Fairbanks Morse 15/20 hp (circa 1925) – Documentary

Fairbanks Morse 15/20 hp (circa 1925) – Under restoration (Fall 2008 to Spring 2009)

Fairbanks Morse Z series 15/20 hp Grain Elevator Engine

In childhood my long suffering parents used to take me to the local historical park to run out my over abundance of energy and to desperately try and give me some form of education. I used to play for hours around the old grain elevator, placed there in the 60’s as an interpretive symbol of the old west. The engine used to rhythmically tick away daily in the “office” as steam arose from its cooling tank, and outside the muffler would pound out its signature tune. Back then the muffler was installed as with all elevators, just outside the shed on the wall. I occasionally burned myself on its hot metal, and would happily inhale the sweet fumes emanating from it. I would come away from the scene with a sense of joy that this powerful giant was under human control and that I could become lost in its intoxicating presence.

Today this engine still chugs away. Thirty years later I bring my daughter to this site, but it is not quite the same. The muffler has been silenced for little ears, and hidden away from little hands. I am sure that the smell is different too as the fuel today would be unleaded gas with a whole different load of chemical additives. The grain elevator too stands more as a symbol of the passing ways of the prairies than that of our connection to the land. These prairie sentinels that once were scattered on the horizon now number in the very few with more being wantonly destroyed each year.

Here is the video I shot in 2008 of the engine at the historical site.

I had decided that I should try and find such an engine to add to my collection. I had spent time looking on my favorite engine websites but the ones I could find were well above what I wanted to pay and had no local history to me. There was one which was in the correct price range in Newfoundland, but by the time I made the contact it had sold. I did however purchase another engine from this gentleman which is very rare and of great significance.

I began to search out the local auctions. Several engines were at auction in the summer of 2007 / 2008 but one was of particular interest and I felt a good feeling about. This was part of an estate sale near Barrhead, 5 hours north of me.

Marie had agreed to meet me the week before her sale and show me her late husbands engines. A little wary of me, she invited a relative to watch over me. I was near the area working on a project and I thought that it would be a 2 hour journey maximum to visit her… but as the Arrogant Worms song goes, “Canada is really big”. One would think I would have learned that one by now. I also did not account for the 3 and a half hour coffee and chat we had which made for one very long day.

Getting Unstuck

Below you see the engine as I try to get it unstuck.  Although the major part, that is the piston, was free (in fact it was out), Much of the smaller parts were rusted stuck quite badly.  Bathed in penetraiting oils, and gently heated and cooled, the long process of degreasing and removal of rust began.  I use heat, brass wire brushes, hot water and steam baths, as well as electrolosis to clean the various parts.  The fuel pump was clogged solid and alot of heating was needed to turn the internal grease block to dust and then hot oil to penetrate and clean out.

Fairbanks Morse Engine Restoration – The motion base

Although interesting, I was not at all happy with the skids the engine arrived on. They were uneven and crude. I was interested in creating a cart system, but there are a lot of guys in the area who have dedicated a great deal of time in the accurate replication of the Fairbanks Morse Factory Cart which would have come with the engine. The best of which was done by Larry Potter. His engine is a dream. Finely balanced and the cart a highly accurate reproduction.

This engine was most definitely a grain elevator engine, so I felt a base which would give the impression of an engine on a mount in an elevator would be the way to go. I looked to the bases created by Rob Skinner of California and his ideology for moving them around. Robs bases are on removable fixed wheels which are merely tools in loading and unloading. The cart with no wheels, sits well on most surfaces and is not prone to the rock and bounce that wheeled carts are. With the wheels on the unit, it becomes a means to winch the engine platform on to the trailer. Since I go to shows with my tilt deck and use a forklift to load and unload the trailer, I felt this would be adequate for my needs.

Below are pictures of the welded frame before the addition of the wooden platforms. The wood used was 60 year old rough cut fence board. I felt the wood would work well to reduce vibration as well as to create a rustic look matching the engine. The board was milled to size with the weathered surface up and then clear coated with Varathane to protect it from the elements and the staining of oils.

With the completion of the base and a shelf full of cleaned and oiled parts, I was able to start the re assembly of the engine. Beginning with the base, I had applied a mixture of Boiled lindseed oil and Methyl Hydrate to it to protect the rust from further rust. I had decided that this engine would be remain in what looked to be work clothes thus, all cleaned parts kept either a metalic finish which would be coated with the linseed mixture or with some other form of clear coat / rust inhibition system.

The Base firmly bolted in place, I replaced the side running gear. The flywheels followed and were also covered with the Linseed oil mixture. It should be noted that this mixture takes a few days to dry properly so the progress would slow each time a protective coating was added.

The Fun Continues

With the mounting of the engine, the major job which I hated the most and left to very last, that of the piston rings became the paramount source of frustration. I had honed and deglazed the cylinder. Believe me, finding an 8 inch hone was not an easy task. I measured the rings to be 8.040. I needed two at the start. There were two stuck on the piston and one free. I used the technique of tapping to try and free the two stuck rings. Very quickly I needed two more rings as my patience was wearing thin with the tapping and the recomended method of shims was very effective in destroying two more of the remaining rings. I found myself searching high and low for a custom manufacturer of Piston rings.

A ton of searching later I had found a small custom manufacturer of piston rings in the eastern United States. It was a long three week wait, during the mean time I worked on the water plumbing and tank. The tank was built from a piece of rolled steel. To keep costs down I did the welding myself. The bottom is a circular plate welded and checked. Holes were cut with a plasma cutter and threaded ports welded on. The plumbing pipes were added (1 1/4″ pipe) as well as the hoses. The manual made special note that the hose sections were very important to the system. I felt it was as a vibration damper, but the hose flexibility helped in final assembly as well. The water tank and all the piping was coated in Tremclad rust paint hammered aluminum paint. The inside of the water tank was fitted with angle ears and a hole screen. This would act as a damper for water jumping with vibration, as well as a screen to protect from critters and unclean water sources.

Before the fuel systems were finished, however, I just had to give it one go. I shot the following video of it’s inagural run.

It was important to note that I had some high temperatures on the first few runs. This was caused by the new piston rings which had not yet seated correctly and were causing alto of friction heat on the cylinder. The manual is quite clear in stating that the correct operating range is between 140 and 170 degrees.

The cap on the connecting rod was checked for tightness and warmth after the run and then the crank guard was added. The fuel tank was made out of sheet steel and welded. The plumbing was of brass and copper. This became the last of the major items on the restoration. Other than lifting points for putting the wheels on and off for show, only time will tell what more will need to be done to this unit.

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