The burning of the socks and a stitch in time saves, well, boat dollars.

Nakhodka Well, it’s getting a lot warmer and I am feeling even more pressure to get Pandora ready for the water.    Just a quick look out of my office window, now green and sunny, suggests that it’s time.Not too long ago, it looked like this and I felt like there was no need to rush. And, speaking of spring, I participated in another tradition at the Essex Yacht Club a few weeks ago, the burning of the socks.  The idea is to get rid of those old socks, the ones you won’t need when it’s warm outside.

Kibre Mengist Spring or not, it’s not quite warm enough to shed my socks just yet.  Well, at least compared to the last six winters in the tropics where sandals were my footwear of choice. However, being a “joiner” I had to be part of the fun and true to my “Yankee” upbringing, I only tossed “widowed” socks.  You know, the ones without a mate.  I also made sure that they were “environmentally responsible” socks, cotton only please.   It’s a fun tradition but one that happens in the early spring when I should really be in Antigua, not New England.  Next spring I plan to miss this particular rite of spring.

friskily I understand that this tradition was cribbed from a similar practice that is followed in the sailing hub of Annapolis MD.  So, here I am, nearly in the second half of May and there’s plenty still to do to get Pandora ready. “So Bob, tell us more.  How are those myriad projects going anyway?”

Well, some well and some not so well.  That pesky mast step, well, it is defying me and I am running out of ideas on how to remove the bolts.  Last week I was finally able to grind off the heads of the two that were more exposed but the two in the back corners are so tight that they are proving to be very tough to get at.  Oh, how I wish I had never gotten into that…

This is an old photo of the step.  Now the two on bolts the left have had their heads removed but the two tucked in the corners are defying me.  Bit after drill bit have broken and still, they won’t budge.   My friend Paul, at the local machine shop, lent me a burr to grind the heads off, when attached to an air powered grinder.  I purchased a  grinder along with a long extension hose for my compressor and loaded it into the back of my tiny truck.   I’ll snake the hose down below and let you know how it goes.  I don’t have much experience with air tools so caution and patience will prevail…  Details to come. And speaking of air tools, I was exposed to some of these metal working gizmos on Friday when I drove to a machine shop near Hartford to pick up the engine head from my 1962 MGA MkII.  Yes, I realize that this blog is supposed to be about boats and not cars but hey, it’s actually pretty interesting.  Well, to me anyway.  I guess you’ll have to be the judge.

Anyway, when we purchased our little red car shortly after moving to CT I knew that the syncro for second gear was shot and after grinding my way into second gear for six years, I decided that it was time to have the transmission rebuilt. That didn’t seem to be a terribly daunting project except that the entire engine needed to be removed to get at the gear box.   It’s all rebuilt now and looks as good as new. That circa 1962 engine, well it didn’t turn out to be very happy and that it’s issues went way beyond the gear problem.  Indeed, it gets worse.  “While we’re at it and the engine is out of the car, let’s check everything and see what else needs attention”, says the mechanic.   And, he did and found that the cam shaft was worn and it also needed a valve job.   Ugg…

Anyway, this has absolutely nothing to do with boats except that I learned something really interesting about fixing engines which matters unless you are one of those rare ones that believes that sailboats should ALWAYS be sailed, so read on…The head, now removed as you can see from the photo above, turned out to need love so off to a machine shop it went for a valve job.  As luck would have it, they discovered that the head had a number of cracks.  Not good, I thought, wondering how many “boat dollars” would be siphoned off to the MG.

I had always heard that a crack in cast iron was a death sentence but now know that may not be the case at all.   It turns out that there are folks out in the world that can fix this sort of problem.   Complicating all of this is the fact that my MG is an hour away at the repair shop, the head an hour away in a different direction at a machine shop and the head needed to go to yet another shop and a guy that fixes same, two hours farther away.  This guy Frank, it seems, does nothing but repair cracks in old cast iron engine parts.

Beyond wondering how much that repair was going to cost me, I also wondered how much it was going to cost to have someone deliver the cracked head to the specialist and then drive back and pick it up.  So, being a good boat dollar pinching Yankee, I decided to devote Friday to being a “cracked MG head delivery service” and resigned myself to spending the entire day in the car.

Anyway, not to get too much deeper into the weeds about all this, but it turned out to be a really fascinating day.   First I drove the hour to the machine shop tucked inside an old brick mill building on the edge of a waterfall.  While all of his equipment is powered by electricity, some of the machines in his shop looked like they were made only shortly after water power was replaced by electric.

It was really a cool place, greasy and dirty and the beaming smile on the face of the owner Mark made it clear that he was thinking about how much he’s making fixing all of those old engines.  There were engines everywhere I looked, in various states of disassembly along  with some really shiny newly rebuilt engines.  Perhaps my favorite, all ready for the owner to pick it up, was a beautiful 12 cylinder red monster, on the right, from an antique fire engine.   Awesome! So, I loaded my sad little cracked MG engine head into the car and off I went to that special place that heals sick engine heads in MA.

There I met Frank Casey, a guy that does nothing else but fix cracks in cast iron parts.  His shop was tucked away in the basement of this little tiny house at the end of a road in a residential neighborhood.  There was a button on the jam of the garage door that said “push button and hold”, so I did and a moment later I was greeted by Frank who reminded me of Giuseppe of Pinocchio fame, leather apron and all.

His business card says that he does “metal stitching of cast iron”.   That’s it, the only thing that he does, aside from finding cracks that need stitching, of course.

His shop, impossibly crammed with tools and engine parts, had a wood burning stove happily chugging away only adding to the Giuseppe image I had in my head.  Notice the temperature gauge on the smoke pipe for the stove.  This was clearly the workshop of a very precise guy. Amazingly, he agreed to fix the head in a few hours and instructed me to head to a local mall for lunch and to return at 12:30.   I did and returned just in time to watch him finish up the repair.

The key point, I learned, is that you can’t apply heat to fix a crack in cast iron, it needs to be fixed by a cold process using a mix of threaded rods and heat-proof adhesive.   First he confirmed the location of the cracks, all located in the number 1 cylinder, and set to work.

This involved drilling into the crack, first at the inside or terminus of the crack.  It was important to stabilize the crack and keep it from getting any longer, something that he says is inevitable once a crack begins.  Frank carefully drilled, threaded in some sort of special metal rod and then filed off the remainder flush to the surface of the head.  He then followed with additional holes and plugs that overlapped and connected to the prior threaded insert.  After filing the inserts flush, he used a pneumatic “tapper” to peen the metal in even more securely.  I was exacting work.
And, all of this very precise work was in great contrast to a chaotic riot of stuff everywhere I looked. In his “operating theater” a wall of tools in perfect order.  Interestingly, he doesn’t bother to switch bits or grinding heads as that takes too long.  Instead, he has every tool dedicated to it’s own pneumatic drill or hammer.  It’s the picture of efficiency, in every way.   Frank is the picture of precise time and motion. 
When he was confident that the cracks were filled and secure, he took multiple clamps, metal wedges and temporary gaskets to cover each of the cooling chamber openings in the head so that he could pressure test the casting and be absolutely certain that his repairs were perfect.   It was hard to follow with his quick movements but it was clear that he knew exactly what he was doing.He turned up the pressure to see if it held.  While the head was pressurized, he applied a liberal coating of WD40 to check for bubbles of escaping air from problems in the head casting.  There were none.  As expected…The whole process took about an hour and was fascinating.  It surely demonstrated that it pays to have work done by someone that does this sort of thing every day and in Frank’s case, all day, every day.

Fortunately the cracks the head were very short, about a half inch long so the repair was simple, well simple for Frank.  He’s fixed a lot worse and proudly showed me a photo of a repair that was huge on what he labeled as a “409 blk”.   The repairs show up like a nasty scar on Frankenstein.   Pretty impressive. Frank is a remarkable craftsman, clearly knows what he’s doing and is proud of his work.  He told me that parts are shipped to him from all over including many from cars that are worth a fortune, the sort shown at Pebble Beach.   I’d put a link to the guy but he doesn’t have email and certainly nothing like a newfangled website.   

You have to know the right people to find him and I guess that I do.  I called Frank yesterday to tell him that I’d be writing about him and would like to send a link but, he doesn’t have a computer or a cell phone, much less e-mail.   I am here to say that if you find yourself needing a “stitch” Frank’s you’re guy.  He’s located in Millbury, MA, and can be reached at 508-865-6613.

As fascinating as this was, the day did absolutely nothing to move Pandora closer to launch but now I know that if somehow we end up with a crack in her engine, perish the thought, well, Frank is standing by and ready to fix it.

As they say, “a stitch in time” saves, well I expect that it saved me at least one boat dollar”, and that’s a good thing as, with Pandora, they keep piling up.

Or, put it another way, unlike my socks, I don’t want to see to many “boat dollars” go up in smoke.



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