Itty-Bitty Engines

Intricacy and care mean tiny engines take time

| May 2006

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. "