When Thomas Mueller was a tyke, his mother couldn’t keep a roll of tape in the house.
They inevitably disappeared, along with glue, straws, empty cereal boxes and just about anything else his four-year-old hands could find. In their place, emerged combine harvesters, trucks and all manner of mighty machines.
“I remember for Christmas, that’s what he wished for was tape,” says Susanne.
Jump ahead a few years and there is a seven-year-old Thomas at Red Deer’s Agri-Trade deep in conversation with a salesman about the mechanical intricacies of his grain-drying system.
“He talked to the salesman like I would talk to him,” marvels his father Andy, who with his family farms and raises cattle a few kilometres northwest of Bentley.
The years did not dim Thomas’s enthusiasm for all things mechanical. As a Grade 6 student at Bentley School, he could hardly wait to take the shop classes that began the following year.
But before he could get there, shop was dropped. That’s when the family asked a family friend’s father, Charlie Herder, who is a talented woodworker, to take the 11-year-old Thomas under his wing.
Herder soon had his own apprentice, who spent hours in his shop on days off from school.
“At the time, I thought the work he was doing was amazing,” said Thomas.
He didn’t waste his lessons. Thomas has since turned two-by-fours, dowels and other scraps of wood into a combine, tractor, bulldozer, grain truck, boat and Second World War fighter plane, among others.
Each is fashioned out of dozens, if not hundreds, of tiny wooden parts created in a small workshop in a farm building out behind the house.
The work requires truckloads of patience and a painstaking attention to detail.
Take the bulldozer: each track link is made of four tiny wooden parts that must be perfect or they won’t go together properly.
“There’s 200 pieces just on the tracks alone,” he says.
When he decided to make a copy of his dad’s tractor, he headed out into the yard, tape measure in hand. It took him a day to make the myriad of measurements needed and to create his own blueprint.
Another homemade blueprint was used to make a 1/30th-scale model of Earthrace, a trimaran, which set the world power boat record for circumnavigating the globe in 2008, doing it in a little over 60 days.
Many of his projects are based on commercial plans. But he is rarely satisfied with rigidly following those simplified designs. Thomas likes to tweak the plans to make more accurate representations of the machines he’s building.
His skilled hands have been turned to other sorts of projects as well. He has created five end tables, each top inlaid with tiny pieces of wood in different mosaic-like designs.
When his mother was expecting his now-17-month-old brother Peter, he quietly set about building an old-style crib.
The lathe he used to turn each spindle was given to him by his dad — with a catch. He had to add cleaning the barn to his list of chores.
Thomas’s creations have caught the eye of many in the area, who most recently saw them at an art gallery set up during the Bentley Rodeo. The reviews were glowing.
“I think most people were amazed with his age,” says his mother, adding most assumed the working models were made by a retired woodworker with decades of experience and not a local 14-year-old.
Susanne believes it’s important, especially in rural areas, to keep these kinds of skills alive. It was one of the reasons that parents fought successfully to have the shop program returned to the school.
Her son’s talents have been useful on the farm as well. He routinely fixes machinery like the lawn mower, or can be found helping his father putting the combine back together after repairs.
Meanwhile, on the hobby front, his next project, a lattice boom crane, is already taking shape on his work bench.
A threshing machine and M1 Abrams tank are next up.
And then, who knows?