house that Bob built
Former cop's remarkable models launched an international
|Bob begins to
paint a model of an Asian hut soon to be released by the VLS Corporation.
The former police
detective launched the hobby supply business after earning worldwide
recognition for his highly detailed models of historic scenes. Bob
still builds and paints the company’s
products for inclusion in catalog photographs.
old saying: Don’t sweat the small stuff. But
don’t tell that to Bob Letterman. Whether he’s building one
of the premier model supply companies in the world or creating masterpiece
dioramas of historic scenes, Bob approaches miniatures on a grand scale.
his crowning accomplishment as a model maker: “Twilight of the
Third Republic,” a 4-foot by 7-foot model that depicts a German army
unit occupying a French village during World War II. The diorama includes dozens
of miniature figures of German soldiers, a fleet of cars, trucks, boats and
other vehicles, realistic buildings, cobblestone streets and a statue of a
rider on horseback.
“This is almost
all scratch built. There are no kits involved — the
cars, yes, but not the buildings,” says Bob, president of VLS
which supplies model kits, materials and supplies to hobbyists worldwide.
The display took
more than 6,000 hours to build and demonstrates Bob’s
incredible attention to detail. A massive bridge has nearly 3,000 tiny
rivets on its lifelike girders. Two German soldiers fish by a river.
Ripples emanate from one soldier’s bare heel dangling above what
appears to be water, but is actually a resin painted to mimic a lazy
Letterman points out details on a large diorama he’s
building at the VLS Corporation of Moscow Mills. This
diorama will eventually include more than 200 figures and model vehicles.
The occupation diorama
inspired a book, “Super Dioramas” that
VLS published to instruct model makers. It is also one of dozens
of Bob’s creations
showcased in a museum of model making, housed in a corner of the VLS
35,000-square-foot headquarters and warehouse in Moscow Mills. While
the collection houses works from some of the most noted hobbyists around
the world, few of the models are as impressive as this former St. Louis
City police detective’s
never met anyone in the world who does things this big,” says
Bob, 64. “There’s other people that are really good but
they do small things.”
It was a diorama
that first brought Bob to the attention of the worldwide modeling community
and launched his business. In 1982 Bob headed the St. Louis Circuit
special investigations unit. In his spare time he built elaborate
model scenes of World War II events.
When a local hobby
shop owner marveled at all the supplies the policeman was buying and
asked what he was building, Bob invited him to the house to see his
work. The shop owner was amazed at the scale of Bob’s project
and encouraged him to enter a competition at the Interna-tional Plastic
Society annual meeting — coincidently held in St. Louis that
of Bob’s diorama, “Twighlight of the Third
Reich,” reproduced from an instruction book, shows the grand
scale and the level of detail involved in his monumental projects.
Photo courtesy of VLS Corporation.
Bob, who was unaware
that there were model competitions much less societies of modelers,
entered his “Winds of War” diorama
and won the contest. Articles about the model were published
in hobbyist magazines worldwide. Over the next two years Bob won hundreds
of awards. He and his wife, Susan, traveled Europe and Asia,
attending modeling conventions.
“It was just
an amazing thing,” the
Cuivre River Electric Cooperative member says of his instant celebrity
status in the modeling world. “Of
course, no one outside the industry knows or would care.”
wasn’t the first time Bob had made an impression. When
The Saturday Evening Post came to St. Louis to feature street
cops in the “crime capital
of America,” its writers and photographers rode with
a young Officer Letterman. A framed 1968 cover of the magazine
hanging on Bob’s VLS office wall bears
his youthful portrait.
Bob and his former
crime-fighting partner — current
St. Louis Chief of Police Joe Mokwa — were practically
supercops. The two detectives once boasted 105 felony arrests
in a single month, more than the rest of the department
combined. Bob was Officer of the Year in 1973.
Dee Scarborough boxes a model tank for shipment. The company sells
model kits and modeling supplies worldwide.
after 23 years on the force, Bob took early retirement
from police work and went into the model business full
time. He began buying model kits and supplies overseas
and brought them home to resell. With $90 from his savings
account, Bob ordered business cards and stationary and
launched Warwinds Militaria & Hobby,
Ltd. Within a year, the business had sales of mor than
Bob linked up with
Francois Verlinden, a noted model maker, book publisher and hobby shop
owner from Belgium. Later, Dutch investor Jos Stok rounded out the
trio of modeling entrepreneurs and VLS Corporation
The company has relocated
and expanded numerous times in the intervening two decades. Investor
Stok died and Verlinden and Letterman have split. Today’s
VLS Corporation employs 20 people and is a huge player
in the model industry.
“We may be the best-known company in the
world in modeling,” Bob
says. “I don’t think there’s a
modeler on Earth who doesn’t
know who we are and doesn’t know my name.”
The company supplies about 40 smaller distributors,
500 foreign and 800 Ameri-can hobby shops and sells
directly to consumers through mail order and a Web
site. The VLS catalog lists more than 22,000 products.
details add realism to models, such as these figures in one of
Bob's dioramas. VLS suppllies materials, such as rubble and tiny
bricks modelers use to create a scene. Photo by VLS.
and distributing models and materials, VLS produces 17 brands of products,
many in-house. The company’s Warrior line includes 1/35th
scale figures — Roman soldiers, German
storm troopers, surrendering Frenchmen and even
modern Islamic insurgents. The 135th Construction
Battalion brand offers modelers miniature bricks,
roofing materials, doors, windows and other details.
Hobbyists looking for a German village ruin or
a kit to build a complete train station can order
from the Custom Dioramics line. Other VLS divisions
offer tools, supplies, books and other items
the serious modeler requires.
In addition, VLS
sponsors an annual convention and competition
each Labor Day weekend. MasterCon attracts
advanced model makers from around the country who come
to compete, tour the VLS facility and meet
Bob and his staff.
young people attend the event. Unlike 30 years ago, modeling is no
longer a popular hobby with children. Instead, the
typical customer is someone who enjoyed the
hobby years ago and picked it up again later
“Most every guy, when he was young, built a model car,
plane or tank. Generally, they stopped when they discovered girls.
After they settle down and get married, quite a few come back to it,” says
Bob, whose wife, Susan, manages VLS’s
Bob says advanced modelers are usually
people who enjoy working in extreme detail.
Almost without exception, modelers have
some interest in history, especially military
tiny head for one of the company’s figurines is held for
examination during manufacture. Each figure is carved by a modeler
and then reproduced in latex at the VLS facility.
a modeler I know of who hasn’t
built something that related to their own historical perspective, something
from their family’s
point of view,” says David Harper,
a model maker who moved from Oregon to
join the company as its art director. “Many
modelers build models of their grandfather’s
tank or their father’s airplane,
or even their great-grandfather’s
A lot of veterans
and active duty military people, it seems,
are serious modelers as well. The VLS
conference room contains valuable artifacts — including
a hat and scarf worn by Gen. Norman
Schwarzkopf in the 1991 Gulf War and
former Joint Chiefs Chairman Colin
battle helmet — items sent by
modelers with connections to the military
No matter what their
interest, advanced modelers are not content to
merely follow the instructions in
a kit and slap on a little paint, Bob
says. Many build models from scratch
or modify kits to produce a more
realistic representation. As an example, Bob
points to a kit model of a Jaguar
car he modified.
“If you look
inside, it’s upholstered in
leather. It has carpeting,” he
says. “The horn honks. The
windows roll up and down. The wheels
turn. All the lights work — headlights,
taillights, turn signals, brake
lights. Everything works.”
the elaborate attention to detail,
Bob dismisses the effort. “There
are other guys who can do this — maybe
better,” he says.
one rivals his monumental projects. “He’s
the father of the super diorama,” says
Harper, who’s own company,
Harper Castings, creates figurines
that are sold by VLS. “He’s
the only one I’ve
ever met who could do those
|The VLS warehouse in Moscow Mills contains more than 22,000 different
items. The company sends model kits, supplies and materials around
Bob is currently
working on a diorama that
will top anything he’s done
before. “Logistics” will
depict a Red Ball Express
supply convoy meeting up
with a column of tanks. The
massive diorama will include
more than 200 figures and
The modeling community
is eagerly awaiting Bob’s
new creation and the book, “Super
Dioramas II,” which
will document the work.
The project will, no doubt,
be good for business and
bring renewed attention
to Bob, who stopped entering
competitions when he started
his business. But it’s
attention the master modeler
takes in stride.
is something that just
walk in and do,” he
admits. “But you
can’t let something
like this go to your head.
known for building these
little things but, come
on, I don’t think
like winning a Nobel Prize.”
For more information write VLS Corporation at 1011 Industrial Court,
Moscow Mills, MO 63362; call (636) 356-4888 or log onto www.modelmecca.com.