Customized Scale Tractors

Small satisfaction: Hobbyist's kick comes from modifying toy tractors

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A parade of toy tractors at the ready after Dan Severson customized them.

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Dan Severson has at least 20 tractors. And he’s working quite diligently on all of them – with tweezers, in the dining room.

“I start with a plain toy out of a package from any store,” explains the Chatfield, Minn., man whose hobby is reconstructing, detailing and building 1/64-scale metal and plastic toy tractors. “I strip all the paint off, add lights, handrails, interior details like levers, and repaint it.”

Though he’s never lived on a farm, Dan’s passion for painting and detailing miniature farm machinery fills his spare time. It began with a battered toy tractor he had as a child and a suggestion from his wife, Angie, to find a hobby that would keep him busy and give him a breather after a long day’s work as an air conditioning and heating installer.

“There used to be a Minneapolis-Moline dealer in town that my dad worked for when he was 18 or 19, so that piece has sentimental value,” he says, eyeing his collection. “Some of these were toys my brother and I had when we were younger. The paint was chipped, and they were all beat up. I decided to restore them and add all the details.”

Before finding that there were other toy-tractor enthusiasts in the area, Dan kept his hobby to himself, thinking it was nothing of consequence. “I had a large collection and I found some guys that do custom detailing kind of like this, so I started doing this about four years ago,” he says. “I’ve just gone from there. Even my parents said they didn’t think this would turn into this big a hobby.”       

Small-scale workshop
The Seversons’ dining room has become a regular repair and restoration shop, as well as an original tractor body shop. With Internet connections made to other toy builders, Dan has begun perfecting details on even the most abused and resurrected toys, and making his own toys of styrene plastic.

He depends on online parts suppliers for the tiny pins and rods he needs because there are few miniatures shops in southeast Minnesota, but he likes being able to confer with suppliers as he starts and finishes a project. A toy in Dan’s hands can begin its transformation either as a neglected sandbox tractor or as sheets of styrene, but when it’s finished, it has working wheels, a steering wheel, mirrors, doors, plastic “glass” windows, hitches and working implement parts.

Tweezers are his primary tools. “I also have what would be considered dental instruments, like dental picks,” he says. “I have a lot of real small files to file pieces down once I cut them. I also use knives and digital calipers.” Each toy is painted with aerosol paints. “If you go to a dealership, they’ll have an OEM International paint and John Deere will have theirs,” he adds. “You just have to try to find something fairly similar if you can’t find the OEM paint.”

A small parts junkyard has taken over Dan’s tool chest. “If I want the wheels off one tractor to put on another, I’ll buy it, tear the wheels off it and I’m stuck with a toy with no wheels on it,” he says. “That gets tossed in a drawer until I need a steering wheel or something. I have a very large bin of otherwise good toys missing wheels or other parts.”

Decals can be difficult to remove from manufactured toys and are often hard to find through suppliers, so Dan’s lucky to be married to a graphic designer who’s willing to print tractor brand names and model numbers on clear plastic inkjet labels. He recycles what he can. “I reuse some of the decals from the tractor that I originally tore down,” he explains. Planning is an important part of the process. Waiting for parts shipments in the middle of a project “can be real tough,” he says.

Time-intensive work
Each purchased metal tractor’s overhaul can be a long process. “Your basic tractor can take anywhere from 5 to 12 hours, depending on how intricate you get with the details,” Dan says. “A lot of them come out of the package put together in two halves and there’s a seam down the middle that I’ll fill. Then it’ll have to be sanded and re-painted and the details put on.” Eyestrain isn’t an issue yet. “A lot of times I’ll work for an hour and then take a break because my hands get sore from dealing with such small pieces,” he says.

Custom-built plastic tractors require many more hours of concentration because, as Dan points out, “they have about 300 separate parts that all have to be cut, assembled, sanded and painted. They can take anywhere from 25 to 30 hours each.”

Mechanical and functional correctness are carefully considered. “Everything has its own challenges,” he says. “When building a loader, I have to get everything lined up straight so that when the parts go up and down, the moving pieces don’t bind. Once you get them painted, if they bind up, the paint comes off. You have to try to avoid that. Working with anything of such small scale, like the pins you have to use, can get really frustrating, especially if you have to piece everything back together.”

Ideas for Dan’s plastic tractors originate from photos he’s taken at tractor shows or pictures supplied by people who special-order replicas of tractors and implements they own. Green tractors dominate the orders he receives. “I could build any John Deere tractor and know it will sell,” he says. “Any other color, I make it with plans to keep it.”

Each project is detail intensive. “I’ll take lots of pictures of different tractors and measure them down to scale,” he says. “Then I make each piece individually. A lot of times, even if I measure things, once I get them scaled down and put the specific pieces on, it won’t look right. Then I have to go back and find a picture and try to find a happy medium between the right size and the right look.”

Customers sometimes request specific details. “There’s a little added pressure when somebody has an exact model in mind,” Dan says, “because there are certain things they notice that I wouldn’t know because they look at it every day of their lives.” 

Perfecting the process
Now that he’s a father, Dan’s time is at a premium. At the same time, he’s planning to move his workshop from the dining room and basement to the garage. “I spend probably a couple hours a day and maybe three to four hours a day on the weekends working on this, so it could be anywhere from 10 to 15 hours a week,” he says. “That’ll change now, with a baby. In the past month, I’ve started resin-casting the parts, which means I’ll take a tire or a rim and make a mold of it so I can pour plastic resin so I don’t have to buy so many toys and tear the wheels off. For some of my scratch-built pieces, I’m planning to make molds so I can make them out of resin.”

Expediting the construction process could make more time for him to spend with his daughter, Dani Jo. He’s certain she’ll want to play with Daddy’s tractors someday. “We’ll deal with that when she’s older,” he says. “We’ll probably have to have some other toy tractors for her to play with because these aren’t exactly toys.”

Not exactly toys; not exactly work. “I could see myself doing this as a business, maybe, but I would have to do things, like resin casting, to lessen some of the time I spend on the models, to get enough done,” Dan says. “For now, though, I’m pretty content to just keep it as a hobby.”

He advises anyone interested in dining-room tractor-body repair to be cautious about how much they take on. “Be patient,” he says. “If I go back and pull out the first pieces I built, they don’t look anything like the ones I make now. Try to learn at least one new thing from every model you build. Keep learning and be patient. Enjoy it.”  FC

For more information: Dan Severson, 509 Park St., Chatfield, MN 55923; (507) 272-1580; e-mail:  Daniel.Severson@gmail.com ;  www.tractortinkering.com .

Gretchen Mensink Lovejoy is a freelance writer in Spring Valley, Minn. E-mail her at  twistwriter@hotmail.com .