Preservation Methods

| January/February 2004

  • Smok stak Name plate

  • Smok stak Name plate

The following comes from a recent topic on Smok Stak, which can be found on the Internet at: smokstak.cgi. As ever, various individuals started, commented on and concluded the following bulletin board thread.

I saw a previous post alluding to methods of maintaining or enhancing the original finish on old engines. I also read in the SmokStak archives that linseed oil could be painted on, but other than that, I can't seem to find much else. What are the other methods, and what works best? I'm looking forward to another long winter in the shop. - Baggsy

I have left all of my engines with their original finish. First, they're cleaned with kerosene and left to dry. Then I apply a 50/50 coat of boiled linseed oil mixed with mineral spirits. It's important to use a 50-percent mineral spirits mixture because straight linseed oil will leave a sticky finish. You'll be surprised with the result. - Bruce

The 3 HP Fairbanks ZC I bought came on original wood skids with original paint, but had suffered numerous paint spills and splashes. The spills and slops came off with vigorous scrubbing, but in doing so, the paint gloss was damaged. After consulting the SmokStak archives, I tried something new and used a couple of wet coats of 'Petrol' oil-based paint additive. A multi-use product, it ordinarily dries overnight. My results turned out good: The gloss is even and the dried and flaking paint on the wood skids appears to have knitted together as if the remaining paint is holding, and the 'bare' wood looks like it has a coat of semi-gloss varnish.

The paint is a bit more glossy than original I suspect, but it's not overdone. I'm glad that I chose this method for this particular project. - Kid

I tried the straight linseed oil and it took a long time to not be sticky. I hear clear coat works, but it may yellow with time. - Vernon

In 25 years of restoring these wonderful old engines, my concept has changed from 'creating the beautiful' to 'preserving the character.' An engine in good, unmolested original condition cannot be made more valuable by anything we do to it, excepting maintaining its character. - Lester

I can't say I agree with leaving an engine as found with only 20 or 30 percent of its original paint remaining - unless it's a very rare engine or has a special history. I've been involved in many types of collections such as motorcycles, cars, etc., but I can't recall another hobby where 30 percent of the original finish was better than a full restoration - not even farm tractors.

How many of you would buy a Studebaker Golden Hawk and completely re-do the engine, transmission, wiring and so on, and not do any body work, upholstery or paint it? - Allen

Well, I've been thinking of posting something like this for a while. I personally like an engine that's fixed up and restored to its original condition. I'm not great at it, but I try my best. It's interesting to see how these old engines have survived through the years. If it's your engine, fix it up the way you like it and enjoy it.

But, there's one thing that yanks my chain real hard, and that's when somebody takes an old, greasy engine and paints right over everything. I'm working on one of these right now, and, yes, I knew it was like that when I bought it. Ninety-year-old grease is hard enough to remove, but try removing six layers of 98-cent paint on top of it. I've tried every tool known to man to clean this thing. It's enough to drive a man to drink. - John

At the end of the day, it's a pure and simple case of deciding on the method you prefer. I personally like to repaint a unit, not necessarily even original colors. It's your unit, you are the person who sees the beauty in it. As long as it's protected from decay, the outcome is irrelevant. To answer the original post, pretty much anything oil-based will protect and bring a luster to a finish. - Matt

I've seen too many engines painted up to conceal cracks, welds and other damage. I've even bought such engines, completely trusting the seller's word that the engines had no damage. I personally don't buy painted engines anymore, but I really do appreciate the time and pain that many owners invest into beautifully refinishing their engine. If they want to disguise cracks, welds and blemishes, that's okay. Why spend the time, energy and money if the job isn't going to look good? - Harvey

Dr. John Wilcox (one of the original founders of the Coolspring Power Museum) uses nothing but automatic transmission fluid on his engines. This includes his Callahan, 125 HP Otto, 150 HP Miller and many others. I believe after a while a nice patina is developed. All of his engines look outstanding. I've been using WD40, but I'm going to get a spray bottle and start using ATF exclusively myself. -Keith

If the engine still has some original paint, clean it and give it a coat of some kind of protect ant (I've had good luck with boiled linseed oil). If it has no or little paint, and it runs good, leave it alone. If it has little or no paint, and it needs to be torn down, clean and paint it close to the factory color. I don't like painting whatever color is handy even though it's better than letting them rust. Personally, I'd rather clean the rust than strip off some weird color. But, when showing them, try and present what they looked like from the factory. We're trying to preserve and teach the history of these old engines, are we not? - Bob

SmokStak is an engine conversation bulletin board with over 50,000 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.

'I've been involved in many types of collections such as motorcycles, cars, etc., but I can't recall another hobby where 30 percent of the original finish was better than a full restoration not even farm tractors.' John


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