Some oilfield dioramas and models in North Dakota are attracting attention from the public — and from workers in the oil industry. The oilfield pros are the ones scrutinizing the trucks, the block, the engines — everything. They are amazed at the accuracy and impressed when they learn that every piece was made from scratch — right down to the tires on the trucks. 

Mitch Griess of Bismarck, N.D., is the master artist behind the 1/48-scale dioramas at the North Dakota Heritage Center in Bismarck and the Pioneer Museum of McKenzie County in Watford City, N.D. His secret for detailed accuracy comes from 13 years of experience working in the oilfields. Though his day job — owner of a graphic design, Web development and IT computer support business — keeps him busy enough, he finds time to blend his artistic talent and oilfield knowledge to create models for museums, businesses, training facilities and attorneys. 

Company recognition 

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Look closely at the Pioneer Museum setup and you’ll see the name of a local company on the wireline truck and other equipment parked at the rig site. 

It was service companies that got on board to work with the museum (along with grants) to pay for sponsorships to commission the project. 

“Businesses see the vision of the benefit of that — a lifetime of exposure,” Griess says. “The general public sees the equipment all over the place, but when they see it in the environment it’s meant to be in, it makes more sense.” 

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People in the industry appreciate that Griess’s work educates and captures a time in history. 

“When you have veteran oil industry people tell you that the model is the closest thing to the real thing they have ever seen, you know you have hit your mark,” says Jan Dodge, director of the Pioneer Museum. 

Griess adds that he has been pleased to hear similar comments from people in the oil industry. Since completing the two large projects (2008 and 2012), he has made a workover rig for a workforce training center and individual pieces for an attorney for display and litigation. 

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Accurate to the dirt

Griess started building his first diorama in 1992 after seeing too many primitive models that were short on detail. He intended to keep it for himself, but it ended up going to Bismarck’s Heritage Center at their request. 

With photos and measurements to determine the scale, he cuts most pieces out of various thicknesses of polystyrene plastic with a utility knife. Other parts are made of aluminum and metal tubing. 

Though everything is glued in place in the finished display, Griess builds it so parts actually move as they do on real rigs. 

“The blocks slid up and down, the derrick folded. I did that so I knew it was accurate,” he says. 

Trucks and engines are the most challenging because of the curves. “It takes lots of sanding — a lot of buildup to file and round edges,” he says. 

Besides getting the truck and equipment shapes right, Griess makes them identical to the trucks the sponsors own, including logos and truck accessories. His fleet in the Pioneer Museum display includes a wide variety of items: generators, forklift, drill pipe lay-down machine, winch truck, wireline truck, crane trucks and haul trucks. Plus, there are tanks to hold fuel, drilling fluids and mud. For a realistic touch, he sifted fine sand and added water to brush “dirt” on various tanks and trucks. 

Ready for more challenges 

Besides displays to educate the public, Griess says there is a broader base of customers.

“It’s pretty wide open. For private individuals and small business owners I offer packages based on the amount of detail they want,” he explains. The models could be in private offices, on display at a business or used for training. Grant money and fundraising help pay for public and educational displays. 

He’s eager to take on new challenges — wherever they come from. He’d love to do a working model and build a miniature offshore rig — but only after checking one out to make sure he gets the details right. 

“I can take this anywhere and represent any area,” he says. 

(Check out Mitch Griess’s work at 

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