Richard Fischer and his brothers made their own toy models when they were growing up on the family farm in central Wisconsin. Now 75 and a resident of Waterford, Wis., Richard is still making models - 1/2- to 1/6-scale reproductions of old-time farm machinery that actually work.
'There were six boys in my family, born and raised on a farm, and we built a lot of models by hand,' he said. 'We didn't have any power saws or power tools. But we did have a keg of square nails. By the time we grew up, we had them all used up.'
One of his earliest working farm models, made in 1956, is a 1/6-scale 1922 Case 65 hp steam engine, just like his father owned. 'My dad bought that steam engine and a Case threshing machine in 1922,' Richard said, 'and we threshed with that up until 1940.'
To build the miniature steam engine, Richard set up his own machine shop and studied pattern books checked out from the local library. He bought a six-inch lathe, and taught himself how to run it, carving patterns from the library books into sugar pine. Next, he bought a 12-inch planer and then he over hauled a junked vertical mill. 'If you follow auctions, you can get a fair-sized shop fairly cheap,' he said.
With that equipment in place, Richard settled on a 2-inches-to-1-foot ratio for the steam engine and started building. 'I went to a brass shop and got all the parts for the boiler, and then made the parts, which took a while.' He riveted them all together and then silver-soldered the rivets.
Next, he worked on the wheels and gear box, using rolled steel for the wheel spokes, which he screwed together. 'You get them on the axle, and then you tighten the spokes just like you do on a bicycle to get the rims straight,' he explained. 'I made the differential, but scrounged junkyards until I found the right sizes.'
Richard said he learned to do just a little at a time. 'I kept machining at it, and machining at it. The drawing told me how much had to be machined out of different parts.'
The finished Case is cast iron, with steel axles, brass bushings and a brass water pump. It weighs 145 pounds, is 40 inches long and 16 inches high, with 12-inch diameter rear wheels and 8-inch diameter front wheels.
When he finished the steam engine, Richard filled it with water and pumped it up to 150 pounds of pressure - one and a half times its normal running pressure. 'That's how to test all boilers,' he said, noting he periodically retests the engine as a safety precaution. The boiler holds a gallon of water, which lasts for an hour if the machine is firing hard, and a little more than a gallon in the water tanks.
The engine is coal driven and the harder it's steamed, Richard said, the better draw there is through the stack, resulting in a better burn. It runs for wards or backwards, and connects with a belt to a little thresher Richard also made, although it isn't powerful enough to run the thresher well.
The engine has been painted the same colors as Richard's dad's original engine: red wheels, green engine and black boiler and stack. 'Old Abe' the eagle, J. I. Case Threshing Machine Co.' emblem, adorns the boiler front.
After spending 5-1/2 years on the steam engine, Richard took it to his hometown, Thorp, Wis., and drove it down the street with his father looking on. 'The town is three blocks long, so we started it up and went up one side of the street and down the other. Every tavern came out with a glass of beer for me,' he said, chuckling. 'My dad was real proud of me for running that engine up there.'
Next, Richard turned his attention to the threshing machine, a Case 28-50, also just like his dad's. The '28-50' means the cylinder is 28 inches wide and the shaker part is 50 inches wide.
'I was born in 1927,' Richard said, 'and as a kid I hauled a bundle wagon, bringing bundles from the field to the thresher.' That machine still sits on the family farm, so Richard measured it to figure out the model's sizes. He also found the original Case manual, which shows all the parts.
With measurements in hand, he built the frame out of channel iron and then made the crankshaft for the fan cutters out of hex stock. 'It weighed 7 1/2 pounds when I started, but only 1 1/2 pounds when I was done. That's a lot of metal to machine off.'
He tested the crankshaft for uneven spots by laying it across several vertical hacksaw blades. 'They actually test big shafts like that,' he said. The first crank shaft he made was too uneven, so a second was made. 'When the thresher runs now, you can tell the crankshaft is balanced pretty well, because the thresher doesn't shake.'
Richard fashioned the exterior out of galvanized metal. 'I worked for two years in a sheet metal shop in California where no two pieces they made were ever the same, so I have lots of experience.'
The finished model also works. 'I take foxtail, which has real tiny seeds - about 1/16 of an inch long - and thresh that. I made my augers a little too tight, so I've got to use a fine seed.'
The thresher runs best when it hums, Richard said, just like the real ones did in the old days.
At first, his wouldn't hum, so he worked on it until it could run fast enough to make the right sound -which means the proper amount of air is passing through it.
'If that little one doesn't hum, nothing will go through it. It will just plug up,' he said. 'When people build miniature machines, they tend to match the rpm of the larger one to the smaller, but that won't work. The big ones run the cylinder at 900 rpm, but my little one needs 2,200 rpm to do the same job.'
To work right, Richard said, the rim speeds must be matched, using the out side diameter of the pulleys.
The connection belt that runs from the model steam engine to the model thresher is made of canvas tent stock. 'I cut it, fold it and sew it, and then use bead sealer to seal it - the same stuff they use for tires at a car shop. It's kind of like black tar, and it's kind of expensive.'
On full-sized machines, the drive belt connecting the steam engine to the thresher sags in the middle, and Richard says that's because the belt has to be heavy enough so its weight keeps it from slipping off the pulleys.
When Richard exhibits his model steam engine and thresher, he often encounters people who mistake them for company products. 'I have to tell them, 'No, they were all hand built.''
But he says he enjoys hearing old folks telling their children and grandchildren, 'That's how we did it in the old days. People really like these Case models. After they've seen the big ones running, they come and see the little ones.'
Other farm tractors that Richard has built include a half-size Farmall C, a 3/8-size Minneapolis-Moline UB and a 3/8 1929 Case C tractor. He also made a model steam hammer, just like one with which he used to work.
Richard said anyone can learn to make models and he hoped more people would get into making scale models, of old farm machinery. 'Start out with a drill press and a small metal lathe, and learn how to use them. Start subscribing to some of these magazines and look in them for people advertising castings for small engines. Then you start out with the small engines, and keep getting bigger.
'People ask how you learn how to do it. You go to the library and look in the books. Then you go home and start working.'
- Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and the author of several books on antique farm toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Lane, Rockville, MN 56369; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
'People ask how you learn how to do it. You go to the library and look in the books. Then you go home and start working.' - Richard Fischer