Jerome Then of St. Cloud, Minn., gets lots of chuckles and a few scratched heads when he points out the "over-restored" sign by his 1926 1-1/2 HP Fuller & Johnson Model NB gas engine when he displays it. It doesn't require a closer look at the gas engine to know what he means: The entire engine is nickel-plated.
A Little History
Retired 78-year-old Jerome got interested in gas engines because he grew up with them on the farm. "We had a couple of Fairbanks-Morse engines we used, one for milking and another for water and other chores around the farm." He remembers when he was 7 years old, it was his job to go out in the evening and shut the engine off after it had pumped enough water to cool the milk from the cows.
When he began nearing retirement, he started attending a variety of threshing shows, and that's where he started buying engines. He'd added several dozen to his collection before he found the Fuller & Johnson. "I chose that engine first because of the make, because it had two cute 16-inch flywheels, and because it had a cast iron subbase. It was an attractive engine, and I thought it would be a good engine on which to do the nickel plating."
He might have thought about chrome plating the engine, but he'd tried that once before with a 1/2-scale John Deere 1-1/2 HP engine he'd bought as a kit and put together. When he took it to have it chromed, his contact said they could chrome everything except the engine block because the chrome didn't take or didn't work out in some way. "They were able to chrome the flywheels and base, but the engine block had to be nickeled. Nickel also tolerates heat better than chrome. If you look at the engine, you can barely notice the difference between the chrome and the nickel."
He plated the engine because he discovered that every time he took a wrench to a painted nut or bolt, paint would flake off. But if it was chromed or nickeled, it wouldn't. His next step was the thought of plating an entire, full-sized engine.
That led to Jerome's choice for the Fuller & Johnson NB engine he spotted at an auction in southwest Minnesota during the spring of 2004. "The owner passed away," Jerome says, "and the family sold off some of his collection. When I saw the Fuller & Johnson, I wanted it because it's not as common as the International Harvester Ms or John Deeres and some of those, but it was rather collectible. You don't see a lot of the little NBs."
Step by Step
Once Jerome got the engine home, the first step was to totally dismantle it, then clean off all the grease and grime. On the small parts he used a wire wheel on a bench grinder. The large parts were sandblasted by Paggen Auto Body of St. Stephen, Minn.
In the polishing process, he used an angle grinder, belt sander, drum sander and an orbital sander. Then he polished the small pieces using a Dremel tool with 400-600 grit to get the finish practically mirror-smooth.
After he finished polishing, he took the parts to Terry Yager at Rapid Plating in Sauk Rapids, Minn. Jerome chooses to take in only about half the work that needs to be done at a time. "I start with the small parts first, then at another time I take in the cylinder, block, flywheel and base. I had some fear about parts becoming lost in the process of nickeling," though he admits Rapid Plating has always been extremely careful. "These people are very skilled at what they do. All you have to do is tell them you'd like to have it nickel plated, and when you'd like to pick it up. When you come back in, it's all done."
Jerome says he's learned that you can't nickel-plate every bit of every piece. "Nickel plating adds probably 1/1,000-inch diameter on real small screws, so if the entire screw is plated, you'll have trouble threading the nuts back on them." So Jerome screws the real small bolts back into place and has the entire combined piece nickeled, short-circuiting any possible predicaments. On the other hand, larger bolts, like those 5/16-inch or larger, don't cause any worries, he says, because they are usually loose enough that they have plenty of clearance so the nickeling process doesn't cause any problems.
Once all the nickeled pieces have been returned, it's time to reassemble the engine. "That's the easy part,"Jerome says.
With the entire engine assembled, he built a cart using ash for skids, and of course he nickeled the wheels, trucks and handle. Then the newly-finished engine was placed on the cart. "About the last thing you do is put the transfers on," Jerome says, "except for taking it to shows and hearing the comments about the unusual engine."
Some people ask him, "How many hours did it take you to do this engine?" To which he laughingly says, "I don't want to know."
"Not a lot of people would want to spend the time and effort to nickel-plate an engine like this," Jerome says, "but I've enjoyed every minute of restoring it."
"The engine wasn't running when I purchased it," Jerome says, though it was complete. "I always tell my friends that I don't buy engines with parts missing, because it's too hard to come up with parts, especially with something that's uncommon. With this Fuller & Johnson, the magneto had no spark, so I had it rebuilt by Mitch Malcolm of Ottertail, Minn. After I had it totally assembled I was hesitant to put gas in the tank because at some point I might just store it on the porch of our home, and I was concerned about the smell, so I squirted a little gas into the mixer after it was restored, pulled it over, and it fired, so I knew it would run."
Most people react positively to the nickel-plated Fuller & Johnson, Jerome says. "If a person restores another engine and gives it a better paint job so it looks even better than it originally had, some of the purists will say, 'That ain't the way they looked when they came from the factory years ago,' and I don't have a problem with that. For me, the main thing is that someone has saved the engine and restored it for future generations to look at and enjoy."
Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and the author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact Bill at: Box 372, 400 Caroline Lane, Rockville, MN 56569; (320) 253-5414; firstname.lastname@example.org