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Monday, January 5, 2015

A Conversation With Kevin Heekin, Owner of Heekin Pewter

Kevin Heekin uses dental tools to sculpt his figures.

The unassuming basement has long been the birthplace of many inventions, businesses and artistic works. I recently visited Kevin Heekin’s basement, on Henry Ct. There was the usual—a laundry area, tools, boxes, items a family of four doesn’t need upstairs. And then there was Heekin’s pewter studio. All the tools, machinery, paints, brushes and molds, plus thousands of amazingly detailed miniatures—all that talent, all that work, right there, in the unassuming basement.

Heekin discovered clay at the age of 5, when his father handed him a small lump of it. Like many born talents, Heekin discovered he was quite good at modeling at a very young age and he spent much of his childhood building models and sculpting figures to go along with them.

Heekin grew up in Cincinnati and graduated from Xavier University with a degree in History. A fan of the Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game, Heekin made his own figures for it. In 1993 he partnered with a friend and Calhoun Street Pewter was born—sports figure miniatures were the studio’s specialty. In 1995 Heekin bought his friend out with the intention of dropping the sports miniatures, got married, moved to Fort Thomas (where his wife grew up) and started Heekin Pewter in he and his wife’s basement. (In 2000 he and his family moved to Henry Ct., which is where his basement studio is now located.)

Heekin sculpts each figure out of two-part epoxy-putty. He says it’s a lot like working in clay. He starts with a wire armature—which looks almost like a stick figure—and then he applies the epoxy-putty, carefully sculpting it with dental tools. The putty hardens in a half hour. Freezing it keeps it from hardening, so while working he keeps a small amount in a tiny freezer, grabbing bits as he goes. He uses a heat lamp when he needs to speed up the hardening process.

Rubber discs sit on top of the vulcanizer.

Molds of figurines Heekin is currently making line basement shelves.

Depending on its complexity, a figure can take a couple days to a couple weeks to make. Once complete, Heekin makes a vulcanized rubber mold. The raw molds are simply two slabs of soft, rubber discs. Heekin cuts out shapes to match his figures, and adds register nuts so that the discs always fit back together the same way. He adds some talcum powder to keep the discs from sticking, and then he heats the mold at 325° in his vulcanizer. Together the pressure and heat liquefies the raw rubber and forms around the figurines.

There’s a lot to consider when making molds, such as the 5 percent shrinkage that will occur, cutting the gates and vents to allow the metal to flow properly, and adding extra rubber to hide any parting lines. The ultimate goal is to get all the metal to flow into the mold while pushing all the air out.

Pewter ignots are placed in a melting pot and heated to 600°.

Heekin heats pewter ingots over natural gas in a melting pot at 600°. He places the mold in the spin-casting machine and then pours in the molten pewter while the mold is spinning. Heekin adjusts the machine’s spinning speed and pressure to create a cast without any flashing, which is when molten pewter seeps out in places it should not.

Tiny polishing beads.

Once a figurine is cast, Heekin spends a few minutes trimming the pewter with a scalpel. Each figure then takes an acid bath, which tarnishes it so that it becomes dark. Then he tosses his sculptures into a machine filled with polishing beads. A bit of water with polishing agents is added to the equation and in short time the miniatures come out shiny.

Finished painted figurines with a dime for scale.

While some are now done, Heekin hand-paints others, using Testors paint, small brushes, keen eyes, a steady hand and a good dose of patience.

A small portion of Heekin's current inventory.

Heekin makes his living selling his miniatures, which include ancient warriors, medieval figures, medieval fantasy figures, fantasy monsters, castles, American Civil War figures, American Revolution figures, World War II figures, space figures, animals, nativity sets and chess sets (he makes his own boards in his garage woodshop). The figures typically are 15mm, 20mm or 30mm. You can purchase items directly from his website, including Battle Tic-Tac-Toe, which he invented.(Interestingly was one of the first websites ever built, established when websites were numbered in the thousands versus the hundreds of thousands as they are today.) Heekin also attends about 25 art shows each year. 

More of Heekin's inventory.

Heekin’s inventory is huge, and his desire to create is not waning. He’s long been inspired by history and by J. R. R. Tolkien (Heekin has read The Lord of the Rings 17 times and The Hobbit 18 times). He spends the colder months sculpting, painting and casting, and then travels during the warmer weekends, which is when the art shows take place. When not attending his children’s activities he spends time playing an electric piano, inventing and playing games with friends, and working on models with his son—all in his Fort Thomas basement.

If you know of a Fort Thomas resident with an interesting story, please contact me at

1 comment:

  1. I've purchased his work and use his painted figures for diorama's... Excellent craftsman and painter...