Willmar Tiede's collection of 700 cast iron seats are like snowflakes in a blizzard: no two are alike. And Willmar wouldn't have it any other way.
"I like the variety," he said. "I like the way the look changes from one to another."
Willmar, a retired Minnesota welder, likens his hobby to a child's paint-by-number kit. He paints his seats with an eye for contrast when they are on display.
Originally, he said, most cast iron seats came in three colors: red, green or ivory. His collection, though, brings to mind a colossal paintbox of strong, simple hues: royal blue sits next to orange; turquoise by olive; mustard yellow by gray. Lettering in accent colors fairly pops off the seats.
"I'm not an artist," Willmar said, "but I love to paint 'em."
Most of the seats in his collection are painted, and those are the ones that get all the attention.
"I like to watch people's eyes as they look at them," he said. "They'll move down a row of colored seats, and when they come to an old rusty one, their eyes just slip right by it. People are deceived by paint, or at least that's what the used car salesmen tell me."
Willmar's paint of choice is oil-based.
"Good old floor enamel... that's a very hardy paint," he said. Spray paints are too thin; other paints run.
But oil-based paints are a dying breed, he noted: today's consumer wants a fast-drying paint. So Willmar scouts garage sales for half-empty cans, and makes do with a dwindling selection of colors.
Once an engine collector, Willmar started with seats when he decided to get one for a Fuller and Johnson engine in his collection. A novice seat collector, he figured he could pick up a dozen or so, and have more or less the full set. He's since discovered the existence of something like 1,700 seats.
Cast iron seat production in Europe, Canada and the U.S. was relatively short-lived, occuring basically from 1850-1900. After that, seats were made of stamped steel and tin, and later still, cast aluminum. Original patterns were carved in wood, although at least one manufacturer - Wilshusen of Stafford, Kan. - used a pattern made of clay.
Cast iron seats were known for elaborate designs of frills, curves, lettering and patent dates. Many were intricately detailed.
"They must have been a pattern maker's pride," Willmar said.
The prizes in Willmar's collection include a Black Hawk, and a one-of-a-kind Star Plow. His collection also includes imported Scandinavian seats. But his enthusiasm for his collection is immune to factors like rarity or value.
"My favorite seat is always the last one I've done," he said.
Getting Started: Don't overpay for seats, experienced collector advises
New collectors are likely to make costly mistakes. That's where a veteran's experience comes in handy, Willmar said.
"I like to see old collectors help the new collector get started," he said.
The most common misstep in seat collecting? Paying too much.
"There's lots of named seats available in the $40 to $50 range," he said. "And named tin seats are collectable."
He recommends farm auctions and tractor swap meets as the best sources for buyers.
New additions to his collection are cleaned, sandblasted and then painted. He paints the fronts only: that way, authenticity can be verified from the seat's underside.
A good resource for the novice collector, he said, is the Cast Iron Seat Collectors Association, which includes members from the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Australia and New Zealand. Members' benefits include an annual convention and a newsletter. The group also includes collectors of cast iron corn planter lids, tool boxes and covers, windmill weights, drill box ends and tools. For more information, contact Charolette Traxler, RR 2, Box 38, Le Center, MN, 56057. FC
For more information: Willmar H. Tiede, RR 2, Box 229, Le Center, MN 56057; phone (507) 357-4815.