Tractor Restoration Basics

Patience is a virtue when taking on a tractor restoration

Farmalls on display at the Kansas and Oklahoma Steam and Gas Engine Show

For the novice restorer, years may elapse before a project comes out as perfect as these Farmalls, on display at the Kansas and Oklahoma Steam and Gas Engine Show in Winfield, Kan., in August

Photo by G. Wayne Walker Jr.

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If you're getting older, you've probably had to slow down a bit. If anything major's gone out or needs replacing, modern medicine can usually handle it. The same is true with old tractors and tractor restoration. In both cases, having a caring "doctor" certainly helps.

Larry Meservey, a Trenton, Mo. collector/restorer of antique tractors and equipment, is a classic example of that. Often aided by his sons, Norman and Don, Larry has brought several tractors back to "new" condition, including one – a 1921 kerosene-powered, chain-driven International 8-16 – that won top honors at the state fair.

"That tractor has a four-cylinder engine (serial number IC 8385)," said Larry, who is the president of the national IH Collectors Association. "The engine was also used in International trucks back then. The 8-16 designation means drawbar and belt horsepower ratings. The fan and radiator are at the rear of the engine, and the hot air is blown back over the driver."

Larry, who bought the completely disassembled tractor in southeastern Minnesota, began restorating the tractor in 1990. Some parts were unusable, or too far gone to restore, so he bought an air cleaner at a Kansas City estate sale, and a rear axle with brakes at an Illinois sale. The only reproduction parts used were fenders purchased by the previous owner. Larry also had a new radiator core made and assembled at a local repair shop.

"Some time in the past, the engine block had cracked, probably because water had frozen in it," Larry said. "It had been welded, but was very rough. I ground the welds off and everything looked fine, but after assembly and painting, it leaked very badly. That created a lot of extra work, of course."

Father and sons tore down and cleaned the motor and transmission. They found the bearings and seals to be very good, so the same parts were reassembled. Then all of the tractor's parts were sandblasted and given a coat of primer and a coat of paint (two more coats would be applied after assembly). Finally, the finishing touches were stencilled on. It was a fairly typical restoration, one where experience helped keep hassles to minimum. The surest way to prevent restoration headaches? Identify potential problems with a tractor before purchase. Also, as you look at problem areas, consider your own skills in parts fabrication and re-fab, the availability of resources and services, and your budget. Decide how far you want to go, and think hard about your goal. An investment in parts and restoration services is only rarely recouped at resale. Plan to keep your tractor for use, shows, parades or just general enjoyment.

"One of the first things I do when looking at a tractor is to see if the tractor was shedded, or a can put over the exhaust pipe," said Eugene Alt, an Audubon, Iowa, farmer who restores tractors on the side. "Often one cylinder will fill with water and debris, causing corrosion, especially with newer alloy pistons."

Buyers should be aware, he said, that the transmission grease in many tractors was never changed. If the grease has water in it, and is a butterscotch color, those are good indicators. Also, he said, check out the steering and front end sector, as replacement parts there can be very expensive. On John Deere tractors, for instance, the clutch handle often needs tightening, and the clutch pedal may need to be rebushed. Always check the clutch condition by engaging it against the brakes and noting travel, and whether much adjustment space remains.

"Like repairing a house, it can easily run double what you'd expect on cost," Eugene warned. "I worked on an old John Deere that ran up a $3,200 parts list and paint bill, not counting the labor. A '35 Model A Deere cost $1,400 for only adjusting and basically finishing it up after the major work had been done.

"It's basically unending on repairs, if you're striving for near perfection."

Supply and demand also plays a role.

"The steering sector's very important to check for wear and tightness," said Ed Bowman, a retired Tarkio, Mo., farmer. "Same for the transmission differential and rear end components, since the cost for gears, axle bearings and the like is awfully expensive.

"Things like the jackshaft on, say, a Farmall M, were high priced even in the '60s. I know, because I bought a new one then. But parts have depleted rapidly, and the ones that are left cost a lot, and are often hard to find.

"Also, rebuilding on some parts - such as to make bearing surfaces true and smooth - has to be done by an expert machinist," he said. "If something's not done right, vibration, breakage and other problems are sure to develop."

Resist the temptation to overlook major flaws in the sheet metal. Bud Panning, a Biggelo, Mo., restorer, says he prefers to start with tractors that have good sheet metal (or "tin work").

"It's hard to replace, so I look for it at sales, to use myself or sell," he said. "I also check to see if the motor's stuck, or if there's water in the oil. You can rock it by pushing a rear tire with the tractor in high gear, or pull the fan belt to see if the motor will turn."

Worn front ends can also run into a lot of money, he said. But many times, steering boxes can be built up and shimmed, and arms can be welded and ground back down, saving the expense of replacement parts. Use your own parts if possible, of course, if you can repair them. And always check for cracks along engine block lines.

"There are some things you don't have to worry about as much," Bud said. "For example, starters can be repaired fairly easily."

Nor should tire condition be considered an obstacle.

"The tires are usually shot or worn out," Bud said. "But if you watch for sales, or know a good dealer, good replacements can usually be bought reasonably. Dealers sometimes have good used ones, too."

Need a rare tire? Several manufacturers have entered the reproduction market, and advertise in tractor collector publications.

Go by the book, when possible. Get the tractor's parts manual, when available, and if you can find an operator's manual and an I&T (or similar service manual), you're that much ahead. While original manuals are certainly nice to have, they've become highly collectible as well. If you can't find an original (or if you do, but it's out of your price range) look for traders and reproductionists who advertise in collectors' magazines.

Also, do your homework. Books like How to Restore Your Farm Tractor (1992, 176 pp., Motorbooks International) are a good resource. Author Robert N. Pripps covers everything from rating systems to use when considering a tractor purchase, to recommendations on products, tools and the home workshop.

The stuck engine presents a different challenge. Bud created his own penetrating formula, one which includes "Rust Bust," a commercial product. He begins by squirting it into the spark plug holes. Eugene Alt just uses diesel fuel on top of the pistons, bolts a bar on Deere flywheels, and gives it a push every time he walks by. Patience is required: That method, he said, can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months.

"If worst comes to worst, I usually take the block out of two-cylinders and press pistons out," Eugene said. "With wet-sleeve types, both the piston and sleeve can be pressed out, but that's not generally feasible with dry sleeves, such as on the IH's."

Give some thought to your workplace, and your tool inventory. Eugene routinely works with valve spring and piston ring compressors, engine stands, and a large-capacity air compressor for sandblasting and powering air tools. You may even end up custom-crafting your own equipment, Eugene said. He, for instance, used a jack and hoist to make a "cherry picker" on wheels. FC 

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