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Creative craftsman carves an interesting niche

RED DEER, Alta. - You might call Darryl Thompson a "model" citizen. That's because the North Carolina-based trucker and craftsman is carving out a unique niche for himself by making replicas of tracto...

RED DEER, Alta. –You might call Darryl Thompson a “model” citizen. That’s because the North Carolina-based trucker and craftsman is carving out a unique niche for himself by making replicas of tractor-trailers for clients across North America. Thompson, who markets his models via his Web site at, has been crafting his replica vehicles since 1990, hand-building them all from wood. It’s been an uphill battle, but his reputation is spreading, catching the attention of customers as far away as Red Deer, Alta.

“It’s kind of a simple story,” Thompson says from the North Carolina home and workshop where he lives with his photographer wife, Brenda. And, indeed, his trucking involvement began in a straightforward way: he got his trucking licence back in 1988 and since then has been all over the US and Canada, turning in over a million miles. He’s been a company driver, an owner/operator and, as he says, has driven “all kinds of equipment.”

Then, he says, he came home one day around 1993 and decided to see if he could build a truck for himself -a model, not the real deal.

“I built one and it didn’t turn out too bad,” he remembers. “The wheels didn’t roll as nice as I’d like them to, but I worked at it.” He continued working on it -and others -until a buddy who was into trucking stopped by, saw his growing gaggle of rolling replicas and asked where he had gotten them. “I told him I made them,” Thompson says, “and he said, ‘Man, you could sell those things’.”

And thus a career -or at least a sideline -was born.

Thompson says he’d never considered selling his models at the time; he was just enjoying himself and making them for his own collection.

“Then I decided I’d take one to work and let my boss see it,” he says, reporting that The Man “was so tickled he bought 25 of them!”

Things took off from there. Word of mouth started spreading, assisted by some legwork from Thompson himself.

“I live in trucking country any-ways, North Carolina,” he says, “and there’s a lot of trucking companies around. I just went around to different places and showed them my stuff.”

Despite that first order, sales were hard to come by. Thompson says he’d call up a trucking company and tell them about his wooden trucks only to find the people distinctly underwhelmed. They didn’t get the concept, he says, so rather than telling people about them, he started showing them.

“I’d take (the model) out of the crate -and I make the crate to ship them in, too -and I put it on their desk and their jaws would just hit the floor.”

Thompson says they couldn’t believe the model was made of wood until he’d tip it upside down and show them, “because I leave one spot of plain wood on every truck’s cab, where I sign and date it. They just couldn’t believe it.”

From that sprang his self-designed Web site, which garnered interest from the online community, trucking Web sites and the like.

“It’s pretty much evolved from that,” he says, his model-making going from being just a hobby to, well, a HOBBY! And as his business has grown so has the quality of the models, each of which he says takes him at least a month to build.

One might think that a craftsman of fine, wooden replicas would have a background in woodworking or the like, but Thompson says it wasn’t so.

“I was more into doing what other kids did, like motorcycle riding and stuff like that,” he says. “I took a few shop classes and found it’s always neat to take something and turn it into something else.”

His interest was piqued further by his master craftsman father-in-law, who showed him what could be done with wood. From there, “I just kind of taught myself the different things,” he says.

As it turns out, he created a niche. “There’s a lot of people out there that would love to have a wooden truck,” he says. “They can’t go to these big (model) companies and order one; they want you to order 100 or something.”

He says his boss had ordered many models from one of these companies but “when he got them, he was very disappointed because they weren’t his exact model truck, the stickers were on crooked and a lot of the wheels didn’t even turn on the darn things.”

Thompson knew he could do better. “It’s the details that make your truck,” he says, “the graphics on it and stuff like that.” He makes sure his clients give him all the information he needs, right down to what they want on the vanity licence plates for the trailer and truck.

Such customization makes his models more relevant to the customer. “It’s to get the little differences between trucks right,” he says, “because your graphics might look different from someone else’s, you might have more lights on the back, little variations like that.” Thompson says people often take their trucks’ look for granted, but they remember subconsciously the nuances that separate them from similar vehicles and, if they’re missing, they know.

“The great deal about it is that anybody can send me pictures,” Thompson says. “I don’t work from patterns or anything -I just build from the pictures.”

Besides his woodworking tools, Thompson uses CorelDraw, a Canadian-developed computer software application, to help him reproduce the graphics. On the other hand, clients sometimes have copies of their own graphics that they can send, as was the case when Red Deer, Alta.’s, Guys Freightways commissioned replicas of its equipment.

“Their graphics man is really good,” Thompson remembers. “He sent me an actual graphic image that I could just go in and reproduce.” He says, however, that sometimes all he has from which to work is a blurry picture.

“If it’s good enough, I might be able to scan it and pull out what I need,” he says, but sometimes he ends up reproducing the graphic from scratch.

Denise Pederson of Guys Freightways, learned about Woodtrux through mutual friends and some other projects she’s involved with, information that eventually took her to the Woodtrux Web site.

“I was looking for a unique Christmas present for our bosses,” she says, “so I e-mailed Darryl and then I phoned him and had a really lengthy talk, about an hour long. Then I sent him pictures and got the ball rolling.”

Pederson says Thompson turned the order for two 2010 Pete 389s in Guys’ red and while livery around in about a month, “and he delivered it to us on the day he said he would. I was amazed. He did just a phenomenal job.” She was also impressed by the “very wonderful little wooden crates he made for them.”

The Guys Freightways models are identical except for the Alberta licence plates on the front, which are customized with “Bernie” and “Todd,” the first names of the company owners.

Pederson says the detail on Thompson’s models is authentic right from the mascot on the door (a big-footed kangaroo named Boomer) to the reflectors on the trucks and trailers that “if you’re walking by them and the light hits them,” she says, “look like they’re on.”

They aren’t on, however. Thompson says the reflective tape he uses on the models is just that: reflective tape, the same as you’d find on the real vehicle.

“I just cut it down to a size that looks comparable to the size of the truck,” he admits. Everything else is wood, though, including the wheels, and it’s all made by Thompson, in his workshop.

Many of Woodtrux customers are, like Pederson, people looking for unique gifts.

“A lot of the time, it’s for a company executive or the owners,” Thompson says. “But some people buy them for their best drivers, too. It’s better than a belt buckle.”

He says the models are also ideal gifts for honouring years of service, safest drivers and the like. To illustrate his point, Thompson points out a model he built for a company to give a driver who was retiring after nearly 40 years of service. “They wanted something super special to give this guy,” he says “and he was tickled pink.”

Thompson says that turning out tiny trucks is more than a si
deline business; it’s a labour of love. “I don’t send anything out of my house that I’m not happy with,” he says. “And if I’m not happy with it, I make the person wait until I am.”

A laudable strategy, perhaps, but one that’s undoubtedly frustrating for the customer waiting for the model. “Most of them are very understanding,” Thompson says. “I mean, they’re not going to get this anywhere. There’s very few people out there that make wooden trucks in the same detail and on this scale.”

Thompson’s most chal lenging commission to date was a 1988 Kenworth propane tanker.

“I had never done a tanker before,” he says.

“The vans and stuff like that are pretty much just a box, but you can’t just go and buy a chunk of wood that’s round like a cylinder.”

He has also adapted the concept to take into account ideas from clients, including the creation of lamps where the light fixture extends up from the fifth wheel. “Whatever people have an idea for,” he says. “I’m pretty good at just looking at a picture and building something.”

Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it), he has plenty of time to fill orders right now.

“The trucking industry kinda took a hit back when fuel really spiked,” Thompson says, and the downturn forced him to shut down his trucking company. “Needless to say, it’s been kind of tough since then.”

But he perseveres. Right now, Thompson has several projects on the go, some of which he’s making on spec’, hoping to open up some new markets. One is an extended sleeper Pete 379, he says. “I am basically building that one for myself, but if somebody decides they want it, fine.”

As if that isn’t enough to keep him busy, Thompson has also made room in his two-stall garage/workshop for the custom-made wooden furniture and accessories he has started marketing.

Guys’ Pederson is so impressed with Thompson’s models that she hopes his reputation spreads far and wide.

“I just think Darryl does phenomenal work,” she says. “He’s a super person and a really top-notch guy who has a wonderful talent that we need to know more about up here.”

And, with the type of detail and craftsmanship Thompson puts into his replicas, it’s hard to see why anyone “wooden” want to own one.

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1 Comment » for Creative craftsman carves an interesting niche
  1. Darryl Thompson says:

    Thank You so much Jim Bray for the awesome article. Best of luck to you in all your writings 🙂

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