George Martin used to build B-24 bombers and wing sections for the A-20 Havoc. He shoveled tons of coal as a Santa Fe Railroad fireman, worked as a Naval Air Corps electrician, and delivered the mail for 30 years while farming at the same time. However, to this long-retired Northeastern Missouri native son, none of those experiences quite compare to restoring engines or getting creative in the woodshop.
“I like to keep my hands busy,” George says, a philosophy that serves him as well now as it has in the past.
For example, when he and his wife, Hazel, purchased their rural Wyaconda, Mo., farm about 50 years ago, the couple hand-dug and built a basement under their new home. Using native logs timbered on the farm and elsewhere around the county, he created floors, doors and cabinetry that are every bit wonderful works of art as they are functional. The Martins may have the only fireplace mantle in the world constructed with 29 different species of native wood, including boards sawn from massive poison ivy trunks. And they may also be the only folks in their part of the country with a brick outhouse … a testament to George's sense of humor that still stands, even though they have long had indoor plumbing.
George first got into stationary engines as a kid because they were in use everywhere and he liked to work on them. Years later, he brought one down to his basement to overhaul, and then he was hooked. “I really started collecting engines in the 1970s, but people thought I was nuts,” he says with a smile. “At that time around here, they were considered junk.” The engines being undervalued made them easy for a young family man to collect, and before he knew it he had scores of them around his place.
George's approach to engines has been one of practical and even economical solutions. He finds more value investing in tools to help with fabrication than he does in purchasing parts new. And the fact he enjoys making components from scratch and figuring out how to make them is a testament to his creative tenacity. “I just take it one step at a time,” he says. “If you take time to think and experiment, you'll find solutions.” That approach, and plenty of patience, has guided George through the process of drilling entire valve stems to remove stuck valves, replacing babbitt melted away by a fire that burned his shop down on top of his tools and engines, and fabricating untold gears, shafts, cams, levers and much more over the years. “You have to believe there is a way to do something or you'll get stuck,” he notes. “But you have to be careful not to rush it.”
George admits that he enjoys coming up with creative solutions almost more than anything else when it comes to restoring an engine. For example, he not only taught himself to pour babbitt, but he machined several jigs to make it easier; he built a small walking crane to hoist engines around the shop and get them on and off their carts; he has an old kitchen oven in the shop to pre-heat metal pieces for welding, brazing or soldering; and he has even fabricated dies to help form sheet metal fuel tank parts with his homemade 30-ton press. And he uses those parts to make the tanks from scratch.
“Buying new fuel tanks can get pretty expensive,” he explains while wiping a little dust off his most recently completed Waterloo, now wearing Russell Co. colors, “so I decided to make my own.” He uses a small multi-purpose sheet metal machine to shear it to size. He then rolls the material into a tube with the machine's slip-roll attachment and carefully solders the seam. The tank ends present considerably more of a challenge, though.
At first, George cut, notched and formed the tank ends with pliers from carefully scribed circles cut from steel sheet. “The notches and bending made it hard to get a good seal with the solder,” he explains, “so I experimented and came up with a set of dies to use with my press.” George now routinely makes the tank ends, and they fit so well that soldering them up is easy. The tanks are finished with a neck and screw cap recycled from the many solvent cans left over from his parts cleaning and painting activities.
When it comes to small castings, particularly the bell cranks and levers used in an engine's governor linkage, George will make a model of the original by cutting, welding, boring, grinding and milling heavy steel plate into shape. “It's not original, but once they're ground and painted it's pretty hard to tell they weren't cast,” he says with a knowing wink. “And in this business you have to be ready to improvise.”
Not all of George's custom work is cosmetic, though. Some of it is for convenience, economy and even safety. For example, he often installs weaker springs in his restored engine's governors to slow them down. “My new governor springs come out of old window shades,” he says. “The softer springs slow the engine down to the point where they may fire only once every 15-20 revolutions.” George finds that running beautifully restored engines that slowly at shows helps conserve gasoline, creates much less heat and makes less exhaust.
To further slow the engine's speed, George likes to install a choke on the intake side of the mixer, and he also installs fuel shutoffs and drain cocks ahead of the mixer to safely contain and drain the gasoline. On the exhaust side, he replaces horizontal mufflers with an elbow and vertical stack to keep the fumes from blowing on observers. “I don't have anything against a perfectly correct engine,” he says, “but there's nothing wrong with a few changes to make running them at shows more fun for everyone.”
When painting his engines, George spends quite a bit of time filling, sanding and priming first. “I like the cast iron to be fairly smooth, especially the flywheels,” he says. “Then I spray them with a synthetic enamel and my son Charlie does the pinstriping.” Once painted, George's engine projects are usually finished with a brand new cart. And like so many other things, George's carts look good and are made from scratch – even the wheels.
“I used small cast wheels that I found at the junkyard on my first homemade cart, George explains. “But when they got scarce, and therefore expensive, I decided to make my own.” Making the wheels took a little trial and error at first, but George now has it down to an easily reproduced process.
He starts with a length of flat steel and carefully forms it around a cast iron wheel. Next, he fabricates the hub from several different sized pieces of black pipe welded together and carefully ground to shape. Final assembly and spoke welding is accomplished with the aid of another jig. “The jig helps to locate the spokes and keep everything round and in place during welding,” he says.
The wood components of George's carts are all cut from native timber, and he is particular about the quality of the lumber, often selecting the logs himself. As a woodworker, he likes to make his carts interesting, too – a feat accomplished not only by his beautiful craftsmanship, but also by going against the grain.
George's interest in stationary engines is broad, but those models that make it permanently into his collection fall neatly into a few categories. “I prefer engines that are exhaust valve-governed,” he says, “and I like to find all, or most, of the engines in a given series.” That doesn't mean he will turn any engine away though; many simply become part of his trading stock. “There are times when someone has an exhaust valve-governed engine that I want, and I have a throttle-governed engine that they want,” he explains. “You would be surprised at how many engines I've traded for.”
George's current collecting focus is the 2-1/2 HP horizontal engines made by the Waterloo Gas Engine Co. in Waterloo, Iowa. “Waterloo made engines for just about anyone who wanted to sell one with their name on it,” he explains as he swings open a door that reveals a seemingly endless row of beautifully restored Waterloo engines sporting names like Omaha Chief, Sandow Lines, Gault, Wonder, Imperial, United, American Boy and about 20 others. A closer look at the engines reveals subtle differences in cooling tank tops, flywheel styles and ignition systems, in addition to the wildly varying paint schemes. Careful study of the carts reveals the bright-finished grain of different species of native wood.
Some of the wood for the trucks was sawn from logs that George harvested in his own woodlot, while others were obtained from friends and mills around Wyaconda. George has used several different oaks and maples, mulberry, hedge, hackberry, sycamore, catalpa, cedar, honey locust, black walnut, birch, elm and many other kinds of wood for the carts – over 25 different species so far. “The different wood species just add one more point of interest at a show,” he says.
In addition to the Waterloos, George's collection of keeper engines is substantial. One of his more unusual engines is an 8-cycle Aermotor pump engine that relies on moving air through the cylinder between power strokes for cooling. He also has a nice 1902 5 HP Fairbanks-Morse with both hot tube and electric ignition along with a gas priming system and match starter.
George is pretty fond of his set of six 1-1/2 to 12 HP Hercules-built Economy engines made for Sears, Roebuck & Co. In addition, he has a set of the earlier Sparta-built Economy engines. Other engines with names like New Holland, Galloway, Gade, Caldwell-Hollowell, Associated, Fuller & Johnson, Dempster, Rockford and Witte also have a place in an old railroad depot that George salvaged and moved to his farm.
George says his 2-cylinder, 12 HP Master Workman engine is his rarest. This vertical engine is relatively compact for its power rating because it literally stands on its head. “This is the worst engine to work on,” George says laughing. “When I first got it, it was full of water and rusted tight.” And as much as he felt like giving up on that engine, George persevered and finished the restoration. A flyball governor running off the camshaft controls the engine's speed, and under light loads, either of the two cylinders can be shut down. It's ironic that today some of the most sophisticated automobile engines again take cylinders off line when load demands allow it.
George doesn't plan to retire from woodworking or restoring old stationary engines anytime soon. His shop contains two nearly completed Waterloo engines, and several more are waiting their turn. Stacks of lumber air drying along the walls, and pre-made wheels will soon be worked into new carts for those projects, and his collections will continue to grow. “There isn't anything in particular that I am looking for right now,” George says. “I have enough to last me awhile.”
Contact engine enthusiast George Martin at: (660) 479-5477.
Oscar “Hank” Will III is an old iron collector and freelance writer and photographer who retired from farming in 1999. He splits his time between his home in Gettysburg, Pa., and his farm in East Andover, N.H. Contact him at: (717) 337-6068; firstname.lastname@example.org