Farm Collector

Agricultural Artifacts: Alemites to Zerks

In the world of agricultural artifacts, the letter A is most definitely not for apple unless it has something to do with vintage orchard equipment, and the letter B is very likely not for balloon, although more than one vintage children’s alphabet book makes just those connections. Advisors of agrarian antiques would likely select different words to aid their students’ learning experiences. The letter A might be better represented with the word ‘antique.’ Better yet, this alphabet might begin with an antiquated word for something small we all know and love, or love to hate when clogged up – like the grease fitting.


Even in days of old, lubricating rotating shafts and bearings was considered good practice, but when it came to delivering petroleum-based grease to sliding surfaces, it took effort to push the sticky lubricant into place. Some manufacturers used screw-plunger-type grease cups to send lube into bushings and bearings, but the Alemite Co. innovated with the world’s first pin- and button-type fittings that temporarily sealed to matched couplings on the end of pressurized grease guns. Those early grease fittings are now called Alemites.


If you restrict your study of old implements to simply looking, you will see many examples of things that are broken. For example, an engine might have a broken crankshaft although some would say the crank was ‘busted.’ If you are a collector and actually own that broken old engine, there is every possibility you will break something else while taking it apart to fix the crank and you’ll likely bust a few knuckles in the process. And since that engine is really a rare one, you might also go broke trying to find or make the parts needed to put it all back together again.


Most tractors sold into the late 1930s were delivered with steel wheels front and back. Astute farmers of the ’40s recognized the advantages of rubber tires and cut the creased or crumpled steel bands off their tractor’s wheels, replacing them with rims designed specifically for pneumatic tread. Since many of those conversions were cobbled or have long since succumbed to the ravages of corrosion, today’s correct restorations are completed so the tractors will once again clatter.


In the early 1930s, a West Islip, N.Y., entrepreneur invented the quarter-turn quick-acting and self-locking fastener most students of old iron mistakenly call the Zeus screw. But the king of Greek mythology had nothing to do with it: The piece was named for its inventor, William Dzus. Dzus fasteners were sometimes used to fasten engine compartment side panels and other sheet metal parts in place. No matter how dinged or damaged a piece of tinwork is, if its Dzus fasteners are intact, don’t destroy it.


No matter how excellent an old machine might be, when you take it apart, you will likely break a bolt and need to extract it. Once a trade name, the term easyout and its variations are now used generically to describe hardened-steel, spiral-fluted tools screwed into a hole bored in a broken bolt’s center and turned with a wrench to extract it. Exercise extreme care: If you break the easyout in the bolt, there is no easy out.


Whether you’re applying linseed oil to a prized wooden flail, or varnish to a sickle-bar mower’s grass board, renewing a project’s finish is a sure sign you are nearly finished. If the piece was fair when you found it, only a bit of effort is needed to make it fine. But if the piece was really far gone, only a fanatic has the fortitude to really make it shine.


No matter how great a restoration project might appear, students of old iron find cleaning the grunge to be quite a grind. As disassembly goes forward and seized fasteners or globs of weld are encountered, they may be removed with a grinder. Once all the pieces have been made good and with a little grease to ease them back together, the grin on the restorer’s face proves it was well worth the effort.


No matter how horrible the long-abandoned hay hook looks, or how hard it might be to set some old bucksaw’s teeth, the restoration artist’s challenges cause only minimal strife, and nothing makes the hobbyist happier than to bring it all back to life.


Most students of old iron will readily travel a distance to look at something interesting, no matter how overgrown or rusty it might be. It’s safer to go alone because your friends might inspire you to drag it home, and when you already have two old threshing machines in your yard, you really don’t need three. Instead, you need your friends to supply the help and inspiration to make one work in time for next summer’s threshing bee.


Students of old iron sometimes find it necessary to move or remove things aggressively in a procedure called ‘jerking.’ For example, a particularly difficult clutch replacement might require you to ‘jerk the engine out of there’ first. Likewise you might jerk a particularly nice piece of junk out of the shelterbelt to keep it from the scrap-man’s jaws. The term is also occasionally applied to a person who knows you are about to close a deal on the rarest widget of all time and beats you to it.


This is the king – some might say the Zeus – of penetrating fluids. Billed as the oil that creeps, this product needs only a millionth-of-an-inch gap between two seized parts to begin the work of loosening them. Legend tells us that for many years Kroil wasn’t suitable for aerosol packaging because no spray can’s valve could contain it. The stuff comes with a money-back guarantee and really works, although some consider it to be expensive.


When a petroleum-powered engine is running with relatively more air in the fuel-air combustion mixture, it is said to be running lean (as opposed to rich). Likewise, enthusiasts might pass on a new purchase because their collecting budget is a little lean, which simply means it contains more air than cash at the moment. Leaning is also what students of old iron do on a pickup truck’s bedsides after binding down a particularly difficult load, or what a machine might do when part of its superstructure has fallen off on the road.


The student of old iron might use a match to light a cutting torch, or to make a fire when heating a huge casting prior to brazing a crack, but a match can be even more important. In the quest for correctness, restoration artists will go to great lengths to find engines that numerically match a tractor’s chassis, or even replacement parts with date codes or styles that match those found on a machine of that vintage.


While some performance-minded folks might install a nitrous oxide system to temporarily boost their Worthington engine’s output, in old iron circles the abbreviation NOS more generally stands for New Old Stock. New Old Stock refers specifically to unused original parts long discontinued by the manufacturer. For example, the early style Alemites once common on machines 100 years ago are no longer available from the manufacturer, but one specialty parts house has a small NOS cache and advertises them for sale.


For seasoned enthusiasts, every junk pile, shelterbelt, barn, auction house and shed represents untold opportunity. For the neophyte, hanging around seasoned experts offers even greater opportunity to jumpstart their old iron adventures and to lean out their wallets in the process.


One might think that anyone interested in the ways of old would decry the concept of progress, but that’s just not true. Since every old iron project moves through a series of steps to reach the finished state, enthusiasts are keenly, even painfully aware of their project’s progress. Once the project is in primer, progress tends to slow unless there is another old piece in the shop waiting for its turn to go.


Because every old iron enthusiast worries about running out of projects, there’s almost always room for one more hay loader or land plow in the yard – even when there really isn’t. Although having stuff is an important form of security, the restoration artist’s goal is to make it all quality stuff.


When an artifact is particularly pitted or really rusty, it is said to be rough. When it’s half melted into the earth with wooden components rotted away, it is really rough. For the hard-core enthusiast, the challenges associated with making a rough object right and talking about those challenges later (see yak) are sources of much delight.


Old iron enthusiasts like playing with sand, but not necessarily in it unless they are at the helm of some old machine. Sand is used as an abrasive that, when blasted at an object in a stream of high-pressure air, leaves the part rust- and paint-free.


Although some enthusiasts focus on diminutive model-like objects called toys, the word has a much broader meaning. When that previously acquired project – perhaps a pile of rust and pieces – is completed, it becomes its owner’s new toy. Alternatively, the engine cylinder-sleeve puller an International Harvester enthusiast just received from the FedEx driver will be dubbed a new toy until it has performed its duty several times, after which it might become a top-drawer tool.


Underestimation is a process enthusiasts regularly use to convince themselves that a project is doable and affordable. It’s also a very effective tool for convincing a friend that his trailer and truck are actually large enough to haul your haul home, or that his overhead hoist is really sufficiently strong to lift that piece of cast iron from its cradle. Friends use underestimation to help convince you to take on a project that in their estimation is impossible to complete. Like grandchildren, those projects are fun to spend a few days with, but it’s nice not to have all the responsibility.


Vintage is a great word just vague enough to keep you confused. Old iron writers value the word because it can’t really be pinned down to any specific age category, unlike ‘antique.’ Vintage is often used to imply old, but in actuality it applies to any discrete time period – or even a single year like 2006. Students of agricultural antiques often use the word when in the company of experts and the discussion turns to an object that may not be more than 50 years old. If it’s over 50 it’s officially an antique, but no matter what its age, it is a vintage piece.


Students of old iron might ask a master why most screws and bolts have right-handed threads and they might learn a great deal about good and evil in the process. Alternatively, the seasoned master might ask the student why he blew a hole in the side of the irreplaceable transmission case with the cutting torch when he really just wants to yell. Enthusiasts everywhere ask themselves why when they realize how badly they underestimated most aspects of a project.


Rust and rot are the bane of any restoration experience and lead to the demise of much of agriculture’s physical history. As oxidative processes, both are promoted by the earth’s atmosphere, but they are especially rapid where there is plenty of moisture. Artifacts obtained from xeric environments (much of Arizona, and several other states – even parts of North Dakota) are particularly prized because the low-moisture environment preserves most of the pieces.


In some parts of the world, a yak is no more than a longhaired, sometimes domesticated ox native to the Tibetan highlands. In the old iron world, yak means to talk incessantly about this or that special detail that makes one’s prize particularly distinctive. Perhaps it is a piece of original condition tinwork with its original Dzus fasteners intact. Possibly it is the pinhole in the one-of-a-kind carburetor float that was so carefully soldered shut without explosion. When folks start avoiding you even right after a shower, it might be that you yak too much.


Even as Alemite was marketing its lubrication fittings in 1918, Oscar Zerk was thinking about another way. In 1922, he patented the ball- or nipple-type grease fitting most students of old iron recognize today as the Zerk. The Allyne-Zerk Co. (Cleveland) manufactured Zerk fittings until 1924, when the Alemite Co. purchased them to complement its growing line of lubrication accessories. Alemite still manufactures Zerks with estimates of several billion total produced to date. FC

Oscar ‘Hank’ Will III is the Editor-in-Chief of GRIT magazine. Contact him at

  • Published on Feb 1, 2007
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