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Retired farmer uses his talent to create items out of wood

By Staff | Sep 22, 2019

He may be retired from farming but Ambrose Sonnek probably works on tractors more now then when he farmed. In fact, now he builds tractors, and, he makes them out of wood.

Sonnek, who retired from farming in 2000, lives in Minnesota Lake with his wife Kay. Before moving to town they lived on their farm located between Minnesota Lake and Easton.

He did not start his woodworking by making scale model replicas of farm machinery.

“It was 1974 and Ed Stevermer asked me about making a grandfather clock,” Sonnek explains.

And so he made one, and then another. Soon, he was getting requests and he made many grandfather clocks.

By the mid 1980s he was ready for a change.

“People would contact me and say their clock had stopped working and so I would go and fix it,” Sonnek says. “I really did not want to be a clock repairman, the clock-works had gotten quite expensive and besides, I was ready for a change, to make something else.”

So he started making scale model trucks and tractors.

“The tractors are made to 1/16 scale and the trucks are made to 1/25 scale,” Sonnek explains.

He has made some models to donate at Easton Friendship Days and he has also had some special requests.

“I had an owner of an equipment dealership who was unable to get ahold of a unique toy tractor because it was so rare, so he had me build one for him,” Sonnek remarks.

Some models are built for personal reasons.

“I worked for Ernie Stevermer moving houses way back when,” Sonnek says. “I built a model of the old truck he used to own for his business.”

The first models he made were all out of walnut.

“I learned by using different woods, I could make the models look more realistic,” Sonnek shares. “For instance on a John Deere tractor I use burr-oak and ash.”

He now uses seven different species of wood to construct his models.

“For an International Harvester I use cherry, ash and maple,” he says. “And for a crawler made by Caterpillar, I use maple and walnut.”

He does not hesitate when asked what is the hardest wood he has worked with.

“Osage orange is a very hard wood,” he comments. “I have used it to make Allis Chalmers tractors.”

Sonnek says he spends an average of 35 hours on each tractor he makes.

“A crawler with tracks takes closer to 50 hours to make,” he states.

And, he has made quite a few models over the years.

“I believe I am up to 58 models now when you add up the tractors, trucks and other machines,” Sonnek says.

And, he does not specialize in just one brand of tractors.

“I have made models of Minneapolis Moline, International Harvester, John Deere, Oliver, Massy Harris, Allis Chalmers and Case tractors,” Sonnek mentions. “I have also made a replica of a modified tractor used in tractor-pulls.”

His tools of the trade include a band saw, belt sander, table saw and drill press.

“There are some parts which I have to carve by hand,” he says.

Once he knows what model he is going to make, he begins the process of coming up with the design.

“I will use toy tractors as examples. I will also study pictures of full size tractors and then I draw up the plan,” he explains.

One of the most challenging projects he has produced was of an old-time threshing machine. It features many parts which swivel or fold. It was actually featured in a magazine years ago and it is one of the pieces he has displayed at Kiester’s Farming of Yesteryear Threshing Festival the last four years.

Other than the pieces he has donated for fund-raising purposes, Sonnek says he gives most of his creations away.

“Most people who have gotten one my projects give me a gift card or a gift certificate and I am just fine with that,” Sonnek says.

Sonnek has two workshops where he spends time on his projects. His larger space is located in a garage and his smaller space is in the basement of his home.

“When it gets cold I will spend most of my time in the basement shop,” he shares.

Grandfather clocks and model size trucks and farm machinery are not the only items this craftsmen makes and wood is also not the only material he uses.

“In the past I made some models out of metal and have done some other projects utilizing metal,” he says.

One such metal project is a giraffe which sits in the Sonnek’s front yard. He used metal rod and a lot of welding to construct the lawn ornament.

He has also built many pieces of furniture, most of it for family members.

“Lately I have been building furniture pieces out of rough wood,” Sonnek comments.

And the FFA building at the Faribault County Fairgrounds which was torn down earlier this year, lives on in the form of a scaled down version which Sonnek made. It even features a removable roof piece so people can look inside and see rows of livestock pens filled with scale-sized animals.

“I constructed it how I remembered it being used from years ago,” Sonnek says.

So, is it a hobby or a passion?

“I would say it is a little bit of both,” Sonnek answers. “It is not hard work but it can be tedious.”