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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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; email@example.com