The avowed mission of this column is the passing of information
discussed by members of the Stationary Engine Mailing List to the
readers of GEM.
But a personal side benefit it gives me is updating readers on
the state of Tillie, GEM’s cover girl for the December 2001
issue. Tillie, in case you’ve forgotten, is the 15 HP
half-breed oil field engine my husband, Jim, and I displayed at
Portland, Ind., in 2001 and then shipped to England.
Tillie ran a couple of times that winter, then flatly refused to
run again. All last summer, whenever he had time to spare, Jim got
a good workout on the flywheels trying to get her running again,
but with no result. In the course of Tillie’s restoration, a
crack around the inside of the head had been welded – and welded
again -before Tillie made her Portland run. Jim suspected the crack
was the source of the problems, so he had a go at welding it
himself, but with no result. He then turned to a professional
welding company, and finally tried a specialist cast iron welding
company. We collected the head from them last week, put it back on
Tillie, fired up the hot tube, and one flip of the flywheels and
she was off. Believe me, it felt good!
Even if you haven’t taken an engine to a show yet this
season, you likely will soon. With that thought in mind, I’ve
culled a few threads from the List that should help you get your
engines into tip-top cosmetic condition and ready for public
The first question was on the cleaning of oilers, when the
standard cleaners are unavailable:
Are there any chemists in the house? What’s a good
concoction for cleaning old, tarnished brass? It’s too late to
go buy Brasso or Noxon – I need something that’s already in my
I’m pretty sure Brasso is nothing but a little abrasive
mixed with ammonia.
I have heard of using Tabasco sauce to clean brass.
I have heard ketchup works, although I’ve never tried
Try a solution of salt and vinegar. Immerse the part in it, let
it sit for a while and then go after it with a soft cloth. It’s
not fast, but it works.
I wash my oilers in a mixture of one part ammonia to three parts
hot water with a good dose of dishwashing detergent thrown in. I
follow this with polishing on a muslin wheel using jewelers rouge.
The ammonia pickles the brass and will attack it if you leave it on
too long. A five or ten minute soak is usually enough, followed by
a good rinse and a thorough drying before polishing. This is the
method I was taught for cleaning brass clock plates when I studied
horology as a teenager.
The next problem – how to preserve an original
I just brought home a 1-1/2 HP Hercules that still has its
original paint and decals. I cleaned it with kerosene and it looked
really nice when it was wet. Is there any way to restore the shiny
finish and keep it that way?
If it was my engine I would clean it really well with three to
four applications of Gunk applied with a soft scrubbing brush.
Following that I would give it two coats of Krylon clear.
Tire cleaner does a good job of sprucing up an engine if you
don’t want to varnish it.
But what if the original finish is hidden under
something more than simply years of grease and dirt?
We have two engines that have horrible paint jobs. Sadly, both
have very nice, aged, dark original finishes underneath this mess.
The previous owner gave them a quick paint job – without any prep
work – with random rattle cans of paint, ‘to keep them from
rusting.’ I was wondering if I could use paint remover to take
off the paint to get the original dark iron to show through. Aside
from paint remover being nasty stuff to work with, are there any
drawbacks to this approach?
My limited experience is that high-pressure washing works well
to remove paint that has been poorly applied to an original
I’d be afraid to use paint remover for fear it would take
off the original paint, if there is any. But if there isn’t any
original under there, have at it.
If there’s still original paint underneath, you could try
something gentle like denatured alcohol or waterless hand cleaner.
Our all-original 2 HP Jaeger had a large portion of the base
covered with aluminum paint over spray, which I successfully
removed using hand cleaner and alcohol. The original blue paint and
striping remained undamaged.
If he did use rattle can paint, acetone will cut it and
shouldn’t attack the original finish. I’d try a small,
inconspicuous area first to be sure.
The final section of this ‘cosmetic’ discussion
dealt with flywheels.
How do you finish flywheel rims? Do you paint them the same
color as the rest of the flywheel, or do you paint the rims a
different color? Leave the rim as bare metal? Polish the rim?
I prefer bare metal, although that usually means I have to clean
some surface rust off from the rim before I show an engine. I like
the look of bare metal, especially when the flywheel face has
machine tool marks left from when the engine was made.
On a tour of European engine collections, we visited a
collection in Belgium whose owner kept everything clean and
polished. He had a Czech sideshaft engine with flywheel rims that,
from a distance, looked liked they were chrome plated. When you got
closer to the engine it became obvious they were just highly
polished. He had a couple of kids who buffed the flywheels with
what I assume was an electric, handheld buffer. The flywheels were
sure polished and looked like chrome, but they way they were doing
it made the flywheel faces so wavy I thought it ruined them.
I prefer my flywheel rims unpainted and bright. This might not
work in a damp climate, but we’re blessed with near-zero
humidity here. And even when we do get a heavy dew or rain shower
during a show, the flash rust isn’t a disaster. As soon as I
start the engine I’ll polish the flywheel with a bit of motor
oil and a Scotchbrite pad. It only takes a few seconds and
there’s no sign there was any rust. The more you do this, the
nicer the flywheel looks.
My preferred finish depends on the condition of the flywheel
face. If the faces are pitted I paint them a different color, as I
like to use two or three colors on my engines. If the faces are
nice I clean them with emery and coat them with oil, but it takes
constant attention to make sure they don’t rust.
I file any high spots on the flywheel, sand them with industrial
paper and then give them three layers of paint. I apply the first
coat, let it dry for a few weeks, then sand it with 100-grit paper.
I then spray on a thick layer of primer and sand it lightly with
240-grit paper. When the surface is right, I give it a final coat
in the color I want, usually two layers. The rims get the same
color. At first I left them unpainted and polished, but here in
Holland it’s too damp and it rusts too fast.
In days of yore, we used to shine up the flywheel rims in the
power houses holding a brick against the running wheel. Then we had
to clean up all the brick-dust! The machining marks did look nice,
though – not highly polished, just a lovely, soft gleam.
Living within spitting distance of the Indian Ocean, I tend to
paint everything, including flywheel rims.
The gentleman I got my 25 HP Superior from told me the face of
the rim was never painted. It was the job of the apprentice to keep
them clean and rust free.
I turned the surfaces of some small, 22-inch flywheels on a
brake drum lathe. With a little fudging, I used the cutting tool
you use to turn automotive flywheels. It did a real nice job.
I’m currently working on a 3HP IHC Famous vertical. The
flywheels rims were quite rusty and appeared to have never been
painted. The rust was thick, but it didn’t have deep pits.
They are too big for the drum lathe, so I ran them in the hot
tank we use for cleaning cast iron engine blocks and heads. That
removed all the grease, old paint and some of the rust on the rims.
I then sanded the outside face and the inner and outer sides with a
My sander can be set for non-directional or straight-line
sanding, and to avoid swirl marks I selected straight line sanding
and held the sander in line with the direction the wheel turns.
Using progressively finer paper – and after about two hours of
elbow grease – the surfaces were bright and shiny.
As to painting, I think masking the rims is a big waste of time.
I just paint them, keeping the over spray to a minimum. When the
paint has set a little I wash off the over spray with thinner.
After cleaning up the rims with fine emery I put on a mix of
turpentine and boiled linseed oil. It takes a few days to dry, but
mine still look good after about 12 months.
Has anyone ever tried a good clear coat on the rims? I may give
this a try someday.
I haven’t tried it on flywheels, but I once refinished a
saxophone and cleared it with Krylon. It still tarnished underneath
Whether your engines are perfect, high-gloss restorations or
still wearing their original ‘working clothes,’ some of
these suggestions should give you some ideas for keeping them in
Engine enthusiast Helen French lives in Leicester, England.
Contact her via e-mail at: Helen@insulate.co.uk You can
join the Stationary Engine List on the Internet at: