Illinois collector builds his favorite engines as working model farm machinery.
The concept of scale model farm machinery isn't novel by any means — the idea's been around at least since Jean Schoenner of Nuremberg, Germany, crafted a three-cycle, flame-ignition engine sometime between 1880 and 1890. A quick glance through a September/October 1951 Iron-Men Album proves engine and steam machinists have been showing off their homemade handiwork at threshing reunions and engine shows since those events began in the early 1940s.
While the prevalence of scale models wasn't widespread during the early years of these shows, today scale models occupy their own healthy-and-growing niche right along other heavy- weight farm show categories such as tractors, stationary engines and steam traction engines.
Talk to any scale model builder or collector, and they'll likely explain with passion how they used to collect traditional farm machinery until they experienced an epiphany about scale models.
"They're easy to transport and display at shows," James Gehringer of Elburn, Ill., says. "But the real reason I like them is because I built them myself. I can go to a big engine show with 10,000 people showing old engines that have been restored, but inevitably people will come looking at what I've made and find themselves amazed because I'm the one actually making these engines."
James is among many collectors — some who also moonlight as resourceful machinists — who find crafting their own versions of today's most popular antique engines is more rewarding than locating and restoring an original. The decision to build and display scale models is often as thrifty as it is pragmatic: Searching for rare engines can be a time-consuming and fruitless effort, and buying a rare engine can often hit collectors heavy in the pocketbook. A scale model, on the other hand, can be designed after any engine model and might cost significantly less than the real thing.
"Let's face it, buying old engines is big business these days and finding a nice, rare engine is hard and expensive," James admits. 'I like the fact that I can buy the plans for whatever engine I choose, then make a copy of one with my own hands."
James, who also has collected full-scale engines for more than 30 years, says his passion for scale models began in 1981 when he first noticed an advertisement for a scale model kit in an engine hobbyist magazine. He'd been interested in tools and engines since his childhood, and mixing the two seemed a natural fit. Motivated by the ad, James purchased a freelance (originally made) scale-model kit from Ted Young of Peoria, Ill., and built it that same year. The 'Young' kit is a 1/3-hp horizontal, hopper-cooled hit-and-miss engine. That first project motivated Jim to build more.
"Once I built one and received some compliments, it got in my blood," James says. "Seems to me people either gravitate toward larger engines or smaller engines. For me, I started to really like carrying the smaller engines around."
Freelance scale-model kits are common among builders because they allow designers an element of creative license to produce their own engine line. Builders also are attracted to freelance engines because they separate the builder from more traditional designs and brand names.
Scale models are sold as 'kits,' which can mean many different things. Kits range from very basic engine blueprints to crude castings that require machining and copious assembly. Some kits, however, might have the majority of assembly and shop work already completed. Collectors should be aware of the kit's skill level before they attempt to make their own scale model, James suggests.
"Some people buy these kits and think they can put them together with nothing more than a hammer and an electric screwdriver," James says. He cautions interested builders to know what they're getting into before they purchase a kit. "With a little time and learning, anyone can make their own engine," he says. "But you can't go into it without a plan and the proper tools."
James chose a kit based on a 1912 Olds Gasoline Engine Works engine designed by Paul Breich from Pennsylvania for his second scale model. This little engine, James says, has seen hundreds of hours of use during the 20-plus years he's displayed it at engine shows. "I've taken it to almost every show, and it's pumped plenty of water and nothing's ever gone wrong with it," James says.
As James' interest grew with each new kit he assembled, he began to venture out to larger engine shows in search of like-minded miniature collectors. About 1981, James attended the Tri-State Gas Engine and Tractor Association's 16th Anniversary Reunion in Portland, Ind., to search out Paul Breich — the man responsible for designing his Olds engine kit.
"He's one of the first people who really started this model thing in the U.S.," James says. "Paul made quite a few designs over the years and built both gas and steam engines. His designs made it so you didn't need a big shop to put one together."
James met Paul at the reunion, and the two got to know each other during the next few years, exchanging useful machinists' information about their hobby. "That's another thing about this whole scale-model thing," James adds. "People are almost always very friendly, and sharing methods and ideas is a big part of all this. I try to make myself as approachable as possible, too, because the idea of community is very important in the model-building world."
Rusty Hopper, who pens a monthly column about scale engines in the pages of Gas Engine Magazine, agrees that the scale model community in the United States is growing. "A model builder 20 years ago was kind of unheard of," he says. "The scale-model hobby has grown over the past few years. I guess it isn't only the shows, but also the metal-working clubs or machinist groups starting and sharing information."
James shares Rusty's opinion. He's seen the scale-model crowd get bigger and notes there are at least three magazines dedicated to the hobby, plus more shows cropping up all the time. "The best show in my opinion for scale models of this sort — and every other kind — is the annual North American Model Engineering Exposition in Southgate, Mich.," he says. "This is really the best place of all to see the best models in the nation. All of the best builders are there, and it's the best place to meet them and learn from them." James has also attended the annual Midwest Old Threshers Reunion since 1982, traveling 250 miles from Elburn to the show in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa.
Information sharing among the scale-building community is centered on interaction within clubs, however. James claims membership in the Northern Illinois Steam Power Club of Sycamore, Ill., the Sandwich Early Day Gas Engine Club and the North American Model Engineering Society.
Another good-looking scale model in James' collection is a 1/3-scale Economy drag saw kit, designed by Wismer Machinery Co. & Co. of Sellersville, Pa. James built it three years ago, and it's representative of what James is trying to accomplish. Not content to just display these engines, he collects engine-powered implements and equipment, as well.
"Even though they're scale models, I still think these engines always need to be doing something instead of just idling," he says. "I realized that everyone who came up to my tables wanted to know what the originals did, so now I show them." At the 2003 reunion in Mt. Pleasant, James displayed a variety of working equipment including a tiny cement mixer, 1/2-scale corn sheller and water pump. Currently, he's building a 1/4-scale Maytag washing machine.
James says he has a penchant for old engines from the 1910s and 1920s because they were built with more emphasis on form and beauty rather than functionality — a quality that was the result of cutthroat competition among manufacturers, which influenced how engines were built. "I think engines from the 1920s were prettier than later on when companies got tough and started to pinch pennies to stay ahead of the competition," James admits.
His attraction to these older styles of engines is better served with the build-it-yourself kit engines he's lovingly created because kits are cheaper and easily purchased.
James' favorite model that he ever built is a 1/5-scale 10-hp Sandwich Manufacturing Co. engine, originally designed as a kit by Jim May of Sandwich, Ill. Jim was a long-time engine buddy of James' who passed away in 2000. Jim was a gifted kit maker who developed five designs, which he sold, before he died. He designed a 1/3-scale International Harvester Co. Famous vertical engine, a freelance horizontal engine with a 1 1/4-inch bore, a Jacob Haisch Co. Chanticleer engine and a Fairbanks-Morse oil field-style, throttle-governed engine.
After Jim passed away, James made a deal with Jim's family and purchased the casting rights to Jim's engines, which James now sells at shows to pay for his hobby costs. "If selling kits at shows allows me to break even at the end of the day, it's served its purpose," he says. "Let's face it, you don't get in this hobby to get rich. But it's interesting. I've met people from all over the world wanting kits. It's pretty cool to get a call from New Zealand from a guy who wants to buy a casting. Sometimes I wonder how they find me."
A 1/5-scale version of a 10-hp Sandwich engine should produce 2 hp, but James says horsepower ratings aren't always proportional in scale models. He jokingly calls his fold of models 'peanut-powered' because of their low output. "It doesn't come close. You could stall them with a finger," he says. "There's not much torque like the real thing. People forget that a full-scale engine's flywheels might weigh 400 or 500 pounds and hold a lot more momentum than these little scales." In fact, the low power output also keeps the temperature down on most engines, which makes cooling most scale engines less of a concern. James says he could leave the water hopper empty on the majority of his engines for long periods of time with little effect. "They generate such little heat, you can almost always put your hand right on the muffler," he says.
The scale Sandwich was created three years ago during nights and weekends. James wasn't retired back then like he is now. Careers aside, Jim also admits he never likes to hurry a project and savors the time he spends on them. Now that he's retired, James says he practically lives in his shop at home, especially in winter. He's usually out there at about 8 a.m. and will spend all day — and even after supper — working on his next creation. "It's not a bad place to be," he says, "and it sure beats what's on TV these days."
Why are scale models becoming a popular trend at engine shows? Rusty Hopper says America is still behind its European allies, but it's catching up. "If I look at what has happened overseas, especially in England, then we in the USA are far behind in the model-building hobbies, but we do seem to be catching up fast," he says. "A couple reasons for this might be the prices in lathes and other tools are dropping as industry is going more and more to the CNC-type machines." (CNC is an acronym for computer numerical control, a computer system that guides machines used to cut metal.)
Since 1981, James has built 18 model engine kits and has also done other projects such as converting an air compressor into an engine. His long-term goal is to focus on producing his own model engine kit designs. James is working toward designing a kit of the Challenge Co.'s hourglass engine.
James might be crazy for scale engines, but it's the great people who bring it full-circle for him that make it truly rewarding. At this year's Mt. Pleasant show, James brought his old buddy Larry Flickinger to help him display his engines in the hopes that he'll embrace the hobby just as James did.
"He's just getting started," James says. "But I just located Larry his own lathe, so I won't be surprised when he wants to build his own kit."
- Contact scale-model enthusiast James Gehringer at (630) 557-2278.