Allen Conrad concedes his relatively new venture started simply as a hobby, taking G.I. Joe-like stock figures and converting them into reasonable facsimiles of real people who had served their nation just as he did for 20 years.
Since January, the retired Army sergeant first class, who also taught Junior ROTC for more than decade, has taken the art or craft or whatever anyone likes to call it to a new level.
"I have a lot of friends who are Vietnam vets," said Conrad, 52, a native of North Carolina who now lives in Seale, Ala. "Those guys are the ones that trained me when I came into the Army, so I have a lot of respect for them. As gifts, I would make these for them, and it kind of got started that way."
Today, Conrad, with the help of family and friends, operates a workshop and storefront in a strip shopping center on Victory Drive in Columbus. His company, called PIR Customs -- PIR stands for "Parachute Infantry Regiment" -- is growing with his one-sixth scale figures and dioramas finding their way into the hands of retired soldiers, troops changing duty stations, and those receiving honors such as Rigger of the Year and Black Hat of the Year.
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It's something he has a passion for doing because of the detail and creativity involved, and the way it incorporates his strong interest in military history. And the fact that he can help out the Army people he cares about, while making money at times, is icing on the cake.
The Ledger-Enquirer visited with Conrad recently to discuss his job as maker of figures and dioramas, finding out the attention to detail required, and why he no longer has his boyhood G.I. Joe collection. This interview is edited a bit for length and clarity.
So you perfected your craft early by doing them for friends?
I guess so, if you want to say perfected. (laughs) I don't consider myself an artist or anything like that. I've always enjoyed studying military history, so it kind of led me to do it. Not only are they a figure, but they're historically and accurate ly correct for the most part.
Was the first one you ever made a little on the rough side?
The very first one I ever built was for a very good friend of ours who was a Vietnam veteran on Hill 875 in Vietnam, in the central highlands. I read two books on it, so I got the idea in my head of what to do. I knew what kind of equipment and stuff they carried at that time.
As far as it being rough, it started off very primitive. The base was basically Styrofoam, and the rest I built by mixing glue and dirt and water and all sorts of stuff to (decorate with detail) the base. If something was wrong as far as the terrain from Vietnam, I'd go back and look at a picture and change it. So it took quite a bit of time. But there was no pressure whatsoever because I was doing it as a gift for a very good friend, as opposed to a customer.
I get a little bit nervous when I'm doing it for a customer because I want them to be happy with what I do. I want them to be satisfied.
Briefly, where did you serve in the military before retiring in 2001?
All over the place, Fort Bragg, Fort Campbell, Korea, Panama, Hawaii. I was stationed here at Fort Benning. I worked at the Airborne Department and I was a drill sergeant here as well ... I spent the better part of my adult life in the Army, so they are my family.
Growing up, did you play with G.I. Joe figures?
I was born in '63 and G.I. Joes came out in '64. So I started then. Of course, everything as a child that I liked and enjoyed doing was always geared toward the military. G.I. Joe was there, and I probably had every one. If they came out with one that dove in water, then I wanted one that dove in water. If they had one that jumped out of airplanes, then I wanted one of those.
Did you keep or collect them back then?
I did. But that's kind of a two-part answer. I did keep them, but when I was 17 I joined the Army and went to Korea for a year and then came back. And when I was going through my stuff, my mother, bless her heart, she said, "Oh, we had a yard sale." And a lot of guys come in here and say: You know what? I had those as a kid. But you know what my mom did? She sold them at a yard sale.
Do you make everything from scratch?
When G.I. Joe came out, it was one of the original action figures. Of course, technology is like everything else, it makes things better. The figures now and the equipment and clothing made now is a lot more detailed simply because technology allows us to do that ... The thing is now, heads and faces are cast out of resin, opposed to being poured into a mold with plastic. But 98 percent of what I do is custom. So to take a figure out of a box and just put it on (a base), it doesn't happen.
You're literally creating the whole body?
Yeah. I take parts and pieces of bodies. I did one for the Airborne School. In fact, the Rigger of the Year, we did the award for it, and the guy that got that was kind of a short, stocky guy and his neck was real short. So I had to modify the neck of the figure by cutting it. When I handed it to him, he had a big ol' grin on his face and said, "It looks like me." I said that's what I was shooting for, man.
It's just like that figure over there. Soldiers aren't clean in combat, or they don't train and stay clean. So there's a lot of stuff I do with fingernail files and sandpaper and paint and chalk.
Basically, you start with a general stock figure and go from there?
I do. I've modified everything, including their hands. I did one for a guy who was a big Texas Longhorns fan. He was a tanker and I did his hand like that (the "Hook 'em Horns" sign). I made another for a guy who liked Monster drinks, so I had to make one of those drinks for his hand. I did one for a guy whose wife was a cook in the Army, and he was very particular because it was his wife. So one of my female figures had green eyes; his wife had blue. The figure had blond hair; his wife had brown. So I had to modify all of that. But he was satisfied. I had a picture of his wife and I sat there and painted the figure using that photo.
How long does it take to do a figure?
A custom diorama can take anywhere from a couple of weeks, if I'm working eight hours a day. I built one for the National Medal of Honor Museum in Chattanooga that was Sgt. York in a trench, capturing a German. That thing took an average of eight hours a day for probably four months, because I built it from nothing.
That's the other thing about it. You can't just put these things together and it look right. That's when it gets hard. At the very end, when you start posing it, if one thing's wrong -- and I was a soldier for 20 years, so I know what's wrong -- I go back and do it again.
I'm a perfectionist like that. When the customer buys it, I want them to look at that (attention to detail). I've had guys cry and things like that, because it reminds them of some things really bad, some things really good. That's my goal. That's what I shoot for.
What military eras have you made figures depicting?
The World War I one for the museum, so I've done one there. I've done three World War II ones where the guy was actually alive and their son came and got it for them. The unfortunate thing is I wasn't there to see them receive it.
I've also done a lot from Vietnam. But, recently, because the name of my business is getting out here more locally, I've done more from the beginning of the war on terror. That's war and peace both. I've done a lot off of pictures of guys deployed. I've done them for every school out here on Fort Benning. We've donated a lot of work, too, like to the 75th Ranger Association, the Airborne Department, to recognize people who've done good things.
How about the National Infantry Museum, which has its own life-like war scenes?
I haven't really asked them. I would like to do some work for them and put my work there. It's the same thing I did for the Medal of Honor Museum in Chattanooga. That was probably a $3,000 project and I didn't charge them anything. It's my way of giving back. I want something to be there after I'm gone.
I'm going to make a trip up there (to Chattanooga) in the next couple of months because Sgt. York's descendants are going to come and see the exhibit. They're going to invite me to meet them. I like to preserve history. I'm all about it.
What's the most challenging aspect of your work?
I want whoever the customer is to be 100 percent satisfied. It kind of wears on me a little bit. As far as the details go, I know how things are supposed to be. So if something doesn't look right, then a lot of times I'll spend two or three more hours just making sure one detail is right.
Anybody can pull a figure out of a box and put it on a stand. But I try to personalize them. My goal when I got into this business ... is everybody gets something when they PCS from a school or is promoted, like a certificate or a plaque to hang on the wall. That's just not very unique at all.
The other challenge is it takes a lot of time. It takes an enormous amount of work to do these, to make them look right. People walk in here because I have a very unique business. But they don't know how to gauge it against other (award or gift) things. They'll look at it and say it's really cool. Then they'll ask me how much it costs and I'll tell them. To them, it's kind of out of the ordinary.
What's a good price range for your figures?
Probably to start with, around $175 to $180. That full-blown diorama that I built for the museum, if I charged them for it, it would have probably been around $3,000. The average that guys come in here and buy a gift for somebody that's either leaving the Army, retiring, or they're going somewhere else and just want to recognize them, they usually pay around $200. It's something that's well worth $200.
Have you done many women figures or scenes?
I've done quite a few. Probably one of the best ones I did, she was a lieutenant colonel and she retired out here at Fort Benning. She was a nurse and I replicated a scene where she was treating a casualty in combat. The guy was wounded pretty bad and she was holding an IV bottle up, and looking up like a helicopter was coming down ... I pulled fiber filling out of the inside of a pillow and painted it red to look like smoke from a smoke grenade. She was really happy with it.
Is this what you want to do for the duration?
Yeah. I enjoy making figures. But I never owned my own business before. As you can imagine, it comes with a lot of things that I never expected. I'm probably the only guy that owns his own business that has a whole staff of people and doesn't pay anybody. I've got my wife, all of my friends will come in and help me out, and I'm retired from the Army so I know a lot of people around here and a lot of retired buddies will come in and help me do stuff, especially when I start getting behind.
I wouldn't be able to do it if I didn't have the support of my family and friends. There's no way.
Name: Allen Conrad
Hometown: Pittsboro, N.C.
Current residence: Seale, Ala.
Education: Graduate of Northwood High School in Pittsboro; earned bachelor's degree in business/marketing from Columbia University
Previous jobs: Retired after 20 years from U.S. Army (Airborne Infantry) in 2001; after that, was a JROTC instructor at Ooltewah High School near Chattanooga, Tenn.
Family: Annette, his wife of 25 years as of Aug. 25, son, Hunter, 19, pet Havanese pooch, Cleo, and kitty, Midnight
Leisure time: Enjoys spending time with his old Army buddies, family and friends; studies military history and enjoys firearms