The Misfit Toymaker

Chuck Sword crafts the toys of big boys' dreams -- and chases a big dream of his own

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Most folks wouldn't waste two glances at the row of shambling, low-slung buildings on Karl Street in Berea — just door after nondescript door looking out on a vast weed-strewn field.

But behind one of those doors lies not a tangle of cubicles, but shelf upon shelf piled with boxes, plus the occasional display that reveals the contents of those endless boxes: gloriously detailed miniature trucks and cranes and tractors, emergency vehicles and tankers and log loaders, plows and dump trucks and strip-mine excavators.

A museum-style vitrine shows off a Komatsu power-mining shovel, its jaws dripping with a load of gravel. Tiny figures and orange barrels create the illusion of a functioning work site. In the back room, there's a 1:4 scale model of a bright yellow John Deere tractor that's the size of a compact car. There's a replica of an enormous Bucyrus earthmover, with every detail exact, right down to each instrument inside the cab.

Everywhere you turn, there are scale models of heavy construction equipment and trucks — the bulldozers and steam shovels, haulers and compactors a veritable paean to former Rust Belt manufacturing glory. The names on them are familiar to anyone who's had even a passing fascination with construction, manufacturing, or shipping: Mack, Peterbilt, Manitowac, Deere, International Harvester, Volvo, Kenworth.

And the price tags — a few hundred dollars to thousands — make it clear these aren't hobby-shop trinkets for kids. They are toys for grown boys who indulge in their dreams of decades past. DHS Diecast, a 12-year-old Northeast Ohio company, caters to those dreams.

Chuck Sword is a chubby, amiable man of 48 who looks like the kind of guy you'd find watching the Browns game on the next barstool over at the neighborhood saloon. The founder and CEO of DHS ambles through his 12,000-square-foot domain, cheerfully pointing out wheels that spin, cranes that swing, and shovels that scoop.

DHS is one of just three such companies in the U.S.; Sword guesses there may be ten of them worldwide. The company boasts some 20,000 regular customers — mostly collectors, as well as some dealers and equipment manufacturers who crave the mini-models for display or for gifts.

"We don't sell cars. We don't sell NASCAR. We don't do airplanes," he says. "Too many other people do that. We're the biggest player in a niche market. We're a well-kept secret."

And Sword has another secret: plans to erect an interactive museum honoring Northeast Ohio's rich history of vehicle and heavy equipment manufacturing. It's a dream he stokes with a handful of friends, and one that — like the models he designs in his modest shop — is finally making its way off the drawing board.

A computer geek with a degree from the University of Toledo, Chuck Sword started his career with local jeweler J.B. Robinson, for whom he developed an early PC-based cash-register system. By the mid-1980s, he expanded the technology as a partner in another company. When that firm was sold in 1999, Sword cashed out and went hunting for a new passion.

"I started looking around for something else to do," he says. "I wasn't rich and I couldn't retire, but I had a little bit of money."

It was his son Zach, then six years old, who inadvertently introduced him to the arcane world of construction-model collectors.

"We had to stop at every construction site," Sword recalls. "He was fascinated. One time he was driving around in one of those little Flintstones cars in our driveway, and he disappeared. We found him around the corner, watching guys working on a sewer."

Sword went online looking for models for his son and stumbled upon Dave's Model Toys of North Royalton, which specialized in construction equipment. The aging owner was a retired fireman who ran the business out of the back of a heating and cooling shop, and he wanted to sell. So Sword bought him out.

The new owner opened his own 400-square-foot office in Berea and hired his retired father-in-law to run it by day while he packed boxes by night. A year later, a call came in from an acquaintance who ran Hiram Construction Models out of his basement.

"Do you have any money left?" the man asked. "Do you want to buy me out?" Sword did.

A year after that, Sword snapped up the U.S. distributorship for British-made Smith Models, a manufacturer of American truck models. And with that, DHS — short for "Dave's, Hiram, and Smith" — was born.

The 3,500 different models stocked in DHS' warehouse are made all over the world, from China to the United States. Sword isn't sure how many they sell in a year, and he declines to provide the company's annual revenue, although he offers that the average sale is a relatively modest $150 — a far cry from the $8,000 he fetches for a Bucyrus earthmover. That's because while most of the models are intricate, delicate constructions you'd want to keep far away from sticky young hands, DHS also stocks less expensive ones for kids who get the "buy me" bug at the company's annual family-oriented open houses in July. At one point, Zach, now a 19-year-old apprentice union carpenter, was dubbed "vice president of development" to create a line of kids' toys.

Indeed, DHS is a family affair; its five full-time employees include Sword and his two sisters. The staff expands during busy season — now through January — and again come open-house time.

DHS serves a coterie of collectors more obscure than the usual model-car and toy train enthusiasts everyone knows a couple of. They order from all over the world — many of them online or by mail, and many more at the auctions Sword holds periodically in Berea. The car-sized John Deere tractor was purchased by a Virginia man who owns not a grand estate, but an average house with a modest yard. He knew he had to have that John Deere; he just has no place to store it yet.

Most collectors are middle-aged men or older, some of whom had once operated the equipment in a former life and now crave models for nostalgia's sake.

Paul Wortel, a retired electrician and construction worker from the Chicago suburb of Palos Heights, was one of those kids — and a lifelong model hobbyist.

"I started with trains, then got into die-cast cars," he recalls. "I've collected World War II warships, high-tech cars and airplanes, you name it. Now I've got a tractor fetish. Construction trucks, cranes — I have a lot of mobile cranes. Chuck builds some of the best. I'm a detail freak, and he puts out an excellent product."

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