Miniature ‘Barn Find’ plays to classic car dreamers

At first glance, Thomas Norpell’s contribution to the classic car hobby is a little on the small side. But the artist, who specializes in miniature recreations of historic buildings, has made a big impression with his latest work, called “Barn Find.”

Norpell, an automobile enthusiast, decided to bring every car lover’s dream to life – in miniature, of course – by creating a realistic barn scene with a trio of 1/18th scale diecast model cars “discovered” inside: a Ferrari 250 GT Berlinetta, a Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR Gullwing and a Bugatti Type 57 SC Atlantic coupe.

“Everyone who loves cars dreams about what it would be like to find a beautiful classic hiding under a tarp in a barn, let alone three. So I think this speaks to a lot of people,” Norpell said. “It was an interesting concept because this piece was actually my first full scene. Most of the miniatures I’ve done are facades, but this is a full scene in a box that people can actually recess into a wall in their house.”

The 66-year-old Norpell has owned both a 1961 Chevrolet Corvette and a ’63 Jaguar E-type, but “I had to give them up when I refurbished my house,” he said. “Maybe someday I’ll be able to get another.”

Norpell said he was a “starving artist” for 10 years, working in paint and sculpture, before he landed a career in marketing. His interest in creating miniatures began after he traveled to Europe in the late 1980s. “I was shooting photos all over the place,” he said. “I saw a building in Venice that was absolutely magnificent. But when I developed my photos, the shot was blurry. I didn’t know when I’d ever get back to Italy again, so I decided to build it myself.”

Norpell, who recently moved from Chicago to Martinsville, Ind., said he loved the challenge and enjoyed how the miniatures combined different skills – sculpting, painting, architecture and scenic design. Through trial and error, he began to fine tune his methods, and in the mid-’90s began marketing his work through galleries. “But it became too much like manufacturing, so I started to diminish the commercial aspect and increase the fine art aspect.”

He has since created nearly 200 miniatures, from “old world” pubs and historic buildings to lighthouses, theaters and farmhouses.

“When I begin a project, the first one is an awful lot of work because I have to pause to consider design options,” he said. “Some take three or four months, some take two to three months. I like to reinvent each one and try different things, which makes it fun for me.”

Prices range from $1,500 to $12,000. “Barn Find,” Norpell’s first creation with an automotive theme, has a base price of $6,800, plus the cost of the intricate cars, which range from $39 to $400. It is constructed in a “room box” measuring 16 inches high by 24 inches wide by 18 inches deep, a closed diorama that keeps it “dust free and out of harm’s way,” Norpell said.

More than 90 percent of “Barn Find” is made from two materials, balsa wood and plaster of Paris. Approximately 180 feet of balsa wood was used to make the barn wood flooring, siding and main beams. The rustic limestone foundation was created with individual pieces of plaster textured with a variety of tools and then stained. The stones are lightly brushed with green pastels to create the look of moss.

Exterior siding was scuffed with a wire brush to create weathered grain patters, then painted light gray before being weathered with a watery mixture of garden dirt. A weathered fence post includes rusted remnants of barbed wire. The barn windows were made from microscope slides, which Norpell said were “shattered using an old modeler’s trick – a hammer blow against a sharp point of a nail placed on the glass” to create the look of BB-gun holes. The signs were made with an inkjet printer and “aged” with water colors and powdered cinnamon. Norpell even created a linked chain that appears to have been cut from the barn doors to allow access.

“I really like this one because I like classic cars,” Norpell said. “But it’s difficult for me to pick a favorite. They’re like my children; I love them all for different reasons.”

Thomas Norpell can be reached via email at

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