WILTON — Mike Parker's fascination with building a train of his own actually has very little to do with rail.
"I mean, I've always liked trains," Parker, 61, of Wilton, said. "I had models but I never did much with them."
Parker, a urologist at St. Mary's Regional Medical Center in Lewiston, spends part of his time off in his home metal shop, preparing to build his first steam engine — a 2-foot tall, rideable steam train, constructed from parts he will machine himself.
For Parker, it's the metalwork — pounding the rivets, bending the metal and carving the the gears and the wheels that will power his work — that gets him excited.
"With metal, you can be precise," he said. "You can achieve accuracy of a one one-thousandth of an inch. It was eye-opening for me the first time I did that."
His project is ready to go. He has the plans, the metal and most of a completed train. He's been assembling his tools, shop-worthy precision metalworking machines.
The last ingredient has been the skills, learning how to work the machines.
"I may have this dream of building a railroad, but I haven't actually built anything yet," he said. "I've done nothing because I'm learning how to do metalworking first, a few nights each week."
Parker said he could have gone the normal amateur route, picking up tips from books and magazines and how-to videos on YouTube.
Instead, he chose to really learn the craft. He's been taking precision machine technology classes at Central Maine Community College in Auburn for two years, learning how to operate all of the powerful industrial tools — lathes, mills and computer numerical controllers.
"People try and learn machining over the Internet," he said. "But they end up doing things and asking questions that are pretty basic. These are things you learn the first day in class. So I don't know why more people don't do that and take classes at the local community college."
That last tool, the computer numerical control machine, is an especially high-tech piece of equipment — a series of automated arms, drills and mill bits. People who know how to use one can turn instructions on a computer and a lump of steel into a gear, a wheel or metal arm that fits exact specifications.
It'll be especially handy for a budding train maker.
"Say that you need multiple parts — six different copies of each one," he said. "All the stuff that needs to be done, if you are milling it and drilling, it could take up to a week for each one. But if you have the program, you can just pop them out of the CNC machine as you need them."
Parker has one of his own, a small one, in his Wilton workshop. He has his eye on a larger one, a 1.5-horsepower model, and he can fall back on the college's 20-horsepower machine if he must.
Parker didn't start along this track with an overwhelming desire to build a train. It began with a desire to find a magnum opus, a life work to leave behind.
Being a doctor, a father and a family man wasn't enough.
"I've had a practice for 30 years and performed thousands of operations," he said. "My family is doing fine, but I wanted to build something — sort of my life's work that people can look at. Some people build a house or a camp or paint, but I don't have that ability."
He tried woodworking, until real-life responsibilities pulled him away from his projects for weeks at at time.
"You'd work on something, and then set it down for three days or three weeks and it would be warped and out of place," he said. "That's doesn't happen with metal."
After he'd become interested in metal craft, Parker said he began looking for something to build.
"I thought about a boat, then realized that I needed a boathouse, too, and that would have cost almost as much as the boat," Parker said.
He discovered train-making by chance.
"I wanted something big," he said. "I got into metalwork, but you can only make so many doodads. That's when I found out about the trains and I got into that."
He's not making a model, he said. It's a working metal train, fired by wood and coal, that happens to be a fraction of the size, fit to run on a 7.5-inch gauge track.
He bought his current project, a 1.5-inch scale Allen 2-6-0 Mogul engine that is 75 percent complete, from another hobbyist in Canada.
"He spent 10 years on it, a real perfectionist," Parker said. "He spent a half-an-hour on each rivet, just really beautiful. Now I have to finish the tender and a lot of other work along the sides."
He expects to begin work in December, and finish sometime in the next three years.
It will work, he said. The driver sits on the coal tender, behind the engine. The top of the tender becomes the seat and there's just enough room for an adult-sized driver to use the knobs and controls and feed the fire in the boiler.
He's thought a little about what to do with the train when he's done.
He could build a short track around his property, if his wife agrees. He can take it around the country, displaying it at shows and driving it on other hobby tracks.
But in the end, driving the train isn't as important as building it.
"A lot of people look to buy the trains, already built," he said. "They just want to run them. Like every hobby, there are people that want to ride around the track and there are people that want to build. I'm more of a builder. I like the journey that gets you there."
He's already eyeing projects when he finishes his first one.
"I have about three other steam engines I want to do, and if I get them done it'll be a miracle," he said.