Small Wonders: Farm Scale Models

Craftsman's scale models reflect fascination with antique farm implements and equipment.

Wager wagon

Bill Brinkman’s Waterloo water wagon is a one-of-a-kind design he developed from reading books and observing equipment at vintage equipment shows and demonstrations. The wagon is typical of those used to feed some of the earliest steam engines.

Photo by Loretta Sorenson

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It may be difficult to believe that more than 300 horses, dozens of threshing machines, countless wagons, corn planters and vintage toys are tucked away in Bill Brinkman’s basement. But it all fits – because every item is a scale model.

Bill’s collection includes a host of 1/16th and 1/10th scale items built by this collector-turned-craftsman. His passion is fueled by the combination of a farm background and a fascination with how equipment was designed, how it operated and what it takes to create a realistic model of it.

“My dad occasionally worked with a team of horses on our farm near Plainview, Minnesota,” Bill says. “I was pretty little then, so I didn’t learn much about the Belgians he used. Those memories have fueled my love for horses all my life. The first piece I collected was a handmade stagecoach I found in 1989 in an Arizona shop.”

The stagecoach drew him in like a magnet. He examined it carefully before balking at the price. Later, he returned to the shop to negotiate an agreeable price. Once he got the piece home, he says, “I had a feeling that I could make a similar scale model myself.”

Learning from the masters

After creating an even more detailed stagecoach, Bill started collecting ideas, plans and material to make scale model wagons, including circus wagons, sleighs, Budweiser 8-horse hitches, water wagons, corn planters and cultivators. Since then, he’s produced more than 300 models of two-wheel carts, log sleds, buckboards, bakery and milk wagons and a chuck wagon with a kitchen in back.

Until his death in 2004, Dick Eighmey, Waterloo, Iowa, served as Bill’s mentor. “Dick and I spent a lot of time on the phone,” Bill says. “He helped me find harness for my horses, which isn’t so easy now. There aren’t many suppliers. I’m fortunate to have a source who does quality work.”

Another of Bill’s mentors was the late Earl Britton, Le Mars, Iowa, who created a wide array of scale models. “I purchased quite a few horse-drawn John Deere toys from Earl,” Bill says.

Unique materials add distinction

Part of Bill’s fascination with models is the story behind each one. Some 20 years ago, for instance, he used a piece of American chestnut given to him by a friend in a model hay sweep. Use of the rare wood adds to the model’s value. Bill’s model is not representative of a particular brand, although the sliding seat at the rear of the model is typical of those used on John Deere-Dain sweeps built in the late 1800s.

Sweep rakes – also known as a go-devils, buck rakes, bull rakes and push rakes – were commonly used by the 1880s. Homemade go-devils were often simple devices designed to slide over the surface of stubble with a horse at either side to obtain a clean sweep of the hay. Some models were elevated on two small wheels so they moved more easily from place to place. Others were made to operate with horses at the rear, pushing the rake.

Partner to the steam traction engine

Another of Bill’s specialty items is a J.I. Case water tank wagon. Development of the steam traction engine in the late 1880s required a water wagon to feed thirsty boilers. The 1886 version of Case’s first water wagon was made totally of wood. It included a large hand-operated pump at the rear, and could draw water from a creek or pond.

The steel tank wagon was invented in the 1870s by Henry Clay Pierce, founder and president of Waters-Pierce Oil Co. Pierce used the wagons to help meet the growing demand for oil in southern Missouri, Arkansas, the Oklahoma and Indian Territories, Louisiana, Texas and Mexico.

Case began using a 12-barrel steel water tank in the 1890s, says C.H. Wendel in 150 Years of J.I. Case. “However, by that time a somewhat larger pump had been installed, with some of these throwing nearly 1 gallon of water for every stroke of the long wooden handle,” he notes. “This was a job that required considerable stamina, and certainly was no task for a slacker. In 1900, the tank alone sold for $40, while the running gear was available at the same price.”

Relic of the American West

Recently, Bill has begun producing 1/10th scale chuck wagons. The history behind his model goes back to the Civil War, when similar wagons were used to carry supplies for soldiers. The military wagons featured “kitchen boxes” with legs that could be set up to provide cooks with a worktable.

Chuck wagons derive their name from the tale of Charles Goodnight, a young Texas panhandle cattleman who had served in the Civil War. After his military discharge, Goodnight headed up cowboy crews to drive cattle from Texas to New Mexico, Colorado and Oklahoma, feeding them from wagons customized to accommodate provisions and cooking utensils.

The term “chuck” goes back to 17th century England as a term used by meat merchants to describe low-priced lower quality goods. By the 18th century, the term had evolved to mean “good, heart-warming food.” Goodnight’s ingenuity with the wagon, along with the vehicle’s nickname, spread to other trail drives and chuck wagons are still used in many settings today.

Models supported by research

Bill is exacting in every element of his models. He combines research and photos with personal observation to decide on the design and finished look of each piece. He uses primarily poplar and red oak wood for his wagons. “Poplar is easy to work with and gives the piece a nice finish,” he says. “Red oak has a nice natural finish that works well for staining. One disadvantage with the oak is that it has to be predrilled so it doesn’t split.”

In the past, Bill made wooden wheels for each implement. As his skills advanced, he found that the eight hours put into making each wheel was better spent adding appealing elements to his models.

He adds as much realistic detail as possible, using items like beads, pins and fishing gear to serve as tiny accents. “Electrical supplies, chain links and craft store items sometimes work for detail elements,” he says. “I also use aluminum and brass rod to add realism.”

Hardware stores and welding shops usually carry the kind of wood and hardware Bill needs. Items like 2/56-inch bolts and particularly small screws are obtained through special orders.

Carefully designed workshop

A wide variety of tools surround Bill’s workbench. He uses a table saw, spindle sander, three power sanders, band saw, radial saw and Dremel power equipment on a regular basis.

His collection of hand tools includes a magnet, magnifying glasses, needle-nose pliers and tweezers. “My hammers are all small scale and I use a lot of small clamps,” he says. “Most of my tools are a small-sized.” He made many of the jigs and wood patterns he uses, a time-saver in the building process.

A central vacuum system, with hoses extended to each sander and saw, keeps sawdust under control, creating a safe and clean work area. The 1 hp system captures nearly 100 percent of the sawdust Bill creates.

A separate paint room allows him to contain paint fumes and block airborne particles. A vent draws off most of the fumes, and his handcrafted, heated drying box provides a place for pieces to cure before assembly progresses.

He uses a lazy Susan to rotate pieces he’s painting. Once finished, he lets painted pieces sit at least 24 hours before he works with them again. His paint of choice is the Van Sickle brand. Although he uses a lot of red paint, he maintains a varied inventory.

Model horses are not child’s play

Model horses are manufactured by a variety of companies, including Breyer. In the 1990s, as his scale model work was expanding, Bill began stocking various Breyer draft horses in order to ensure he had the inventory he needed for the models he was making. Most of the horses are 1/9th scale and work well on his 1/10th scale models.

“I measure and make pieces as authentic as possible,” Bill says. “But I’m not as particular about exact measurements and scale sizes as some builders. The piece has to look right with the horses it’s hitched to.”

Bill’s all-leather, custom-made harness comes from a Minnesota craftsman who uses nickel-plated buckles and snaps. Harness designs are as close to the real thing as possible. Fitting model horses with harness can be a delicate undertaking.

“I usually have to adjust the harness to fit each team,” Bill says. “Getting all the buckles and snaps just right can take a lot of time and patience. That’s often where the needle-nose pliers and tweezers come in handy.”

Delight in the detail

Bill’s work is often customized to meet customer requests. “A lot of people have told me I must be a patient man,” he says. “I like adding the detail and enjoy seeing people’s surprise at how detailed the pieces are. Every piece of each model is sanded and it might need to be glued or bolted in some way. It’s not uncommon to put as many as 50 hours into one wagon.

“The stagecoach was probably the most difficult piece I’ve ever made,” he adds. “I still have the first one I put together. I finished a second one last year and have another one that needs to be finished. It’s important to me to save the history behind these models. I also like being able to create something someone else values highly.”

Bill’s favorite model – the Budweiser 8-horse hitch – was one of the first pieces he made. “It’s 6 foot long and just great to look at,” he says. “I think a hobby like this has to be in your blood in order to create innovative parts and come up with new ideas. I try to keep the first one of each type of piece I make. Because of the time, effort and creativity invested, it can be hard to let some of them go.” FC


Wagons played key roles in cattle drives

In Pioneer Days of the Southwest, by Emmanuel Hubbs, Charles Goodnight and John A. Hart, Goodnight provides an account of how his crews came to use wagons to haul both trail supplies and the proceeds of cattle sales. The incident described took place on his return from a trail drive to Fort Sumner, New Mexico:

“Turning back on the trail, with the proceeds of our sale loaded on our pack mules, an incident occurred which came very nearly wrecking our new-found hopes (of profiting from cattle sales). While in the roughest and most dangerous part of our journey back, and when we were using every precaution to prevent giving notice to the red skins of our presence, a mule bearing $6,000 in gold in the pack broke away in the darkness, scattering the provisions she carried in every direction.

“The gold, however, was saved, for I grabbed a rope that was dangling from the pack and checked the frantic animal after being dragged quite a distance down a rocky slope at the risk of a broken neck. The gold was saved, but our provisions were entirely lost, and there was no way to get them renewed. We traveled for 86 miles without anything to eat until we got to the Pecos River, where we accidentally ran across a man who divided his meager stock of food with us.

“We continued our return without further incident, and a second herd was secured and driven through that same season. We accomplished this trip in 33 days, and sold them out again to good advantage. On our return this time we concluded to avoid the pack mule incident, so we bought a wagon. Most of our money was in silver and it took a wagon to haul it.”

Goodnight purchased a lighter Studebaker wagon, because he knew the wagon’s heavy running gear would hold up under the rigors of the cattle drive trail. At the time, Studebaker – known for its quality – was well on its way to becoming the world’s largest wagon manufacturer.


For more information: Bill Brinkman, Mr. Bill’s Woodshed, 411 James Place, Yankton, SD 57078; (605) 665-4523.

Loretta Sorensen is a lifelong resident of southeast South Dakota. She and her husband farm with Belgian draft horses and collect vintage farm equipment. Email