11 Questions to Ask Before You Begin a Tractor Restoration

Farm Collector asked three restoration experts what to consider before beginning a tractor restoration.

This 1944 Farmall Model H and McCormick-Deering Genius no. 8 2-bottom plow make a very nice display, showcasing well restored vintage iron. The tractor is owned by Loren Ritter, Pequot Lakes, Minn.

This 1944 Farmall Model H and McCormick-Deering Genius no. 8 2-bottom plow make a very nice display, showcasing well restored vintage iron. The tractor is owned by Loren Ritter, Pequot Lakes, Minn.

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Let’s say you’ve inherited an antique tractor, or have found one you’d like to buy and restore. What questions should you be prepared to answer before you undertake a major tractor restoration project? Farm Collector asked three professional tractor restoration experts for their suggestions. Here’s what they told us. 

1. Do you have the mechanical aptitude? 

“The ability to look at a part or component, understand how it functions, anticipate problems and correct them, is critical to having a successful restoration,” says Harvey Hamilton, owner of Tired Iron Restoration Inc., in Oakville, Wash. “Many times problems are overlooked because of a lack of understanding:  The results are leaks, malfunctioning components and possible damage. This is not the result you want after spending a lot of time and money. However, there are a lot of resources and people that can be of some assistance. Find a network of people or a club and many times you will have access to the knowledge you need.”

2. Is the tractor worthy of restoration?  

“The best money spent is on a good tractor or implement in the first place,” says Hamilton. “Tractors that are rusting into the ground or have significant missing pieces can be restored, but it will be a very expensive endeavor. Is the tractor rare or just special? Unless you have a very rare tractor, most of the time the cost of a good restoration will exceed its worth. However, if your motive is to restore a tractor you like, one that belonged to a family member or has some other sentimental value, it doesn’t have to be rare to justify the cost. If you’re restoring to just stay busy, learn new skills, spend quality time with a family member or friend, who can argue with that?”

3. Can you dedicate space for the restoration? 

Bob Kuhn, owner of Kuhn’s Equipment Repair in Oxford, N.Y., advises setting aside a dedicated space for your project. “There are going to be a lot of small parts lying around and you don’t want little hands getting into them. Tuna cans work great for bolts and small parts. Label them as you remove them. For example, sheet metal bolts would be put in can number one, and when putting the tractor back together it will be the last can of bolts to be put on. Under each number, label what the hardware goes with (starter, sheet metal, radiator, etc.). You can also make reminder notes on the cans to help you reassemble, or take pictures and label them as well. Polaroid pictures work great. Keeping parts separate and taking your time to get to know your tractor while you are disassembling will save you a lot of time later.”

4. Are you willing to invest the money required? 

Louis Spiegelberg, owner of Restoration & Service, Ltd., in Birmingham, Ohio, suggests you arrive at a budget by inspecting the tractor and writing down the obvious parts that need to be replaced. “Consider if you want to rebuild the engine and/or transmission,” he says. “Budget about an additional $1,000 for little surprises that show up while taking the tractor apart. If you rebuild an engine, don’t ruin it with a bad radiator; either have the current one fixed or get a new one.”

5. Can you invest the time required?  

Spiegelberg and Kuhn agree that you can easily spend 100 to 250 hours to restore your tractor. “It will take 100 hours to restore a tractor that’s in decent shape,” says Kuhn, “so if you have a hedgerow tractor it could easily take 250 hours or more. Of course, this depends on how nice you want your tractor to be when it is complete.”

6. Reproduction or salvage yard parts? 

Kuhn says that in many cases, original parts are best because they will fit perfectly and protect the value of the tractor. “But some parts you will only find used,” he notes. “Then there will be the parts that I call ‘impossible’ parts, so if you have it on your tractor, fix it, because you aren’t going to find another. With starters, carbs, generators, mags and radiators, it is always better to keep the original and have it repaired. Replacements for these are just not as good as the original and the fit and size are not correct a lot of the time.” He says it’s important to make certain that bearings, pistons and other major parts are available before boring blocks or turning crankshafts.
Spiegelberg says there are many good reproduction parts on the market today that weren’t available 20 years ago. “If you are buying reproduction parts, and if you have questions, ask the company you bought them from. There are good and not-so-good salvage yards to get parts from. Don’t necessarily buy according to price. You will most likely get what you pay for. There are places that will sell you quality used parts, and there are places that will sell you absolute junk. EBay is a decent source for parts. Look at the seller’s rating, and ask questions if you’re not sure about the particular part you are looking at.”

7. Can you obtain the correct manuals? 

“We believe everyone should have a copy of their owner’s manual, which tells you where to put the fluids and how much, where to grease, tire pressure, how to use all aspects of the machine,” Kuhn says. “The service manual is necessary if you are going to be making any repairs to your machine, and we would not be without it. You can purchase them online at www.AntiqueTractorsRUs.com 
Most tractor parts books are now available online. These manuals can be purchased used at shows or online auctions, and reproduction manuals can be purchased from JenSales (www.jensales.com) or Clymer Publications (www.Clymer.com), among others.”
“Sometimes you can find parts manuals online at the tractor company’s website,” adds Spiegelberg. “These books make your restoration much easier and provide good reference.”

8. Do you have the necessary tools? 

“Old tractors are notoriously rusty and the nuts and bolts can be very stuck,” says Hamilton. “An acetylene torch, pullers, hydraulic press, large wrenches, cleaning equipment, body working tools and paint guns are some of the things that may be needed beyond a basic tool set.”
Bob Kuhn recommends using a power washer to wash the dirt and grease off your tractor. Louis Spiegelberg adds that it’s also important to use the proper jacks and jack stands. “Do not use concrete blocks; they can and will break,” he explains. “Use good jack stands rated high enough to handle the weight of the tractor. I also use 6- by 6-foot wood blocks under jack stands if I need extra height. You should also have a fire extinguisher or two available when working with flammable materials.”

9. What paint should you use?  

Spiegelberg notes that there are many levels of paint quality on the market. He says that paints costing $30 to $40 per gallon at the farm supply store may lack UV protection and will crack and fade, while automotive paints from DuPont and PPG can range up to $400 a gallon. “The paints available from Deere, AGCO, Case-IH, New Holland, etc. are good paints,” he says. “They are a little slow drying, but that can be speeded up by adding hardener.”
“We use paint from the tractor dealers if available, but any paint will give a good finish if properly applied,” says Kuhn. “We finish all our paint jobs with a coat of clear. Expensive paints are a two-part urethane, and by using the cheaper enamel and finish with a top coat of clear, you can get that same beautiful finish at a much lower cost.”

10. Is your goal to restore or rehab? 

Hamilton says you’ll need to make a decision about the quality you want to achieve in your restoration. “Do you want your tractor to just run well, look good from 25 feet away, or look perfect up close?” he asks.
Kuhn says high quality sheet metal work is important if you are restoring a fine quality show tractor. “Most (body shops) will not paint the entire tractor, only the tin,” he explains. “Then you have the issue of having beautiful tin and your casting could be rust pitted and will pale in comparison to the tin. A good restorer can make the casting look just as nice as the tin.”
“If you take your tractor to a body shop, make sure they don’t put a quarter-inch of Bondo® over all the sheet metal,” adds Spiegelberg. “Sometimes they put Bondo in places it shouldn’t be. That can create problems with the fit of hoods and grilles. Some of the seams and spot weld dimples are acceptable; that’s the way the tractor came from the factory. Test fit the parts before painting.”

11. Where can you find a mentor? 

Kuhn recommends joining a local engine or tractor club to help guide you through your restoration. “They can be very resourceful and help with a lot of the problems you come across. If someone else has run into the problem you have, they can offer solutions.” Professional restorers may be willing to answer a question or two, but unless you hire them or buy parts from them, don’t abuse their time by expecting them to guide you through the entire restoration. FC 

To learn more about these restoration companies, visit the Kuhn’s Equipment & Repair website at www.antiquetractorsrus.com; Spiegelberg Restoration & Service, Ltd. at www.srstractor.com; and Tired Iron Restoration Inc. at www.two-cylinder-restoration.com. 

Jerry Schleicher is a country humorist and cowboy poet. He grew up on a crop and cattle operation in western Nebraska, and now lives in Missouri. Contact him at 8515 Lakeview Dr., Parkville, MO 64152; e-mail: gschleicher1@kc.rr.com. 

Have you done a tractor restoration recently? Is there any advice you know now that you wish you knew before you began? Let us know by adding a comment below!