A Family Business: Restoring Briggs & Stratton Air-Cooled Engines

Family dedicates themselves to collecting and restoring small air-cooled engines manufactured by Briggs & Stratton.

Briggs and Stratton Model M

Par for the course: The Burmeister family's most recent project was restoration of this 1931 Briggs & Stratton Model M. 

Photo Courtesy Gene, Jessie and Erin Burmeister

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Gene Burmeister loves small air-cooled engines. He and his family grew up in small town Kewaunee, Wis., which is a farm-based area. His interest began when he set his sights on a forgotten Briggs & Stratton and has blossomed into a full-blown dedication.

I began collecting small air-cooled engines about 30 years ago. My obsession began when I got a hold of my first engine, a Briggs & Stratton Model Y that did not run. I had never worked on a small engine of that age before and decided to find some more information before planning my rebuild. After talking with local small engine repair shops, I was told most old small engines of any make are basically the same in construction. For instance, most have the ignition behind the flywheel. I took this information and applied it to the Model Y. The points located behind the flywheel were out of adjustment and needed some filling to remove corrosion. Once I accomplished that, I attempted the first start and instantly I had spark and it ran! That spark not only made that engine run but also sparked my complete and utter obsession with all antique air-cooled small engines that would carry through not only my lifetime but also into my son’s, son-in-law’s and my young grandson’s lives as well.

My son, Jessie, became involved about 15 years ago, and more recently my son-in-law, Ken, and 9-year-old grandson, Jesse, have shown an interest. What started out as a small pastime restoring engines on my own has turned into a three-generation obsession. Every time we get into the same room there is no conversation except old small engines. It has become all we live and breathe. Over the years we have added to our collection slowly and have no want to stop purchasing. We have collected Briggs & Strattons, Sattleys, Salsburys, Ultimotors, Cunninghams, Wisconsins, Lawsons, Clintons, West Bends and many others. Our main goal is to collect the entire Briggs & Stratton early small engine line and any other rare, small air-cooled engines.

Since that first day falling in love with the Briggs Model Y, our collection has grown immensely. We now own approximately 60 engines that are fully restored, and we have another approximately 40 in my basement patiently waiting to see the light in someone’s eyes again, the same that was seen the first day the engines were brought off the line.

Year after year the four of us load the majority of our collection onto trucks and trailers and bring them to a local show called the Agricultural Heritage Days held in Luxemburg, Wisconsin, just a few miles from our home. This event has been a phenomenal chance for us to proudly display, share and learn more on not only these small air-cooled engines but also the lifestyle changes these engines brought to actual people who can reminisce about them personally. AHD has also proven educational in the massive amount of other types of engines, such as hit-and-miss, on display, as well as local collectors who also set up their engines to do tasks they may have once performed. Things such as corn shucking, clothes washing and wood cutting are just some examples of what can be accomplished by these engines. We set up our collection of restored engines in our designated area. Jessie, Ken, Jesse and I take turns starting the engines and talking with whomever stops to enjoy them.

While standing in my garage around our newest addition to our collection we began talking about how exciting it would be to write an article to show how we restore these engines. What started as a “what if” conversation turned into me jotting down notes of how we started, and I now present you a full story!

Recently, my son Jessie stumbled across a 1931 Briggs & Stratton Model M on eBay. The three of us put our money together and purchased the engine. We did not have this model in our collection, so it was a great find. After receiving the engine, we immediately attempted to start it, and it fired up and ran without a hitch!

After getting over the initial excitement of it running, we only had to restore it to the days of new once again. After disassembling the engine, we began by cleaning the carburetor

After trial and error over the years, we have come to love and trust a couple products. The first is Aqua Klean, which does a good job of safely removing all dirt, and it is biodegradable. The next product is Rust Blast, which removes any and all rust. After applying these products to the carburetor and polishing with 00 steel wool, it looked better than new!

Next we sanded all of the parts, such as the blower housings, brackets, tank straps, engine, etc. We coated any evident surface rust with Chassis Saver, a product that stops rust from reappearing and also fills those nasty rust pits. Automotive high-build primer was used on parts such as blower housings and the fuel tank, which needed major bodywork to remove the dents. After all the bodywork had been gone over, we began to sand with 320 grit sandpaper. I then used an automotive sealer to guarantee adhesion of the topcoat and to seal the primer and the Chassis Saver. I wet-sanded all parts with 600 grit sandpaper before using an automotive urethane basecoat black. After three coats of color I applied two coats of automotive urethane clear. We let everything dry for 24 hours before reassembling the entire engine.

For every small engine we own we build a custom skid for displaying purposes, and this engine was no different. We created this skid by cutting out a basic design from a 2x4. After cutting handles into each side for easy carrying purposes, we weathered the wood by beating different objects onto it. We then spray-painted the wood a flat or satin black, and then we sanded the dry paint after to give the paint an antiqued-feel before applying stain to finish the look. After we finished the skid we documented the year and model onto the skid, as we do with all of our projects. After this final step we are finally prepared to show off our finished product!

Our knowledge and hard work have begun to pay off as more and more people contact me to ask any unanswered questions they may have about small air-cooled engines. We are always more than happy to answer any questions, or to just talk to other small engine lovers. We are always looking for parts or engines we do not have already, and we also love talking to anyone that may be interested in having us do a restoration for them. We wish we would see more of these antique small engines in magazines or just have more information readily available to inspire new people.

We want to thank our wives for all the help, support and patience to allow us to have such an incredible hobby. Thank you Sharron Burmeister, Erin Burmeister and Gena Vlies! Any and all questions are welcomed. Let’s keep this hobby alive for future generations!

Contact Gene Burmeister at (920) 388-2967 • cornerstuff@hotmail.com 

Contact Jessie Burmeister at (920) 255-6193 • erinaburmeister@hotmail.com