Farm Collector

Remnants of the Industrial Revolution: the Antique Blow Torch

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
(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

“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

“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

Carol Wissmann is a freelance writer living in Gig Harbor,

  • Published on Mar 1, 2005
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