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That Finishing Touch

Author Photo
By John Widerman | Mar 1, 2001

2730 Carnation Place Loveland, Colorado 80537

I have been a willing and devoted member of the sport of
locating, purchasing, restoring and showing of old engines for four
years now. The shop is getting somewhat full of completed and
future projects. For now, though, I want to talk about the
finishing touch to your restoration. After months, and sometimes
even years, of masterful thought, midnight revelations, countless
hours of research and labor, that once rusty frozen piece of iron
is ready for primer and paint. Now it’s ready for the first
show of the year. Or is it?

After seeing so many beautiful restorations in Gas Engine
Magazine
, as well as at the shows, the one most common thing I
notice is a polished brass data tag. To my knowledge the vast
majority of manufacturers used an acid etched tag with a shiny
black background. Given the number of years of use and abuse, these
tags lose their original state of luster. I have learned a way to
restore them and am going to try to guide you on how I do it.

First off, can the tag be salvaged? Most of the time yes. There
will probably be some form of damage to the tag. Do not worry, this
can be overcome with a good dose of patience and a little time. The
first thing one needs to do is clean the tag with a fine hand wire
brush. NOT on a grinder. These tags are thin enough to start with.
Pick a plastic tub that the tag will fit in (two to three inches
tall), and fill with enough distilled vinegar to cover the tag.
Warning: it will take only a few hours of soaking to etch the many
years of grime off your gem. Four to five hours has worked good for
me. Dry it off with a rag, then a quick scrub with the wire brush
again. A wipe-down with lacquer thinner finishes this step.

To remove gouges and dents I use a piece of inch thick medium
hard rubber for a work base. From the back it is easy to see where
one needs to smooth out. This is done using a rounded end rod
3/8– inch diameter. NO HAMMERS!!! Short
strokes with a pencil grip (tap, tap, tap) does the trick. This is
probably the most difficult part, so take it slow. Work on it a
little at a time. This thin material can, and will, stretch too
much if overworked. Downsize to a smaller rod as you get to the
finer works. I find a good set of multiple-sized punches (using the
strike end as the working end) suits the entire project well.
Understand that all imperfections won’t be resolved. This all
depends on how much time one wants to spend. The finishing will
take care of most of what is left for small dents within letters
and surrounding high spots. Remember to work out, as best you can,
the raised portions of the tag. These are what will be polished and
seen most. The background area will be covered under coats of black
paint.

After satisfactory dent removal, rub the face of the tag with
600 to 800 grit sandpaper. This will give it a polished surface.
Wipe it down with lacquer thinner again. My choice of paint has
been a quality automotive gloss black enamel in a five oz. size.
Enamel paint will dry faster than a lacquer paint and set up almost
as hard. Give the tag a very thin first coat. Let it dry
completely. Use 600 grit paper, using your finger tips, and rub the
entire tag. Focus on the raised portions, i.e. the border and
letters. Don’t worry about sanding some of the background away.
Right now we are determining where the high and low spots are that
need further attention. Now is the time to work out any problem
spots, because after this there won’t be much chance without
damaging the background paint. If you do chip some background paint
simply smooth out the chipped area with sandpaper before
continuing.

Now is where the PATIENCE comes in. It is easy to get in a hurry
at this point, so resist the urge. One more thin coat of paint. Let
it dry and sand the high spots, being careful to minimize contact
with the background. Once again, allowing the paint to dry
completely is important. The overnight theory works good and keeps
one from rushing the project. The life of fine sandpaper is short
so have plenty of it on hand. I keep a selection of paper ranging
between 350 grit to 2000 grit. In most cases, I get through a
project using 600 to 1000 grit from start to finish. I like to cut
the sandpaper into one inch strips for easier handling. This step
will need to be done three to six times depending on the tag’s
condition and one’s determination.

Remove all paint from the raised areas after each paint coat.
This can seem a slow process and indeed is; however, the rest of
the engine restoration wasn’t rushed, so don’t hurry now. I
found a helpful tool to assist the end result is a lighted
adjustable magnifying lens. This is great for the finishing
touches. Do not be afraid to experiment with other tools such as a
pick or a small screwdriver to get into the scratches or remaining
small dents and around the screw holes. The use of a razor knife
blade works wonders going around the borders, as the hardened paint
will flake off. This is not recommended unless only a small amount
of paint remains. Be very cautious not to scratch the brass too
much. I also found that using carpet tape (both sides sticky) to
hold the tag to a block of steel for the final work is helpful.
When you are satisfied with the final product, a good, light
rubdown with Brasso shines it to finish. I will leave the choice of
clear coating the tag up to you.

I have had excellent results on every tag so far, and I
encourage further experimenting as this is only one restorer’s
approach.

Gas Engine Magazine

Preserving the History of Internal Combustion Engines