craftsmanship. A $2000 award is given each year to the “Metalworking Craftsman of the Year.” There are also $500 lifetime achievement awards as well as awards of machinist’s tool chests and tools to worthy craftsmen graduating from a machining course at local Mira Costa College. An annual meeting is held each year in conjunction with the North American Model Engineering Society’s Exposition in Detroit each April. Though I recently retired from the day-to-day operation of the museum, I remain as executive director and president of the board of directors, working from my new home in Tennessee. Curator and overall management duties at the museum are now handled by Terry Miller and Charla Papp.

I was very fortunate to be in the right place at the right time to be able to help make Joe Martin’s dream a reality. The museum in Carlsbad continues to improve the number and quality of its over 1400 displays and attendance continues to climb as word gets around. It is still free to visit and open 5 days a week. I think if we could just get 100 people a day it would be all worthwhile. Why not?

Has it been a smooth road?
My training and background were in traditional graphics. That means stat cameras, pens, ink, airbrushes and felt-tip pens. The introduction of computers in the 1980’s required re-learning new ways to accomplish better results faster. The resulting increase in productivity was a great boon for customers, but not so much for the artist, who now was expected to produce four times as much work in an hour at the same hourly rate. That meant having to find a larger client base to both maintain an income and to pay for all the new computer hardware and software that needed constant updating. An IBM 386 and my first Apple computer cost $5000 in the late ‘80’s.

This was partly responsible for my decision to close my business and go to work for Sherline Products as marketing director when Joe Martin offered the job in 1996. Though I lost some independence, it was an improvement to have just one boss rather than 30 or 40 after working 23 years on my own. Paid vacations and medical benefits were a welcome change too. Computers also meant the end for several specialties in the graphics industry like typesetters, film shops and color separators so I was at least lucky that the job still required an artistic eye and design sense the computer couldn’t replace.

Learning the museum business and running a foundation was made easier by the fact that our growth was slow and steady at first and I could learn as we went while still handling my duties as marketing director at Sherline. It was also helpful that so many people working at other large and small museums in the area were willing to answer questions and help as we grew. It has now grown to the point that two people are required to do what I used to do myself.

So, as you know, we’re impressed with Miniature Engineering Craftsmanship Museum – tell our readers more, for example what you’re most proud of as a company and what sets you apart from others.
The Joe Martin Foundation for Exceptional Craftsmanship is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that supports and contributes to metalworking and other types of craftsmanship. The trend in education for several decades has been to push everyone into learning computer skills and getting a college degree as the keys to success. While this works for many people, there is still a huge demand for skilled people in the workplace. Not everyone has the temperament to work day-in, day-out at a desk behind a computer screen. Trades like machinist, mason, carpenter, plumber, welder, mechanic, etc. are still needed and provide a good living, and there are many out there who achieve much more satisfaction from producing a quality product with their hands. I am glad that Sherline Products has contributed to that through producing quality, American-made machine tools and the Joe Martin Foundation has helped raise people’s awareness of the value of skilled work.

Let’s touch on your thoughts about our city – what do you like the most and least?
Best: San Diego is all about the great climate. Almost anywhere you go from here it will not be as nice. Also, being able to drive from beach to desert to mountains in only a few hours is not possible for most of the world’s population. The area has it all–beautiful and varied scenery, great weather most days of the year plus a full complement of fine restaurants, schools, entertainment and shopping. If you can’t find something to do in San Diego, you’re not trying.

Worst: Crowds. I moved to Carlsbad in the early 1970’s, and you could park your car on top of the bluffs and walk down the cliff to surf about anywhere you wanted. No longer. Parking is at a premium, limiting beach use. I understand the need, but I hated to see a parking fee added to the lot at Tamarack beach. When you have a place this nice, I guess you can’t expect to keep it to yourself.

Contact Info:

  • Address: 3190 Lionshead Avenue, Carlsbad, CA 92010
  • Website: www.CraftsmanshipMuseum.com
  • Phone: 760-727-9492
  • Email: terry@CraftsmanshipMuseum.com

Image Credit:
Craig Libuse
Gary Conley

Getting in touch: SDVoyager is built on recommendations from the community; it’s how we uncover hidden gems, so if you know someone who deserves recognition please let us know here.

3 Comments

  1. Ray Muttart

    January 8, 2018 at 6:18 pm

    Wonderful, Hope someday to visit the museum.

  2. Louis Chenot

    January 19, 2018 at 4:01 am

    The San Diego area is so fortunate to have the Craftsmanship Museum nearby in Carlsbad. A big thank you to Craig Libuse in keeping Joe Martin’s dream alive. And thanks to the SDVoyager for the inspiring and informative interview with Craig.

  3. Thayer Syme

    June 19, 2018 at 6:24 am

    Joe was right. The people who’s work is featured in the museum are true artists, and fully deserve all the attention their work brings, be they Sherline customers or not. I’ve been to the museum a few times, and every time there is so much more to see and appreciate. The displays are true examples of the miniaturist’s art, and so inspiring for anyone who enjoys making things, or just appreciates fine craftsmanship.

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