How to Get Started in the Old Iron Hobby

The Big Choice
You have a wide variety of choices if you want to become an antique iron collector. You can get into:

  • Stationary engines, including single cylinder, multi-cylinder
  • Antique gasoline tractors, crawler or wheeled type
  • Live steam, including steam traction engines or stationary steam plants
  • Garden tractors, lawn mowers, etc.
  • Other, such as light plants
  • Each has its advantages, disadvantages, and relative cost. The smaller iron such as garden tractors, lawn mowers and stationary engines is the most affordable. The initial costs are lower and storage costs are smaller. It's easy to tuck away a small Briggs and Stratton or Maytag engine under the workbench. On the other hand, steam traction engines require huge sheds and big acreages on which to run them. Also, steam engines are initially expensive and their boilers require expensive maintenance, licsensing, and insurance.

    So, I've decided, then what?
    The best three things you can do are:

  • Get acquainted with others in the hobby. Join a club.
  • Attend shows and swap meets. The Farm Collector Show Directory will list nearby shows if you live in the USA. Most larger events will be advertised in the major "old iron" magazines.
  • Start reading. Excellent magazines devoted to the hobby are a great source of how-to-do-it. Besides, their classified sections offer you chances to buy whatever you need, whether it's an engine tractor, parts, etc. Some magazines and their addresses are given at the end of this Web page.
  • Web Pages
    Other excellent sources of information and support are found on the Internet. Harry's Old Engine Classified Ads can lead you to an engine purchase or to needed repair or replacement parts. The many links listed on this Web site can put you in touch with people who would be happy to help you.

    Mailing Lists (Listservs)
    If you have the time, join an automated e-mailing list--"listserv" in Web-speak. The stationary engine and antique tractor mailing lists, for instance, are excellent. These lists connect you to hundreds of knowledgable people. It is a rare occasion when they can't collectively come up with the answer to the most difficult restoration question. To subscribe, go to the Antique Tractor Internet Services (A.T.I.S.) site and click on the "Mailing Lists" button. It gives you the option to sign up on a variety of lists.

    Consider Volunteer Work
    A number of organizations are dedicated to preserving machinery for future generations. Nearly all of them rely heavily upon volunteer labor. Yes, it can be hard work, but it can be enormously satisfying, too. Besides, you'll learn a great deal. It's a grand and noble way to get into the hobby. For instance, many people camp out beside the lovely lake on the grounds of the Western Minnesota Steam Threshers Reunion at Rollag, Minnesota, and spend a week or two every year, working on the exhibits. The Sumpter Valley Railway in Oregon is another excellent example of what volunteers can accomplish. Usually, you must first become a member of the organization before you are allowed to work there.

    The Purchase
    Before you spend hard-earned money on antique iron, get familiar and get advice. Fortunately, just about everybody in the hobby is honest and decent folk. But, there are traps to avoid.

    For starters, buy a complete unit. The "bargain" that's missing a magneto, for instance, can become mighty expensive by the time you find a mag. A mag can easily cost more than you paid for the item, doubling your cost.

    Select a common make and model the first few times around. Parts and advice will be a whole lot easier to come by--cheaper, too. There can be nothing more frustrating than spending year after year finding the parts you need to get your first unit running.

    Next, buy "one-on-one." That is, buy from an individual. If you have a limited budget, avoid auctions. The competition, especially at the widely advertised ones, will drive your costs up. Period. However, if you can afford it, attend every auction you can. They can be the easiest and fastest way to build a nice collection. Major magazines list most of the major auctions. For instance, Gas Engine Magazine usually lists several sales in each of the summer issues.

    If you want to keep costs within bounds, watch the classified ads in magazines and newspapers. Check the estate sales. Ask around. Who knows, the gasoline delivery truck driver, insurance salesman, or seed-corn dealer might very well remember seeing rusty "gold" on their routes. Word-of-mouth at your club meetings can be your best source of information--and--it will be "local" too.

    Now that I've got it, then what?
    The real satisfaction comes from transforming rusty junk into a smooth running, useful thing; something of beauty, even. Magazines, (such as Gas Engine Magazine and Farm Collector ), club members, mailing lists, Web pages, etc. can provide most of the advice and "how to" that you'll ever need. Suppliers such as Starbolt ( , Hit & Miss Enterprises and others can provide needed parts. Swap meets and auctions can also be a valuable source of parts; besides, they are fun to attend.

    Enjoy your accomplishment
    It makes no difference whether you own a monster steam traction engine or a one-horse Briggs, it can be a continuing source of button-busting pride and satisfaction if it's in top-notch reliable working condition. If you like paint and polish, by all means make it pretty. It will add to your enjoyment; and, you'll be preserving an important piece of history for many generations to come.

    Graduating to the "Big Time"
    After you've gotten the knack of restoration, you can graduate to some real challenges. This usually involves machine shop and foundry work. Yes, people do replace missing parts by making patterns and casting molten metal. To get an insight at some serious restoration, take a look at Craig Prucha's amazing work on his Antique Gas Engine pages. They feature many pictures that are an education in themselves. Craig produced a video showing how he cast new babbit bearings for one of his engines. You might want to ask him ( if he has any more copies for sale.

    Magazines and fliers

    TEE Publishing
    Engineers and Engine Magazine
    Donald D. Knowles, Editor
    2240 Oak Leaf Street,
    P.O.Box 2757,
    Joliet, IL 60434-2757
    (Primarily devoted to tractors & engines)
    Steam Traction
    1503 SW 42nd Street
    Topeka, KS 66609
    Phone (800) 880-7947
    (Steam, mostly)
    Gas Engine Magazine
    Gas Engine Magazine
    1503 SW 42nd Street
    Topeka, KS 66609
    Phone (800) 880-7947
    FAX 785-274-4300
    (Stationary Engines, mostly)
    Western Antique Iron Trader (W.A.I.T.)
    24696 SW Daniel Road,
    Beaverton, OR 97007-5491
    (Western USA antique tractor &
    stationary engine classified
    Live Steam Magazine
    P.O. Box 1810,
    Traverse City, MI 49685
    Phone 1-800-447-7367
    (Model steam engineering)
    Village Press
    P.O. Box 629,
    Traverse City, MI 49685-0629
    Phone 1-800-447-7367
    (Metalworking, model engineering)
    Stationary Engine Magazine
    Kelsey Publishing Ltd.
    Kelsey House, 77 High Street,
    Beckenham, Kent BR3 1AN, England
    The Old Machinery Magazine
    P.O. Box 1200,
    Port Macquarie, NSW, 2444,
    PH/ FAX ( 02 ) 65 850055
    Farm Collector Magazine
    1503 SW 42nd Street
    Topeka, KS 66609
    For subscriptions:
    Strictly I.C. Magazine
    Strictly I.C. Publishing
    24920 43rd Avenue South,
    Kent, WA 98032-4160
    (Model I.C. engines)
    Model Engineer
    Nexus Special Interests Limited,
    Nexus House, Azalea Drive,
    Kent BR8 8HU, England
    Tel.: (44) 1322 660070
    The Fosse, Fosse Way,
    Radford Semele, Leamington Spa,
    Warwickshire, CV31 1XN, England
    Tel: (+44) 01926 614101
    Fax: (+44) 01926 614293


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    Copyright © 1998-2011, Orrin B. Iseminger
    Revised -- 09/30/11