Recollections and Reflections From A Tool Box



by Bill Sommers (Part 1)


I was introduced to #Steamcleaning one Saturday morning when my father (Henry Sommers) woke me up and told me I was going to help him. He had this machine in the back of an old Chevy truck. We proceed to a used car lot where we steamed the engines. I believe for $3.00 each. The year was 1956 and I was 15 years old…


I wasn’t aware that the terminology #Steamcleaning was in my blood at that time. Later when I was being drafted into Uncle Sam’s Army. I asked my mom for my birth certificate. That’s when I noticed that my father’s occupation was listed as #steamcleaner on it. Evidently this was his job at #NorthernPump in Minneapolis during the war. That also explained to me how come I was #cleaning engines one Saturday morning.


My father began selling steam cleaners manufactured in Tucson throughout the southwest. During the next couple of years I cleaned restaurants and worked on his trade-ins. I got paid for the restaurants and I think dad said smoothing like room and board on the repairs.


#Capps manufacturing  – (Tucson, Arizona) employed me part time and Saturdays to paint #SteamCleaners frames, make steam guns and help wind coils. Jim Capps moved to Tucson after working at the #Clayton–Kerrick factory in Ohio during WWII. He started manufacturing #Capps steam cleaners based on the Clayton diaphragm pump. The model 200 was an extraordinary piece of work. The pump used conveyor bearing for a diaphragm. Self-aligning bearings on the 3/16 throw crank and homemade welded pump body with two external check valves. That’s really not the story. Once you got water pumping out of the steam gun you would switch the pump off and open the fuel valve. Then removing the stopper above the heater coil you puddled in enough fuel into the fire pot for initial ignition. About popcorn oil depth.

Then you turned off the fuel. Obtaining a piece of rolled up paper with some fuel on it you lit and dropped in to the oil puddle. After a few moments you on / offed the fan and pump switch a couple of times to ignite a fire across the puddle in the cast iron fire box.

Then you put the baffle stopper back in, set the fuel valve to the proper number for operation then kicked the switch back on and within 90 seconds there was steam.

Quite remarkable. This 90 gallon per hour steamer developed 350 degree temperature at 100 P.S.I. It flat out removed grease (remember this was 1956). The real secret to its performance was the .250 pipe diameter steam gun without an orifice. That amount of back pressure allowed for a continuance flow without the bucking normally produced at those higher temperatures. If atmospherically spread it out for vehicle cleaning.

Maintenance was pretty simple. A diaphragm would last about six months and you just cut out of belting and punched holes in it.

The check valves were rubber discs over metal and a brass seat with a gasket cap.

The first time they needed it you just flipped the rubber over to use the other side.

The soap tank had a meter valve and you set the drip into the float valve supply tank. You had to remember to turn it off. A serpentine belt operated the pump and blower. All in all, they demoed and sold great at $395.00 each. The next model Capps built emulated the Electro- Magic horizontal design with an automatic Wayne burner. By now the pump housing was being made at a cast factory. That took all the fun and mystery out of lighting with a match and paper. You could still have some fun though with the natural gas and propane heated units. They were lit off with an automotive spark plug. You needed to check the spark hole before turning on the gas valve.

I remember one demo at a junkyard where I was helping the salesman. The check valves were leaking back and the temperature was going up along with the pressure. The water started spraying out of the gaskets and I stood on top of the pump to hold it together. The sale was made and we told them that we would return with a new machine not a demo.

The terms were 30- 60- 90. They made the first but after six months nothing, I was sent back to pick it up. I went on early Sunday morning and yes, there were junkyard dogs involved. That’s another story, but I did get the machine back.

I went on service call and saw my first #electro-Magic Model 100 with a small single cylinder cup pump. It made plenty of noise in operation. The heater coil was leaking and the only way to get to it was to chisel the drum casing off the burner end. They had welded it in permanently. Fun job!

About this time in life, fate was making elaborate decisions for me. This required leaving school and taking care of a family problem in San Jose CA.

After that problem was solved, I had 15 bucks in my pocket and nowhere to sleep. Driving my ’53 Chevy, I headed from San Jose into Oakland following east 14th Street. I was offered a four hour job at a filing station the next day. I continued on and turned left/west on 92nd Avenue. About four blocks later I noticed a sign that said “S & M Service Authorized #Malsbary #SteamCleaner Dealer”.

I would spend the next two years of my life working for #Frank Perkins and S&M.

During this time, my mechanical attributes would be challenged. Some of the cleaners and pumps I repaired or rebuild were names that current distributors of pressure washer may have heard about. There were idiosyncrasies in each different make which laid the format for our present day curriculum of cleaners. Names like: Chem-Therm, clayton Kerrick, of course Malsbary, J.O. jenny, Sioux 106 B-B, real Mc Coy, Lodi, Modern, KeLite, Storm King, weaver, Twin T, American, delta, and others. Each sharing the unique ability to clean surface spic and span.

I will end this segment with the first time John took me to Western Greyhound. He was going to show me how this blow down worked on a Model 527. He arranged the valves. After the water quit exiting he was going to impress me so he kept the fire going an extra minute longer than normal. Instead of slowly feeding the cold water in, he slammed the valve open. The result was an ear peacing whistle. The exit water hurdling out, there was a fairly good explosive noise with the inch and a quarter pipe wrapping itself upward into the soap tank and putting a twelve inch crease into it.

Along with this were Greyhound people rushing over to see what it was all about.  Pretty exciting at the time. Lucky we kept the account.


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