Smokstak Bulletin Board

Preservation Methods for Original Finish

I saw a previous post that alluded to methods of maintaining or enhancing the original finish on the old engines. I also saw in the archives where linseed oil could be painted on, but other than that I can't seem to find much. What might some of the other methods be and what is the best? I’m looking forward to another long winter in the shop. – Baggsy

I have left all of my engines with the original finish. First they are cleaned with kerosene and left to dry. Then I apply a 50/50 coat of boiled linseed oil mixed with mineral spirits. It is important to have 50% mineral spirits because straight linseed will leave a sticky finish. You will be surprised of the result with an engine that appeared to have no original paint left when you started. Kerosene is the key to the cleaning process. Let me know how it works out for you. -- Bruce

I like to leave them original with nothing on them. It’s less work for me and it protects my investment as there is no risk of future collectors wanting an original, un-enhanced finish. And, that’s also the way I like to acquire them. – Peter

I tried the straight linseed oil and it took a long time to not be sticky. Other things that don't work are; saran wrap, lamination, embedding in polyurethane, and having it bronzed. I hear clear coat works, but it may yellow with time. – Vernon

In 25 years of restoring these wonderful old engines my concept has changed from "creating the beautiful" to "preserving a character". Preservation of character is done slowly. You begin by documenting the engine, (if possible.) When and where was it used? Who was the original owner? What did it do? How did the seller acquire it? Statement # 1: “Losing the original history of the engine when you had the OPPORTUNITY to preserve it translates into idiotic behavior.” I clean engines in various ways but I always do the following: Gently use soft brass bristle brushes around detail parts so it won’t scratch the paint. Use plenty of kerosene when cleaning dried grease & oil. Steel brushes can be used carefully to clean larger areas while wooden scrapers can be made to rub off softened residue. Don’t rule out hot water and washing detergent to make the initial cleaning. There is information on this web site alluding to these cleaning methods. Go slow and preserve what remains of original finish. When it is clean, THEN begin disassembly. Clean each piece as it comes off. Keep assemblies together. Think about what you’re doing. Observe the craftsmanship as elbow grease reveals past skills. Appreciate the file marks and specks of paint. Notice the iron filler, let your mind go back. Do the mechanical repairs to duplicate the old look. NO cadmium nuts or washers. No bolts with modern markings. Perform all the aspects of a sound mechanical restoration while maintaining the integrity of age and history. Fire it up and listen to it! Beautiful, isn’t it? No? Well, it is to me. Now I am speaking in terms of an engine with, oh say, 20% or more original finish. At this point I would spray it down with something like John Deere multi-purpose lube or WD40 rubbing it in with a soft cloth. Do that once or twice a year and after a year or so, the casting with take on a lovely dark patina while the paint is preserved. No, the paint won’t be glossy but it will be protected. I also like the look some guys achieve by using a clear coat but sometimes this can be too glossy. The suggestion in the previous post says linseed oil and turpentine works well but is slow drying. Use BOILED linseed oil and increase the turpentine ratio. This works nice too but is difficult to remove if required. From this point on enjoy and feel proud of your work for you have preserved the character of a piece totally dependent upon you for its character survival. Go ahead, sandblast the boat anchors and paint the welded up engines or the engines made up from a dozen others just like it. These already have lost character patina. Anything will be an improvement. Statement # 2: “An engine in good unmolested original condition cannot be made more valuable by ANYTHING we do to it excepting maintaining its character as I have outlined.” In other words the most expensive paint in the world can only decrease its value. It’s just my opinion guys. These engines stand on their own and they always will as long as we protect them. OK! I'm ready for you, eat me alive! -- Lester

The Fairbanks 3hp ZC I bought came on original wood skids with original paint, but had suffered numerous paint spills and splashes. The spills and slops came off with vigorous scrubbing, but this injured the gloss on the paint. After consulting the archives, I branched out a little and used a couple of wet coats of "Penetrol" additive for oil based paints. It is a multi-use product. It dries overnight, ordinarily. My results are good. The gloss is evened out and where paint was dried and flaking from the wood skids, this appears to have knitted things together, as if the remaining paint is holding and the "bare" wood looks like it has a coat of semi-gloss varnish. The gloss is a bit more than I suspect the paint originally had but not overwhelmingly so. I am very glad that I chose this route for this particular project. On another project, a trial area could be evaluated before committing to the whole engine, etc. It worked for me, that day. – Kid

Not trying to stir the pot too hard, but I cannot say I personally agree with leaving an engine as found with only 20 or 30% of its original paint remaining. Unless it is a very rare engine or has a special history. I have been involved in many types of collecting, motorcycles, cars, etc. but I cannot recall another hobby where 30% of the original finish was better than correctly restored. Not even farm tractors. Now let’s be honest here. How many of you would buy A Studebaker Golden Hawk and completely re-do the engine, trans, wiring and so on and not do any body work, upholstery, or paint it. Then take it to a show and expect any one to even look at it. That’s not how it came from the factory now is it? That’s just my personal opinion but to each their own. – Allen

Sorry you misunderstood Allen. My point is for one lung antique farm engines with flywheels, spark plug or igniter fired with water hoppers and cooling tanks, NOT old cars, motorcycles or tractors. -- Lester

I believe comparing cars to antique farm engines are like comparing oranges to golf clubs. Just my opinion, but everyone has the right. – Tim

Well, I have been thinking of posting something along this line for a while anyway, so here goes. I personally like an engine that is fixed up and restored to original condition. I'm not great at it, but I try. I can see the other guy's point as well. It is interesting to see how these old engines have survived the years. I guess my thought is, if it's your engine, fix it up the way you like it and enjoy it. But, there is one thing that yanks my chain real hard. That's somebody that takes an old greasy engine and paints right over everything. I am working on one right now, and yes I knew it was like that when I bought it. 90 year old grease is hard enough to get off anyway, but try it with 6 layers of 98 cent Wal-Mart paint on top of it. I have tried every tool known to man to get this thing cleaned up. It's enough to drive a man to drink. – John

Just to put two pence worth in. At the end of the day, it's a pure and simple case of whichever method you prefer. I personally like to repaint a unit, not necessarily even original colours, but at the end of the day, it's for your own personal benefit, no one else. It's your unit, you are the person who sees the beauty in it, whatever makes that person happy. As long as it is protected from decaying any further, finish is irrelevant. And just to get back to the original post, pretty much anything oil based will protect and bring a luster to a finish. -- Matt

I have seen too many engines painted up to conceal cracks, welds, and other damage covertly. I have even been blind enough to buy such engines, completely trusting the seller's word that the engines had no damage. So I personally don't buy painted engines anymore. But I really do appreciate the time and pain that many owners put into beautifully refinishing their engine. And, hey, if they want to disguise cracks, welds, and blemishes on their engines when refinishing, that's okay. Why spend the time, energy, and money if the job isn't going to look good? -- Harvey

The only thing I would like to add to this thread is this. They are original just ONCE. Think about it. -- John.

Dr. John Wilcox (One of the original founders of the Cool Spring museum) uses nothing but Automatic Transmission Fluid on all of his engines. This includes his Callahan, 125HP Otto, 150HP Miller and many others. And just like a previous post stated about WD40 I believe after a while a nice patina is developed. All of his engines look outstanding. I have been using WD 40 but I am going to get a spray bottle and start using ATF exclusively myself. -- Keith

This is how I approach this. If the engine still has some original paint. Clean it and give it a coat of some kind of protectant. (I have had good luck with boiled linseed oil.) If it has no or little paint and it runs good leave it alone. If it has little or no paint and it needs to be torn down, clean and paint close to factory color. I don’t like painting what ever color is handy even though it is better then letting them rust if stored out side. Personally, I would rather clean up the rust than have to strip off some weird color. But, if showing them, we should try and represent what they looked like from the factory! We are trying to preserve and teach the history of these old engines are we not? -- Bob


More Smokstak Articles

Visit the Smokstak Forums!

All use is subject to our TERMS OF SERVICE
SMOKSTAK® is a Registered Trade Mark
Copyright © 2000 - 2008 by Harry Matthews
P.O. Box 5612 - Sarasota, FL 34277