It's a Small World for a Minnesota Model Maker

Model maker Neal James of rural Elk River, Minn., has built 27 engines, including seven gasoline engines.

| April 2006

  • Neal James
    Neal James with his 1/3-scale 4 hp Monitor model engine.
  • Hot air engines
    This odd-looking contraption is a 1/2-scale model of a 1918 Maytag “fruit jar” 5/8 hp engine.
  • Hot air engines
    A pair of hot-air engines made by Neal James. They work off the heat from the hand. He scaled down larger hot-air engines, and sells the plans for these two. The greater the temperature disparity between the hand and the air, the faster the engines turn.
  • Cylinder Wall
    Neal James demonstrates operation of his Huff ‘n Puff hot-air engine.
  • Cylinder Wall
    This 1/8-scale 4-cylinder Wall C601 model engine is the first model Neal James ever worked on. Neal plans to finish it by this spring.
  • Hot air engines
    This 1925 Briggs & Stratton Model F-H gas engine is a 1/2-scale of a 5/8 hp engine.
  • Neal James Engine
    The first model engine Neal James completed was this 1/3-scale Associated 1-1/2 hp engine.
  • Cylinder Wall
    Top view of the 1/8-scale 4-cylinder Wall C601 model engine that started Neal James in his model engine hobby.
  • Neal James Machine
    Neal James built the “Almosta Engine” because he wanted to see what it was like to make an engine from scratch, using scrap cast iron.
  • Neal James Engine
    Top view of the 1/3-scale Associated 1-1/2 hp engine.
  • Neal James Machine
    Top view of Neal James’ scratch-built “Almost Engine.”
  • Minnesota
    Minnesota
  • Neal James Machine
    Neal James crafts quality oak skids to complement his model engines (here, a 1/3-scale 1912 Quincy 4 hp engine model).

  • Neal James
  • Hot air engines
  • Hot air engines
  • Cylinder Wall
  • Cylinder Wall
  • Hot air engines
  • Neal James Engine
  • Cylinder Wall
  • Neal James Machine
  • Neal James Engine
  • Neal James Machine
  • Minnesota
  • Neal James Machine

Neal James of rural Elk River, Minn., once played in a band called The James Gang. But today, his "James Gang" might be the dozens of model engines he has made, including some from scratch. "I was raised on them," says the 76-year-old retired tool and die maker. "My dad was into everything. He had his blacksmith shop, and a portable feed grinder that we used to take around and grind feed and a corn shredder that we took around. We were in the well business together for five years, and then his blacksmith shop." And what did all of those businesses have in common? Gas engines.

A 1980 trip to Rollag, Minn., to the Western Minnesota Steam Threshers' Reunion, piqued Neal's interest in model engines. "It was the biggest show in the state, so I went up to see what it was all about, and I sure found out. I saw the small model engines up there, and I got interested in them right away. I didn't know they made anything like that, so I got all hepped up about getting started on one." He asked for information, and found out where to send for kits to make model engines.

As soon as he got the castings, Neal started working on the small, unscaled 4-cylinder Wall C601 model gasoline engine. "It's a freelance kit, with the engine much like that of the Model A automobile," he says.

But he had seen an Associated gas engine at Rollag, and when he found a kit for that one, he ordered it. When it came, he set the Wall aside, and finished the 1/3-scale Associated 1-1/2 hp model engine. "It was a little challenging because it was the first one, but I had a lot of experience machining, so I was able to overcome the problems."



Though the Associated model was designed to run, Neal didn't start it up for about a year. "I was just so proud of it, I didn't want to get it dirty," he says. "So I set it up to be admired at shows, and then I entered it in the Sherburne County Fair." He won grand champion with that model, and later that year at the Minnesota State Fair he was awarded a blue ribbon with a rating of 98 points out of 100 possible. "They wrote that it was 'Beautiful,' but I lost points because it was a kit." After that, Neal began to run the Associated when he took it to shows.

Neal has built 27 engines, including seven gasoline engines. One of his most challenging projects has been a 1/8-scale 1915 Holt 75 model gas engine he's working on now. "I've worked on that one off and on for a few years," he says, "but I'd like to have it done by spring so I can take it to shows. But it's time-consuming."