The joy of toy tractor pullers


SHELL ROCK, Iowa – Most farm boys aspire to their dad’s farming interest. If it is a livestock enterprise, a son will often become involved. If it is machinery, you will often find a son with grease on his hands.
Dennis Balvanz was such a kid. In his case though, his dad was big into both livestock and machinery.
And while, Dennis had cattle chores, he favored crop-related work. He liked operating the field equipment.
Early interest. In his youth, Dennis would take in the tractor pulls at the local county fair. “I can remember seeing the smokers going down the track. I always wanted to get into the sport, but haven’t made it there yet,” said Dennis.
Tractor pulling grew as a farm-related sport in central Iowa.
Custom pullers. Through its popularity, “The Landhandler” emerged as Dennis favorite. This Allis-Chalmers D21 dominated the contests for years.
“I remember seeing the real tractor pull years ago. It is part of our local history. I currently work for the former owner of that real deal,” said Dennis.
A number of years ago, he began tinkering on some custom puller projects, both tractors and pickups. Although his early work was a little rough, his wife, Hope, encouraged him to stay with it and refine the craft.
“Customizing pullers started out as a hobby. In 2005, I started working at it more seriously and it has snowballed from there. To date, I’ve probably finished more than 50 puller tractors,” said Dennis.
Craftsman extraordinaire. Today’s collector of toy tractors appreciates precision or high detail.
In addition, the professional puller wants the toy version to be the mirror image of their tractor.
Dennis has crafted unrelenting detail in his toy pullers to satisfy the most discrete collector. Toy tractors that are used for customizing by Dennis range from new to sandbox toys.
He describes his style from “old school” to the modern versions. Depending on the tractor, the approach varies.
The well used sandbox version requires media blasting. However, the new toy requires only light sanding.
If decals cannot be replaced, Dennis removes them carefully and preserves them for reuse. Dennis dismantles the tractor as far as possible. Holes may then be drilled through the hood to mount a stack or twin stacks, if the unit calls for it.
On some tractors, the front grill is fitted for a breather inlet. Next, side shields are cut and fitted. Supports are prepped for weights along with the wheelie bars for rear mounting. A tachometer is then fitted above the dash and in front of the steering wheel.
The front axle is often retrofitted and moved forward. The rims, tires, weights and roll cage are purchased.
Everything else is custom built according to Dennis specs. The wheels are smoothed and polished providing the mirror look.
“Some people prefer the wheels painted to coordinate with the tractor’s colors,” said Dennis.
Once the main body of the tractor is ready, media blasting or light sanding takes place. It is now ready for painting.
“I use paint from the manufacturer. This costs a little more, but I want the colors to match exactly.”
The materials for the add-on parts are brass, aluminum or steel. These parts are painted before assembly.
Hope is the talent behind the creative decals. Dennis speaks fondly of Hope saying, “We talk about the puller along with the buyer’s specifications. If decals do not exist, we discuss ideas and she runs with it.
“Hope creates the decals with her imagination and the use of the computer. The customer is always pleased with her work.”
After painting, the tractor is assembled with great care. Everything is bolted, riveted or soldered.
“I test all the soldered joints to make sure they are sturdy and will stand the test of time. I know that most people display their tractors. In case children want to play with them, they are built to stand up under heavy play.”
Hobby turned business. The fascination for toy pullers has grown. And now, Dennis’ hobby has turned into quasi-business.
Each puller is built one at a time and stands as a unique tractor. Most of his pullers are customized according to customer requests.
Dennis and Hope have full-time jobs, so their time is limited for building toy tractor pullers.
Family affair. “Hope is a great help and she is a wonderful mother. She keeps the books, maintains our Web page and creates the decals. I don’t intend on getting rich with these projects. I just want it to be self supporting and help keep the lights on.”
The family’s children are involved, as well. They join Dennis in his Shell Rock, Iowa, workshop and tinker on their own interests.
“My son, Levi, loves to make things alongside of me. He wants to build puller trucks, like I have done on occasion.”
This truly is a family endeavor. Dennis and Hope work as a team along with the support of their children.
For more information, visit or call Dennis at 319-885-4865.


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