Jim Buske has barrels and barrels of fun – and maybe implements and implements of fun, too, for this toy builder makes 1/16 scale miniature 55-gallon oil barrels, hay forks, extension cords, shovels, vises, and most any other farm-related tool you can think of. His big prizes, though, are his very limited runs (10 to 50) of masterfully-crafted 1/16 scale farm implements, constructed in great detail.
Jim became a professional toy builder because he couldn't find anyone else to make a toy for him.
"I just wanted a scale model of that John Deere 650 plow I used to run right out of high school," the 55-year-old Oakes, N.D., man says. "At my first toy show, in St. Louis, I talked to a bunch of builders, but nobody wanted to tackle a one-of-a-kind thing. So I decided to do it myself."
At Christmas in 1992, Jim (who then lived in Prescott, Ariz., where he owned a ServiceMaster business) returned home to North Dakota, and found a real 650 JD plow.
"I took a whole lot of pictures of it, and since I'd always liked mechanical drawing, I sat down and drew out every little piece, and reduced them to 1/16 scale (the generally accepted size for farm toys), and started building the plow. Then I had so much time and effort into it, I showed it around to a lot of people."
One person suggested he dismantle the painstakingly-done plow, make molds of the pieces, and cast parts to do more 650 JD plows.
Which he did. And the rest, as they say, is history. Jim used his prototype to get production approval from Deere & Co., and began making the plow. He made 50 of them, and they started selling.
That was the push Jim needed to sell the ServiceMaster business, move back to his childhood home in North Dakota, and start building toys for a living. His second implement was the John Deere 145 plow (neither it nor the 650 had ever been made as toys before. The Ertl Company has since made it as a Precision Classics 145 plow.)
The usual approval process for farm toys is to create a prototype, show it to company officials, discuss it, and wait for three votes out of a committee of five.
"When I decided to do the 145 plow, I called John Deere and told them," he says. "They said I should go ahead, and they'd vote on it later."
That was a resounding measure of their belief in Jim's ability. Shortly after, he received official permission.
"I've heard some people have trouble getting a license," he says, "but I never have."
In fact, sometimes companies ask him to do a piece, as happened at the National Farm Toy Show in Dyersville, Iowa.
"A gentleman said 'Awful lot of green on your table.' I knew he was a Case/IH representative, so I kiddingly said, 'I heard you guys are hard to get along with.' He said that wasn't true, so I told him I had a couple of things I'd really like to do for Case/IH." A 350 International disk and an International 55 plow topped his list.
He asked for a prototype, but Jim reminded him that the quality of his work was visible on the table, even if it was green. "He said, 'All right, send us one of those chisel plows,' pointing at a John Deere implement I'd made. Back home, I boxed up a John Deere chisel plow, sent it, and evidently they took a vote, because I got a license to do those toys."
Other licensed implements Jim's made include a JD 100 chisel plow, an International 500 chisel plow, an 810 JD plow, a JD BWA disk and others. He's also made Westfield grain augers, and David Bradley trailers, which were sold by Sears.
"The grain augers actually work," he says. "I take an Ertl Precision Classics 720 JD tractor all apart and put an electric motor in it to run the PTO, and then it will actually auger, using wild mustard seed."
Jim says he owes great debts to toy scratch-builders Gilson Rieke and Terry Rouch for their help.
"When I was doing that 650 plow, I picked their brains like you wouldn't believe," he says. "They told me where to get stuff, better ways of doing things, how to get the mold to work right, steered me to a spincaster I could use, and how to build the model." Jim says seeing Gilson's small items convinced him to make tiny farm tools as a way to pay show table rents, and the bigger things to make a living.
The first tiny tool Jim made was a shop press, which he followed with a shop crane. The barrel idea intrigued him for a long time, he says, until a machine shop worker showed him how they could make barrels with a computerized lathe. Jim had disks made for the bottoms, which press in, and the tops.
"I drill holes in the top for the bung and the pump. I've always wanted to make a set of salt-and-pepper shakers out of them, but I never have," he says with a laugh.
Jim now understands the frustration other builders might have felt when they're asked to produce a single JD 650 plow.
"I have many requests to build one copy of a favorite toy," he says. "I say I have to charge them for all the prototype time, instead of spreading that out over 35 or 50 of them. Same with the spincaster; all his mold cost goes for making just one toy. So one toy will probably cost $4,000."
Farm toy collectors are looking for something different now, Jim says, which leads to his success. "There's not much enjoyment in showing a mass-produced piece to somebody, and hearing them say, 'Oh, yeah, I bought one of them a couple of weeks ago, too'. But they'll take one of my pieces, or somebody else's scratch-built piece, and put it on the coffee table, and when friends and neighbors come over, they've got something to show them."
Prices run from $255 to $500 each, which is probably why not everybody is interested in his toys.
"Most people at toy shows walk by and say, 'Yeah, I had one like that when I was a kid,' not understanding what I've done," he says "But then there are those people who get down on their knees at the table, and have their eyes six inches from the model. They just really appreciate what it is. The people I really feel sorry for are the guys who really appreciate a piece, but can't afford it. He'd give up groceries for a year – if it wasn't for his wife – just to have one."
For Jim, the real joy is in making each prototype.
"I love the prototype work," he says. "I love going out to find the piece; that's a real challenge because this stuff is getting close to 40 years old. It's a challenge, taking all the pictures, scaling the size down, getting everything ready for the spincaster. So the prototypes are what I really want to do."
And when the pieces are shipped from the spincaster a few months later, he can't wait to put the first one together. After that, it isn't as much fun.
"I hate assembly," he says, "which is why I made 50 of my first toys, 35 of my later ones, and 10 and 12 of some others."
The frames on the disks and chisel plows are now made of brass.
"I cut them all to length and drill holes in them, so the toy is a good sturdy piece," he says. "Brass is nicer, with no parting lines or anything in them. Everything is so nice and uniform."
Nevertheless, he figures he's going to reduce prices to about $250 each again, because Ertl's Precision Classics cost $100-125 each. That means assembling 50 copies of each piece again.
He still gets calls for his JD BWA disk.
"It sold out almost immediately. And there's no way I can make more of them. My customers know I'm going to do a limited amount, and nobody would like it if, five years later, I started doing them again. Part of the attraction of my toys is the real limited edition, so I'll never make more than I say I will."
The most difficult part of Jim's work is finding a spincaster.
"Take my extension cord, for example. I go to a spincaster to ask them to make the plug with those two little prongs at the end of the cord. They say they can't do anything that small, so I have to keep pushing them," he says. "Finally, one of them will give it a try. But when you reduce that thing down to 1/16th, it's really tiny, so if they run a hundred of them, only 25 to 30 will be usable."
The concept and process are similar for his 1/16 scale hammers, shovels, crowbars, forks and the like.
"I even did a Nipco heater, too," he says.
In addition to making highly-detailed toys, Jim collects a few farm toys, too. They're highly-detailed, as well: He likes those made by Gilson Rieke, Terry Rouch, and Ertl's Precision Classics series. He's also a collector and restorer of John Deere lawn and garden tractors, but the real thing instead of toys.
"That's my hobby," he says, "collecting and restoring them."
He does have a 140 JD lawn and garden tractor and dump cart toy, too.
His latest foray is into a different brand of farm toy: an Oliver chisel plow, and he's only making a dozen of them.
"I've never done an Oliver before," he says, "and I don't know how they're going to sell, so it's kind of a test."
Jim doesn't have to test whether his entire concept works, however.
"It puts groceries on the table, and I enjoy it," he says. "How many other people can say they're making a living doing what they like?" FC
For more information: Jim Buske, Vikingland Farm Models, 903 Dogwood, Oakes, ND 58474; (701) 742-2420; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bill Vossler writes on a variety of collectible farm equipment, and is the author of Toy Farm Tractors, published last year.