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Best in Show

Kentucky State Fair winner John Beckner and his wooden models

John Beckner holds his 1933 Seagrave fire truck wooden model. Photo: Jolea Brown
John Beckner works on one of the Deuce and a Half wooden model. Photo: Jolea Brown
Beckner's half track and Jeep wooden models. Photo: Jolea Brown
A Toys and Joys wooden model plan. Photo: Jolea Brown
Best in Show tractor backhoe and a bulldozer. Photo: Jolea Brown
Beckner uses poplar wood to achieve green for military vehicles. Photo: Jolea Brown
Beckner's track excavator wooden model. Photo: Jolea Brown
Beckner uses a scaled plan before he cuts any wood for models. Photo: Jolea Brown
The large, modern ladder firetruck, at back, won Best of Show and first in the 2018 Kentucky State Fair. Photo: Jolea Brown
Beckner's Caterpillar truck won Best of Show and first place in 2016. Photo: Jolea Brown
John Beckner's drafting table with the Jeep plans. Photo: Jolea Brown

“They told me when I got the first ribbon, ‘Now you’re going to need to do better.’ They were right, it ended up an obsession,” says John Beckner of Shepherdsville, Kentucky.

For the past 20 years, Beckner has made wooden models and entered them in the Kentucky State Fair. 

“I took woodworking when I was at Manual High School in Louisville, but beyond that I am self-taught in woodworking,” says Beckner, who turns 70 this year.

He worked for the Naval Ordnance Station Louisville as a draftsman and engineering technician. “That’s where I got the knack of looking at stuff to see if it will work,” says Beckner. “We looked at plans from contractors to make sure the plans were buildable.”

After retiring in 1996, he says he needed a hobby to stay busy. He read a story in a magazine, which sold plans for wooden models, and he ordered some basic plans. It grew from there.

His first model was a little 1927 Chevy pickup truck, which he gave to his sister. “The models are to scale, but not scaled to each other,” he explains. “You don’t just start cutting wood without knowing where you’re going with it.”

Beckner says before long he outgrew his garage and he needed more space to make his wooden models. He and wife, Cile, moved to a home in Bullitt County with a separate workshop, where they are a consumer-members of Salt River Electric.

“Cele says my hobby keeps me out of trouble,” says John. Cele, who is a volunteer naturalist for nearby Bernheim Forest & Arboretum, says they each needed a hobby after retirement, to get out from under each other’s feet.

Beckner says, “I probably build two or three models a year. Once summer comes, I’m outside. In the winter, instead of sitting and watching TV, I go out to my shop.”

Beckner has built 50 wooden models, made 100% of wood and completely from scratch. The majority of them are are construction vehicles requiring complex, working hydraulics. Plans come from Toys and Joy, although he designs a few himself.

“People know me. I’m a wood scrounger,” he says. Friends and neighbors bring him pieces of wood that he later uses for his models.

Beckner also calls himself a “modern woolworker,” as he uses electric tools. He says the tools that he uses most are the table saw, band saw and routers, and his favorite brand of tools is Grizzly, due to its high quality.

“I started out with just cheap stuff and I upgraded really slowly. It took over 20 years for me to get this shop where it is at.”

What are his favorite wooden models that he’s built? The construction crane and bucket loader. “They were the hardest to build. Each one took me two months,” he says.

A few examples of other wooden models he’s made: a Caterpillar truck, two or three different bulldozers, a tractor with a low-boy trailer, and excavator and backhoe.

Mixing natural woods—Kentucky poplar, maple, walnut and cherry—achieves varying colors for contrast. While Beckner prefers his wooden models in natural wood, he sometimes paints the wheels to give them more detail.

When asked if he has learned any tricks over the years, Beckner laughs. “There are all kinds of tricks. Making tracks and cylinders, which go in and out, are the hardest things you will do. It took me a long time to perfect that.”

“For military vehicles I use Kentucky poplar,” says Beckner. “In a poplar wood, the heart wood is green (the outside of poplar is white) so when I spray it, it looks green. It’s perfect for military vehicles. People will often say, ‘You’ve stained those.’ I tell them, ‘No, I didn’t.’”

They are coated with spray clear enamel which he says protects them and also protects the wood during changes in temperature.

The 1933 Seagrave firetruck won second place last year (photo at top). He also made one for his godson when he received his firefighter’s badge. His large, modern ladder firetruck last year won Best of Show.

Beckner has earned 10 Best in Show awards for a total of 38 ribbons out of the 50 models that he’s built.

For the 2019 Kentucky State Fair in August, Beckner is building three wooden models to enter in two categories. The “Deuce and a Half,” or 2-1/2-ton military vehicle, with a canvas cover over the back, will compete in the wooden model division. He’ll pair it with a WWII military Jeep pulling a trailer. In the scratch-built division, he will also enter a half-track troop transport.

Beckner says he’s very familiar with the Deuce and a Half cargo truck. “I’m a veteran, drafted during the Vietnam War, so I rode in the back of one many times.”

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