Itty-Bitty Engines

Intricacy and care mean tiny engines take time


The mini John Deere E engine along with the laser-cut box. L

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The model gas engines Jim VanHeeren makes are unlike most other models around, because they are so small. "The small ones I call 'miniatures,'" the Lena, Ill., retired millwright says. The John Deere Model E, for instance, measures 1-1/2 inches-by-2 inches, and includes flywheels that turn and are smaller than a nickel. It comes in a handcrafted wood box with true finger-jointed corners and a removable sliding cover. The "big ones" are like the John Deere Model E 3 HP, which measures a robust 3 inches high and 6 inches long. Other models include Stover, Gade and Root & VanDervoort.

Family history

In a sense Jim comes by his model-making skill through the family genes, as his grandfather, Emil Alich, worked at Arcade Mfg. Co. of Freeport, Ill., for many years. "I didn't know he'd worked there as a mold maker. I wish I would have known so I could have asked him about it. I also wish he would have saved me every one of those Arcade toys made, but he didn't," Jim laughs.

Four years ago, Jim's brother-in-law, Gene Arner of Beloit, Wis., asked if Jim and his wife, Pat, would take over the gasoline engine division of Turtle Creek Scale Models, Inc., as Gene had other projects he wanted to work on.

Jim had never been involved with gasoline engines, but he had worked with his hands as a millwright, and he had recently retired, so he said he would do it.

First things first

To ensure accuracy, Jim got a real engine to measure. "A mechanical engineer measures all the parts and enters them in a computer, and shows me all the parts on the screen," Jim says. "He turns them upside down and all directions, so if I want to change anything on the parts, I can."

The results are e-mailed to a fellow who uses a process called stereo lithography to laser the information about the sizes of the parts into a liquid. The parts are then formed out of plastic, which when hardened, is used to make the master rubber molds for spin-casting. "

These molds are completely different than molds made for die-casting," Jim says. Spin-cast molds cost about $200 each, while die-cast molds, run about $4,000 each. If Jim used die-cast molds, the engines he makes would cost at least 20 times as much, and be unaffordable.

Liquid zinc is force-fed into the rubber molds, and the pieces are brought to Jim. That's when his work really begins. "Pieces made in die-cast molds are exact, one just like the other. You can set them together, and they'll fit," Jim says. "But it's not that way with spin-casting, because the molds expand while the parts are being made. That's the nature of spin-casting. These are intricate molds."

That means the tiny holes where the muffler fits, for example, might accidentally be filled in, or flywheels might have to be straightened. "The biggest challenge, in the really small engines, is to get flywheels that aren't off-center," Jim says. "The plastic parts used to make the masters have a tendency to warp, and are very, very touchy. But that's what you get when you work with spin-casting instead of die-casting. You just don't have any uniformity with rubber molds as opposed to steel molds. We're looking at a new way to make some patterns if these don't work." Jim has done some research on resin and has talked with people who say this method works really well. All the pieces have to be fine-tuned in one way or another.

The clean-up is what takes so much time, he says. "I have to re-drill holes that filled in, sand areas smooth and do whatever is needed so the parts will fit together. I have three belt sanders, two drill presses and two dremels, and I do a lot of dremeling and a lot of sanding. That's the hardest part of the entire operation." He uses sanding bars and sticks for getting into corners and tough areas. In general, it takes about four hours of work to get all the pieces for an engine smoothed down, holes cut and the pieces set together.

Some engines, however, take longer, like the Root & VanDervoort Triumph 6 HP engine, because it has the most parts of all the engines (18) and Jim has to drill about 30 small holes. "The bases have to have four holes to screw them into the skids. Holes have to be drilled in the flywheels so they'll go on the axle," Jim says. "There has to be a hole for each end of the gas line, each end of the trip rod, on the rocker arm in front of the engine, the emblem on the battery box, the knife switch that disconnects the battery from the engine, and there's a little screw that goes into the rocker arm and head. So those holes have to be drilled. There are other holes, too."

He works on 20 identical pieces at a time. "If I sat down to do one at a time, it would take me a week and a half to do it," he says. But when he's working on many of the same pieces at the same time the familiarity of what needs to be done on each piece helps the process go faster than working on the different parts of one engine and then setting it together.

He uses needle nose pliers to set some parts together, and when it gets too intricate, he has help from Pat. "Her fingers are a bit more agile than my big fingers are," he laughs.

Almost the entire engine is made of zinc. They might have a steel or brass axle, or a piece of copper wire, but otherwise, they are all zinc. Next, the parts have to be painted with hard cured paint, using the exact coded paint that the original engines had. The miniature John Deere engines are painted with water paint, Jim says. Pat does much of the painting.

"They're not like toy tractors, where you can still buy them in boxes at toy shows years later." - Jim VanHeeren

The engines

The Stover Model K engine was the first one Jim made in bulk. The 1/10-scale 1-1/2 HP engine was made for the Stover engine club of Freeport, Ill., for their 2002 show. Hand-painted the original Stover color, along with additional detail painting on the magneto and belt pulley, this engine's flywheel also turns. Jim put the 2-inch-by-3-inch engine on a 4-inch long skid, and made 100 of them for the club. Jim also made an additional 200 to sell. As with all the engines made to sell, Jim changes them so they don't look exactly like those made in bulk for the clubs.

Next was the 1/10-scale Root & VanDervoort 6 HP Triumph model for the 150th anniversary of the Root & VanDervoort engine company show in Adkins, Ill. These engines, 6 inches long and 3-3/4 inches high, also had turning flywheels, along with handcrafted wood battery boxes. For the anniversary, 200 engines were made, along with another 100 for the Turtle Creek Scale Models Engine Division.

The Gade 1/10-scale gas engine was next. The Marshalltown, Iowa, Gade Engine Club asked for 200 of them on skids and with serial numbers. They proved so popular that Jim made another 100 to sell. The model is 6-3/4 inches long, plus the handle, 3-1/2 inches wide and 3-3/4 inches high. This model includes a battery box, gas tank and flywheels that turn, and came on skids, while Gades Jim made for general sale to the public came on carts.

After the Gade, Jim made the miniature John Deere Model E, his most popular engine, which comes in one of the laser-designed wood boxes. Jim has the rights to manufacture four different Model Es. "They will probably be the only four John Deere engines we do," Jim says.

He adds that the John Deere engines are the simplest of all those he makes because they have fewer parts. "The crankshaft is closed so there's nothing exposed, and you don't see the lubricators because it was oil-splash lubricated. There's a cover over the top of the crankcase," he says. After the mini-model, Jim made the 1/10-scale John Deere stationary 3 HP engine.

Now, Jim is working on two more John Deere Model Es; a 1-1/2 HP, which will be about the size of the Stover model (6-3/4 inches long and 3-3/4 inches high,) and a John Deere 6 HP, which will be about 7 inches long with flywheels 5 inches in diameter. "I have the models made, but not the molds," Jim says.

He says he's going to make a few small cosmetic changes to set these new miniature John Deere engines apart from each other. "The John Deere engines are all Model Es but a different scale, so we'll probably put a black pulley on the three horse and a silver pulley on the six horse," Jim says. "Or we might paint the muffler silver inside or outside. We still want them to look original, but we also want them to look a little different." After these John Deere models are completed, Jim is going to make miniatures of the Gade, Stover and Root & VanDervoort engines, but it's hard to say when those will be done.

Packaging the engines

In addition to the model engines, the Van Heerens also make boxes for the miniature engines. The flat sides, bottoms and tops are all laser-cut, with emblems lasered in on the side. "Chris Thompson made me a little saw with a whole bunch of blades so I could cut out the finger joints," Jim says. The joints are then glued and the boxes set together. The box for the miniature John Deere Model E (1-1/2-by-2-inches) is 2-by-1-3/8-by-1-3/8 inches. Jim says people like the boxes so much they ask for just the boxes for awards and other things. He is sure Chris would make them for this purpose as well.

He also has skids for the engines made of wood and laser-cut. "On one side we put the years the company was in business, where they did business and information like that," Jim says.

He does sell the Gade carts separate because so many collectors have asked for them, but he stays true to his vision and puts only Gade engines on the Gade carts, while others put different engines on them. "They customize and make their own, and I don't have any problem with it, but I try to keep everything as authentic as I can," Jim states.

Jim says people need to know that these engines are collectors items, and aren't made to be played with. He adds that people also need to know they are spin-cast. "I don't want them to think they're getting precision like die-cast. I don't want anybody disappointed with their engine when they get it. "

They are so limited, and except for the John Deere, we'll probably never make more than 500 of any of them. They're not like toy tractors, where you can still buy them in boxes at toy shows years later. "

Right now with those, we have enough projects going that I'm not sure if I'd want to get involved with another one. The expensive part of the work has been done, but now it just takes time to get them all set together, and things have slowed down recently. But if a club wanted an engine made, I would talk to them," Jim says.

As far as the future goes, Jim would like to make an upright model, because he's never made one. "I would like to do one just to do something different," he says. "

I take a lot of pride in making these engines," Jim remarks. "We get a lot of repeat customers, and that feels good. It's fun, and we get to meet a lot of good people."

Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact Bill at: Box 372, 400 Caroline Lane, Rockville, MN 56369;