Vintage Equipment: How Much Restoration?

Don't jeopardize historic value when restoring vintage equipment

Original paint is an asset worth protecting.

Original paint is an asset worth protecting.

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If you're a collector, chances are you've been faced with the question of how much restoration you should do on a collectible. Many people prefer to keep vintage equipment "as is," while others want their pieces to look like new. If you opt for restoration, go carefully, experts say. 

Many of the recommended techniques apply to all categories, whether your treasure is a cream separator or a windmill, stationary engine or wrench, or even an antique tractor. Paul Dettloff, Arcadia, Wis., and Sam Stephens, Warminster, Penn., are avid dairy items collectors. The two also serve on the board of directors of the Cream Separator and Dairy Association.

Don't paint, pinstripe, replate or make reproduction parts if the item is still in its original condition, Paul says. But you'll often need to clean and apply preservatives, Sam adds.

"Probably 90 percent of the cream separator collectors just keep them original," he says, "unless they're a total rust bucket."

Collectors learn from each other.

"I have picked up a few tricks from the gas engine people, as they've been several years ahead of us," Sam says. "They value original paint, decals and the like, much more than a nicely restored piece."

Sometimes a piece will surprise you, as happened when Paul cleaned up an old Butterfly-decal cream separator by Albaugh-Dover.

"I started really tough, and was ready to attack it with repainting, pinstriping, the whole nine yards, $400-$500 worth," he says. "When I got going, it had the blue paint faded out, but there were yellow butterflies and scrolly yellow lines, faint but yet there, and original.

"I oiled it and brought out the detail, buffed the tinware —some rust — oiled it and set it in my shed. The next generation can repaint it; I won't. There is enough original there that I want it preserved. Once it is painted over, it is gone. I firmly believe it's worth more than the dandy Butterfly that's redone, museum quality, right next to it."

If a separator has half or more of the original paint and decals, Sam says he'll leave it that way and then coat it with WD-40/ a light oil mixture as a preservative after cleaning. A couple of coats of clear lacquer may be preferable for the tinware after glass-beading, if the tinware is totally rusted.

If you find a rare separator and it's a rust bucket, Paul advises using gas and a soft bristle brush. Wash and scrub it well. Gas will cut and clean up a lot of old, dirty grease.

"Be careful of the decals," he says, "but most decals are real tough, and you won't usually hurt them with gas."

"I then use steel wool or wire brushes, fine soft ones, or a drill with a Dremel wire wheel to get the rust and other crud off," Paul adds. "That takes time and elbow grease. If the piece is too bad, I have it sandblasted."

Sam says he often prefers glass beading to sandblasting, as it lessens creation or enlargement of holes in the piece's coating or metal.

"Also, this lessens attack on any filler used to smooth out the castings," he says. "Thus you avoid showing all the imperfections present in the raw castings."

If the collectible is "frozen," Paul says, start from scratch.

"I take it apart, if possible, and get it loose," he says. "I have found a product, PB Blaster, that works. It's a penetrating item I've found. It will soak uphill by capillary action – and it's fast, safe and cheap.

"I had one rare separator I worked on several years ago," he adds. "I gave up and put it under my parts trailer. Then I got Blaster, and freed it up in one day."

Sam says soaking the gearcase and gears with kerosene or diesel fuel often helps.

"Some people have their own mixtures that work for them," he says. "Once you do get it cleared up, you may have to make gaskets to reseal the gearcase. I use a light turbine oil to lubricate the gearcase."

Looking for parts? Try to keep the replacements authentic.

"If you're missing parts, contact the collectors club or association for your collectible," Sam says. "Or, sometimes people who make reproduction parts can be found in collectors magazines. But most restorers try to keep all parts authentic if at all possible, and only resort to techniques like recasting when a part is very rare. Then, a club member may loan a part to remold, or otherwise reproduce. But usually, I try to get an item in as good a condition as I can, and just leave it alone."

Paul also has an established finish routine.

"When my machine is cleaned up or sandblasted, I wipe it down with Kwik-Prep by DuPont. That gets all the grease, oils and fingerprints off and leaves clean metal," he says. "I then prime it with a gray or red primer. All my painting is done with soft bristles. I use mainly DuPont enamels from an auto parts store. They can mix any color. It's not cheap, but it's nice to work with. It should be warm, with the metal above 60 degrees or so, so it flows on nice. Two coats are usually, but not always, needed."

He farms out pinstriping and decals to a pro, providing a manual or another piece of equipment as a guide.

Sam agrees that it usually pays to hire an artist.

"Some people manufacture decals," he says, "but they're expensive and limited in supply."

When it comes to tinware, Paul has his re-tinned. But that's an expensive option. If it's not in bad shape, he'll buff it up and oil it.

Restoration techniques also affect how your collectible can be stored once it's complete.

"To store separators outside in unheated buildings, I coat all metals with a mixture of one-half motor oil and one-half WD-40 for rust protection," Paul says. "Once a year, I spray all surfaces with WD-40. They will get dusty, but not rusty. That's my procedure, but there are many other ways to do the same thing. Just as long as it works, use it."

Elbow grease, he adds, pays off.

"When you get done, you have saved, preserved and protected one of our obsolete agricultural items from oblivion," Paul says. "What a good feeling!" FC 

For more information: Paul Dettloff, W20876 SR 95, Arcadia, Wis., 54612; Sam Stephens, 319 Juniper St., Warminster, Penn., 18974. Back issues of the Cream Separator and Dairy Newsletter are available through Paul Dettloff at $3 each. 

For information on PB Blaster: Blaster Division, WKW Co., 9545 Midwest Ave., Garfteld Heights, Ohio 44125. 

Gary Van Hoozer is a Missouri writer specializing in vintage agriculture and farm history.