Starting from Scratch

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The late Lyle Dingman and his wife, Joyce, with an arrangement of some of his scratch-built toys

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As anyone who knows the difference between their mother's pie and store-bought can tell you, some things are just better when made from scratch. That seems to be the feeling of a growing group of farm toy aficionados who make their own model farm toys from scratch. Their motto seems to be: If you cannot find it, build it.

Farm toys are scratch-built (almost every part made from raw materials, as opposed to 'customizing,' or altering factory-built toys) for a number of reasons: to add more detail; to make a toy not made by factories; to make toys exactly like the real machines of years ago; to use one's creativity; for a profit; or just for the plain fun of it.

Farm toys are scratch-built in every possible size, from 1/64 scale of the real machine, to 1/3 as large, and all scales in between. Most, however, follow the standard size of farm toys: 1/16 scale. Farm toys of every type are scratch-built: tractors, combines, plows, cultivators, balers, steam engines, threshers.

Al and Kathy Van Kley of Ankeny, Iowa, have scratch-built, among other toys, a 1/64-scale rear-mount cultivator, unavailable through traditional manufacturers. A1 figures they made and sold thousands of them, working mostly on weekends with family and neighbor kids.

Scratch-built farm toys are often so well made that people think they are manufactured by one of the large companies.

Gary Van Hove of Pipestone, Minn., says people say, 'You built this?' and can't figure out how he did it. 'They can't believe someone can take a piece of brass and make a toy out of it. There are a lot of questions: 'How do you do this, and how do you put this together?'' He has scratch-built more than 70 different toys, including 1/16-scale scraper blades for tractors (one of the more popular items), plows and farm animals.

Gary says all the parts are hand-crafted and hand-bent, and no two pieces are alike. 'I make a lot of changes while I'm working. If I form a piece and it doesn't look right, I'll go back and redraw it. With brass you can solder, recut and resolder.'

He says the key to making great-looking scratch pieces is the paint job. 'If the paint job is done right, you know the toy is done right.'

When John Janzen of Winkler, Manitoba, Canada, was 12 years old, he built a little swather out of wood. 'It had little wooden wheels and a reel that turned with a small rope. It took me a couple of days to build it, and get all the details right so it would run.'

He built it and other wooden ones because they weren't being made by manufacturers. 'I always had an interest in the farm stuff that was never built, and I wanted that equipment to complement the tractors.'

His first metal toy was a John Deere grain drill. 'It turned out pretty good,' he says. It also took a huge amount of time. 'I spent at least 300 hours on it.'

Then he made a John Deere 2360 swather. He welded 18-gauge flat steel, key stock, and 1/8-inch rods together ('Now that's a tough job with those small pieces of steel') and included handmade pulleys. The result is a reel, and black silk canvas, that turns.

Next was a combine, a 7721 John Deere pull-type. 'All the exterior components turn: the pickup header, straw cutter, and the auger, which swings in and out of the hopper.'

John has also scratch-built a 12-row sugar beet planter; a 4440 John Deere with a 3-point-hitch with quick-latch and an adjustable front axle; a 4620 John Deere out of a 5020; a 4-wheel-drive 4386 International tractor he built from scratch; an air seeder; rock pickers, and others.

'Obviously there are days I can't figure out how to do something. Then I have to put the work out of my mind. Later, I'll be doing something else, and suddenly the answer will pop into my mind.

'When I've finished one, I have this great sense of accomplishment. It's the greatest feeling in the world. And to have others see them, and make nice comments. . .'

Many farm-toy collectors scratch-build one unit of their favorite toy, but there are those who scratch-build many of each unit. Some of the best-known include the late Lyle Dingman of Spencer, Iowa, and Gilson Riecke of Ruthven, Iowa.

Lyle had a good job at the Wells Dairy when Gilson stopped in one day to show some tractors he had made. Lyle got so enthused he quit his job and started scratch-building toy tractors. 'That was a real leap of faith,' Lyle said in an interview shortly before his death. 'It was chancy at first. You have to build your reputation as a toy maker. At the beginning nobody knows you or your product.'

His first tractor was a B Farmall, and soon word got around that he did fine work.

He said, 'I want the tractor to be very precise. You can't just farm a tractor out to someone. We could produce more volume, but they wouldn't be as good. We're not going to sacrifice quality for volume.' On the average, Lyle and his wife, Joyce, would spend 12 hours making one tractor.

'First I pick a tractor I have a fond memory of,' he said. 'When we were kids, everyone worked out on everybody else's farms, so we all got to try out the different tractors.' He remembered when the new Farmall H came out. 'I hung around at the farmer's place until he let me drive it.'

Lyle also said he wanted to make scale models of tractors that hadn't previously been done in scale.

Once he'd decided on a particular tractor, his next step was to find a full-sized version. 'To find a John Deere G, I had to go clear to Lake Wilson, Minn.,' he said. He usually tried to bring the tractor back and put it in his workshop, because he found there were times he needed to do some remeasuring. Otherwise, he worked from pictures.

'Then we do the pattern work,' he said, and after that, a sand cast is made, using the carved-wood pattern. 'But my last two, the Oliver 70 and D John Deere, are made with aluminum patterns,' he said. 'The newer centrifugal mold in zinc gives better detail. With the centrifugal mold, you can have swinging draw bars, brakes, but there's lots of assembly.'

Finally, the product was assembled, and painted. 'I have a paint room in my shop, and I put the tractors in lazy Susans, and just turn them.' From first work to the final product could take from six weeks to six months, depending on how busy the couple was.

For Lyle, the fun was in making the first few of each new model. 'After building 25 or 30, it's work,' he said. 'There are some days I'm all thumbs. I just have to walk away from it. '

Lyle's favorite part of making scale tractors was when the last piece had been put on, and the model was ready to paint.

'Some tractors I like to make, others I dislike, because there are so many pieces, and it's so time consuming,' he said, noting people used to complain about the prices but 'now there are a lot of people who just say 'Send us the next one when it's finished.'

'You've got to make it look right,' he said. 'Twenty years from now I want someone to say 'I've got one of his tractors,' and I want him to be proud.'

Gilson's toys are well-known in the farm toy field too. His first toy was a Farmall Cub tractor. 'I built that one for myself. In fact, that's why I build tractors. So I have fun. I made the Cub because no one else had made one, and I had a full-size one of my own.'

Since then he has made a wide variety of tractors and other farm-related items, like the M John Deere, MT John Deere, John Deere corn sheller, grease guns, oil cans, cream separators, fire extinguishers, pump jacks and pumps, two-bottom and three-bottom plows, and a Maytag washing machine.

Though all of Gilson's toys are practically masterpieces, many people consider his Farmall F20 the best. 'When I got out of high school I was a mechanic for IH and I worked on a lot of F20s, so it was a tractor I knew very well,' he says. 'My dad had an F20 on the farm, too. Those added up to reasons why I chose to make it.

'The F20 toy tractor is made up of 67 pieces. If it doesn't have bolts and burrs, it doesn't look real to me. Plus it's hard to do, and I like a challenge.' All his toy work is done in 1/16 scale.

Occasionally Gilson has to make alterations from how the real machine looked. 'If you left the hubs on the F20 exactly as they were on the original tractor, you wouldn't be able to make a cast, because the angle wouldn't allow the hubs to be pulled away without breaking.' So, he has to design the hubs with a 2- to 3-degree greater taper than the original. 'What I like the most is anytime you want, you can set one up on top of the TV and look at it.'

Gilson chose 1/16 for his toys because, 'If you go smaller, you can't get much detail. Bigger, you have to go into at least 100 pieces. Then you'd have to cast bolt heads, and other things you don't have to cast now. It would take a lot longer to make the F20, and it would be a lot more expensive.'

For the spark plug wires on the engine of the F20, Gilson uses electrical wire. 'We drill holes in the engine block and stick the wires in.' He says the spark plug angle had to be changed, just as the wheel hub taper had to be, and for the same reason.

'I like to make new stuff. I like to put one together when we get it back, and find out how to do it. What size hole needs to be drilled here? What piece should be put on first? What shortcuts can I use?'

Some scratch-built toys are huge, like Charles Olson's 1/3-scale Case 65-horse-power steam traction engine. The Perham, Minn., man likes to watch those old ones run, so he decided to create one for himself that would run. About the same time he discovered blueprints for a scaled-down 1915 model Case 65.

'So I did all the machine work, the turning, milling and boring, all that goes with making pistons and cylinders and lots of drilling and riveting. I built the boiler with the help of my wife. Took me a year just to make the boiler.'

He also had to make the wheels, finding the rims and spokes, the water tank on the back of the engine, whistle, safety valve, pressure gauge and the like. 'I have a homemade lubricator, scaled down from a full-sized one to get my 1/3-scale lubricator, so it looks in proportion. I made that out of brass.'

Finding a place to bend the 16-gauge iron needed for the water tank was difficult. 'That's pretty heavy stuff,' he says. It was put together with 3/16-inch rivets. The rest of the machine was put together with 399 5/16-inch rivets. Putting the liner in the cylinder was the biggest problem.

'There's a cast iron cylinder liner pushed into the cylinder, and I had a little problem getting that pushed in there, because it has to fit just so, so if it wears out a guy can always take that liner out and put a new one in. The governor has always given me a little bit of a problem, too.'

By the time it was finished, the miniature beast weighed 1,400 pounds. 'Mine holds 7 gallons of water dimensions scale down by weight and volume doesn't - and I use about six sticks of dry, old oak wood in the firebox at a time. You've got to leave some room for combustion.'

'You have to always watch the water, because you've only got 7 gallons in there in the first place. I can pump in more water by opening or closing a valve. Wood has to be added every 6 or 7 minutes. It's more tricky to run the little engine than it is the big one. It takes more attention.'

Occasionally he'll forget to open the valve that allows the exhaust steam to run through the preheater, which preheats the water before it goes into the boiler. Then, dirty water blows out of the smokestack, 'and that's not very good if people around you have white shirts on.'

No matter why people build farm toys - to recreate the old farm, to add detail, to keep in contact with their roots - they all echo Charles Olson, who says, 'I have a lot of fun, and besides that, it's educational, and it keeps me out of mischief.'

Bill Vossler is a frequent contributor to Farm Collector magazine. His books include Toy Farm Tractors and The Complete Book of Farm Toys & Boxes. Bill can be reached by e-mail at bvossler@juno.com.

For some farm toy enthusiasts, getting it right means doing it yourself