David Potter has always been able to craft a blueprint in his mind and turn it into the exact design he’s envisioned. His years spent growing up on a North Dakota farm sparked an interest in scratch-building models of tractors and other farming equipment.
“I’d go out in my dad’s garage when I was 10 years old,” he recalls. “I’d start modifying a toy tractor to make it look like something I thought I’d like to have.”
David joined the U.S. Navy at age 18, retiring as commander after 32 years, and then served as a minister at Brandt Lutheran Church in Brandt, Ohio, for 11 years. In between, he became a “hobby guy,” restoring antique cars and hot rods for 23 years.
Project is a link to boyhood on the farm
When that hobby began to be a bit too expensive, he switched to building antique toys and trains on commission. At 82, his latest project is a 1/16-scale model of a 1950s Hubley toy tractor remade to look like a Farmall M.
“The loader I built for it was made by a company named Farmhand. They were very popular in the late 1940s and early ’50s,” David recalls. “My uncle had one, and I had the operator’s manual for this piece of machinery, so I said, ‘you know what, I think I’ll build that to go on this (toy) tractor.'”
His interest in the Farmall M is rooted in memories of growing up on a North Dakota farm. “In the neighborhood where I grew up, there were two models of tractors: International Harvester and McCormick-Deering,” he says. “Growing up with the red tractors, my neighbor had one exactly like the model I made.”
Guided by the TLAR system
Working off and on, David spent about six months creating the model. His tools are simple. He uses needle-nose pliers to tighten screws and tweezers to retrieve tiny parts. Each part is painted before assembly. He builds small pulleys on a lathe, fashioning them out of pieces of scrap metal. The teeth are wooden, made from miniature popsicle sticks purchased at a hobby store.
Illustrations in the operator’s manual gave insights into the tractor’s assembly. For the tank on the back, he created a cardboard pattern to make sure it would fit in the space. “Then I made a solid wood form and soldered the tank around that form,” he says, “because wood absorbs the heat and solders real easy.”
The hardest part of the project, he says, was making all the pieces fit. He used #90 machine screws purchased from a New Jersey supplier of miniature fittings. An innate understanding of machinery guided his hands. “I use what I call the TLAR system,” he says with a smile. “That looks about right.”
If he could go back in time and do anything differently, would he? “I think, amazingly, this thing came out just exactly like I wanted it to,” he says. “It lifts up and down and the bucket tilts by hand. Even the lever on the left-hand side of the driver moves – just like the real one does.”
Beginners should start simple
The Farmall Model M is far from David’s first attempt at scratch-building toy farm implements. During a year when he was stationed in Iran, he built a model of the buildings on his grandfather’s farm, working from memory. Over the course of three years, he created a replica of a tractor and related machinery from 1945, working from old family photos.
For David, natural talent blended with a lifetime of practice resulted in a finely honed skill. “I have a model of a tractor I built when I was 15 years old, using wood and rubber tires that were just laying around,” he says. “I started early on this stuff.”
He advises novice model makers to start simple, or work from a kit. “I used to do model kits when I was a kid,” he says, “airplanes and cars. That will tell you if you have the ability to put things together that are very small.
“This is very fine work,” he notes. “Don’t rush. I may work on it for an hour or two, read for a while, think and come back. It takes a while to formulate the ideas in your head when you don’t have a set of plans.” FC
David L. Potter, New Carlisle, Ohio, died Jan. 9, 2021, after this article was completed.
Sara Jordan-Heintz is a newspaper and magazine journalist. Her articles have appeared in Antique Trader, Equine Wellness and Discover Vintage America, and her work is regularly published through the USA Today Network. Email her at email@example.com.