In this entertaining read, he is sharing how he transformed a grimy vintage fire extinguisher into a gorgeous work of art before giving it to me for my birthday. Yes, I have a great brother!
But be warned: Dan is in full-blown mad scientist mode here. You’ll be seeing words like blowtorch, asbestos, and electrons just to name a few. Please do not attempt any of this at home. By some miracle, Dan is okay – or at least he appears to be.
So now I’m handing him the keyboard so he can take us to that mad and magical place where history and science meet:
Dan’s Fire Extinguisher Rebuild
So I’m walking around the salvage shop one day when an old fire extinguisher catches my eye. When most people think of an antique fire extinguisher, they imagine an intricate brass and copper work of art instead of a big red cylinder. This one was a big red cylinder, so most people passed it by. I could tell it was old, but not necessarily antique.
Through the scratches in the paint, I could see that the body was made of copper and the top was one solid brass casting. It may not have been antique but it was certainly valuable, so I bought it.
The label read “Carbon Tetrachloride.” I didn’t know what that was, but it sounded dangerous. Back in the good ol’ days nobody bothered to manufacture anything that wasn’t lethal in some way, either lead-based or radioactive or containing asbestos.
WARNING: HISTORY CONTENT
I did a little research and found out that the use of carbon tetrachloride in fire extinguishers was banned in the early 1950’s. If they were banning stuff in the 50’s you know it was deadly. This is the time when people still had “Atomic Bomb” parties in Las Vegas so tourists could watch the above-ground nuclear tests.
Parts of the fire extinguisher were patented in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s by Albert B. Phister. That’s just when the patents were filed, not necessarily the manufacture date. Especially since the patent drawings show flat-head screws, and the unit I bought has Philips.
The predecessor to the Philips screw and driver was patented in 1933 by J. P. Thompson from Portland, Oregon. His design was quite different from what we see today.
As is the case with most inventors, Thompson had a good idea but no means to bring his idea to market. He tried to get several screw manufacturers to pick up his design, but no one was interested. When the patents were granted to Thompson in 1933, the rights were assigned to a Portland entrepreneur by the name of Henry F. Philips. This means that it was awarded directly to Philips, even though Thompson is credited with the invention. It also means that Thompson and Philips had a far more amiable relationship than most competing inventors. (The rivalry between Edison and Tesla was legendary.)
Henry Philips eventually bought out Thompson’s interests in the patent and then radically redesigned the screw and driver to the more familiar Philips screw we all know and love today.
Philips managed to garner the interest of the American Screw Company who soon began producing his new design in 1936. The first big customer was General Motors who used Philips screws in the manufacture of the 1937 Cadillac. By 1939, over 20 companies had licensing agreements to manufacture Philips’ design, and the Philips had grossed over $77,000 in royalties alone (about $1.3 million in today’s dollar).
So, long story short (too late), the fire extinguisher I bought must have been manufactured sometime between 1939 and the early 1950’s.
The Clean-Up Begins
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This fire extinguisher was caked in so much grease that some of the smaller screw heads were buried. The first order of business was to clean it up and take it apart.
One of those fancy, new-fangled Philips screws was stuck, and any attempt to loosen it only stripped the screw head. Sometimes heat can loosen a screw, so it was time to use my micro blowtorch.
I’d seen people do this on the internet, so it had to work.
I thought it would be prudent to take it out to the driveway and keep a garden hose handy in case the torch sets off the grease. But really, a fire extinguisher catching fire is just too ironic to actually happen in real life.
After taking it apart I was really glad to be taking pictures of all this. Who knew a fire extinguisher would have so many parts, and they’re all copper, brass or steel. They really built things to last back then, even if they did fill it with poison. There is even a fitting to recharge it after use.
It was time to set up the grinder with a wire wheel. I spent the rest of the day and part of the next just scraping the old paint and tarnish off of all those parts. There were two pieces that had some kind of blue substance on them, probably just oxide, but I didn’t want to risk getting any radioactive lead-based asbestos on me, so I cleaned them off with a wet rag real good before using the wire wheel on them.
Paint stripper could only do so much with all those nooks and crannies on the top casting, so it was time to try out my new Proxxon roto-tool that Chris and Heidi gave me for my birthday (Germany’s answer to a Dremmel). I used the smallest grinding bit I could find and spent the better part of the day grinding away on it.
Back to the large wire wheel for the copper body. It turned out reasonably well.
Then I spent about two hours buffing it by hand.
A Big Problem
Now I had another problem. All the shiny copper and brass made the steel parts look out-of-place. Despite my best efforts to shine them up, they still cheapened the whole look of the extinguisher. I could paint them but I’d been wanting to try my hand at metal plating, and this project seemed like the perfect candidate for it.
WARNING: SCIENCE CONTENT
Copper electroplating is a rather straight-forward process. You are basically creating a medium in which, when current is applied to the metals, the copper ions to disassociate from a copper anode and flow through the solution towards, and become deposited on, the steel cathode.
I would use copper acetate as an electrolytic solution made from vinegar, hydrogen peroxide and a pure copper scouring pad. After soaking the pad in the vinegar/peroxide solution, the copper ions would break free from the pad and become suspended in the solution.
I actually didn’t want to overdo it with the free-range copper ions in the solution. Too much copper could create burn spots and uneven plating. To provide the current, I would use three C-cell batteries (they still make those!) I didn’t want to over-do it with the voltage either.
So after 20 minutes of soaking in the plating solution with 4.5 volts running through it, the result was … nothing. I was so bummed that I forgot to take a photo of it. The batteries were hooked up right, this should have worked. I tried sanding, cleaning, and degreasing it all over again. And again, no result. Maybe copper won’t plate directly to steel?
But I wasn’t giving up yet. An alternative to electroplating is chemoplating. The way I figured it, copper ions can be chemically bonded to a metal. I’d have to use sulfate rather than acetate so the copper ions wouldn’t need the nudge from the flow of electrons to get deposited onto the metal I was plating. That was the theory, anyway. I couldn’t wait to see if it would work!
Copper sulfate is the main ingredient in a popular drain cleaner designed specifically for killing roots that have intruded into your sewer line.
That was more like it! And it only took a few seconds for the copper to be deposited onto the metal. One thing I noticed, though, was that the plating was not consistent and not very shiny. I’d never get it to buff up like a brand-new penny, and it was showing spots of oxidation right out of the solution. It ended up looking like antique copper instead.
This being a vintage fire extinguisher, I think I can live with the results. It gives it that antique look.
Then I realized this fire extinguisher would be far too fabulous to just hide it away in my garage and there is really no place for it in my house. But it would look great in Heidi’s recently remodeled laundry room. It would fit in perfectly with that décor yet still be visible. And Heidi had a birthday coming up so, happy birthday Heidi. Here’s a used fire extinguisher! (This family is not normal).
One final buffing and here it is …
Do you remember that old song by Right Said Fred called “I’m Too Sexy?” Well this fire extinguisher is too sexy for my laundry room. It’s there for the time being, but it’s a gorgeous piece of art, and I’m going to find a better place to display it.
When refurbishing an old piece, it’s important to know when to stop. Dan struck the right balance here. The fire extinguisher doesn’t look brand new. It has character and intrigue.
And what a long way it’s come from that salvage shop find!
I think I can safely say that no one else has a vintage piece of art quite like this. The Mad Scientist has done it again!
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