Making Antique Decals

When he discovered the scarcity of original decals for tractor restorations, John Hiniker found a way to make his own.

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A diesel International Harvester decal.

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A sense of sweet anticipation fills each day for John Hiniker of North Mankato, Minn., — anticipation that more tractor decal orders will be coming his way. "Almost every day I get a new order," he said. "Those orders are the highlight of my day."

He's been getting them now for 30 years, even though he hasn't advertised in decades. "I probably should advertise, but I don't," the 86-year-old tractor aficionado said. "I don't know how many more years I'll be doing this."

John started making decals in the early 1970s because he couldn't find any for the tractor he was restoring. "It was a McCormick-Deering 10-20," he said. "I went to the International dealers and they didn't have any, and I checked other places too, but I couldn't find any."

Finally, on a chance visit to an International Harvester dealer in Rogers, Minn., John found his first set on a dusty shelf. "I saw an envelope with the last 10-20 decals he had," John recalled, "and you couldn't get any more."

Knowing other tractor collectors and dealers also needed the hard-to-find decals, John took that set to a Minneapolis silk-screening company and had some more made.

Initially, he said, International Harvester gave him a hard time but when John explained that their own dealers wanted him to make the decals and that the decals were only restoring the company's name to their own tractors, they changed their minds.

"After that," John said, "the International Harvester Company in Minneapolis sent out a bulletin to all the dealers in the area, informing them that I had these decals - and I started getting calls."

His first decals were for the 10-20 and  15-30 McCormick-Deerings, not only because he was restoring those tractors, but because he knew a number of other 10-20s and 15-30s were being restored at that time, providing a ready market. "Then I made decals for other tractors, like Allis-Chalmers, for the WC, WD-45 and WD. I still have a few of those on hand; I don't sell many."

The same goes for his decals for International Harvester orchard tractors, the IHC I-4 industrial tractor and Hi-Clearance tractors, including the International AV, HV and MV.

John specializes in International Harvester/Farmall/McCormick-Deering tractor decals because they have sold best over the years.

"When I ran out of them, I re-ordered. I kept my eyes open. Sometimes I noticed a lot of a certain tractor was being restored, so I ordered decals for those, or I knew that a lot of a certain tractor had been manufactured, so as that tractor got older, I ordered decals for it."

Occasionally, he gets calls for decals he doesn't have, notably lawn tractors and orphan tractors that no longer exist. When John couldn't find an official set of original decals that he needed, he made copies from the pages of farm magazines and took the silk-screeners. He said he never had any trouble getting decals made, although they could get expensive in small quantities.

Current best sellers are from the 1940s and '50s — Farmall M decals, followed by Farmall H, A, B and C — but that wasn't always the case.

"It used to be that the most popular ones were for the F-20, F-12 and F-14," he said. "Of course now, they're petering out because they've all been picked up out of the fields and trees."

Of the thousands of decals he's sold over the years, though, John figures the F-20s still rank No. 1.

His sets usually sell for about $20. "I probably could charge more, but others are doing this too and selling decals for about the same price."

Most sets contain about a dozen parts, although the IHC TD-6, T-9 and T-14 crawlers each have more than 20 parts. Each set contains the major decals that go on the hood, as well as decals for the oil filter, air cleaner, power takeoff, radiator, radiator caps, gearshifts, light switch and other assorted items. The majority go to equipment dealers, engine repair workers and antique tractor enthusiasts. FC 

For more information, contact John at (507) 345-6896.

Bill Vossler is a farm toy collectibles expert, author and freelance writer. He lives in Rockville, Minn.; e-mail: bvossler@juno.com