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Why didn’t I think of that?

Useful stuff from the 44th Annual Inventors Congress

Each June, inventors and inventor-wannabes gather at a convention in the heart of farm country in Redwood Falls, MN. If you visit, a $5 admission fee gets you into the show where you notice a few odd birds and nutty professor types with signs making outrageous claims such as “Multimillion-Dollar Idea Here!” Upon closer inspection, the “idea” turns out to be a bizarre electronic gizmo that seems unlikely to fulfill the creator’s promised financial destiny. You move on and the prospect of the next gizmo’s success makes you a bit uneasy, as you suspect that this is how that freakish talking Furby toy got its start. So you take your cue from the Minnesota-nice locals: You nod, smile and quickly look away.

Then, right next to the ridiculous flubberbuster and dirtbirger displays, there’s a guy in coveralls showing off a new tool or attachment that strikes you as a genuinely good idea. And some of the inventions down the next row, like the ones we found here, might actually be useful for your farm.

Portable workbench
Clint Birkeland lets his invention speak for itself. As prospective customers approach, the quiet, wiry inventor swings into action, rolling out what appears to be a steel-reinforced furniture dolly. Birkeland smartly unfolds 18-gauge steel arms and wings and snaps them into place. In less than a minute, the dolly is transformed into the Power Bench, one of the sturdiest and most stable portable workbenches you’ll ever use.

Fully extended, the bench provides a stable work surface that is 1 1/2 ft. wide and 9 ft. long. It can be used as a support for a chop saw or a miter saw, a work surface at adjustable heights for drilling or hand tool work, or a clamping base with or without a plywood overlay. Birkeland says he’s sold the Power Bench to electricians, carpenters, plumbers, steel stud workers, door installers, mechanics and farmers. Base price is $400. Options such as a 4 1/2-ft. extension table for supporting long boards, a stop rail for multiple cuts, extra support legs and drill press basket are also available. Contact Clint Birkeland, Lee Unlimited Inc., 336 UC Rd., Box 336, DuPree, SD 57623, 605/365-5430.

Sawhorse and scaffolding combo
If you’re tired of teetering your work on a pair of old sawhorses, the practical simplicity of Jim Nesburg’s welded steel brackets will have you wondering why you’ve risked life and limb for so long. Two brackets, one at each end of a 2-in. x 1-ft. plank, form the base for a sturdy workbench or a stable scaffold. With an adjustable height of 1 3/4 to 2 3/4 ft., optional handrails and a load capacity of up to 1,000 lbs., there’s a place for this invention in almost any shop or work space. Price of one pair of brackets is $85, plus $10.00 for shipping. Contact JON Mfg., Dept. FIN, 408 E. Chestnut, Redwood Falls, MN 56283, 507/637-3142.

Quick control for truckers
The problem with reaching for dash switches in a big rig is that your right hand has to come off the shifter. That can be inconvenient, even dangerous as you’re trucking on down the highway. Installing the Quick Control on the truck’s shifter puts more vital functions at your fingertips and keeps your right hand where it belongs — on the stick, not the dash. Four switches transfer control of the cruise control, headlights, clearance lights and engine brake. The unit fits on either Rockwell or Eaton shifters. Price: $239. Contact Mae Goodridge, Serenity Sales and Distribution, 10934 State Hwy. 95, Princeton, MN 55371, 800/326-5469,

Floor protector
Protect your garage or shop floor from vehicle drippings and debris with the Containment Mat. Jerry Dehn designed the rubber mat to catch snow, ice, sand, dirt and mud that builds up on vehicles and ultimately drops on garage floors. A raised dam around the edge of the mat contains up to 65 gal. of liquid. The raised edges also keep sockets and parts from rolling away, so the mat is handy when you’re working on equipment or vehicles. The large mat (7 ft. 5 in. x 18 ft. 8 in.) costs $199. The small mat (4 ft. 5 in. x 9 ft.) is $129. Contact Jerry Dehn, Box 4056, Mankato, MN 56001, 507/385-0600.

Turf mender
Whether it’s caused by dogs, drought or winterkill, anyone with a lawn eventually ends up dealing with unsightly dead patches that need reseeding. Just tossing the seed on top is great for feeding the birds, but won’t grow much grass. Meanwhile, a rake is a blister builder and can dig up grass that’s still alive. Bob Wittenberg’s invention, the Turf Mender, combines seeding and tillage into one precise operation. Just push the spring-loaded plunger to release seed out of the hollow handle, then gently work the seed into the soil with the steel tines. Price is $69 plus tax and $5 for shipping. Contact Wittenberg Enterprises, Box 1432, Winona, MN 55987, 507/454-2312.

Grain flow controller
Now there’s a way to fill your grain wagon without moving the chute or entering the wagon. Glen Forrest’s Grain Levelor is a unique PVC pipe design that uses a pull chain to control the discharge height of each chute. Grain flow can be adjusted by moving two slides under each chute. Forrest says his prototype is surprisingly sturdy and long-wearing. “I’ve run 40,000 bu. through my unit at home and you can’t see any wear,” he says. Forrest points out that he hasn’t sold any Grain Levelors yet, but will consider building and selling new units for about $120. Contact Glenn Forrest, 7916 E. 3400 North Rd., Potomac, IL 61865-6627, 217/987-6497.

Redesigned rivets
When it comes to attaching sheet metal to buildings or machines, Pepper Aasgaard thinks screws are old news. “A screw in light-gauge sheet metal has the holding strength of only one small thread and can easily wiggle loose,” he says. Although construction experts agree that rivets would be much stronger, drilling the rivet holes typically takes too long for riveted metal buildings to be practical. Aasgaard’s solution ¾ the self-tapping rivet.

In his design, a sharp tip combined with a serrated screw cutting head pulls the rivet through the sheet metal in a way that uses the sheet metal itself to help bind the material when the rivet is compressed. Aaasgard, who’s devoted several years to the study and design of better rivets, says he’s also patented self-sealing blind rivets and high-strength, self-tapping bolt rivets. Who knows? One of his riveting inventions could soon show up as part of a grain bin, pole shed or corn head near you. The new rivets aren’t fully in production, so you won’t find them at your local hardware store yet. But if you’d like to try them, Aaasgard is willing to sell a few prototype rivets through the mail. Prices range from $0.25 for one rivet up to $4 for stainless rivets. Contact Asar Group, 3623-24 Ambrust Dr., Omaha, NE 68124-3744, 800/866-4848, e-mail

Measuring tape
Marlin Olson gives new meaning to the words tape measure. His idea is to help contractors and carpenters accurately lay out wood or metal stud walls with center dimensions of 16 or 24 in. The simple invention is really little more than an adhesive-backed masking tape with measurements marked on it. Though he hasn’t yet found a company to help him take his product to the production stage, Olson says his measuring tape could be useful in many types of construction projects that require speedy and accurate nailing. Maybe someday you’ll see this product at a hardware store. You can’t buy Olson’s tape yet, but anyone seriously interested in partnering with him to take his invention to production can contact him at Box 54, Comfrey, MN 56019, 507/877-3031.

Mobile mouse
Laptop computers are great except for those irritating touch pads and roller balls that do a half-baked job of moving your cursor around the screen. What most people really want is to use their beloved mouse, just like at home. The MouseAbout makes your mouse mobile by providing a retractable mouse pad that’s available anywhere you go. The unit installs on the bottom of any laptop computer with four adhesive Velcro fasteners. Slide the pad out, plug your mouse in, and you’re ready to click. The MouseAbout is available for $29.95 from Productive Products Worldwide, 1540 Banana River Dr., Merrit Island, FL 32952, 321/453-5018,

Tool holder
Imagine taking two plastic kitchen scrubber brushes and positioning the bristles facing one another. Place a pencil, a scissors or a screwdriver between them and it stays. That’s the basic idea behind the Hold’er. Just stick one on the side of your toolbox, desk, computer or tractor dash and you might notice that stuff isn’t rolling around and getting lost as much as it used to. This simple, yet nifty little invention costs only $1. Contact W.A. Bitt Products, W1515 Pine Rd., Eleva, WI 54738, 715/287-4407, e-mail

Door holder
This is a classic case of one invention spawning a need for another. Maybe you’ve got one of those self-closing screen doors that clamps down on your elbow like a pit bull whenever you try to carry in the groceries. Well, the Door Keeper is a simple gadget designed to muzzle that beast. The stainless steel device fits over and immobilizes the joint in most automatic closing arms, freeing you to walk through the door with your elbows and groceries intact. Just be sure to remove the device before every housefly and mangy farm cat in the county scampers into your kitchen for a free meal. The Door Keeper sells for $15. Contact Kenneth Larsen at 763/550-1618 or Cheryl Gagne at 763/295-3869 for more details.

Enjoy the show
Got an invention to show or just want to see what’s new next June? For more information, contact Minnesota Inventors Congress, Box 71, 805 E. Bridge St., Redwood Falls, MN 56283, 800/468-3681,

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