Antique John Deere corn shellers showcase painstaking craftsmanship.
What started out as a simple woodworking hobby has grown into something way beyond my early interests. I began by restoring an old cider press and then found myself at farm auctions, looking for items that were essentially “beyond hope” from a structural perspective. These implements — corn shellers, cider presses, feed grinders, scales and horse-drawn items like single-row corn planters — were predominately wood. All of their mechanical parts were present but because of the condition of the structure, they only qualified for a total rebuild. Almost all were free-standing, hand-operated units.
Many such pieces are very old. Some were made as early as the mid-1800s, others date to the early 20th century. I continued to focus mainly on these older “wood-frame” pieces for a number of years until someone brought me a John Deere corn sheller to restore. Although I still worked on older items like cider presses, that sheller launched me into a series of John Deere restorations, which in turn forced me to move beyond my typical woodworker comfort level. Working for private collectors, I’ve done total restorations on more than a dozen cider presses as well as feed choppers, horse-drawn planters and gas engines.
Along with these projects came a variety of obstacles (or opportunities). The first thing to surface early in all my restoration work was the need for basic hardware, typically square-head nuts and bolts. Then I needed old-style wood screws. A number of solutions existed 10 to 15 years ago but many of those sources have dried up. Vintage chain presented a whole new lesson for me. Detachable link chain made of malleable iron is another story entirely.
Since most of these implements predated the availability of modern day “steel,” the metal parts were almost exclusively cast iron. Cracked cast iron parts can, in most cases, be welded. Broken parts raise significant issues, depending on their specific function. Since speeds on these machines are relatively slow, many broken parts could be repaired. Later I got involved in replacement parts.
Graphics also became an issue, as many old implements had custom stenciling that is very difficult to replicate. On my first project, I actually made a stencil and spray-painted lettering through the stencil. I was less than totally pleased with the result. I began to use cut graphics for new projects but found it very difficult to replicate original fonts and shapes as they were made from one-of-a-kind stencils cut from thin sheets of brass. Graphics software provides great flexibility in this work.
As the steel industry advanced, the use of sheet metal made great inroads in some shellers. Unfortunately, sheet metal parts had a significantly shorter life span than their earlier wooden counterparts. The replacement of sheet metal parts can require some unique forming capabilities but, for the most part, it can be done without too much grief.
In working with John Deere No. 1 and No. 2 shellers, I have gained extensive brand-specific experience. One of the first things I always seem to need for a sheller restoration is a fan belt. That was my first success, as I made them out of buna rubber cord stock.
Next came feed tables for the No. 1 series. Fabricated of sheet metal, they allow continual feed of corn into the sheller. These required detailed, authentic fabrication with support brackets as well as authentic hardware. I’ve also made wood/sheet metal feed tables for No. 2 shellers.
When it comes to wooden handle knobs, many people are rather particular, so I turn these on a lathe to match the originals. It is a difficult job to bore out the center correctly. Two-man knobs were made for the No. 2 sheller.
I also made “basket racks” for No. 1B shellers. These require a slip-forming roll, a piece of special steel rolling equipment.
Sandblasting and beadblasting is another big part of prepping cast iron and other parts for refinishing. For replacement wood parts, I work with a local forestry service that provides “select” kiln-dried hardwood of almost every variety and thickness.
Hardware issues invariably present restoration challenges. Many of the John Deere sheller parts have been out of production for more than 60 years. Working with various sources and plain old ingenuity, I get by. When parts cannot be obtained, I recreate them in the machine shop, as I did with the steel pins for the wooden knob on the No. 1 series hand cranks. Perhaps the most difficult problem I’ve faced has been malleable iron chain for the No. 2 and its sacker assembly. I was fortunate to come across a sizeable quantity of this at an auction in Iowa.
Then comes the inevitable problem of either missing castings or pieces simply beyond repair. Ultimately, I could find no way around this one. I eventually set up casting arrangements for several parts. I have not taken stock of how many castings I have had made, but I would imagine it to be in the range of 30 to 40 unique parts. To my knowledge, I am about the only one doing large-scale parts support for these machines.
Much to my chagrin, the bigger issue with replacement castings is the machining required to make most rough sand castings suitable for use. I am fortunate to have friends in the machining business. That has been the only way I have been able to support the need for parts for the old shellers. Without the help of very generous friends, this work simply would not be possible.
One of the most interesting projects I’ve been involved with has been recreating hook chain (which is used for the cob conveyors) called “cob rake” chain. When no alternative existed, I essentially made the small machine jigs necessary to fabricate steel rods into cob rake chain. It is very important to make every link identical. I’m sort of proud of this one.
Projects like these require creative solutions. A friend needed a large sprocket for a John Deere No. 2A sheller. He had two but both were broken and neither was complete. I took the one that had an intact outer perimeter and glued it together with epoxy. Then I fitted in the missing spoke from another sprocket and glued that in place, creating the master for a new sand casting.
My current projects include a Foos engine, a 5-row wheat drill, a massive 9-row Thomas wheat drill (an actual excavation project), a Bauer Brothers feed grinder and a cider press. Still on tap: five or six John Deere shellers, two or three two-hole wooden shellers, at least two or three other wooden shellers; five cider presses; three horse-drawn planters; and a feed chopper. FC
Ted “Dutch” deHaan, a native of New Jersey, is a retired engineer. He now lives in Indiana, where he is an avid woodworker and home brewer. Contact him at email@example.com.