Small Wonders

Scratch builder enjoys making threshers

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Kenny Sunderland remembers old-time threshing and the hard work, good food and fun everybody seemed to have. But for him, there was more. "All the gears and pulleys and belts intrigued me," says the 73-year-old Winsted, Minn., retiree, recalling a John Deere thresher owned by his father and two uncles. "They were dangerous old machines, but we survived anyway."

Kenny's farm experience served him well when he started building models of the old threshers. Originally, he planned to build one old machine for each of his sons and his son-in-law, but the plan derailed when one son died of cancer. "Then I had too many models," he says, "so I decided to keep making them."

Starting from scratch

Model making was always on Kenny's mind, even as a boy. "When I was young I didn't know how and didn't have the equipment," he says, so he put such thoughts aside until 1980, when he saw a real Minneapolis Junior thresher. The Junior was made of wood and had fewer pulleys than other threshers. It would be less of a challenge, he thought, given that he had to build everything by hand. "I had been going through a lot of books, and I thought the Junior would be the simplest to build," he recalls, "because here was one I could take measurements from." But it was harder than it looked.

Planning a model of the circa-1915 Minneapolis required long days over the course of four months. "I had the parts books with drawings, and then had to use rulers, straight edges, pencils and a calculator," he says, "and draw one piece at a time on big sheets of tag board." He decided on 1/8-scale: Smaller parts were too difficult to fabricate, and larger ones meant the finished product couldn't be carried to thresher shows. He went on to make five Minneapolis Juniors, learning from each one.

A Case built from a Case

Kenny's second model was a thresher made of wood salvaged from a real 1905 Case Model 44-66. "I'd seen pictures of it," he says, "and I kind of leaned towards the idea that the older the machines are, the better I liked it."

By then he had purchased an old military surplus enlarging machine with a 1,000-watt bulb that projected an enlarged image. "I put tag board on the wall and drew the plans on there," he says. It was considerably easier than the time-consuming handwork, but was still an imperfect process. "To make the thresher 1/8-scale, I had to know the actual size of the original parts, and divide by eight," he says. "So if the wheel was 32 inches in diameter, the model wheel would be 4 inches in diameter."

He decided on the wood he'd use after attending a farm auction where he found remains of an old wood Case Model 44-66 that had been stripped apart. He bought the pile for a song, brought it home and cut it up … or at least tried to. "The wood was so hard that regular radial arm saw blades lost teeth and wouldn't cut," he says, "so I had to get carbide blades."

He cut countless small pieces of wood for the thresher. "Making the inside pieces, the wooden racks and stuff like that, is touchy and takes so long," he says. "I cut hundreds of little pieces and notches, lengthwise and into angles. Afterwards they all had to be cemented into place."

Getting the fan on the rear bottom of the thresher to work with angle gears was a particular challenge. "It took some experimenting until I got it to work right," Kenny says. Precision work is critical, because he makes all his scratch-built projects to actually operate with electric motors or air pressure.

Fans wore out easily on the real Model 44-66, because the fan was too close to the ground and the gears were unprotected from dirt. The fan also made the machine too long to fit easily into farm buildings. Subsequent models were modified. After 1905, Case moved the fan to the side of the thresher and eliminated all gearing, Kenny says. In fact, he adds, from 1905 to 1910, Case factory workers made field visits to each thresher and relocated the fans to the side.

Fine-tuning a process

Kenny's next project was a Case Model 28-46 thresher. "The Case 28-46 had a little simpler frame on it, and was easier to make than some of them," he says. "Once I had the jigs and fixtures made up, I could make more. I made four of that model."

By then Kenny had proper equipment (turning lathes and sheet metal equipment) that simplified the work. But there was no shortage of obstacles to overcome, even then. "One of the most difficult things is finding the small belting for these machines," he says. "I can't find it anywhere, so I have to go to a leather shop and have it cut, and it gets pretty expensive."

While most of his belts are made from leather, he tried an alternative material on one project. "The big, long belt on the Case 65 hp steam engine I made is rubberized cloth," he says. After cutting it to the size and length needed, he connected the ends with a gel-type super glue. Regular super glue, he says, soaks in and doesn't hold. "I taper the ends and put gel super glue on them and put pressure on for about a minute," he says, "and the ends seem to be stuck forever."

Gears are the only parts Kenny doesn't scratch-build for his threshers. "I don't have the means of making them, so I go to an outfit out East," he says. "They'll get you any type of gear of any size, from 1/4-inch-diameter and up, with a shaft hole in it. When I get the gears, I put set screws in them and mount bearings so they work right." Even the small gears are expensive, Kenny says, as much as $15 each.

Crankshafts for band cutters and racks in the machine are also difficult to craft. "I fabricate them and weld them up," he says, "because it's the only way I know how to make them. Getting the crankshaft so it runs straight is kind of hard for me."

Other threshers Kenny has made include a 1929 John Deere, the first one Deere & Co. manufactured after buying out a thresher company. In all his years of traveling, he's only seen one (at Montevideo, Minn.) he could photograph and measure.

Tractor power

After Kenny built a couple of threshers, he realized he'd need something to power them, so he decided to make a tractor, a Rumely OilPull Model 30-60. "It was a simple tractor," he says, "and I didn't have the right machinery then to build anything complicated."

He cut a round board, bent the wheel metal around it, welded the edges and set spokes in. "The wheels aren't perfectly round and I don't have the right kind of spokes," he says, "but it was early in my model-making, and it was good enough to satisfy me." The major drawback was the weight of the finished piece: a full 40 pounds.

Steamer work

Kenny says he really didn't know what he was doing when he decided to build a Case 65 hp steam traction engine. "I had fairly good pictures, and knew where one was so I could take measurements," he recalls. "After that, I took a piece of pipe about the right size for a model steam engine, and started adding things: the steam dome, firebox and so on."

Later he made wheels, which, like many of his parts, required making jigs or fixtures for them. "I got down to the cylinder and stopped," he says, "because I didn't know how to make a cylinder and piston and polish them up." Fortunately, his son David is a tool-and-die maker, and he made the cylinder for the steamer. "After he finished, it just bolted right onto the side of the machine," Kenny says. "I wasn't a good machinist when I worked for Northwest Airlines as a mechanic. Sheet metal and welding was my line of work."

Building the full line

Kenny likes to keep busy, so in addition to his threshers, traction engines and tractors, he's also made a couple of other items, like a John Deere elevator and a wire-tie hay press.

"I requested books from the John Deere archives, and they sent several so I could make the elevator," he says. "I had good pictures and scaled it down to 1/8. At that time I couldn't buy the little chains, so I made myself a tool to make them. I used 1/16-inch welding wire that I cut into short pieces and put into the machine, so I fabricated each one of the 450 links. I didn't know if it would work, but when I was finished, I found out it had."

To get that kind of exactness, Kenny borrowed an actual hay press and scaled things down from measurements taken in his garage. "I really don't know what kind of machine it was, because it didn't have a name on it," he says. "It kind of looked like a John Deere and others put together."

Kenny's scale model hay press will actually make bales when the proper materials are fed into it. Just like a real hay press, wooden boards slide between the finished bale coming out, and the next one in line. In actual operation of a real press, he says, two men sat on opposite sides of the finished bales and stuck wire through grooves cut in the board, and then tied the wire before the bale dropped off.

Collection stays put

Kenny enjoys showing his models at shows almost as much as building them. But at the end of the day, they all return to his barn. "Anybody who wants to call me and talk about the hobby, I'm interested. I'd like to see their projects," he says. "But people need to know that I'm not interested in selling any of them. They're going to go to my sons after I'm gone."

Kenny has a few projects in mind for the future. "My next one will probably be a silo filler, an old corn chopper. I want to build a little silo that I can actually chop corn up and put it in. After that, I'll probably make a Waterloo Boy tractor. I go through a lot of books and look at machines, and see what I want. I can't afford to buy anything, so I have to make them," he says with a laugh. "It's endless, I guess."

For more information: Kenny Sunderland, 302 Scenic Circle, Winsted, MN 55395; (320) 485-2161.

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