A challenging conversion
It took 10 months, more than 2,500 man hours and a lot of help from friends and associates for Stan Ellerbeck to convert an 1869 Gibbs & Sterrett box bed steam frame into the 12 HP gas engine seen here.
Editor's note: Be sure to check out the extensive eight-part photo gallery breaking down the restoration of this engine.
It all started with the article "A Rare Half-Breed Engine" in the October/November 2007 issue of Gas Engine Magazine. “I was at an engine show in Republic, Mo., showing my 1886 12 HP Ferrar & Threfts, and I was reading the article about Dick Bouma’s engine [a converted steam-to-gas M. Lytle & Son cylinder on a Gibbs, Russell & Co. bed],” says Stan Ellerbeck, Excelsior Springs, Mo., of the moment he decided to make his own steam-to-gas conversion with an 1869 12 HP Gibbs & Sterrett. “That’s what got me interested. I fell in love with the look.”
Over the course of the next 10 months, Stan, a retired machinist, logged more than 2,500 hours to get the engine finished in time to show at the Tri-State Gas Engine and Tractor Assn. Show in Portland, Ind., last August. And while it’s amazing the amount of time he put into the project and the technical prowess he demonstrated throughout the process, the most impressive aspect is the fact that Stan only has 25 percent of his vision. Suffering from the condition chorioretinitis, the most that Stan can see with both eyes are crooked lines and blurry, incomplete pieces. But Stan’s no stranger to uphill climbs, having worked his way from pushing a broom at Midwest Hanger Co. in 1966 to becoming a machinist, designing the machines that made the hangers, and eventually running the company. It should be no surprise that his desire and drive to finish the project helped him overcome the obvious physical obstacles. “What takes some people a day to do can take me a week,” says Stan. “I did most of this myself but a lot of people helped me out.”
Finding a frame and a cylinder
The first person to help was Tom Weatherford, Big Island, Va. “I came home from the show and I was talking to Tom, asking if he’d seen the new GEM,” says Stan. “I told him I was interested in doing something like [Dick’s engine].” Tom told Stan of a friend in Bradford, Pa., named Denny Greisbaum who might be able to help him out. “I called Denny and asked if he knew of any Gibbs & Russell box bed frames available and he said he had a Gibbs & Sterrett,” says Stan. Years prior, an old local oil lease became a ward of the state of Pennsylvania, and Denny managed to purchase the frame right before it was sent to the scrap yard. “I asked if he was interested in selling and we agreed upon a price we were both happy with,” says Stan. The deal included an additional crankshaft and a 6-spoke flywheel, which Stan would later use on the engine.
As Stan understands the history of the frame, it started out as a box bed steam engine in 1869, working an oil claim on Tunungwant Creek in northwest Pennsylvania, 1/4 mile from the New York state line. Eventually, the engine was converted to gas sometime in the late 1880s, but the cylinder from that conversion is long gone. Fortunately, Stan needed to look no further than Tom, who had an old-style Bessemer cylinder available for purchase. Old-style cylinders were made with the intake on the bottom and the exhaust on the top, and were specially suited for steam-to-gas conversions. With the box bed steam frame and a cylinder correct for the time frame, the two major pieces of Stan’s engine were taken care of.
Schedules were coordinated, and soon Stan and his wife, Diana, were on their way to Bradford to pick up the frame as well as the cylinder, which Tom had already dropped off. “It was the week of the 2007 Coolspring Fall Swap, and since we’d never been there, we loaded everything in the truck and drove to Coolspring [Pa.] on the way back home,” says Stan. Luck continued to be on Stan’s side as he walked the grounds and found more pieces he needed for his engine. “It was like one-stop shopping,” says Stan. “I found the intake valve, air-fuel mixer, oilers – I almost bought everything I needed there.”
Stan also took a close look at the steam-to-gas conversion engines on display at the museum, taking photos of the crosshead assembly on the Gibbs & Sterrett engines. Those photos gave Stan a good idea of what he had to do when building the crosshead for his engine.
As soon as Stan and Diana arrived back home in Excelsior Springs, he began work on the engine. “I started on it the Tuesday following the Coolspring swap,” says Stan. Again, he didn’t need to look far for assistance as friends Mike Trotnic, Parsons, Kan., and Dan Mueller, Parkville, Mo., came over to help him get the pieces out of his truck. With everything in his basement shop, Stan took inventory and figured out what he could salvage, what he’d have to machine himself, and what others would have to help him with. His son, David Ellerbeck, helped him with drafting the project on the computer, and Stan was on his way. “When I started out, I didn’t think it would be too bad,” says Stan. “I was only working on it 2 to 3 days a week, 6 hours a day.”
Making patterns for castings
Looking at what he had to work with, Stan saw that he would have to cast the crosshead assembly as well as several pieces to properly fit the Bessemer cylinder on the G&S frame. With help from Rick Bagby of Quality Casting in Stockton, Mo., Stan made patterns for many of the pieces he needed from walnut wood provided by Milford Wyss, Richmond, Mo. All-around assistant and good friend Dan Mueller helped with sanding the patterns and then Stan sent them off to Rick. They included the front mount, rear cylinder mount, adapter plate for the intake fuel valve, seal housing and the complicated crosshead. “[Rick] had a lot of patience with me,” says Stan. “I told him I couldn’t even be considered a novice but I listen very well to instructions.”
Making the patterns for the crosshead involved a fare amount of detail work, the most noticeable being the “Gibbs & Sterrett” name. Stan called as many casting suppliers as he could find, but no one would just sell him the individual letters he needed. “The last one of the list was Kindt-Collins Company LLC in Cleveland, Ohio,” says Stan. Stan talked to the owner, David Kindt, and told him what he was working on. “I told him that I was trying to repair a piece of history and he said, ‘that sounds fascinating,’” says Stan. “I told him that I needed 1-inch letters that spelled ‘Gibbs & Sterrett’ and he said, ‘You’ll have them in the morning.’ I said, ‘How much do I owe you?’ And he says, ‘Don’t worry about it – you caught me in the right mood.’” The next day, Stan found the box of letters on his doorstep and he quickly called David to thank him.
Regarding the cylinder, Stan knew it would need to be rebored and looked to Jerry Abplanalp of Jerry’s Welding Machine in Wichita, Kan., who had done the cylinder work on three of Stan’s previous projects. That decision saved Stan months of waiting time. “I made arrangements to get down there, and he bored the cylinder and gave it back to me the same day,” says Stan.
Help with the piston rod
With a fully-equipped shop and decades of machining experience, Stan was able to do nearly all of the work himself. He machined the flat washers, wristpin bearings, the pockets in the crosshead to accept the brass bearings and the brass bearings themselves. He machined new oilers, and hex nuts for the piston rod, as well as the piston head and skirt. To put it all in perspective, Stan machined every part of the engine minus the cylinder bore and a couple pieces of long pipe.
And after everything was put together, Stan took on the tedious task of making sure that everything was aligned and level. One crucial step in this process was making sure the cylinder was in alignment with the piston rod, connecting rod and everything else in the centerline of the crankshaft. To do this, Stan used a string to determine, in very precise measurements, how close to perfect alignment he was. “It took two weeks to get everything just right,” says Stan, but eventually he got it to where it needed to be.
When it came to the piston rod and crosshead, Stan discovered a little used 1-3/8-inch thread he knew he needed help with. Fellow MO-KAN Antique Power Assn. member Bill Gorman from Independence, Mo., arranged to have Keven Johnson, Lone Star, Mo., machine a tap to clean the threads in the crosshead. Stan’s poor eyesight also required him to seek assistance from Joe Staponski, Excelsior Springs, when it came to cutting the thread on the piston rod. “I was able to do most of the machine work, but the thread on the piston rod required a lot of hand-eye coordination that I just don’t have anymore,” says Stan.
An extra boost of motivation
Just when the project was moving along nicely, Stan was hit with a personal setback. Diagnosed with prostate cancer in late spring, Stan was forced to work through 37 radiation treatments. He admits that the treatments brought him down for a while, but friends like Dan were there to offer moral support. That and his desire to see the engine run were what helped Stan to keep his spirits high and work through the treatments.
Still having a lot of work to do and not a lot of time to get it finished, Stan kicked it up a notch as he regained his strength. With his wife working nights, Stan spent most of his time in the shop, working as much as 18 hours a day in the last couple weeks before leaving for Portland. His son-in-law, John Casey, offered suggestions and helped out where needed. “He came over to help lift heavy things, drove me out to Kansas to get the wood for the cart, and also gave me the idea of putting a flat sheet of steel under the engine to catch oil,” says Stan. “He’s the ideal son-in-law, and just a really neat guy.”
As July melted into August, Stan knew that he would be cutting it close. On Monday, Aug. 4, Stan heard the engine run for the first time but he had to do a lot of tweaking and last minute adjustments to get it running how he wanted. Finally, after a weekend of running the engine 8 hours a day without incident, Stan was satisfied. On Aug. 13, Stan and Diana loaded up and left for Portland.
It’s a head-turner!
Not surprisingly, Stan’s display at the Tri-State Gas Engine and Tractor Assn. Show was one of the most talked about at the show. Thanks to the vintage craftsmanship and vintage finish, many viewers assumed they were looking at a vintage engine, which made Stan smile. But he didn’t let anyone walk away with the wrong idea, and just about lost his voice by the end of the show explaining the restoration process to scores of fascinated show-goers.
After Portland, Stan and Diana took the engine to the Power of the Past show in Ottawa, Kan., in early September, and to the Pioneer Harvest Fest in Ft. Scott, Kan., a few weeks later, where he had the chance to meet Keven Johnson and thank him for his help with the crosshead tap.
Looking back on the process, Stan still can’t believe he was able to finish the project. Wanting to document every step, Stan took hundreds of photos of the process, many of which can be viewed in our eight-part photo gallery.
When asked how it all came together, Stan’s quick to note that if it weren’t for the help of friends and strangers, he’d still be working on the engine. Most of all, he’s quick to acknowledge the support of Diana. “I have to thank her for putting up with me through all of this,” says Stan. “She kept telling me I’d have it done in time when I didn’t know if it was going to happen. Thank goodness she’s always right.”
Contact Stan Ellerbeck at 2209 West St., Excelsior Springs, MO 64024 • firstname.lastname@example.org
On the GEM Engine Video Index at YouTube: