Santa's Elves at Work

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Gilson Riecke with one of his current works, a Caterpillar D6 tractor.

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Farm toy scratch-builders make miniature masterpieces

Scratch-built farm toys often begin as labors of love, created in a rush of playful fun, according to Gilson Riecke, Ev Weber and Terry Rouch.

Gilson, of Ruthven, Iowa, says, 'That's why I build tractors. So I can have fun.'

Ev, of Lima, Ohio, says he was looking for something fun to do when he retired from his U.S. Department of Defense job in 1977.

And Terry, of Royal Center, Ind., says, 'It's fun to do, an ego trip. And it isn't really business, so how could I go wrong?'

According to collectors who covet toy models produced by these three scratch-builders, they can't go wrong either. They get realistic farm toys exhibiting great detail, pieces that continue to rise in value, and toys that only a limited number of collectors have.

Gilson Riecke

Each scratch-builder began creating for different reasons, uses different materials and works differently to make his little masterpieces. Gilson Riecke became interested after he had made six patterns for tractors for the late Lyle Dingman, one of the farm toy hobby's earliest scratch-builders.

'That got me intrigued,' Gilson says, 'and after that, I decided I wanted to try building tractors on my own.' His first was a Farmall Cub. 'I built that one for myself. I made the Cub because no one else had made one, and I had a full-size one of my own.'  

He followed that with a wide variety of tractors over the years: John Deere A, B, G, LA, M, MT, International Harvester F-12, F-14, 400, 450, Massey-Harris 44, Oliver 88, Minneapolis-Moline Jetstar, Allis-Chalmers WD-45, as well as a John Deere baler, corn sheller, farm engine, plow, Lindeman crawler, IH corn picker, farm engine, hay mower, 1-, 2- and 3-bottom plows, T-6 crawler, and various farm items, like grease guns, oil cans, cream separators, pump jacks and pumps, as well as others.

Though all of Gilson's toys are essentially masterpieces, many people consider his Farmall F-20 the best. 'When I got out of high school I was a mechanic for IH and I worked on a lot of F-20s, so it was a tractor I knew very well,' he recalls. 'My dad had an F-20 on the farm, too. Those added up to reasons why I chose to make it.'

He said he wanted his F-20 to look real, and 'real' meant extensive detail. That meant returning numerous times to the real F-20 until he'd gotten all the measurements, then scaling them down for the F-20 model. 'The F-20 toy tractor is made up of 67 pieces,' he says. 'For example, two of them are the seat and bracket. They're made of aluminum. The seat is separate and is riveted. Every piece you can see, we make. If it doesn't have bolts and burrs, it doesn't look real to me. Plus it's hard, and I like a challenge.'  

The F-20 is representative of all of Gilson's work, but like each toy, it had specific needs to get it built. The wheel hub taper had to be altered, and the angle of the spark plugs had to be changed from the real tractors in order to make dies that would work. Spark plug wires-made of thin electrical wire-are stuck into miniature holes drilled in the block.  

Some tractor engines can be done with a single cast, but not the F-20, which had to be split. 'I wanted to be able to see the rail on the side, and the open pocket by the fan,' Gilson says, 'which couldn't be accomplished unless the casting was split.' Without these little touches, he says, the tractor just didn't seem real enough to him. All his farm toy work is done in 1/16th scale.

Gilson doesn't like to make too many of any one project. 'We could make more of any of them if we wanted, but we aren't trying for numbers. Plus I want it to remain fun.'

Ev Weber

Collectors like to see Ev Weber's latest offerings, of course, but so do farm toy show managers, who notice increased traffic whenever Ev participates in a show.

Ev started scratch-building farm toys as a Great Depression-era kid. 'Christmas meant going to church and that was it,' he says. 'I never got any toys.' But in the winter, he often accompanied his father to a local candle factory where, for a dime, the elder Weber bought a trailer-load of scrap wood to kindle the furnace fire. 'I always appropriated a few small pieces of square and round wood,' Ev says, 'and built toy tractors and implements.' His only tools were a saw and hammer. In his show displays, Ev includes a tractor made of wooden scraps, and a wagon made of a cigar box, and people say they are the most precious toy models he has in his display. 'They realized what those meant,' he says, 'because they, too, didn't have anything during the Depression.'

What's it all mean?

Wondering how to know the difference between old and new, manufactured and handcrafted?

Farm toy scratch-builders are people who create toys 'from scratch,' starting with nothing, and ending up with a delightful-looking, accurate product. Scratch-building can involve making every piece of a model by hand, or casting some parts while hand-fashioning others, and can also include adding a few professionally-manufactured pieces, like tires.

Restoring, as Terry Rouch did when he rediscovered his buried childhood toys, means to rework a distressed toy and return it to its former glory. Painstaking restorations make the old toy look as good as the day it came out of the box.

Customizing means to alter a toy, often a shelf or commonly-produced model, to make it look more realistic, like adding dual wheels instead of singles, or detailing some of the paint work, or taking an Allis-Chalmers WD-45 tractor with a loader on front and changing the loader to the back, for example. The possibilities are endless.

In retirement, Ev cast around for something fun to do. After reading a farm toy magazine survey that said the toy most collectors would like to see made was the Allis-Chalmers 60 combine, he went to work. He built one for each of his children for Christmas, and a few extra. Those he took to a St. Louis toy show, and a star was born. Sixty-two people ordered the Allis-Chalmers 60 combine, even though some had to wait two years to get it. After finishing all of those combines, Ev realized he didn't want to make huge numbers of the same model, so he began making just a few each of more models, and selling them at auction, where the great detail always brings gasps of admiration.

His love for detail began while collecting farm toys. 'I always liked Corgi and Dinky toys because they were more detailed than American toys were.' So when Ev had the chance, he began incorporating great detail into his scratch-built models.

His most detailed work is his scratch-built John Deere 9600 Maximizer combine which, after 500 hours of work, brought $12,300 at a 1997 National Farm Toy Show auction. 'That one took so much time that it took away from the smaller projects we could work on,' Ev says, adding that he doesn't commit to massive projects like that anymore. He made only one 9600 combine, but what a piece it is: A cab light goes on when the door is opened, a cab ladder rotates forward with safety chains and closes the exit, it has steering ball joints and tie rods, dual batteries with cables, engine service ladder (which pulls out from the swinging right rear panel), hinged engine cover, working exhaust rain cap, unloading auger with stops in both positions, a pivoting rear axle with steering ball joints and tie rods and much, much more. 'Collectors nowadays want as much detail as possible,' Ev says.

Ev is big in scratch-building John Deere toys: He's made a John Deere 114 baler, John Deere 5A combine, John Deere 30 pull-type combine, John Deere A tractor and others. He's also built pieces from other lines, including Case, Gleaner, International Harvester and more; about 50 different models for sale so far. That doesn't count the models he's made for his displays.

Besides the use of great detail, one of Ev's greatest impacts on farm toy scratch-building has been in two other intertwining areas: Type of material, and type of display.

Ev and his wife, Myra, have built a series of see-through farm toys of clear acrylic, allowing full view of internal brass workings and showing tractor improvements over the years. These tractors were made for a series of displays (which are planned five years in advance), like 'The Tractor Evolution, Starring Brass & Acrylic,'   'Corn's 500th Anniversary,' 'Ohio State Fair,' and 'Allis Combine Factory.' The John Deere A acrylic tractor (affectionately called 'Casper' because you can see through it) fetched $2,000 at auction; only four were made.

Ev and Myra enjoy the reaction of collectors to their work. Some return time after time during the same show to take in more detail. Others follow Ev to various shows. Some question the accuracy of Ev's work, like the Kentucky man who asked if John Deere really made a 114 baler. 'Usually we find they're using inaccurate information from a book or magazine article,' Ev says. Accuracy is a byword for Ev. He does copious research to come up with the correct information, and incorporates it into his models.    

'I always try to expand myself, and see what else I can do,' he says. 'My main reward is the appreciation of collectors.' He and Myra have won more than 250 awards for the detailed work on their farm toys and displays.

Terry Rouch

Terry Rouch of rural Royal Center, Ind., fell into scratch-building farm toys by accident. 'My three brothers and I grew up during the 1950s, and we all had John Deere farm toys,' he recalls. 'We had a gravel pit on our property back then, and you'd just take your junk and throw it in the gravel pit. After we got done wearing out our toys, my dad threw them in there.'

Twenty-five years ago, Terry remembered those forlorn toys. During a March warm spell, he crawled on his hands and knees and dug through 30 years of mud to find the toys. When he finished, he had retrieved a dozen beat-up, muddy, old farm toys. 'The lot included some John Deere 60s, a JD 730, a 420 and 40 crawler, and a small IH M pedal tractor. The 730 had been given to my brother for quitting sucking his thumb,' he says, 'so I gave that one back to him.'

Terry decided to restore the others. Some had broken axles; some had greater problems. In the process of looking for parts and paint, he discovered the farm toy hobby. He found tires and decals for toys, and fixed up his old toys as best he could. That set him to thinking about making toys for himself, so one day he decided to make a red John Deere Model E wooden spreader.

His choice was made easier by the fact that Terry still had a full-size spreader stuck away in the woods. A neighbor also owned one, and he had an owner's manual that would help with detailed information. Terry says he's always liked implements, so that was the direction he turned.

The first time he displayed the finished toy at a show, Terry ended up selling the piece to a persistent customer. Then he made another one. At subsequent shows, he ran into still more buyer interest, so he decided to make several for the next show. All sold quickly, and Terry was catapulted into creating scratch-built toys.

Terry figured he could make toys quicker with cast parts, so he turned to Gilson Riecke and Chuck Burkholder, long-time farm toy people, for help. 'They and others helped me along,' he says, 'and showed me how to get various things made that you had to have if you wanted to make it look right. So I started learning how to do it.'

Terry's previous experience making muzzle loaders had introduced him to the use of a turning lathe and mill, as well as a jeweler's lathe, all of which his father-in-law let him use until he could afford his own. 'I'm self taught. I learned by trial and error,' he says with a laugh. 'I try to do it better every time I work on a toy. I enjoy it, of course, and it's become about as important to me financially as farming is, the way it is nowadays.'  

When he decides which model comes next, he measures the real thing, scales down the measurements to 1/16th, gathers the proper tools and sets to work. 'Implements are kind of unique, with a lot of sheet metal and thin parts, like spokes, so they really have to be made by hand if you want them to look right,' he says. 'I use a lot of brass, because only half of any implement can be cast. A lot of the stuff is just too thin.'  

He begins with the most difficult piece to make sure it can be done. 'If it looks pretty good under the jeweler's glasses, it looks great to the naked eye.'

Besides the John Deere E spreader, Terry has made a grain drill, windmill, John Deere plow, Oliver plow, Waterloo Boy tractor, Oliver Hart-Parr 18-36 tractor, Caterpillar Road Grader and more. He generally makes 25 to 50 of any of his scratch-built items, then moves on to another. 'Molds don't last forever,' he says. 'If you use one 50 times, it starts getting funky and doesn't work right.' Recently he's been making only two 'oddball toys,' as he calls them, one for auction and one for himself. He's built more than 30 different models so far.

None of the work is difficult, Terry says. 'Nothing about it is a drag. It's self-satisfying and fun just doing it.'

As he attends farm toy shows, Terry runs into different toys that he thinks are neat, and his next idea is born. 'If I'm lucky, I'll be making something that other people will like, too.'

The Devil and the Details

All three scratch-builders agree on the importance of research and preparation in creating their miniature masterpieces. Gilson Riecke muses over the fact that each builder starts from scratch, with nothing. 'You draw it out, scale it down, work on the lathe, and make it with your own hands,' he says.

He plans everything, so he's sure each piece can be cast. 'When you make a pattern, you have to remember the guy who's going to be doing the casting, and make it fit his methods,' he says. 'You have to design correctly so you'll get the best product back.'  

Ev Weber conducts extensive research, measuring the real machine, its manuals, brochures, books, magazine articles and anything else he can find to make sure his information is accurate. That phase can take months, and even then, he's not always positive that the information he's found is correct. 'I would find three or four articles, all of which, in one sense or another, contradicted each other,' he says. 'But by reading all of them, and talking with people, we could pretty much get our work accurate.'

Terry Rouch measures and researches just like everybody else. Still, perfection is often elusive. 'There's always stuff you can't do quite right,' he says. 'You can't put too many hours into something just to get it perfect. You just have to get it down to where it looks pretty good.' Terry's standards, though, are high. 'The public isn't as picky as I am,' Terry notes.

Though Ev Weber has been called 'The man with the golden hands' and 'The Michelangelo of farm toy models' for his work, all of these scratch-toy builders are artisans in their own right, creating miniature works of art for the public to enjoy. Farm toy collectors always look forward to the next model these craftsmen will produce.   FC

- Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Lane, Rockville, MN 56569; (320) 253-5414; e-mail: bvossler@juno.com