Scale Models of Perfection

Minnesota man keeps the past alive through 1/2-scale models

When Mike Riebel graduated from high school in 1977, he had different aspirations than many other young men. His goal was to build a 1/8-scale steam engine from scratch. Given his heritage, it was a perfectly understandable undertaking.

“My father (Melvin Riebel) and uncles (Bob and Loren Riebel) were co-founders of the Le Sueur County (Minnesota) Pioneer Power Assn. show, so I was always around old iron,” he says, “and always interested in scale models.” He was also influenced by a neighbor, the late Stanley Baringer. “I used to go over and watch him build model steam engines,” Mike recalls.

Before attending college, Mike worked for a machine shop, and that’s where he decided to make a 1/8-scale model. “The owner was nice enough to let me build some fun stuff,” he says. “An old farmer nearby had an Advance steam engine when I was growing up, and I thought it would be fun to build something from the neighborhood.”

While attending college, Mike built this Advance steam traction engine from scratch as a remembrance of one used by a local farmer when Mike was a boy.

Mike soon discovered it was much more work than he’d anticipated, but that didn’t deter him. “Building from scratch takes a lot of time,” he says. “You have to figure out the scale for every part, and be creative and innovative as you build the parts. But I enjoy building stuff, so I found the work enjoyable. It never put me off. It was gratifying to see it being built, and especially when it was done.”

The experience of growing up on a farm taught him to be creative and resourceful. “Farm families in the 1950s ’60s and ’70s didn’t have a lot,” he says. “When it was time to get something built or fixed, they had to figure out how to do it themselves. At that time, a lot of kids learned to build things in school shop programs. In order to survive on the farm, it was a necessity to be able to make repairs on the fly and build things as needed.”

Downsizing a hobby – literally

When he saw another builder make a running 1/2-scale tractor, beginning with a lawn mower, Mike decided to make one himself. “I thought modifying a lawn mower like that was brilliant, and pieces in that scale would be fun to collect,” he says. “They wouldn’t take up a lot of space, like my big tractor collection had, and you could still drive them around.”

After identifying a potential project, Mike focuses on the starting point. “I might start with a lawn mower, because of the transmission, and try to marry my concept to that,” he says, “or I may look at drawings of the tractor, or I may find a full-scale tractor and take measurements, pictures, and details.”

The next step is finding parts. “That will give me a starting point,” he says. Then comes the engineering phase, “thinking through how each part is going to be made.”

When starting a new project, Mike often finds he has to rein in his enthusiasm. Before he can so much as pick up a wrench, he has to think the project through in a comprehensive manner, considering every part and every step. “That, and knowing where to start, is the hardest and most time-consuming part,” he admits.

A 2010 out of a 110

As kids, Mike and his brothers drove tractors on the family farm. “All my uncles farmed in the neighborhood,” he says, “so we had the opportunity to drive various tractors to help with the farming well before we had our driver’s licenses.”

Mike had once owned a John Deere 2010, so building a 1/2-scale version of the tractor just felt right. “I collected full-size tractors years ago,” he says. “Eventually I realized I didn’t have room for all of those big tractors, so I sold them. But I liked that 2010. This 1/2-scale is a little remembrance of it.”

Once Mike found a 1964 John Deere 110, he performed basic modifications to convert it into a 2010. He fabricated fenders and other metal components, and added new tires. The wheel hubs were created out of a composite material using his CNC router.

The decades-old 110 needed a fair amount of work just to bring it up to speed. “I made the wheel emblems and hubs to look as close as possible to those on a real tractor,” he says. “It was definitely a challenge to make the parts and put them together and get it to look right.”

The finished product drives very nicely, “Better than the original,” Mike says. “It has the original motor and transmission in it, and it’s an antique John Deere.”

Engineering the Farmall 806

As a kid, Mike put in a fair amount of time on his uncle Bob’s Farmall 806. “I really liked that tractor,” he says. “Making a 1/2-scale of the 806 was a remembrance of that time.”

Working with his brother, Mike began with a Cub Cadet lawn tractor with a PTO. “We started with that, and the only things we kept were the transmission and rear axle,” he says. “I knew it would be a big project. I wanted it to be a diesel, so I had to take the engine out.”

He found a new single-cylinder diesel engine and tackled the next step. “We had to figure out how to mount the engine and rebuild the system, so it took a lot of engineering and trial and error,” he says. “There were a lot of rebuilds. Sometimes I had to step back a few steps and re-engineer.”

He put 8×16-inch tires on the back and built frame extensions, followed by the front axle. “I used to work with metal before I went to college,” he says, “but I hadn’t done it for 40 years. I thought it would be fun to do it again.”

The crowd-pleasing Farmall

In building his scale models, Mike uses metalworking and computer-controlled equipment in his shop. “I made some parts using computerized design,” he says, “but other parts, like the hood and fenders, had to be made by hand. The hood required several tries. It was a challenge, but fun.”

The hood, for example, had interesting angles to tie into, and that couldn’t be done with the computer. Side panels also had to be hand-made. “I don’t have the equipment that can bend metal right,” Mike says, “so I had hand-make everything to a custom fit on that tractor.”

The Farmall 806 is a real crowd-pleaser. “People don’t see something like that very often, and it brings back good memories,” he says. “There was a tremendous response to it at the Le Sueur County show. People were taking pictures and asking all kinds of questions. They enjoyed hearing the diesel engine, and a lot of them complimented me on the detail, the lasering of the emblems to scale, and the wheels. People were really impressed with the emblems and the wheels.”

Hobby helps keep history alive

Today, Mike’s tackling the design and construction of 1/2-scale implements. “After all, a tractor needs something to pull,” he says. He’s already designed a grain drill and a silage wagon with a chopper, and he’s built a classic hay rack and hay rake.

A longer-term objective is to build at least one tractor from his dad’s farm and uncles’ farms, to show the appreciation he has for the experience of growing up on a farm. “Although my father and uncles have all passed,” he says, “it is important for their children and grandchildren to see what life was like on a classic farm, and the equipment that was used.”

At shows, men steer their kids toward Mike’s scale models in an effort to help the youngsters learn a bit about old-time farming. “It’s a way to keep that culture alive,” Mike says. “Farming is definitely different today.”

And that leads to another of his goals. “I think it’s important to convey the history of farming to the next generation,” he says. “Educating people about the past is important, especially the younger generation who have never experienced it. It’s also a tribute to my dad and my uncles, and a way of respecting the hardships they went through to keep moving forward.” FC

For more information: Mike Riebel, 110 Deerplace, Mankato, MN 56001; (507) 345-7286; mriebel@yahoo.com.


Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Ln., Rockville, MN 56369; email: bvossler@juno.com.

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