Spray Booth Training
Airblast Supports Apprentice Engineers with Vintage Fire Engine Restoration
In March 2019, a small group of young engineering apprentices stood shoulder to shoulder, staring in silence at a pristine vintage Merryweather fire engine. The vehicle was sparkling in the sunlight, having been painstakingly restored to the condition it would have been in when it first rolled out of the factory in 1930.
These trainees, with little funding or experience, had finally completed the restoration project they’d taken on almost four years prior – at a time when the scale and scope of the task at hand was utterly unclear to them.
They had persevered through significant challenges and a steep learning curve, but now, with the winter drawing to a close and with spring finally in the air, the team was finally able to take a step back and appreciate how far they’d come.
The story started in October 2015, when a young man named Sam Lowe was taken on as an apprentice with Cummins Generator Technologies in Stamford. He would spend three days a week in a job placement, learning about the various departments and roles in the company. Every six months, he would be moved to a different department until he had learned how all the pieces fit together.
One day a week would be spent in college. The fifth and final day would be spent in the workshop, tackling a larger, more practical project. The apprentices would be expected to propose this project themselves.
Sam’s apprentice group reached out to Burghley House, a celebrated local Elizabethan tourist attraction, and asked if they had any machinery in need of some TLC. When the Burghley Estate showed them the fire engine, they accepted the challenge and committed to restoring it to its former glory. Little did Sam know at the time that this promise would go on to become a defining part of his life for the best part of the next four years.
Although the total number of apprentices on the project would vary between 11 and 18 in total, only a handful of these would be fully involved at any given time. The team was asked to create a proposal for the work they intended to carry out, and to present it to their management team. They decided that they would commit to restoring every last inch of the vehicle to its factory within two years.
Setbacks and Challenges
Early in the project, the team divided its time between working on the fire engine and contacting potential sponsors and partners to request help. They received a small donation from the local Rotary Club and some pots of paint, but for the most part they were forced to use their initiative to find ways to complete the job.
Sam’s team decided to paint the vehicle by hand. They sanded down all the wooden panels manually, discovering a layer of grey paint between the bright red layers, which they would later learn was a wartime measure to reduce the vehicle’s visibility.
After completing the gruelling sanding and painting work, they came to the crushing realisation that the quality of the finish was not acceptable. Hand painting was clearly not the answer.
The team estimated that it would take several weeks to sand the vehicle by hand again and then to find an alternative painting method. The scale of the task at hand suddenly looked bigger than ever. At this demoralising moment, Sam and his team realised that the help they most urgently needed was expertise.
The apprentices decided to reach out to Airblast Eurospray for advice. Airblast offered to help by introducing the team to several processes that had the potential to improve the speed and quality of their work. Rather than to take the project out of their control, Airblast instead opted to teach the youngsters how to deal with the challenges themselves.
Most of the vehicle’s panels were wooden, so shot blasting wasn’t an option here. For these parts, Airblast suggested chemically stripping the paint to prepare the surfaces. When it came to steel components, shot blasting was the ideal method, so Airblast Eurospray introduced the team to its blast cabinets for smaller parts and blast rooms for larger pieces. For brass components, Airblast introduced the team to bead blasting, which is a less abrasive method designed to give the brass its shine back.
With all the surfaces prepared, Airblast taught the apprentices how to use its spray booths to repaint the various components. Airblast Eurospray’s experts spent the time to ensure that the team was able to use all the equipment safely and efficiently, imparting knowledge and teaching skills that Sam and his team would go on to use time and again for years to come.
The team learned to pinstripe and to add the fine details themselves. The apprentices had shot photos with rulers in the frames to use as reference, which would help them accurately recreate the original livery. They also discovered that the code on the side panel was a National Fire Service (NFS) station code: Fire Force 10, C Division, Sub-division 4, Station V8, which referred to Stamford Fire Station.
They replaced missing wooden panels, they had new upholstery made, they sourced replacement tyres, and they even helped their manager make a new hose jacket to protect the original rubber hose. Sam and his friends learned a great deal throughout the process and finally, one small step at a time, they were able to see their hard work beginning to pay off.
Almost four years after accepting the challenge of restoring a classic fire engine to its former glory, the project was finally drawing to a close. What had initially looked like a neglected husk of a vehicle was now finished to a standard that, in many ways, exceeded their initial hopes. Their share of the work was essentially done.
The next step was for the fire engine to be transported to Darlington, where it would be fitted with a new engine. It would then be moved back to Stamford where any final touches could be completed, and the vehicle presented back to Burghley House in a condition that no living Stamfordian would ever have seen before.
“As we approach the final stages, I think we are very different people now than we were at the start,” Sam told us. “Some of us are still attending college classes. Others have moved on to placements. Even though there were tough, even demoralising, moments on the project, the commitment we had made to Burghley House far outweighed any other consideration.”
Giving up and handing this marvel of Merryweather engineering back to its owners in anything less than pristine condition was not an option Sam and his team were willing to countenance. The project gave them the opportunity to learn the value of reaching out to experts for help, the pride in seeing a project through to its end, and the importance of keeping a promise.
Airblast is proud to have had the opportunity to support these young apprentices on their journey to becoming accomplished engineers. Sam hopes that his team’s accomplishment will be something of a beacon, reminding to other young people about the value of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education and about the power of perseverance.
We asked Sam what thought would happen next:
“My hope is that whenever the fire engine makes an appearance in the future, be it at a classic car show or a parade, it will act as a reminder to other young people that a determined and resourceful group can, with support and guidance from experts, achieve something significant – even when experience is lacking.”
However, not everything about the team has changed. To find out how the apprentices now felt about restoration, we asked if they were still tempted to restore a classic car or whether this project had put them off old vehicles for life. “I’d jump at the chance,” Sam said. “I think we all would.”