German Craftsmanship

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Irv Termunde

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Deep in the snowy confines of Germany's Black Forest, tucked away in poorly lit attic spaces, skilled woodcarvers developed the cuckoo clock industry more than 200 years ago, crafting hand-carved decorations well-known across the Atlantic. In the confines of his own Illinois shop, Irv Termunde, the creator of Das Woodwerk Haus, is carving out a woodwork niche and reputation of his own. 'From the name of my shop, you can tell that I am of German-Dutch heritage,' the five-time toy show trophy winner says about his background. 'I am the last in a long line of farmers and gardeners, although I've been out of farming for over 20 years.'

The Grant Park, Ill., woodworker has created more than 100 1/16-scale models of farming and hauling equipment comparable to the complexity and dexterity of his German woodcarving ancestors.

Termunde models all have working parts that are hand-made from mostly maple, walnut, cherry or oak. He currently favors building large hauling and construction models such as trucks, crawlers, excavators and bulldozers. True to his rural heritage, he's also crafted tractors and implements such as a Case quad-track tractor with an intricately carved 17-furrow plow; a John Deere A with two-bottom plow; a Farmall F-20 with two-bottom plow; a flare, box and double-box wagons; a Kinzie grain cart with track wheels and a Caterpillar Challenger with grain cart.

The price for Irv's models vary, but his hand-made beauties aren't cheap. Trailers start at $200, trucks at $275 - and the price goes up to $500 for the most intricate models. Don't be discouraged by the price - these scale models are dazzling.

'When most people see my models they say, 'It's unbelievable! I thought that couldn't be done! Do you make these? How'd you do it?'' Irv says. 'Most people think that I've made these models with a kit, so I have to reassure them that, no, they're handmade.'

All his models have movable parts. The number of movable components depends on the time spent on each piece, but in general all of the wheels and tracks move on each model. 'The track is actually one of the easier things to make,' Irv says about his crawler models. The track pieces are attached together using a 3/32-inch-diameter dowel rod, - approximately the size of a large toothpick.

Even though the craftsman makes the work look easy, Irv's most challenging model is a tractor-type backhoe. It has more than 100 movable pieces, mostly located in the toy's front-end loader and in the back-hoe's moving arm. It proved to be the most time-consuming piece. 'I can only spend 3 1/2 hours or so at a time on it before my eyes and hands get tired from working on such a small model,' Irv says.

Like those famed clock builders from Germany, it took Irv a while to perfect his craft. The first couple of models he made were crude and terrible, he admits. He doesn't like to show them now, but as he continued to whittle and sculpt, he got better.

As a young man, Irv entered the Army and spent four years in Hawaii. As luck would have it, the base had a wood shop, and he began to carve and build models from scratch. Hawaii turned out to be a great place for an aspiring woodcarver. The island is home to many exotic woods such as Kola, Monkey Pod, Chrysanthemum, Mahogany and others that Irv used to build coffee tables, end tables, footstools and clocks. He was discharged shortly before the Vietnam War and moved to Grant Park, 50 miles south of Chicago where he farmed for 20 years.

'After trying to keep up with that,' Irv says, 'I decided to get out of the business, so I sold all of my tractors except for some gardening equipment and then bought a 10-acre piece of land where I live now. My interest in carving and model-making came back after I quit farming.'

His time in the Army also taught Irv another career. 'I do a lot of custom cabinet making and woodworking for my living, so I was always involved with woods,' he says. 'These models were an offshoot of that.'

After he quit farming, Irv concentrated on model building in his spare time and his skills quickly improved. During that time, he was inspired by a picture of his grandfather's 1929 International truck. Unsure how to correctly carve his own version, Irv came across a company called Toys 'n' Joys out of Washington that supplied him with blueprints. 'They had the plans for the truck,' Irv says, 'so I scaled it down to 1/16 and made some models for my sister and brother.'

Mastering the International truck model was a pivotal event, Irv says, because it taught him the importance of blueprints. He used a computer-aided drafting program for his career woodworking jobs, then he began to use it for his models. 'Since then, I now use CAD,' he says. 'If I see something that I like, I use my digital camera to take a picture, then use the CAD program to make blueprints. Then I scale it down to 1/16.'

The tools Irv uses are no different than any other woodworker's tools, he says. He uses a basic table saw, band saw, planer, joiner, router and sanders. The high quality of Irv's models are a 'combination of a good design with a lot of detail, and a good selection of wood,' he says.

'How I use that wood depends. Some models might use a dark wood for its main color, and then I highlight it with a lighter wood. Or I can do it the other way around. It depends, but a combination of darks and lights is important.'

Regardless of the wood selected, Irv says, he tries to include as many moving parts as possible. 'Sometimes that makes the model fairly complex and more expensive.'

Ideas for his designs might come from anywhere, but there are trends. 'I usually choose to make only truck models now,' he says, 'because the farm toy market is flooded.' After years of painstaking effort, these days he's a confident model maker. In fact, Irv's got one design in mind that could be his most difficult challenge yet. It's a big crawler crane, which he's already designed with his CAD program. The crawler has 60 pieces of track alone - in addition to the rollers and idlers. 'I won't even hazard to guess on how many pieces will be involved, maybe 500 to 700,' he says. The most difficult aspect of his model making, Irv says, is mimicking stylized curves that grace modern trucks and tractors. 'The curves and radiuses go both vertically and horizontally,' he says. 'They are very formed and curved down and around. But I don't give up on them, they're just a little bit harder.'

Irv attends around a dozen farm toy shows every year, mostly in his area. Some of the shows he plans to attend in 2003 include the Parkland-sponsored farm toy show in Champaign, Ill., March 22; the Midwest Toy Truck and Farm Tractor Show in Dyersville, Iowa, March 29-30; the National Toy Truck Show, Indianapolis, Aug. 16-18 and the Crossroads of Illinois Toy Show in Normal, Ill., Nov. 28.

His natural aptitude for carving may hearken back to the work done by his German woodcarver ancestry, but Irv has carved out a niche of his own. He is living proof that some traditions only get better with time.

- For more information about Irv's collection or Das Woodwerk Haus, contact him at 8003 N. 1600 E., Grant Park, IL 60940; (815) 456-2420.