Scratch-Cast: Scratch-Built Farm Toys

Business partners Gary Van Hove and Brian Schmidt create scratch-built farm toys at Scratch Cast.

A close-up of the gates on the Powder River cattle crowder

A close-up of the gates on the Powder River cattle crowder.

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Twenty years ago at a farm toy show, Gary Van Hove sold a scratch-built irrigation system to a boy. Now a man, the buyer recently returned to the show for a special reason: He wanted his son to meet Gary - and he wanted to buy one of Gary's toys for the boy.

"It's really unique to have a little boy buy stuff from you, watch him grow up, not see him for a while and then have him come to a show with his son or daughter, and say, 'Remember me?'" Gary says. "Sometimes I have to think back a long ways. Sometimes there's even three generations involved."

Today Gary - who lives in Edgerton, Minn. - works in partnership with one of those boys he influenced. Brian Schmidt, now 34, spotted Gary's scratch-built implements at a toy show more than a decade ago. That contact spurred him to make small toys of his own.

Partners in scratch-built toys

The two men arrived at their current avocation through different paths. Gary began scratch-building toys in the 1980s after he and his son, Chad, discovered the expense of collecting farm toys. "Chad always loved to tear things apart, and we saw how these toys were built," Gary says. "So Chad and I scratch-built a 1/64-scale 4-row stock chopper as a way to offset costs. We built 13 of them, and set up to sell them in the parking lot outside the National Farm Toy Show in Dyersville, Iowa, in 1984." Ten minutes later, they sold out.

After that, they built a snow blower and anything else that was different, fun and appealed to the market. "We built whatever people asked for, or what we liked," Gary says. "That's when I first realized I'd found something I could do and enjoy." They named the business C&G Toys.

Brian, on the other hand, had the hankering to make implements ever since he was a kid. "The Ertl company pretty much built only tractors, and didn't have much for equipment," he explains. "So I started making my own implements out of cardboard and tape."

Brian really got started after he saw Gary's toys at a show. "I figured if he could build them, I could too," he says with a laugh. "So I bought a soldering iron and started doing it." His first scratch-built toy was a Parker grain cart.

Toy-building burn-out

After a dozen years of scratch-building, Brian decided he wanted out of the business. He quit for a year and a half, but then reconsidered. A couple of years later, burnt out and frustrated by the challenges of marketing, he decided to quit the toy-building business. He put everything up for sale.

Meanwhile, Gary had seen Brian's toys and admired his work. "It was good material for resale at a decent price, so I bought him out," Gary says. He offered Brian a job working for him at C&G Toys, but Brian wasn't interested. "I told him to think about it," Gary says, "but I didn't hear back from him for quite a while."

Three months later Brian asked if the offer was still open. Gary said it definitely was. "I was glad," Brian says. "It was a chance to get back into what I loved doing without all the responsibilities."

Complementary talents

Each man brings unique talents to the partnership. Gary works most often on brass, as well as 1/32-scale and 1/16-scale models, while Brian works mostly on 1/64-scale and has become adept at resin-cast. "Resin is more reliable now," Gary notes, "and after working with it for quite a few years, Brian is getting it down to the point where he can get a lot of detail in it. Every time we build something, we learn.

"All our prototyping is done in brass or other metal (like tin)," he adds, "but I began with brass and stuck to it just because it was easier to solder to brass than anything else. Brass holds up better than anything that's glued together."

"Whatever we were building before we joined forces we brought in," Brian says, "and as we come up with new ideas, we decide who has the better material for making the model."

Because modern-day resin is easier to work with and much less problematic than it used to be for models, Brian gets great detail in some of the 1/64-scale models, like their bale wagons, combines and grain augers. Resin can also be found in the Nuhn liquid manure tank, in resin manure spreaders with brass beaters, slop gate and floor chain, hydraulic auger hoppers, grain carts and bin vents.

Building a business

After three years of working together, Gary asked Brian to buy in as a partner. In 2006 they formed Scratch-Cast, "Resin-cast with a touch of brass." They specialize in 1/64-scale farm toys, like those mentioned, plus balers, telehandlers, bean pickers and the like - a total of 153 different models at last count. "1/64-scale is easier to work on," Gary says, "fewer materials to work with, and there's more of a call for 1/64 in the custom line than in 1/32 or 1/16. More young people are building farm displays and looking for these kinds of toys."

Their categories of farm models include beet, manure, haying, grain, harvest and tillage equipment, as well as tub grinders and other items. Tillage equipment and beet equipment are not currently available.

Though the two scratch builders have their specialties, they do cross over. Brian, for instance, makes the all-brass and unusual Powder River cattle crowd tub. He found literature on it and thought it would be an interesting project. "At the time nobody made one," he says, "so I thought it would be fun to design one."

The piece is small and accurate, and the parts actually work. "Everything in the head gate works," Brian says, "and I added a section to bring the cattle to load through the head gate." The gates open, the palpation cages fold down and the head gate opens and closes. "That's a lot of fine hinge work, and a lot of detail," he admits. "People see it and they can't believe it. They ooh and ahh and say, 'Holy cow, that's cool!'"

Gary works on some of the 1/64-scale toys, but concentrates on 1/16-scale and 1/32-scale scratch-built toys. One big seller is the 1/32-scale 5,000-gallon Nuhn manure tank, and the 1/32-scale 9,500- to 11,000-gallon Houle manure tanks, which they've sold around the world. "Many other countries prefer 1/32-scale, so we've sold them in Canada, Holland, Germany, England and South Africa. They hook up to popular mid-scale tractors." Companies that manufacture the real manure tanks have even bought some, a powerful endorsement of the exactness and detail the partners put into the pieces.

Other attention-getters include their 1/64-scale bale wagon. "A guy from California wanted one, so he sent me literature and dimensions and I built one," Brian says. "The beds tilt up and the bale grabber moves up and down. I think it's as accurate to scale as you can get."

Difficult pieces

Beet equipment has been the most difficult to scratch-build. "We don't live in a beet area, so it required a great deal of research," Gary says. "We went to the manufacturer to see how the equipment was built, and it has so many parts we wondered if we would ever get them built." Because of resin-casting, which is considerably cheaper than metal casting, the process is easier and the toys can be less expensive. Their beet machinery line includes the Wic 6-foot and 8-row beet lifters, and a Wic 12-row defoliator.

In general, Gary says they build the first one, and then figure out what they've done wrong. They fix minor problems with the second piece. After that, the process gets easier.

Talent and tools

The work never stops being challenging. "Every time we start on a new model, I look at it and wonder if I can build it," Gary says. "I say, 'We'll try it and see.' Brian has surpassed me. He's taken over and has gone far beyond whatever I've done. He can put more detail into it by using the resin cast and make the toys a little more realistic than we could with the brass. I'm the old generation of scratch-building, and Brian is the new generation."

People are always interested in how long the work takes, Brian says. "We don't count the hours," he says. "If it's not going well, we set it aside and come back to it later." A bale wagon, he estimates, could take four days of steady work. They use needle-nose pliers, tin snips, soldering irons and a couple of Dremels and drill presses.

Though they once made one-of-a-kind models, that's no longer an option, Gary says, usually because the models have so many parts the work is impossible to do, unless it was tremendously expensive. "If we get something that more than one person wants," he says, "then we can probably do it."

For Gary, it's been a great 23 years of scratch-building toys. "But it's changed a lot since the beginning," he notes. "The availability of new products to work with, for one." In the past, everything had to be made from sheets of brass, bent into the final shape. Today brass rods and parts with pre-formed angles make the entire process simpler. "If we don't have to form it, that helps a lot," he says.

"What I enjoy most is people's reactions to what we've done, and all the positive comments we get," Brian says. "We haven't had a negative one yet, and nobody has ever sent one of our toys back." Customers often marvel that the detailed pieces were made by hand.

The price of success

Their success has been a problem, Gary says, but a good one. "We can't make new prototypes," he says, "because we have to make more general stock that we've sold at a show, to get ready for the next show."

Both men would like to be able to make a model farm display for the National Farm Toy Show contest, but finding the time is a challenge. "We have a list a mile long of new toys we'd like to make," Gary says. "It's never-ending."

When they're working together on intricately detailed scratch-built farm toys, their minds are always working. One or the other will come up with an idea for another new scratch-built model, or a better way of creating a part or a better way of assembling a toy. "We'll look at each other and say, 'Now why didn't I think of that?'" Gary says. "It's a great partnership, because we both think alike and look outside the box and come up with new ideas and new ways to do it." FC 

For more information, contact Gary Van Hove and Brian Schmidt at www.scratch-cast.com 

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: bvossler@juno.com