The Internet Craftsmanship Museum Presents:

Clarence "Clarry" Dawson

Re-established in museum: 2/20/08

Builder of a wide variety of steam and gas engines that were made to be run

 Clarry Dawson fine-tunes the steam engine in his tugboat "Pathfinder." This photo was taken from an article about Clarry in the local North San Diego County newspaper, the Blade-Tribune. Other articles about Clarry had appeared in the Carlsbad Journal, The Tribune "Metro Coast News" and other local newpapers. (Click on photo for larger image.)

Clarence Dawson was known to his friends as “Clarry.” When he passed away in 2005, his daughter called the Joe Martin Foundation for advice on what to do with his large collection of steam engines. Because he lived in nearby Carlsbad, CA we had the opportunity to document his work and to learn a little about the man who made this wide variety of engines.

Detailers vs. Operators

Among model engineers there are those whose primary concern is looks, while others are strictly concerned with operation. Clarry was an operator, but also both a clever and prolific craftsman in his retired years. In his case, “retired” means doing what he had always wanted to do rather than simply trying to make a living, because his daily schedule simply changed from repairing cars to making engines. The examples shown here represent a wide variety of types and configurations, showing that Clarry was always up for a new challenge when it came to engines.

Australia to England to Australia to the USA

Clarry Dawson was born in Australia and moved to Kent, England at age 10 where he loved to watch the steam trains that were then in service, moving the goods of commerce. He later served as a Flight Engineer in the Royal Air Force in World War II. The RAF provided him with most of his mechanical skills, which he took advantage of when he moved back to Australia after the war to build custom vehicles. Finding it hard to make a living in Australia and at the suggestion of an American friend, he came to Los Angeles in the 1960’s. Not caring for the big city traffic he was about to return to Australia, but by chance drove down to San Diego and found the coastal communities there more like his native Queensland. Leaving Australia behind but retaining a trace of his native accent, he decided to stay in the United States, and in 1967 went to work for the body shop of an auto dealership in Encinitas. Three years later he left the dealership and opened Dawson's Body and Paint shop in Carlsbad, which he ran successfully for the next decade before retiring.

Early love of steam sparks a retirement hobby

Clarry often recalled his youth in England, where he had acquired his fondness for steam engines. Now he was also interested in them for the history they represented, having powered the Industrial Revolution. A few years before his retirement, he started purchasing the machine tools he would need to build them, and upon his retirement in 1975 he had a very well equipped home shop ready for his use. With the time, the interest and the skills of a lifetime of working with metal, he was ready to do what he really wanted—build model steam engines.

Clarry had collected many books and magazines full of photos and drawings of the engines he wanted to build. He usually spent about three months on each engine, working on it until it ran to his satisfaction. Once he had it running, he had achieved his goal and was ready to move on to the next project. Some of the projects might take up to nine months to build because of size, complication or because he was also building a boat or locomotive to be driven by the engine. Over the years he built several large radio-controlled launches and tugs as well as several steam locomotives, but still managed to turn out 20 models in a 5 year period, averaging 4 per year. Eventually his collection consisted of over 45 engines.

Though most of his engines were tested and run using compressed air as a more convenient source of power, the locomotives and boats were run on live steam. Because his home in Carlsbad was located on a finger of water extending in from the local lagoon, he was able to run his boats right from a dock in his back yard, hoisting them into the water with a crane he built. He also built a section of track that ran from inside his machine shed out into the back yard to test his locomotives.

“Elegance in steel”

The steam locomotives are built to 1" scale (1/12 size) with track about 4" between the rails. Some of the larger boats are built to ½" scale (1/24 size) while the largest Case tractor was built to 2" scale (1/6 size) because of the large amount of detail in the engine. Clarry would usually have at least two projects going at any one time. If a problem or lack of material brought one project to a temporary halt he could go back to the other project and keep busy. What had begun as a relaxing retirement diversion had become somewhat of an obsession, and he admitted that he would get “anxious if I don’t have at least one project in progress.” He also said, “I try to keep a lot of materials on hand so I don’t have to go looking for it when I need it.” Clarry did a lot of research on each model and would draw a full set of plans to scale before starting any project. His goal for each machine was to be something different than he had done before and also to duplicate the original in every detail as closely as possible. He would even purchase tin soldier figures and modify them to turn them into workers to populate some of his models, adding a human scale to them.

“Elegance in steel” was how he thought of his machines. He noted that working with metal is more difficult than working with wood. “If you make a mistake in metal, you have to throw it away and start again,” he was quoted as saying in a 1989 article in the local North San Diego County newspaper. Over the years there were several newspapers articles printed on Clarry and his engines. He would also show his engines at the San Diego County Fair in Del Mar and also at local libraries. In addition to his modeling skills, Clarry was an accomplished self-taught musician and also found time to enjoy vegetable gardening and collecting aboriginal artifacts.

Lost craftsmanship: Some thoughts for other craftsmen to consider

Though his daughter tried on a number of occasions to talk to Clarry about what he wanted done with his collection he would always avoid the subject. After his passing all his tools and models were eventually sold at an auction in Pennsylvania. The engines are now in the hands of many new owners, most of whom know little or nothing about the builder. To other craftsmen who are reading this section, we would like to urge you to make plans for the future of your work and either find a relative who will love and care for it or specify what is to be done with it after your passing. Though not pleasant to think about, it is important if you wish your work to live on to be appreciated by future generations, and failing to do so can place an unnecessary burden on your family who may not be able to find as good a home for your work as you would.

Clarry's busy shop was in a shed out behind the house and not far from a small pond that bordered his property where he could sail his steam powered boats. Rail lines in the yard ran into the shed for working on and running the steam locomotives. After his passing, the tools were auctioned off along with his models. If he ever thought about who he would have wanted to have the tools he never told anyone, so they went to strangers. If you have spent a lifetime putting together a fine shop, you should make it a priority to let someone know what you would like done with your tools and projects should anything happen to you. (Click any photo for a larger view.)

Here are several examples of Clarry Dawson's work:

(Click photos for larger images.)

This 0-4-0 live steam engine is called the "Myall" and the tender is dated 1-47.

Also shown are the locomotives "Ironhorse" (rear) and a very early model with tender.

A beautifully detailed 2-4-0 called the "Jupiter."


Marine type steam engines and a simple 2-cylinder engine with valve on top.
Several examples of "Walking Beam" steam engines.
Vertical steam engines of varying designs
Hit-n-miss gas engines
  A two-cylinder "outboard" and other interesting engine designs. The third might be called a "sliding beam" configuration.
A simple vertical oscillating engine and a couple of very complicated steam plants.
  Two horizontal engines where two cylinders power a single flywheel.
An interesting overhead valve engine.
The steam powered "Old Chap."
The steam tugboat "Pathfinder" is complete with crew figures.
  The steam tugs "Endeavor" and "Conquest."
A covered steam launch.
  This very large Case traction engine (tractor) is a very impressive piece. Another traction engine tows a water tank trailer.
A large and complicated steam crane travels on a rail car for construction, repair or salvage along the rightofway.

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