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Cleaning Cylinders

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A great article this month as we cross the digital divide with an inquiry forwarded to the ATIS (Antique Tractor Internet Service) Stationary Engine Mailing List from a GEM reader who doesn't own a computer. This is exactly why we started sharing discussions from the List with GEM readers - so people without computers can enjoy and benefit from the e-mail discussions we hold daily.

This thread started with a letter GEM editor Richard Backus received from John Edgerton of the Northwest Antique Power Association in Montana, asking if the list could come up with any ideas to help him. John wrote:

How does one clean out the dirt and crap that has packed itself in and under the cylinder of a spark plug-fired 3 HP International M? I do not want to remove the cylinder liner, for obvious reasons. Is there a chemical that will loosen up the dirt? I have tried blowing air through a copper line and have gotten some dirt out, but there are places I can't reach with the copper line. What about drilling holes through the outside water jacket under the cylinder, and then plugging the holes up once I'm done?

John, it's a pleasure to offer the combined advice of engine collectors around the globe! And here's what they had to say:

I restored this same engine for a gentleman last year. In this case, I found lots of scale mixed with years of dirt and spilled oil. My solution was to don some old clothes, goggles and a hat, borrow a pressure washer and then jam a thin piece of steel into the mess while working around the cylinder from the hopper.

I used a serious 10 HP Honda that develops around 3,500 psi. About an hour later the hopper was clean. Unfortunately, everything within a 20-foot radius was covered with tiny, gooey pieces of gunk. My Lovely made me strip in the garage.

The same advice came from a different source, with further details:

You can use a pressure washer to get a lot of it out, but it won't ensure complete removal of the offending dirt, especially in the head jacket.

Your best bet is to remove the head and, using rods, wire, etc., drag as much gunk out as you can through the water holes. Then use an air hose, a water hose and a pressure washer to remove the remainder. Do the same thing to the head.

One key point is what sort of access he has to the crud. When I was cleaning the water jacket on my Bessemer half-breed I had access to the open end of the water jacket when the head was off. Back along the cylinder there was a good 10- to 14-inch depth of what seemed like concrete, a combination of rust and lime scale that had built up over the years.

I used long masonry drills and drilled long holes in the crud. I then used a series of homemade chisels to cut between the drilled holes. I was able to knock some of the looser crud loose with a length of old speedometer cable chucked in a drill. The key is patience. That crud didn't build up overnight, and you're not going to get it out overnight, either.

One final point: Rust formation in a space like a water jacket can crack a casting just like freezing water. Be gentle and look for cracks as you work.

Once you get an area open, I wonder if a coarse-toothed bandsaw blade might work. Cut it and feed it under the cylinder from above and work it back and forth. I've never tried, but it might work.

You might want to leave well enough alone, though. Sometimes this stuff will cause the water hopper to crack, as suggested, but quite often it will also seal a crack. If you don't need the water flow, you might want to clean it out just enough to get to the drain plug.

The solution is muriatic acid, but the garbage in the engine may be all that's holding the water back. You have to decide how badly it bothers you, and if it's going to split the bottom side of the hopper or not.

There were several suggestions for tools that might be useful in these situations, and the odd word of warning for using them:

That suggests another 'tool' to add to the kit. One of those cable saws with a finger ring on each end might be handy.

I would worry about cutting into the cylinder with that particular tool. At least the saw blade would lie flat.

One of the best things to do is open a can of patience, then poke around with some home made tools that can reach each corner of the hopper. Connect a 2-foot long tube of 3/8-inch brass or hydraulic tube to an air gun and poke and blow around. Remove any loose debris and then make up a solution of two gallons hot water to two pounds of soda. Pour this into the hopper and let it sit overnight. Follow this with the same poking/blowing, and eventually you'll have a clean hopper.

I tried cleaning a gas tank using the electrolysis technique. I put the electrolyte in the tank and suspended the positive sacrificial electrode in the tank. It did not work too well, but probably because I could not get enough sheet metal surface area into the tank through the little filler cap. This approach might work on a water hopper with a bigger opening. You would need to be a little creative in making a coil of sheet iron to fit the opening.

Here's something that worked for me on a 5 HP Witte that had a lot of mineral buildup in the hopper: Fill the hopper enough to cover the cylinder with water and add a quart of muriatic acid. Fire the engine up and run it to a boil for a while. The only problem I had was neutralizing the brew and disposing of it, but it really cleaned out the hopper.

Out here in the country, the best way to neutralize partially neutralized muriatic acid is to pour it into a plastic bucket of limestone gravel and let it sit until it quits fizzing. What's left is mostly gunk, and it isn't harmful in small amounts.

Chemicals throw in a whole new set of problems, and I really don't want the EPA to go to all the trouble of coming across the Atlantic to England to arrest me, so I'm going to assume if you can play with engines without losing too many limbs you're capable of handling chemicals safely:

The book 'Operating Engineer's Guide Book' is full of questions commonly asked by engineers. One question is, 'What solution can be used for cleaning the scale from the water jacket of a gas engine?' The answer they have is, 'The scale usually consists of lime deposited out of the circulating water and can be removed by a solution of one part commercial muriatic acid and four parts water. As soon as the solution has done its work, the water jacket should be thoroughly washed out with clean water to prevent unnecessary corrosion.'

I don't know how that would work on really extensive buildup, but I would imagine it's worth a try. I use muriatic acid from time to time to clean soft metal parts, and as long as you are careful it works fairly well. Just don't let it touch any painted surfaces, as I found out with my lacquered knife switch. The acid breaks down the lacquer.

When I tried to clean the scale out of my 1- HP M, I prodded, chipped, soaked it in vinegar and tried to power wash it, all with no success. Then I found that the cylinder oil pipe was corroded through where it threads into the cylinder sleeve, and to replace the oil pipe I had to pull the sleeve. A friend of mine with the correct tools pulled the sleeve with an air-over-hydraulic puller. Surprisingly, the sleeve came out easily, leaving most of the scale firmly attached to the hopper sides and bottom. It took a hammer, chisel and a lot of patience to remove the scale.

With the tenacity of the scale and the lack of clearance in the hopper walls, I think it would be close to impossible to chip out a significant amount working through the top opening. Check your oil pipe to be sure it is intact before you spend too much time trying to clean out the crud working through the hopper opening.

I used a hacksaw blade to clean out the water jackets on the Jaeger. It was about the only thing I could find that would go along the bottom (I didn't have access to a band saw blade or I would have tried that, too). I could put a slight curve to the hacksaw blade and it would hold its shape to break out all the crap that was wedged in the bottom.

I could only poke and pry so much from the head side of the cylinder, and there was no port at the very bottom, so I slid the hacksaw blade from the top, swiping my way to the bottom. This engine had been on a construction site cement mixer, so as you might imagine it was not all that well maintained. I found what looked like a chunk of keyway stock, the screw portion of a positive pressure grease cup, and 19 casting jacks. Add in sand and cement all vibrating together and it was formidable - but I prevailed!

Hunting down all the contributions to this discussion, I discovered that the same subject had been mentioned last year, with a List member asking for advice:

I'm cleaning out the water jackets on the block of a hopper-cooled, two-cylinder Novo Rollr. Most of the deposits are coming out nicely, but the two outside water jackets next to the exhaust valves are really plugged and the deposits are very, very hard. So hard that a cheap carbide drill bit will barely touch it.

The response was similar to those we had this time around, but with some extra information that may be of help:

Try pouring a little muriatic acid on the deposits. When it stops bubbling, rinse it off and apply more. It should dissolve all the deposits. Protect your eyes and skin, and do it outside as the fumes will rust all the clean metal surfaces in your shop.

John, I hope this helps with your cylinder jacket problem. Thank you for thinking that we may be able to offer useful advice - it makes a neat collaboration between GEM and the SEL.

Engine enthusiast Helen French lives in Leicester, England. Contact her via e-mail at: You can join the Stationary Engine List on the Internet at: