Benchside Classic: When Tools Were Built To Last


Like so many things in this world, tools just aren’t made the way they once were.

Where once there were forged parts, now there are castings. What used to be iron might today be made of plastic. We’ve slowly traded away the simple for the complex, and come to accept that “built to last a lifetime” will always be accompanied by asterisks and footnotes.

With so many more-or-less disposable products in our garages today, it’s always nice to be reminded of simpler times – when the first step was to repair, not replace.

Here at CC, we appreciate the preservation of well-built machinery, and the quiet dignity of equipment that keeps earning its keep long after the dust has settled.

With that said, let me introduce you to my air compressor.


As far as I can tell, this beast was built in 1972 – around the same time as many of the cars it has shared space with since I’ve owned it. Its electric motor runs on single-phase 220VAC, and kicks out around 5HP. The pump is made of iron, and is a 2-cylinder unit capable of keeping this tank filled with compressed air at a pressure of 120 PSI.

I bought it shortly after moving into this building, for $75, from an older gentleman in a neighboring town. It came with the usual “got it from my brother” type story. Given its age, I didn’t have a whole lot of faith in it – but the price was right, so I gave it a chance. That turned out to be a good decision. So far, it’s done everything I’ve asked it to with few complaints.

Its only past failure occurred two years ago, and played a small part in the story of the Bonneville limo. (If you can recall the untimely death of its head gasket in the middle of that car’s marathon repair session, I’m officially impressed.) Since then, it has been plugging along with nothing more than a bi-weekly tank draining, the occasional crankcase oil replacement, and one new belt.


In an effort to keep it around for the long haul, I even took the opportunity to buy another identical pump a couple years ago, when one appeared in a local junkyard (in decent shape and attached to a rusted-out tank). The spare pump lays in wait, mounted to this portable tank as both a means of storage and as a somewhat-portable companion for my main compressor.

Over the past week, I had undertaken a major reorganization project in the garage. I’d added a floor to the attic, and had resolved to move every car part that could be carried up a ladder to there. What remained would then be filed away on the shelves, ordered in whatever fashion would make the most sense given this new arrangement. In addition to the moving, every part that was not yet inventoried was being entered into my parts database, and previously entered parts were being updated to reflect their new locations. Once all that was done, the floor could be washed (long overdue after so many months of winter) – then the place would be clean and uncluttered, ready for Project XJ6 to resume indoors.

As all this was going on, there were plenty of uses for compressed air. I was in the process of blowing the dust off of yet another box of telephone parts when I heard an unfamiliar rattle coming from the air compressor. Immediately I knew something was wrong.

As I dashed over to shut it off, the rattle grew louder, and the rotation speed began to slow. After cutting its power, I attempted to turn it over manually – and found that the pump’s crank could not make a full rotation. Uh-oh.


So the cleaning was put on hold. I grabbed my hand-truck, released the compressor from all its connections, and wheeled it into the center of the garage.


After all the air was released and the pump had cooled, I unbolted it from the tank and brought it over to the bench for examination.


Upon removing the valve cover, I immediately noticed a problem: both screws that held the upper rear valve in place had backed out. I found one screw laying loose near the valve… but where was the other?


Yup, you guessed it: down the hole. The screw had rattled its way down into the cylinder, landing atop the piston where it was repeatedly slammed against the head. It made a distinct indentation in the piston.


Found it! The screw was actually embedded in the head, flattened out like a nail hammered into wood. I had to carefully chisel it out. Amazingly, there was no other damage visible.


With the problem found, it was time to think about reassembly. I’ve been unable to find anyplace that sells pre-made gaskets for these pumps, so making them by hand is the only option. Simply pressing the gasket material against the jug is enough to make an impression, which then gives you a set of marks to cut along.

Making the gasket was fairly simple. Finding a replacement screw, however, was far more daunting. I checked several hardware stores, each time finding nothing even close. Many of their employees suggested I try an auto parts store. So I did – three of them, to be exact. None of them had anything, either. Their advice? Across the board, it was the same: try a hardware store.

Accepting defeat, I finally told the saleswoman at the third and final auto parts store to show me where their taps were kept. I explained that I wanted to find a reasonably sized pair of screws, then match them up with a tap and bit. By doing so, I could move up to a “standard” hardware size and be done with this whole ordeal.

Though she certainly did try hard enough, the store’s limited inventory kept bringing us to incomplete combinations – a tap and bit for this size, but no hardware; a tap for this, but no bit; here’s some hardware, but no corresponding tap. I finally ended up thanking her and moving on.

In the end, I went back to one of the hardware stores. They were able to supply me with two screws, a bit, and a tap which all corresponded. I also looked for and bought a tube of thread locker, to hopefully prevent the problem from reoccurring.


After an hour of driving and searching, and five more minutes of work, it was done.


Since everything was already disassembled, I figured I’d give the machine its yearly cleaning early.


It’s so much nicer to work on a clean machine.


With everything back together, it was time to roll the compressor back to its corner, get it hooked up, and see if my new screws and gasket would hold.


Success! This 42-year-old machine will live to work another day.


Maybe now I can get back to the task at hand – after I replace that failed ballast, which I just noticed. The fun never ends!