Magneto Musings



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It seems I own more engines needing a correct magneto than I own having the correct magneto. It also seems mags cost more these days than you pay for an entire engine - common mags like Websters and Wico EKs - and you still might have to buy a mounting bracket, a rebuild kit, etc. Are there more magnetos out there than engines? -Bill

I think there are more magnetos - they're just buried or go unnoticed. Scrounge around at any old farmstead and you're almost guaranteed to dig up a magneto from a pile of rubble. In years past I saw hundreds of mags at farm sales, but I never gave them a second thought. I am sure many mags at swap meets and on the Internet (and priced from $ 150 on up) were bought at farm sales for $1. Funny thing when you see a mag-less engine for sale for the same price as one with a mag. Buy them separate and you'll pay double. - Steve

I think magneto prices are ridiculous, and getting one repaired isn't much better. Look in the supplier catalogs and check out prices for mag parts. They aren't that expensive, so why is it so expensive to get one repaired? It's almost as bad as a new mag. Do you have to be a college grad or rocket scientist to repair them? Do you need a diploma or have to be 'mag repair certified?' Would someone please explain these prices to me? - Randy

I would say that if you think it costs too much to send a mag out for repair, Randy, then you should do it yourself - then after you're done go ahead and send it out for repair. A good friend of mine repairs mags and igniters, and he sure isn't deposting cash in the bank every day.

I have watched him work on mags people send to him, and as far as I am concerned he should charge more. I have seen how much he pays for the parts he buys to repair magnetos, and you should see all the equipment he maintains to do the work. I agree the cost of buying a mag is getting a bit on the high side, but people are still buying them. Maybe you should consider buying engines that only run a battery and coil. - Tim

Instead of trying to sell that Chore Boy for $900, take the mag and bracket off and sell them for $350 and then sell the engine for $695. I've seen that happen a lot - not to mention the engine that's missing the oiler, grease cups, mag, crank guard, hand crank, etc., and then the owner says, 'I might have some of them parts lying around in my garage.' Out come boxes of grease cups and oilers, a box of crank handles, and on the workbench are six mags. I have learned my lesson, I just hate seeing new guys get short-changed. - Tom

I see lots of mags at shows, just never the one I'm looking for. And I've seen pretty reasonable prices - $15 to $35 for working, unrestored mags. I lament that parts prices have gone up, but it seems to be the same in the auto and ag industries, too.

Some guys who rebuild mags are real perfectionists, and considering the time and detail they put into their work it's well worth the cost. Of course, there are hatchet men - it's best to know with whom you're working. -Harvey

I have several Wico EKs, and the most dependable one with the hottest spark looks the worst. It has old, burnt-looking tape on the coils; big, globby-looking solder connections; and the cover is missing. It's the one that several repairmen told me to throw away. It is also the one being sold on my Cushman. I probably should have followed my own advice and sold them separately. I could even have said it was barn fresh! - Steve

I had a mag that was in much worse shape than that. It had been outside in the weather for years and was locked solid. I was told I would never get it working, but after about a week working on it I cleaned it up, replaced the points guide, installed a new condenser and it came back to life. I was even able to use the original coils, which at first glance looked beyond use. - Andrew

Bill, some engines have them on and others don't. Look at this bunch of mags belonging to an Australian friend of Ted Brook over. Now that's what I call having some stock! - John

An interesting situation in Australia is that you will find lots and lots of high-tension magnetos and nowhere near as many low-tension magnetos. The majority of engines to land on these shores were quickly converted to high-tension systems. With the vast distances between townships battery ignition was not practical (where were you going to get batteries?), so most companies went with the more expensive - but more reliable - high-tension magneto and plug. - Patrick

I got into collecting antique engines about 15 years ago. Before retiring I was a technical representative for Rockwell International on their twin-engine business jet. I have seen the high cost of repairs on components and I have seen the work done by different shops. I realize the cost of the equipment and the skill and knowledge it takes to do a proper repair and overhaul, and I think the engine hobby is very fortunate to have so many professionals involved in various facets of this hobby. My hat is off to these guys - none of them are millionaires. - Charlie

Most of the time you get what you pay for. I have tried the cheap way, including a changeover for a magneto and bracket for my Economy. This included all the necessary repairs to the Webster and all the parts for the changeover. I sent out what I had and a check, and what came back was shoddily done. The igniter trip arm wasn't even the right one. I finally got the correct one, and after quite some time sending parts back and forth I got things working. Anymore, if I need magneto work I send it to one of the people we all know, and I've been very satisfied with the quality and cost of their work. If I can't afford to get it done right I investigate the alternatives. There are some innovative and creative systems running out there. - Bob

I am not going to defend myself or anyone else in the mag repair business. I am simply going to suggest that anyone who thinks magneto repair costs are too high should start doing their own.

Anyone can set up a pretty decent machine shop for $10,000 or $15,000. It will only take a few years to gain what little experience it takes, and instead of wasting time at shows running engines and visiting with friends you can get out there in the field and look for bargains. Then, you can sink all your excess cash into pieces that may sit on a shelf for years before you find someone who needs them. And finally, when that someone comes along, you can make $15 an hour for your time - minus the cost of parts, lights, heat, taxes, health care and aggravation. - Ted

Getting back to the original question, 'Are there enough mags to go around?' I would say yes. If anything was saved from a scrapped engine, it was the mag, oiler and maybe a brass carb if it came off easily. I have a dozen mags with no engines for them to go on, and I suspect anyone collecting for 10 years or more is in the same boat. - Brian

I know plenty of long-time collectors who have magnetos stacked up like cordwood. How about you guys stop hoarding them so some new collectors can get a few. - Bill

I recently had a dead Associated Pony mag rebuilt. The majority of the expense was parts. The labor cost was around $60 for what was a pretty intensive job. I certainly couldn't have done it myself for that. I probably have $500 in labor in rebuilding the igniter for my John Deere. Luckily, Ted provided me tons of free advice and a sketch - or I would still be fooling with it. We're just stuck remembering the good old days when you could buy an Auto sparker for $25. - Mike

When I got my first engine (a Witte 5 HP) it had the Wico EK mag with it, but the front cover was missing and it was a mess. Working on it I found out the capacitor was leaky, to the point of being nearly shorted out. It was time to learn how magnetos worked, and the Harry's Old Engine Magnetos and Ignition Systems page was born.

The next engine I found was a Fairbanks-Morse 3 HP Type Z. Its mag was long gone, replaced by a rigged up spark plug mounting and a kludge of a spark timer. After a long search I found the Sumter mag and the igniter I needed: Each of these cost more than the engine itself! I think it was at that point I decided to get only engines that were complete with the proper mag. It's sad to say that some engines are worth less than the magneto and igniter that are on them. I must admit that I've picked up some extra spares. You never know when you'll need one. - Harry

This comes from a recent topic on SmokStak, which can be found on the Internet at: smokstak.cgi. As ever, various individuals started, commented on and concluded the following bulletin board thread. SmokStak is an engine conversation bulletin board with over 15,000 messages on file and is part of the Old Engine series of Web sites that started in 1995 as 'Harry's Old Engine.' Harry Matthews is a retired electronic engineer and gas engine collector from Oswego, N.Y., now residing in Sarasota, Fla.