The Internet Craftsmanship Museum Presents:

John Aschauer

December 26, 1896—1979

Added to museum: 12/15/11

Outstanding Miniature Machine Tools from a Lifelong Tool and Die Maker

Written and submitted by Jeff Bond and Mr. Aschauer's daughter Hilda and granddaughter Claudia.


John Aschauer at work on one of his miniature machine tool models. (Click on photo to view a larger image.)

“It should be up to every individual, absolutely, to make his own way in life. This is absolutely necessary in order for creativity to exist. I don’t think you will find much creativity or invention in a society where there are too many handouts or giveaways, or where there is no desire to work hard at a job and excel in your work.” —John Aschauer


John Aschauer was a master machinist and tool maker and an extraordinary miniature machine tool maker. Much like many others who build miniatures, his models are literally works of art. He once conservatively estimated that he had spent more than 25,000 hours building over fifty machine tool models and many accessories that make up his miniature machine tool shop collection. That is equivalent to almost twenty years of full-time employment. His complete collection is on display at the American Precision Museum in Windsor, Vermont.

An early start with tools in Germany

He was born Johann Aschauer on December 26, 1896, Sauerlach, Bavaria, Germany. His was a humble family. Johann’s father was a railroad man, worked for modest wages, and always made sure that his family had enough to eat. Johann was the middle of three boys—an older half-brother, Josef, and a younger brother, Franz. When he was once asked what he remembered as his first tool, he said, “I remember going out into the woodshed and picking up the handsaw. I held it a minute, then cut a piece of wood, because I wanted to see how it would feel. I liked the way it felt, but the cut was cock-eyed. I couldn’t really hold the big handle, and it kept slipping.”

At age 12 he began a three-year tool and die apprenticeship at Alois Stocker Machinenfabrik GmbH (Pfaffenhofen, Germany), a manufacturer of lumber mill saws. At this company there was a double-boiler steam-power plant that was used to drive line shafts that powered all the factory machinery and equipment. Two years into his apprenticeship, he began working on a scale model of this double-boiler steam-power plant using the window sill in his mother’s kitchen as his work bench. He completed his apprenticeship at the age of fifteen with the highest recommendation of his superiors. It took him another three years to complete this model, which he finished at age eighteen at about the same time that World War I began.

Johann "John" Aschauer's first model took 3 years to complete. (Click on photo to view a larger version.)

This model was disassembled and stored in several suitcases in the attic of his parents’ house, where it stayed until he was able to retrieve it after World War II and bring it to the United States and reassemble it. This model is also on display at the American Precision Museum. This model is amazing in several aspects. First, it was built by a fourteen- to eighteen-year old teenager and is of such high quality craftsmanship. In addition, it survived two World Wars in Germany hidden in an attic. During World War II a bomb did strike near enough to his parents’ house that its blast tore off the roof and blew out doors and windows. However, the model survived.

John is seen standing at left in the family photo and in his army uniform in the second. (Click on either photo to view a larger image.)

One month shy of his nineteenth birthday, Johann joined the German Army (Infantry) in November 1915. He served in the German military for about 3 years and was released in November 1918. He suffered a slight bullet wound to a finger while fighting in one of several battles located in Flanders, Belgium, and earned the German Iron Cross for his service.

On October 1, 1921, at age twenty-four, Johann married his wife Paulina Santer (“Paula”), nine years his senior. They had a daughter, Krimhilde Johanna (alternate spelling “Crymhilde” or “Hilda”) on February 4, 1923 in Pfaffenhofen, Bavaria, Germany during the height of Germany’s hyper-inflation crisis. This was when a one-billion Mark note was not enough to purchase a simple cup of coffee, and printing presses were working non-stop printing money.

From Germany to Canada to Detroit

The S.S. Yorck brought John to Nova Scotia in 1927. He is seen standing, far right in the second photo. (Click on either photo for a larger view)

John emigrated from Bremen, Germany on the S.S. Yorck on April, 5 1927, arriving in Halifax, Nova Scotia April 15, 1927 and briefly settling in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada.

The S.S Seydlitz brought John's family a few months later.

His wife, Paula, and daughter, Hilda, joined him four months later leaving Bremen on August 2, 1927, arriving in Halifax, Nova Scotia on August 12, 1927, traveling on a similar ship called the S.S. Seydlitz.  The entire family settled in Kitchener (a German community known as Little Berlin), Ontario, Canada, because Paula was Austrian and the quota for Austrian immigrants into the United States had already been reached. (This was because The Immigration Act of 1924 limited the number of immigrants allowed entry into the United States through a national origins quota.) Younger brother, Franz Aschauer, also came over and settled with them in Kitchener. While in Kitchener, John worked for the Jackson, Cochrane & Company. This company made a full line of woodworking machinery.

John's first job in North America was with Jackson, Cochrane & Co. building woodworking machinery in Canada.

John immigrated to Detroit on May 6, 1928, followed by Paula and Hilda on June 29, 1928. A border crossing record was found to show that in reference to John “...this alien speaks good English."

Work in the auto industry

John initially found work as a tool and die maker and machinist. Although records are scarce it is believed that he worked at the Century-Detroit Company in Detroit, Studebaker Motor Company, and the Hudson Motor Car Company before finally landing steady work at Ford Motor in Highland Park, and then moving to Ford’s River Rouge Plant.

After moving to Detroit in 1930, John found work as a tool and die maker in the U.S. auto industry. (Click on photo to view a larger version.)

According to U.S. 1930 census records, he was a tool maker for an auto factory in the Detroit area and his family, including John’s brother, Frank, was living in Highland Park, MI (Wayne County) at 12821 Trumbull Avenue, with a monthly rent of thirty-five dollars. During the beginning of The Great Depression he lost his machinist job because of complaints brought against the newest immigrants holding jobs when other workers had been in America for longer periods of time. Jobs were very much sought after during this timeframe and having a trade or skill, although valuable, was no guarantee of keeping a job. But in John’s specific case these complaints were more focused, as he was not yet a citizen. When asked about this once, John said, “I lost my jobs because citizens complained about a non-citizen having work, and that was sensible. I had to wait five years to get my citizenship papers.” Records show that John became a naturalized citizen of the United States on January 3, 1934.

A 27-year career at Ex-Cell-O starts in 1933

John began working at Ex-Cell-O in 1933 and retired from that company in 1960 after twenty-seven years of continuous employment. While employed by Ex-Cell-O and during the later years of the Depression he and his wife bought land, a little at a time, until they had about five acres. During World War II, John and his family personally constructed an eleven-room stone house in Warren, MI complete with a basement. Their level backyard became a small four and one-half acre farm and vegetable garden where they also raised a few chickens, cows and pigs. During World War II, he was a “farmer” during the day, and at night he was a tool and die maker. It was from this farm that put food on their table with any extra produce being sold to his co-workers at the Ex-Cell-O plant. John sometimes worked different shifts depending on various manufacturing needs at the time.

Unfounded espionage charges result from "suspicious activity" in his basement

Neighbors mistakenly reported the family as German spies during WW II after seeing lights on in the basement at night. (Click phot0 to view larger image.)

One interesting anecdote about John occurred during World War II when anti-German sentiment and suspicion was very high across the entire United States. As was the case in most areas of the country that were supporting the war effort in significant ways, such as manufacturing, factories and industrial operations, there was a lot of propaganda generated to be on the watch for suspicious activity and strangers asking unusual questions. As a result of this heightened sense of security, John and his family were reported by neighbors as German spies. Neighbors thought that the family was having secret meetings to plan to sabotage armored tanks that were being built at the nearby Chrysler Tank Plant. Completed, near-combat-ready, tanks were then transported by railcar along the Grand Trunk Western Railroad tracks that ran directly behind John’s house. Neighbors felt that since they were seeing lights on in his basement late into the evening, sometimes all night long, something suspicious was happening. What else could it be? Acting on this reported suspicious activity, an FBI agent visited the house, interviewed John and Paula and explained that neighbors had reported them because lights were constantly on in his basement. John escorted this FBI agent downstairs to the basement and showed him the homemade chicken incubator that he had constructed by hand. To keep these newly hatched baby chicks warm, numerous light bulbs incorporated into his device were kept on all the time. The FBI agent told him that he felt that his neighbors had probably reported them out of jealousy, and that they had nothing more to worry about. One can only imagine the numerous discussions that must have taken place back at the FBI agent’s office afterward.

John is seen with his steam powered machine shop. This picture gives a good idea of the scale of the model machines. (Click on photo to view a larger image.)

Understanding the "how" and the "why"

John was noted as being able to fix almost anything, and usually when he fixed something it remained that way. He enjoyed working with his hands and understanding the “how” and “why” of the way machines and things worked. He built many items for himself and for his family over the years.

John’s last several years at Ex-Cell-O were within their Special Machinery Division. He also worked in their welding area making various airplane components of the time. This work was housed in a separate building due to fumes that were generated by welding operations each day. Although John’s formal education ended at the age of twelve when he began his initial apprenticeship, his engineering knowledge and complete grasp of manufacturing and machining principles would match that of the best graduate engineers of his day.

John with one of the machines at Ex-Cell-O in the Special Machinery Division where he worked. (Click photo to view a larger image.)

John was also a skilled Trades member of UAW Local 49 and was issued UAW Journeyman Card Number 129553 on October 20, 1977, for the trade of Toolmaker. As often as he could, he would attend the functions and events where his miniature machine tools would be displayed and he enjoyed talking with others with similar interests and background experiences. He absolutely loved the industry that provided him an occupation and, more importantly, a vocation.

One of over 50 miniature tools made by John. Though hard to tell in the photo, this is a 1/16 scale model of a belt-driven lathe. (Click photo to view larger image.) Photo Courtesy of Ted Jerome

Miniature tool collection displayed in numerous locations

John’s complete collection of more than fifty 1/16 scaled size models, were first displayed at the International Machine Tool Exposition (EMO) in Hanover, West Germany in the fall of 1967 and have since been displayed at such places as the International Manufacturing Technology Show (1968 and 1974), Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, UAW Skilled Trades Conference in New Orleans (1977), Detroit Bank and Trust, Detroit Historical Museum, California’s Museum of Technology, the Watervliet Arsenal (New York), Charlotte, NC, West Springfield, MA, and at several industrial facilities and community anniversary celebrations throughout the country.

John in his early 80's.(Click photo to view larger image.)

Entire tool collection now on display at the American Precision Museum in Vermont

His complete collection of these minor miracles of design and craftsmanship was presented to the National Machine Tool Builders’ Association (now known as AMT—The Association For Manufacturing Technology) in 1972. AMT then transferred the entire collection, minus eleven miniatures, in July 1990 to the American Precision Museum. The eleven models were kept at AMT Headquarters in McLean, Virginia, on display until 2010 at which time the entire collection was reunited and now resides at the American Precision Museum in Windsor, VT. This fulfilled John’s one enduring wish that his collection would never be broken up, but ultimately kept together at a single location.

John passed away in 1979 at the age of eighty-four. As of this writing, his daughter Hilda and three granddaughters—Paula, Laura, and Claudia all still fondly talk of their grandfather and his models and of their varied memories that they share.

No plans or drawings used to make the models

One amazing fact about all of John Aschauer’s models is that he made each one by hand from memory and with a lot of patience and love. He used no plans and no detailed drawings, but these models are reflective of each full-size machine that he personally worked with over the years. He used only small hand tools, a battery of files, emery cloth and a small engine lathe that he designed and built himself. He also used a simple bench drill press and bench shaper. He motorized all his miniature machine tools and they all still work today.

In 1974, NMTBA provided a specially constructed set of display cabinets that now house the collection. Overall, these models represent a complete miniature working machine shop factory typical of the 1920's and 1930's. Every miniature machine tool actually works. In fact, John made each and every tiny screw, bolt and nut. Every small hammer, file and C-clamp was made to exacting detail. He machined every gear and made every hydraulic pipe and fitting. He even turned out handles from bone, which he split, ground and hand rubbed to size. He was a fine craftsman, a gentleman and a gentle man.

John Aschauer at work on one of his 1/16 scale lathes. (Click on photo to view a larger image.)

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Here are some examples of John Aschauer's work:

(Click photos for larger images.)

A gang drilling machine in 1/16 scale.

(First photo Courtesy of Ted Jerome, second by Jeff Bond)

Two opposed cylinder boring machines for a "V" engine block in a production line environment.

(Photo Courtesy of Jeff Bond)

A 1/16 scale gang angular boring machine.

(Photo Courtesy of Jeff Bond)

A 1/16 scale band saw.

(First photo Courtesy of Ted Jerome, second courtesy of Jeff Bond)

A 1/16 scale table saw.

(First photo Courtesy of Ted Jerome, second courtesy of Jeff Bond)

A 1/16 scale shaper.

(Photo Courtesy of Jeff Bond)

A 1/16 scale engine lathe.

(Photo Courtesy of Jeff Bond)

A 1/16 scale scraper.

(Photo Courtesy of Jeff Bond)

An old display of some of John's tools was set up so a visitor could push a button to see them run.

(Photos Courtesy of the American Precision Museum, photographer is unknown)

The original steam plant made in John's youth in Germany was brought over on the ship in parts and reassembled for display here.

(Photos Courtesy of the American Precision Museum, photographer is unknown)

Older black and white photos of the steam machine shop.

(Photos Courtesy of the American Precision Museum, photographer is unknown)

One final photo of the steam machine shop.

(Photo Courtesy of the American Precision Museum, photographer is unknown)

John Aschauer displays four lumber mills he built. Each is painted a different color, and each has a miniature log in it being milled.

(Photo courtesy of Claudia Gabriel)

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