Homemade Scale Model Tractors

Time, skill and accuracy invested by makers scale model tractors

Ralph Henderson takes a turn on his John Deere 110 mower conversion.

Ralph Henderson takes a turn on his John Deere 110 mower conversion.

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Building scale models can be enjoyed by both the young and young at heart, whether you're a modeler or a rider. Riding's easy, but experienced makers say to take your time, and make it more of a hobby than a business. 

Jim Turnbull, for example, makes scale-model tractors for fun, while his son Jason has ridden and helped show them at more than 30 tractor meets and fairs. Jason spreads the fun by giving other children rides in a small trailer pulled by a one-third-scale model John Deere L. The models generate a lot of interest at shows.

"I have had many offers to sell, but the kids say 'No'!'" says Jim, who lives in Rushville, Mo. "People at shows like to set their kids on it to get a picture."

Jim is a second-generation modeler.

"I've built a pedal tractor, and I have a garden-size tractor that my dad built in 1957 that used a lot of Ford car parts," he says. "He built about 10 or 12 of them back then."

His keys to success?

"Make a model of something that people are familiar with and don't give up when you're half done," he says. "If you get stumped, stop and think about it for awhile and you'll figure it out."

Ralph Henderson, St. Clairsville, Ohio, agrees that an investment of time and patience pays off. He spent the winter of 1993 remaking a John Deere model 110 riding lawn mower into a small Deere model A or G tractor.

"It's a good thing that I'm retired, considering all the hours I put into the project," he adds.

Ralph recently sold the tractor for $1,200 to a personal friend, after refusing a $5,000 offer. Doc Saffeil, Belmont, Ohio, is the new owner. Doc is the vice president of the Stumptown Steam Threshers Association. Members of that group gave Ralph the initial encouragement for his project.

Ralph uses his skills as a retired shop machinist in his machine shop and enjoyed the challenges of his mower conversion project. However, he says he'd not do another one for three times the several-thousand-dollar price he originally asked.

"I sized it in my head and extended the front end six to eight inches, and I machined the front post, then fitted the ends with cone bearings," he explains. "The front axle was machined at about 10-degree angles. At the top of the post, I fabricated a gearbox from a Model A Ford steering column. I used a worm gear, but I had to machine a new pinion gear to obtain 180-degree steering."

Still, it was trial and error.

"The tractor first came out steering opposite to the way the wheel was turned," he says, "so I had to redo that."

The front grille was made from the tubing that JD lawn tractors were crated in. He sawed them down the middle and made a die, then formed the grille bars.

"When I changed the tractor to a tricycle type, the frame was too light," he says. "I had to reinforce with 3/8-inch plates on each side, the length of the tractor, and also make other bracings. I mounted a 17 hp Koehler engine and relocated the gas tank. The exhaust manifold was redesigned. There were a lot of pulleys to be machined and many guards and shields to be made and mounted.

"The differential had to be dismantled and machined in order to mount hubs with electric brakes salvaged from a house trailer, enabling me to install individual brakes to each rear wheel," he adds. "I was unable to find 16-inch trailer rims, so I found two rims the width I liked, and took out the centers. I welded in a 1-inch plate and machined it to fit the trailer hubs. While it was in the lathe, I cut a groove in the 1-inch plate and laid it out, drilled and tapped holes, so if one wanted to mount dual rear wheels, it would be simple."

Ralph molded a hood cover using fiberglass, a difficult procedure in itself. But don't let the complexity of Ralph's conversion discourage you: his experience and project were unique. You don't have to be an engineer to make models.

Jim Turnbull's Deere L project wasn't easy either. Take your time, he says.

"I like to use parts of old riding mowers, because they're small and plentiful," he says. "I found the L's steering wheel in a junkyard about eight years before I decided to build the model. But I knew that I would have kids and eventually build them something like my dad built for me!"

Keep proportions in mind, he advises.

"The hardest thing to find is the correct size tire-and-wheel combination to make it look its best, then to make it the correct scale so it's driveable for the kids," he says. "I also set up the pedal models so that the pedal needs to be pushed to go. The tractor stops if released, or if a kid should fall off. I changed sprockets twice to get the right speed."

Jim used a 4 hp Briggs & Stratton engine with a four-to-one gearbox built on it, then a shaft to a forward-and-reverse box off a mower. He put a chain to the rear end with a jack shaft with a brake drum on it. He used two wheels from a Vespa scooter he'd ridden as a youngster, a lawn mower rear axle and then made a frame and front axle from steel tubing.

Patrick Prom has become well-known for his accurate scale models, exhibiting them at the Minnesota State Fair and several other shows. But his first one, a one-third scale John Deere unstyled model D, usually sits on his lawn with flowers in it. Patrick's second model - a five-eighths scale Waterloo Boy - is also used as an ornament. Patrick, who lives in Eden Prairie, Minn., has sold some of his production, including an IH model WD half-scale which went for about $5,000. "I make the tractors by taking a small engine and building around it," he says. "On the Deeres, I use single-cylinder engines, mounting them crosswise, showing the flywheel and belt pulley running. On the IH, I used a Datsun car engine and an IH Cub Cadet rear end. I make all the front axles to look just like the real ones. I make the hoods, fenders and frames, also."

Patrick spends about one year on each model tractor.

"I don't have a machine shop," he says. "I just make them in my garage with only a saw, welder and grinder."

Modeler and 1/16-scale model toy maker Frank Miller says he tries to stick with standard shafts, sprockets, chains, etc., which are usually found at implement dealers.

"It helps to have patience, while using some trial and error," he says. "It also helps to be a little machine shop-smart about an electric welder, a torch, and other tools."

Frank, who lives in Mott, N.D., has made some pedal tractor implements for sale. But some he keeps, because of the time investment, and for sentimental reasons.

"When working with pedal models, it runs into more of a job than it appears," he says. "I've had to put in a pinion gear steering shaft to get the shaft up high enough to clear the engine. Then I made a sub-frame to set the engine and sprocket on. On a 20-series (New Generation) John Deere pedal conversion, I used a standard horizontal shaft, 3.5 hp Briggs engine, then added a centrifugal drive clutch to simplify the drive-chains and sprockets. I didn't want any belts."

Still, some pedal tractors are best left alone, he says.

"With some of the older models, it would be a disaster to put a motor in," he advises. "The value of some of those pedal models is too high to chop them up." FC 

Gary Van Hoozer is a Missouri writer specializing in vintage agriculture and farm history.