Brother, Can You Spare a Nickel?

By Staff
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The “after” photo, once the 1926 1-1/2 HP Fuller & Johnson Model NB (serial no. 160333) engine was fully nickeled and reassembled.
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Partially assembled, but with several newly-nickeled pieces remaining.
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This is how the F&J looked when Jerome bought the engine.
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In this view of the working end, it is evident that many small parts have also been nickel plated.
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Jerome Then and his 1/2-scale John Deere, on which he “practiced” plating engines. The cans are just for show, to get kids interested in watching the engine.
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The final product displayed at the Greater Minnesota Two-Cylinder Club’s 13th Annual Field Days, Swap Meet and Auction in Little Falls, Minn., May 7-8, 2005.

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;
bvossler@juno.com

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