50 Years Building Civil War Cannons

Ken Setzer was never one to sit still or stand still, for that matter. He’s always looking for to-do projects. He’s cut a forest of firewood. Refinishes his house. Engineers and builds tiny replica Civil War cannons.

At 76, Setzer still cuts and splits more fireplace wood than a lot of teenagers could handle. He and his wife Linda stack enough wood behind their home in Mentor, Ohio, to last them for years. And in northeast Ohio’s  ‘snow belt’, that’s a major pile of wood.

“There are days we just can’t get outside because of snow,” he says.

He has some time to build that pile because he’s finished with his 50-year dream of building tiny Civil War cannon replicas. He had hoped to build 50 of these miniature fieldpieces, then scaled it down to 25 and finally boxed the cache of extra tiny parts for the last time – 352 went into each cannon—with 11 completed cannons. There are five different styles.

“I was going to make all the same,” the now-retired machinist says. “But there were so many different types of cannons during the Civil War…”

He admits it became an obsession. It all began nearly 60 years ago when his family visited Gettysburg. They saw a cannon with a bulging and split barrel then wondered what caused it. From that grew Setzer’s fascination with cannons. A few years later, he began building.

This particular cannon is on Hancock Avenue, just north of the Brian Farm. Bulging cannon barrels can occur for a number of reasons, but constant and quick firing causing extreme heat is one possible culprit. Or, a blockage in the barrel.

Some of Setzer’s cannon parts are smaller than a ballpoint pen tip. For the elevating screw (it moves the cannon barrel up and down) he threaded a piece of brass slimmer than a toothpick.

He then added handles, soldered them on and painted it.  It took, he says, about six months to figure out the materials, the engineering, the assembly, and finishing. He re-engineered pieces and parts throughout the process. All this for a piece about an inch long, and within 1/1,000 of an inch of what it should be.

Because everything was engineered at a 1:18.5 ratio, chain links are picked up with a pair of tweezers. The entire cannon is a mere nine inches long and 4.5 inches wide.

Molding of parts was done in winter on his home’s hot wood stove. All the pieces are lead-free, as is the paint.

Setzer chose to not paint the walnut and oak wood because, he says, visitors to Gettysburg Battlefield assume most of the cannons were made of iron because they are all painted over.

Fourteen toothpick-size spokes were turned for each wheel. Seven fellows, or wooden sections of the wheel, are fastened to the metal rim with bolts so small the details are hard to see.

For now, his 11 completed cannons sit protected in his upstairs den. And, what does he plan to do with them?

“I’d give them away,” he says. “I’d like to see if Ken Burns (author of Civil War documentary) would want one. But he’s hard to get a hold of. Maybe West Point, which cast some of the New York cannons, or Phoenixville, Pa., or Gettysburg Battlefield.

“It would be tough to put a price on these because there are thousands of hours in them,” he says. “I didn’t do it to make money. I built them to see if I could do it, made and remade parts, just to keep my brain busy.”

If ‘Setz’, as his friends call him, finds someone who is interested in his intricate masterpieces, he’ll have to hand deliver them.

“They were made to come apart and they would if they were shipped,” he says.

And that would be wasting 50 years of work.