My friend, Suezy, collects blow torches. So, on a hot weekend in late summer a couple of years ago, we drove south, down the Interstate 5 corridor, from Tacoma, Wash., to Brooks, a tiny farming town eight miles north of Salem, Oregon's capitol city. We had reservations for the annual Blow Torch Collectors Association (BTCA) Convention.
Suezy's good at storytelling. She's recounting the convention she attended in Puyallup, Wash., in 2000. "One of our European members brought torches to swap or sell," she recalls. "He had an antique blow torch from Czechoslovakia, and I traded straight across for a fairly generic torch manufactured in the U.S. He gave me the instructions that went with it … all in Czech. Months later, I made acquaintance with a woman from Czechoslovakia, who could translate them for me. And voilá!, it turns out there's a cap in the bottom of the handle that screws off, and inside there's a cleaning kit for the nozzle, and some extra parts that I never would have known were there."
I'm a pack rat. Little that passes into my hands ever passes out again. I even have stacks of my favorite old calendars, waiting for identical days and dates to roll around so I can reuse them. But blow torches? Still, I was becoming intrigued.
We breezed along a rolling road edged with small farms. Suezy recounted how she started collecting. "I used torches as a tool when I lived in eastern Washington, sweating irrigation pipes and soldering parts onto a baler or alfalfa mower. And everybody over there burns their fields and grass. Then one day, in an antique shop, I spotted this torch polished to its highest shine and made into a lamp. It was really gorgeous, though I like them better as a tool, with tarnish on them."
Suezy was hooked. "After that, I started seeing blow torches everywhere, but predominantly at farm sales," she continued. "Farmers would pass away, and the family would sell the homestead. I could buy a box of junk for a buck, and there'd often be a couple torches in the mix. And that's how I got started."
The Antique Powerland Museum sprawls across 63 acres in Brooks, Ore. Now a heritage site, its buildings and grounds exhibit all manner of machinery from agriculture to logging, trucking to railway. Groups such as the Western Steam Fiends Association, the Antique Implement Society and Branch 15 Early Day Gas Engine & Tractor Association restore, preserve, and display all types of power mechanisms.
Here, in a huge hangar-type building filled with early engines, more than 40 attendees of the blow torch convention have come to set out their prize collections. They talk and trade, swap and sell. Their blow torches are lovingly displayed - polished, painted, or with their natural patina. Most are brass, some are steel or nickel, and a few are copper or aluminum.
One couple studying the displays was from Devon, England, where torches are called "blow lamps" (and where flashlights are called "torches"). Among the exhibitors there that day was Andre LeFrancois, Hayward, Calif., who had his entire collection for sale. Ron Carr, the group's founder, displayed binders of patents spanning from 1851 to 1960, painstakingly researched over the course of four years at patent libraries in Cincinnati and at the University of Washington. Through Carr's newsletter and word-of-mouth, BTCA has grown to nearly 200 members — from Lund, Sweden, to Carr's home in Las Vegas, Nev.
Carr noted the role blow torches played in the Industrial Revolution. "So many tasks were done by blow torches that are now done by other means and methods," he says. "Most homes had a blow torch, and every hobbyist, machine shop, farmer, logger, dentist, assayer, and everyone in the trades — painters, plumbers, tinsmiths, mechanics — all utilized them."
Collectors at the convention "talk torch," sharing cleaning and buffing techniques or what's new on eBay. (From 100-200 torches are listed there daily, with prices averaging $25-$50, though ranges of $500-$1,000 are not uncommon for rarer, older and better preserved models, or those from select manufacturers.)
Dick Sarpolus shares information from his book Collectible Blowtorches (Shiffer Publishing). Sarpolus has written two books and hundreds of articles on his other hobby of radio-controlled airplanes, which he builds and designs. When he began collecting blow torches, he could find only the scantiest of information. From old tool catalogs, instruction manuals, and advertisements (and with the help of Carr, who contributed a great deal of information), he began compiling blow torch background information.
"There were four primary companies that manufactured blow torches," says Sarpolus. The Otto Bernz Co., Clayton & Lambert Co., The P. Wall Mfg. Co., and Turner Brass Works were first in the field, though several hundred other manufacturers, from Schaeffer Beyer to Sears, made blow torches, too. The units generally came in pint and quart capacities. Depending on their purpose and the ingenuity of the designer, hundreds of styles evolved, with variations such as vertical or horizontal burners and attachments to concentrate or spread flames. And while Sarpolus' collection contains about 250 unique examples, many enthusiasts have collections numbering as many as 600-800 blow torches.
In the 1960s, when propane gas became available in disposable tanks, American manufacturers ceased production of blow torches. Far safer and much cheaper, propane tanks easily replaced their dangerous, highly explosive gasoline predecessors. The only blow torch still commonly used today is the small torch used in gourmet cooking, a baby brother to the fire-spewing blow torches of the past. What once was a common tool has become an uncommon collectible.
"They were a tool, subject to hard work and abuse," Sarpolus says of the blow torch. "Today, most are 75 to 100 years old, and have been outside in barns, garages or damp cellars. They look like junk. Some people prefer them that way, with a patina and their original labels and decals. But with a wire brush, cleaning solutions, buffing wheels and a little work, years of neglect can be reversed. Cleaned and reassembled, steel blow torches can be painted; brass polished like gold. Almost everyone admires them, even if they don't know what they are or their historical significance. With a little elbow grease and a couple of bucks at a flea market, you can end up with something that looks real special." FC