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  Bottled Combines

by Dave Yanko

(Note: Don Paterson passed away in 2002. This story is dedicated to his memory–ed).

PREECEVILLE – Retired farmer Don Paterson knew he could count on the boys down at coffee row for an unvarnished assessment of his new hobby. They didn't let him down.

"They figured I was a little crazy," says Paterson. "One of them said: ‘Why build a ship in a bottle out here in the prairies?"'

Rather than argue that model ship building is a perfectly legitimate pastime for a guy who spent his early years near the ocean, Paterson declared: "Okay, I'll build a combine in a bottle."

Don Paterson with one of his model combines.

And so he did. About thirty times, so far.

And it turns out the critics at the coffee shop aren't the only ones to approve of his more culturally sensitive subject matter. National and international media stories have resulted in Paterson's little bottled combines furnishing mantelpieces in homes as far away as Illinois and Ontario.

His unusual hobby grew out of an unfortunate incident several years ago that left Paterson in hospital recovering from back surgery. He'd been physically active his whole life, but the doctors told him his mobility would be permanently limited after the operation. He wanted to come up with something to keep himself occupied after his convalescence, and model ship building seemed a natural choice.

"I'd spent a little time around (ships) before," Paterson said in an interview at his home. "I was born in Scotland, right beside the North Sea – not far away from the Firth of Forth Bridge."

His Canadian father and Scottish mother moved the family to Saskatchewan, his father's home, when Paterson was seven. He farmed most of his life until health problems forced him to retire.

Paterson glues the combines to the bottles because people lift them up
and look for the hole.

Unbeknownst to the demanding boys on coffee row, building a combine in a bottle is quite a different process from building a ship in a bottle, says Paterson. Ship building requires that the craft be assembled in a ‘collapsed' form before inserting it into the glass container. Many pieces are constructed on hinges and erected, using threads, after the structure is inside the bottle.

Paterson builds his combines right inside the bottle ‘from the ground up'.

"I make a frame and then I start gluing things onto this frame until there isn't any room to put anything else. Just like a real one."

Most of the approximately 60 parts for each model are carved from mahogany wood using a razor knife, and then painted prior to assembly. He prefers mahogany because it can be cut finely without chipping or splintering.

Paterson created a special tool for inserting the pieces into the bottle and fixing them to the ‘chassis' of the combine. The tool resembles an artist's paintbrush. But instead of horse hair, there's a single, sturdy wire protruding from the end. By using two of the tools together and bending the wires appropriately, he can place each piece precisely where it belongs.

It's a sign of the times, perhaps, that finding a good glass bottle was one of Paterson's most difficult tasks. He searched high and low, but found nothing except plastic bottles with necks too narrow for the job. His wife Jean saved the day when she suggested he try one of her olive oil bottles. With an opening three-quarters of an inch in diameter, it was perfect.

Paterson uses photographs or illustrations of real combines to guide him through each project, which takes approximately two weeks to complete. He has no favorite combine manufacturer – he's built models of John Deere, New Holland, International and Massey-Ferguson combines.

It's thumbs up from the boys on coffee row.

Relatives and close friends were early beneficiaries of his new hobby. But once word spread of the unique gifts he was creating, provincial and national media outlets took an interest and members of the public followed. Paterson remembers he was tuned in to a national radio program, listening to the interview he taped earlier in the day, when he got phone call from an Ontario a woman who was driving home from work.

"She said she and her husband used to work in the Massey-Ferguson combine factory – that's where they met – and she wanted me to build one of these things for their anniversary. She was pretty pleased when I did."

Articles in farm and ranching journals brought a number of inquiries from Canada and the U.S., which in turn led to more sales. At $150 per unit, selling his model combines could provide Paterson with a nice bit of spare change. But he says he's not looking for any more sales. He's got enough hobby work to keep him busy, he says, and that was the whole point of the endeavor in the first place.

That, and quelling the critics down on coffee row.

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