Brian Ferrence poses with his 1927 Ingersoll-Rand compressor
shortly after purchase in the summer of 2000 and upon getting the
unit home. Power comes from an inline Waukesha four-cylinder
engine, which remarkably needed only minor work to get fully
In the summer of 2000, while visiting Harry’s Old
Engine page on the Internet and checking out the classifieds,
I came across an ad for an old portable Ingersoll-Rand air
compressor. It was listed as a 1927 Model, and the pictures made it
look every bit that old. The compressor caught my eye because I had
been toying with the idea of buying a used, portable compressor to
provide air for sand blasting and blowing steam whistles. The
little shop compressor I had couldn’t supply the air volume to
do these things, and I’ll admit that the prospect of using an
antique unit had a certain appeal.
Unfortunately, the compressor was located in northern
Connecticut, a six-hour drive from my home in eastern Pennsylvania.
Even so, I gave the owner a call and asked about the condition of
the compressor. It sounded like it was worth checking out, but I
was still unwilling to drive that far for just a look. It turned
out, however, that my daughter, a student at Boston University,
would be heading back to Boston for the fall semester in a few
weeks, so I told the owner I would call before taking my daughter
back to college, and if the compressor was still available I would
stop to take a look.
About a week before my trip to Boston I called again, and the
owner still had the compressor. He gave me directions to his home,
which was only a few miles off my route, and we arranged a time to
meet. He promised to see if he could get the unit running before I
The finished unit, mounted on a new frame with uprated spindles
and wheels so it can be safely towed on the road. Brian used one
set of the original leaf springs. Note the manifold of steam
whistles, just visible to the right.
And indeed he did, for when I arrived he started the engine,
running it briefly while I checked out the compressor. It
didn’t run very well – the choke had to be mostly closed for it
to run, it seemed to be firing on only two cylinders and it
couldn’t power the compressor. But it ran!
During my visit, Frank (I never got his last name) told me the
compressor had belonged to a contractor in the area who used it for
a number of years in the course of his business. But when the
contractor retired, so did his machinery, and the compressor was
parked in a field with some other equipment where it deteriorated
for a few decades until Frank came across it.
At the time, he and a friend were restoring an old fire truck
and had some heavy-duty sand blasting to do. When Frank got the
compressor it was seized, and removing the head he found the
problem was with the valves. He freed the valves from their bores,
lapped them to get a good seal and got the machine running well
enough to power the sand blaster.
This illustration, from an original Ingersoll-Rand operating
manual, shows a similar, but larger Model IR compressor on original
trucks. While the engine shown here is obviously of different
manufacture than the one powering Brian’s unit, close
examination shows the actual compressor to be almost identical in
appearance. Note also the fuel and compressor tanks, which are
identical to those on Brian’s finished unit.
There were other problems, too. The engine’s governor was
broken and the cutout system on the compressor didn’t work.
This meant someone had to stay with the compressor and monitor it
whenever they wanted to use it. Frank also found that the cooling
system was clogged, so he simply added an additional radiator and
let cooling water overflow from the clogged old radiator when he
ran it. The gas tank was full of crud, so he hung a gas can on the
side of the unit with a rubber hose leading to the carburetor.
Crude, but it got the job done. Frank had also set the unit on a
great, old steel-wheeled cart. It was not original to the
compressor, but sure made moving it a lot easier.
Well, I stopped on my return trip and Frank had gotten the
compressor loosened up so I could see it wasn’t rusted fast. We
closed a deal, and a few weeks later I returned with my trailer and
hauled the ancient thing back to Pennsylvania. It was quite a sight
in my side yard – sitting there under a tarp, people mistook it for
a covered wagon.
Before I started making any repairs I made a few calls to
Ingersoll-Rand to see if they had any old manuals for the unit. I
was directed to a number of divisions at three or four different
plants in a few different states, but everyone I spoke with was
helpful and seemed fascinated by my project. I was finally
connected with Diane Dickens at a plant in North Carolina, and she
was able to track down some information for me.
She found an old manual and parts book of similar vintage to my
unit, and she sent photocopies to me without charge. She also
discovered they had a similar unit in their museum that had been
professionally restored. When I asked if they ran their unit often
she said, ‘Oh my, no, it doesn’t run. It’s just
restored cosmetically for showing in the museum.’ She was quite
surprised that I intended to restore my machine to working
condition and actually put it to work. The manuals were a big help
in the restoration and I would like to thank Diane and all the
people at Ingersoll-Rand who were so helpful.
Getting to Work
The first thing I attacked was the cooling system. I stripped
off the extra radiator and plumbing and removed the original
radiator. The good news was I was able to remove about 20 of the
old, rusted bolts that hold the cores in place and keep the tanks
and canopy together. The bad news was that about 15 were so seized
they snapped off when I tried to remove them. It took two evenings
of drilling, chiseling and re-tapping to remove the rest and true
The cores went to the local radiator shop for evaluation, and
the shop foreman called a few days later to tell me that two of the
five cores leaked. That didn’t seem too bad, but then he told
me that the other three were so clogged nothing could pass through
them. I bit the bullet and gave the go-ahead to replace the cores.
Fortunately, the brass tanks at top and bottom of each core were
serviceable, and a few weeks later I picked them up and put my
wallet on life support.
Next, I pulled the head and water intake from the side of the
block. I removed about 40 hickory nuts and a few cups full of rust
from the system. Then I cleaned the rust from the water jacket of
the compressor and checked the water pump at the back of the unit.
I’m sure some rust remains in side channels in the block, but
my efforts really improved the water circulation. After having the
mounting faces on the cast iron radiator tanks milled smooth at a
local machine shop, I was ready to reassemble the cooling
With that done, I turned my attention to the fuel tank, and
after removing about 20 pounds of crud from the tank it was ready
for sand blasting. The stream of sand reduced the tank to beautiful
lace work, so off I went to the sheet metal shop to have a new tank
and canopy fabricated. It was not quite as expensive as the
radiator repair, but it certainly added to the mounting expense
The engine ran, although poorly, so I checked the timing on the
old four-cylinder Waukesha and found it was off by a few degrees
when the magneto impulse cutout. Getting the timing set properly
allowed the engine to run with the choke wide open, and it also
solved a plug-fouling problem. The governor’s problem was that
the bearing, which rides on the throttle lever, was gone. I
didn’t even know what it looked like, but replaced it with a
slide-thrust bearing race. It seems to work, and – so far – has not
self-destructed. I would really like a replacement governor as a
backup, and if anyone out there happens to have an extra one for an
old Waukesha engine of late 1920s vintage, I’d love to hear
The pressure-regulated speed controller looked pretty rough, but
fortunately it cleaned up nicely. Pulling it apart I discovered the
piston and cylinder sleeve were brass and in great condition. I got
a leather cup of the correct size at a swap meet from a guy with
NOS (new old stock) water pump parts. After soaking the cup in
Neat’s-foot oil and reassembling the controller, it worked
The cutout valves on the compressor’s intake valves also
needed replacing, but the leather cups required were only an inch
in diameter and I couldn’t find any that small. After
contemplating the problem for a while I called a local auto parts
store and found they had neoprene cups for brake cylinders one-inch
in size. I picked up a few and drilled them to bolt on to the small
pistons. So far they have worked fine, and I occasionally add a few
drops of brake fluid to the cutout cylinders to lubricate them.
A trip to the auto junkyard produced a set of wheel spindles and
wheels from a Dodge Caravan to use on the cart. Front-wheel-drive
Chrysler products still use bolt-on spindles for the rear axle, and
these are great for building a road-worthy trailer. Another trip to
the scrap metal outfit produced channel iron to frame the cart I
had in mind. For the suspension I used one set of leaf springs from
the old steel wheeled cart. Once the trailer was complete, it was
time to reassemble and mount everything back in place.
There were quite a few other small headaches: gaskets to cut, an
exhaust to fabricate, air valves and fittings to track down,
painting and endless adjustments. But one by one I resolved them
until it was time to put the unit back into service.
After a few trial runs I was feeling confident about the
operation of the unit. It would come up to 100 pounds of pressure
in about 40 seconds and cutout and hold the pressure very nicely.
About the time I started to feel good about completing the project,
I noticed water gushing from the packing around the air compressor
crankshaft! It was quite a challenge to pull the head and replace
the blown head gasket without major disassembly, but I managed to
get it done.
By August 2001 the unit was finally ready for service. It was
put to work at the local fairgrounds, providing the necessary air
volume to start our club’s 40 HP Bessemer engine, and also
powering a steam whistle manifold during fair week and during our
club’s fall engine and tractor show.
This wasn’t an easy project, but, as always, it was
rewarding and I learned a lot in the process. I would love to hear
from anyone else who has a similar unit or who needs help in a
Contact engine enthusiast Brian C. Ferrence at: Box 78,
Summit Station, PA 17979, (570) 754-7249, or e-mail:
‘After a few trial runs I was feeling confident
about the operation of the unit. It would come up to 100 pounds of
pressure in about 40 seconds and cutout and hold the pressure very