Scratch-Built One-Off Wonders

Iowa man shows his skills by making full-sized scratch-built gasoline engines

One-Off Wonders

Mark expanded the concept of a Fairbanks-Morse 6 hp engine and created this scratch-built 50 hp engine. Weighing in at 2,300 pounds, the engine resembles a steam engine, a tactic used by early manufacturers to ease concerns of buyers more familiar with steam engines than the newfangled gas engines.

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In the world of old iron, Mark Goesch is a unique guy. The Sioux Center, Iowa, man builds gasoline engines from scratch — but they’re not miniatures. They’re full-size gasoline engines.

Even more unique, Mark doesn’t use blueprints. “Without blueprints, I need something to fall back on, so I use my memory,” he says. “I only build an engine if I can close my eyes and see it. If I can’t see it, I can’t build it. I close my eyes and my inner vision sees the engine in detail. Like looking at a picture or a bright object. When you close your eyes, you see that object, but I see the engine in detail.”

Catalyst close to home

Mark’s father, Wilbur, was a machinist. That skill and interest spilled over to Mark, who also works as a machinist. “My dad was into old stuff, so as a kid I had some wheels and axles from old hay sweeps and pump rakes,” he recalls. “I put them together with plywood pieces, pushed them up a hill and let them roll down. As I got older, I wanted to build something useful. Miniature builders are very, very talented people who don’t get the recognition they deserve, but I wanted to build something that would be more useful than a miniature.”

Mark’s family’s first farm engine was a 6 hp Fairbanks-Morse bought from the grandson of the original purchaser. “It had pumped water in southwest South Dakota for years,” he says. After restoring it, Mark figured he could just as well build an engine. Most restorers wouldn’t think that way, but his background gave him a unique perspective. Since then, Mark has scratch-built four full-size gasoline engines and a dynamometer.

The first scratch-built project

Mark’s first engine was modeled on the 6 hp Fairbanks-Morse he remembers from his boyhood on the farm. But it’s not an exact replica. “I used to drag race, so I like to modify things,” he explains. “I built the block and was building the crankshaft, and decided to increase the stroke by a half-inch. I thought I only had to lengthen the crankshaft. But I discovered the counterweight struck the block, so I had to modify it, notching out spots to allow counterweight clearance.” He named his 5 hp creation the Goesch in honor of his father, who wore a cap with the same moniker.

Single-cylinder opposed

A year later, in 2005, Mark tackled a 2 piston, 1-cylinder opposed engine. “I built it as a technical exercise, something I dreamed up that doesn’t really relate to another engine,” he says. “The pistons come together and when the gasoline fires, the pistons are pushed apart, so it required two cranks that run with one or both pistons.”

The engine’s size was the main challenge. “It’s not as small as a miniature but it was quite small, and getting needed pieces in the valves and having room for everything was difficult,” he says. “I just wanted to see it run, and it runs quite well, but it doesn’t have much power (perhaps 3/4 hp); it’s kind of useless. That’s why it’s my least-favorite little engine. But it was fun to build.”

After finishing the engine, he set it on the lawn to take pictures of it. A passerby commented on how long it’d been since he’d seen an engine like it. “When he asked what year it was built, I told him it was a 2004,” Mark says. “He looked at me and asked, ‘So, it’s a kit?’ I told him I’d built every part of the engine except the flywheels.”

Engine No. 3

Mark’s pride and joy — a 50 hp 500-cubic-inch single-cylinder engine also based on a 6 hp Fairbanks-Morse — almost broke his heart. “The cylinder head needed 23 pieces welded together in a certain order, valve seat guides and ports, spark plug port, front and back plate, and so on,” he says. “If there was one pinhole leak when I finished, I couldn’t go back and fix it.”

When the moment of truth came, he started the engine, only to discover to his horror that there was in fact a leak. “I was quite relieved to find out that the pinhole was at the very end,” he admits, “where I quit the weld a quarter-inch too soon.”

He designed the engine to resemble a steam engine, as early manufacturers did in an effort to ease the market’s transition from steam to gas. “People were used to steam and happy with it and weren’t sure of gas,” he explains, “so early gasoline engines had to kind of look like a steam engine to make the transition less of a shock.”

Originally the engine had a single piston oiler, but that soon morphed to four. “Other than that, I didn’t have a lot of trouble building it.” Mark designed a unique oiling system for connecting rod bearings, devising a system where a rod comes around and slices away half of a drip of oil, which flows by centrifugal force to the connecting rod. “That way I don’t have to shut down to oil the connecting rod.”

The 2,300-pound engine’s flywheels measure 5 feet in diameter; each weighs 585 pounds. Mark designed the engine to be more of a tortoise than a hare. “I wanted to see how slow I could get it to idle, so I started at 60 rpm and found no problem,” he says. “There wasn’t a problem at 45 rpm or 40. I had it running at 37 rpm for 7 minutes before it misfired and stopped.”

Because the engine runs so quietly, onlookers mistake the sound of normal operation for a misfire. “When it’s idling, it runs so smoothly that just a bit of warm air comes out of it and you can touch it,” Mark says. “I make my own camshafts and put in the timing I want, so the engine will run well at slow speeds.”

A Snow — or a blizzard?

The fourth engine Mark built was patterned on a 600 hp Snow engine. “A picture of the Snow engine intrigued me,” he says. “I realized I’d built three 1-cylinder engines, so it was time to build a more complex 4-cylinder engine that would be a true challenge.”

The project presented a series of technical problems to solve, just the kind of thing Mark likes to sink his teeth into. “The Snow is a double-compound engine with one center shaft that holds two pistons that fire on both sides,” he says. “The pistons are hollow and have water running through them, the shaft and out the front. Sealing those pistons to the shaft became a nightmare.” So nightmarish, in fact, that he took the engine apart and decided to junk it.

“But I looked at the humongous pile of rocker arms, pistons, shafts and everything else, and figured I had too much time in it already,” he says, “so I had to finish it.”

No method of sealing the pistons worked until he created steel pistons and welded them to the shaft. Bingo! “Now water runs through the shaft and piston as it should,” he marvels, “and the engine starts on the second turn every time.” Mark figures he has 2,000 hours of labor in the project.

A machinist’s mind

Mark knows how big the pieces on his engines need to be without measuring. “With that 500-cubic-inch one, for example, I know how much clearance a piston of 8-by-10-inch bore and stroke requires,” he says. “The sleeve and piston are steel with similar expansion rates, so I insert the correct amount of clearance between the piston and the cylinder sleeve.”

While making bearings for the 500-cubic-inch engine, Mark found himself laughing as the molten metal being poured into a mold made a “glug glug” sound like that heard when filling a Thermos bottle. He uses an old bearing knife to hand-scrape each bearing to the proper size.

He also makes the molds and generally cuts his own gears — except for two, because he didn’t have the proper equipment. “My wife, Marlene, has been very patient with me,” he says. “I showed her some gears and said, ‘Honey, I can buy these for $40 each, but if you let me spend $3,000 on a machine, I’ll be able to make them myself.” She said he could buy the machine.

One thing he doesn’t make: flywheels. “I find them at swap meets,” he says. “They come from old engines and I adapt them to my needs.” Most flywheels are built to balance the engine. “I have to make the flywheel have neutral balance on a shaft,” he says, “and clean the bore so it fits the engine.”

Showtime

Mark’s engines — one small enough for a single person to carry, the largest weighing 2,300 pounds — have powered corn shellers, a dynamometer he built, a blacksmith’s line shaft and a 3 kw generator. He ran the 5 hp engine on a series of progressively larger corn shellers until it worked faster than three men could scoop. “The corn plugged the sheller, killed the engine and everybody cheered,” he recalls.

His engines get a lot of attention at shows. “People are amazed somebody could take a pile of steel and make an engine that runs,” he says. “Well, it needs fuel, it needs compression and it needs spark. You just break that down into how much fuel, how much compression and when to make it spark. It’s really simple if you go about it methodically.”

He’s amazed at how people follow him. At one show, when his 4-cylinder Snow got hot, he shut it down, telling a group of onlookers who’d just arrived that he wouldn’t start it for another three hours. “That’s when they showed up and I ran it again,” he says. “It’s humbling that people care that much about what you’re doing.”

He’s also grateful for the help he gets when he takes engines to shows. “Exhibitors at these shows are remarkable,” he says. “They’re like family; they help you and you help them.” Two young men help him each year at the Butterfield (Minn.) Steam & Gas Engine Show. “Three years ago during a terrible rain they helped me load until I was finished,” he says. “We were all totally soaked.”

Labor of love

For Mark, building engines from scratch is more a passion than a hobby. “These old engines are remarkable in how they ran in their era,” he says. “They can be made to run better today because when you build them, you can include some of the things the early ones didn’t have, like the mechanical intake valve, which makes all the difference in the world in its horsepower. You have to do it because it’s a challenge, because you want to learn something and because it’s a labor of love. You can’t do it to compete with modern mass production.”

The most enjoyable part of each project? The moment the engine starts. “I don’t like to make things that don’t function,” Mark says. “It’s a source of real satisfaction to take a pile of iron, cut it, bend it, weld it and machine it until it does something.” FC 

For more information: Mark Goesch, 1105 Eastside Dr., Sioux Center, IA 51250. 

Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Ln., Rockville, MN 56369; email: bvossler@juno.com. 

Read more about scratch-built gas engines in 3 HP Homemade Hit-and-Miss Gas Engine and watch this video from Homemade Hit-and-Miss Gas Engines.