It's a Small World for a Minnesota Model Maker

Model maker Neal James of rural Elk River, Minn., has built 27 engines, including seven gasoline engines.


Neal James with his 1/3-scale 4 hp Monitor model engine.

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Neal James of rural Elk River, Minn., once played in a band called The James Gang. But today, his "James Gang" might be the dozens of model engines he has made, including some from scratch. "I was raised on them," says the 76-year-old retired tool and die maker. "My dad was into everything. He had his blacksmith shop, and a portable feed grinder that we used to take around and grind feed and a corn shredder that we took around. We were in the well business together for five years, and then his blacksmith shop." And what did all of those businesses have in common? Gas engines.

A 1980 trip to Rollag, Minn., to the Western Minnesota Steam Threshers' Reunion, piqued Neal's interest in model engines. "It was the biggest show in the state, so I went up to see what it was all about, and I sure found out. I saw the small model engines up there, and I got interested in them right away. I didn't know they made anything like that, so I got all hepped up about getting started on one." He asked for information, and found out where to send for kits to make model engines.

As soon as he got the castings, Neal started working on the small, unscaled 4-cylinder Wall C601 model gasoline engine. "It's a freelance kit, with the engine much like that of the Model A automobile," he says.

But he had seen an Associated gas engine at Rollag, and when he found a kit for that one, he ordered it. When it came, he set the Wall aside, and finished the 1/3-scale Associated 1-1/2 hp model engine. "It was a little challenging because it was the first one, but I had a lot of experience machining, so I was able to overcome the problems."

Though the Associated model was designed to run, Neal didn't start it up for about a year. "I was just so proud of it, I didn't want to get it dirty," he says. "So I set it up to be admired at shows, and then I entered it in the Sherburne County Fair." He won grand champion with that model, and later that year at the Minnesota State Fair he was awarded a blue ribbon with a rating of 98 points out of 100 possible. "They wrote that it was 'Beautiful,' but I lost points because it was a kit." After that, Neal began to run the Associated when he took it to shows.

Neal has built 27 engines, including seven gasoline engines. One of his most challenging projects has been a 1/8-scale 1915 Holt 75 model gas engine he's working on now. "I've worked on that one off and on for a few years," he says, "but I'd like to have it done by spring so I can take it to shows. But it's time-consuming."

What makes the Holt difficult is the way it was cast, with the engine and oil pan as one piece. "You can't machine the main bearings through the engine," he says, "so you have to go in and file them." That meant he first had to mill the top of the engine perfectly smooth, so it was flat and could be used as a point to reference from. After the engine was fastened to the table, risers the exact height of the center of the main bearing had to be clamped onto the table. Then Neal went inside the engine with a long and very flat file, and filed the main bearings down the exact height of the risers. He had to come in from both sides of the engine to finish the delicate work.

"I don't think the original Holt engine was built that way, but the model was," he says. "I know some people have cut the engine in two so they can machine the bearings, and bolted them back together to get away from the problem of machining through the inside of the engine. But I didn't do that. If you cut it in two, then you're taking away metal that you have to add in later with a spacer to bring back the original dimensions, and it's just a lot of extra work. It was work the way I did it, but it would be more work the other way, I think."

Another of Neal's gas engines is a 1/3-scale model of a 1912 Quincy 4 hp engine. "When I first saw the advertisement for that one, I knew I had to build it," he recalls. "It just really appealed to me. It wasn't a really hard engine to build. There were a lot of detailed parts to that one, many parts made out of stainless steel. That's hard machining, and then you've got machining marks so you have to file and sand and polish until they're like a mirror. It's just time-consuming to get a mirror finish on all these parts."

Many of the parts are so small that Neal has to use a magnifier as he machines them. "My eyes aren't as good as they used to be, so I have a visor magnifier and use that a lot."

Quincys are rare. As a result, Neal's model is an attention-getter at shows, Neal says, and it runs well, too. In fact, Neal's been offered large sums to part with it, most notably about 10 years ago when a museum owner from Austria saw the Quincy and fell in love with it. "But I told him no," he says. "It took me a year to build the Quincy, and I don't want to build another one. I want to build other engines."

Another unusual gasoline engine Neal has built is a 1/2-scale of a 1918 "fruit jar" 5/8 hp Maytag engine. "The original Maytag used a fruit jar for the gas tank, but I had to find something half-sized, so I used a little pint mayonnaise jar for the gas tank on this one." He says the real machines were built for only a couple of years, likely because they were dangerous to operate. "It's almost impossible to find one of the real ones today," he says, "and you'd have to pay a lot to own it. I only know of one that a Maytag collector has."

Neal made a cylinder pattern out of wood for the Maytag, and has sold a number of the cylinders to other collectors. Because Neal has several other Maytag kits that haven't yet been assembled, he already has the needed cylinders cast for them.

Other James gas engine models include a 1/2-scale 1925 Briggs & Stratton Model F-H 5/8 hp engine, which really appealed to him when he saw the kit, he says. "A guy from North Platte, Neb., built those. I've never seen another one outside of this engine."

Neal also has made a couple Monitor engines, including a 1/3-scale of a 4 hp ball hopper Monitor and a 1/3-scale of a 1-1/4 hp Monitor pumping engine. "They were made mainly for pumping water, and had a pump jack built right into it. That's the way it was made. The pump jack is made separate, but the engine has flanges on it to bolt the jack right up against it." The little Monitor was difficult to build, he says, because it has a crankcase like the Holt, so he had to go through the engine to file the crankshaft. "It was a little troublesome, you could say."

Wood grain

One thing that makes Neal's engines unique is the wood base he crafts for each engine. "I try to make each one a little different and unique," he says. "I start with a basic design and start working on that, changing it until I'm satisfied with what I've got. I think it adds a lot to the engine. Most people notice a nice finished base right away, especially women."

The large Monitor engine, for example, has a wood pulley Neal put on it. "The real ones had a pressed wood pulley, but this one is just for dress-up." Most of the skids Neal makes are crafted from oak. "It has a large grain that really stands out," he says. "It probably takes more finishing than most woods, but it finishes up so nice."

Scratching an itch

After Neal had seen dozens of model engines, and built dozens more, he decided he wanted to build a working model gasoline engine. "I could just picture what kind of engine I wanted," he says, "so I drew up plans from what I had in mind, a little air-cooled engine with a little throttle carburetor on it." It has a 7/16-inch-bore and a 9/16-inch-stroke. Flywheels are 2 inches in diameter on the "Almosta," as he calls the engine (his "company" is named "Almosta Engine Co.").

He built the one-of-a-kind model from scrap material; cast iron bar stock taken from old big machinery. "I just used chunks of that," he says. "After I had built a few engines and seen a lot of the larger engines, I wanted to design a real small one, because you didn't see many out there at the time."

Neal built a homemade spark plug for The Almosta. "I made a set of different size plugs (5/16-, 3/8-, 1/4-, 10/32-, 8/32- and 5/40-inch thread size), and set them in a base. The Almosta has a 5/40 thread on it." A few years ago, he wrote a magazine article on how to build plugs. "The larger ones are the take-aparts, like the Model T spark plugs. They fouled so easily, so you could screw them apart, clean them up and put them back in, so some of the plugs I make are like that."

At times, he's thought of drawing up plans and making a kit of his own design to sell. Ultimately, he decided against such an undertaking. "If you're doing that, you're not building engines," he says. "I think it would be fascinating and fun, and it wouldn't be too expensive, but to have to make all the patterns for the parts of an engine, the pattern boards and everything, it's time-consuming to do all that. I'd rather have engines instead of the money."

Neal says the reactions he gets from people are unbelievable. "That's what is fun about showing the models, the reactions from people who see them. It's just a good feeling."

For more information: - Neal James, 21222 Meadowvale Road N.W., Elk River, MN 55330-8956; (763) 441-2297.

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; e-mail: