Coffee News: from Seed to Cup

Lever Romance: How I Restored a 70-Year-Old Espresso Machine

There’s something special about an old-fashioned lever machine. Designed by Achille Gaggia right after World War II, they’re typically considered the first real espresso machine. At the very least, they were the first to be able to create crema, that golden-brown layer that is – wrongly or rightly – often considered the hallmark of an espresso shot.

And more than 70 years later, they have evolved into fully automated, electronically controlled pump machines with PIDs and adjustable pressure profiles: a proper representation of the heartless times we live in, if you ask me.

So when I set out to build or restore an old lever espresso machine, it wasn’t just because I needed a reliable, high-quality machine for one-tenth of the price of a La Marzocco and with accessible spare parts in my corner of the planet (Buenos Aires). It also came out of my fascination with these beautiful pieces of equipment. Today, my lever machine is fully operational and used in a coffee shop. Read on to discover how I did it – and how you can too.

You might also like How The Espresso Machine Changed Italian Coffee Forever!

Lever romanceThe Kerch Machine, a restored lever espresso machine, ready for use. Credit: Arkadiy Chernov

What Is a Lever Espresso Machine?

Before I begin, let me quickly explain what a lever espresso machine actually is. Prior to the lever, espresso machines were in existence – but the coffee they produced looked little like today’s espressos. While they featured group heads, compressed pucks, and relatively short brew times (45 seconds or so), they could achieve no more than 2 bars of pressure.

And it’s pressure that creates espresso.

Gaggia’s design changed our definition of espresso forever. A lever was used to lift a piston and fill the brew chamber, while also compressing a spring. The barista then released the lever so that the compressed spring would extend and apply up to 10 bars of pressure. The result: a delicious, handcrafted espresso.

The concept may be simple, but it transformed coffee history. Even today, lever machines are capable of making excellent espresso.

BaristaDaniel Borras makes a ristretto on our lever machine at a Jameson Whiskey party. Credit: Jameson Whiskey

Tools, Resources, & Collaborators

No project can succeed without support! My initial resource was the Open Source Lever Project, a post initiated at the Home Barista Forum by Andre (username EspressoForge). It contained a massive amount of information on things such as which group heads to consider.

I also used the forum to contact Frank Durra and, through him, get two Bosco group heads. The Bosco design features a classic double-spring mechanism from the 1950s, which has only slightly changed throughout the years.

I also partnered up with my workmate, Javier Moro (who has since joined me in working at my online roasting business Kerch Coffee Roasters). Javier’s hands-on approach made him a great collaborator in this venture.

So, with these tools, resources, and teammates in place, here’s how we successfully restored a 1950s lever espresso machine.

old espresso machineThe beginnings of our project: an old espresso machine, with external compressor in the background, that we bought for just under US $100. Credit: Arkadiy Chernov

1. Hunt for Old Classics

Restoring an old espresso machine is easier than starting from scratch. Fortunately, sites such as eBay have lots of old espresso machines just begging to be restored and modified. They will need varying degrees of work, allowing you to choose much you want to do on them.

The advantage of getting an old machine is that you are getting a boiler, a frame, panels, and hopefully an operating heating element and valves. However, another option would be to go to an espresso machine parts supplier and choose whichever components fit your needs.

In our case, the machine we got is an Argentine version of the La San Marco 85, manufactured by Filcafe S.A. It featured an old classic external compressor setup and an adjustable regulator gas heater – specifications we could only dream of, since we didn’t need the compressor.

Zero electronics, no clogged electrical (solenoid) valves to deal with: only steam power.

BoilerA functional boiler and frame, which is all that we wanted for our project. Credit: Arkadiy Chernov

2. Disassemble, Clean, and Salvage What You Can

The Filcafe came in dirty, dusty, and with heavy scale buildup in the boiler and pipelines. A thorough disassembly and clean was needed.

Old boilerTop view of the espresso machine before cleaning: thick layers of dirt and grime are visible. Credit: Arkadiy Chernov

Lots of detergent, soaking in vinegar solution overnight, scouring pads, and car polish for exteriors did the job. The machine was salvaged in its entirety, except for the small boiler gasket (a rubber seal).

small boiler of a espresso machineThe small boiler, before and after descaling. Credit: Arkadiy Chernov

We then reassembled the machine, checked the safety valve spring load, and gave it a test run to check the proper operation of the gas regulator. In particular, we wanted to check the transition from idle to full flame and back.

Fortunately, everything ran smoothly. It was time to modify the machine to adapt the lever group heads.

group headsThe original group heads and hot water and steam valves, viewed from the front, after the initial clean. Credit: Arkadiy Chernov

3. Mounting The Lever Groups

To do this next step, we had to remove the original group heads and make space for our lever group mount.

one group and two groupFrom one to two groups. Credit: Arkadiy Chernov

Lever groups are heavy. As such, you will need to ensure that they have proper support and your machine remains balanced. Getting a quarter-inch steel U-shaped profile did the job for us, and we made sure to mount it as far back as possible for proper balance.

Basic metal drilling, cutting, and welding skills will be required for this step. Just remember to use pilot drills and plenty of lubricant while drilling, and protection when cutting and welding!

Reparing espresso machineJavier Moro welds the new lever group mount to the espresso machine. Credit: Arkadiy Chernov

4. Piping

We used the original pipe routing but, with the installation of the two lever group heads, we still needed some new piping inside the machine. You’ll need a pipe/tube bender, cutter, and flare tool for this type of work.

We bought copper pipes from a hardware store, yet they were hardened. This meant we had to heat treat them so they would soften enough for bending and flaring.

Oh, and a word of warning: when choosing valves, hot water spouts, and steam wands from different manufacturers, pay close attention to thread types and sizes. In our case, the Bosco group heads were metric, while the machine used British Standard Pipe threads. We had to purchase an adapter.

Newly routed pipes  Newly routed pipes. Credit: Arkadiy Chernov

5. The Final Assembly & Tune Up

We were nearly ready: all that we had to do now was change the color to a classic VW Beetle green to give it a more retro look. We also added a polished 2024 aluminum panel to cover the rustic steel profile on which the group heads were mounted. Other than this, everything we used came from an older espresso machine!

repaired machineReady for painting and testing. Credit: Arkadiy Chernov

The final challenge, and probably the most important goal in the whole process, was to ensure a proper espresso extraction throughout the whole range of operation. We increased the boiler pressure to 1.4 bar to achieve stability when in operating range. After all, large big chunks of metal like this are superb heat exchangers, making them tricky to operate as a newbie.

new espresso machineReady to go from the workshop to the coffee shop. Credit: Arkadiy Chernov

And that was it! We had successfully renovated a 1950s espresso machine, leaving it fit for service in a modern coffee shop. What started out as just an adventure had ended up surpassing all our expectations.

espressoPulling espresso on our machine. Credit: Arkadiy Chernov

So, what happened to it? Well, it caught the eye of Allan Dorgan, a British immigrant and founder of The Full City Coffee House, one of the leading specialty coffee stores in Buenos Aires, Argentina. A die-hard fan of modern and efficient machinery, Allan was using a La Marzocco FB80 as his workhorse. However, our modest dual lever made its way into his café. He uses it in his barista classes and the machine even won its way into a Jameson Whiskey event held in his store.

We asked Allan why he chose our ugly duckling when he already had a beautiful swan in the shape of his La Marzocco. His response: the sheer representation of simplicity, reliability, tradition, and passion.

Enjoyed this? Check out How The Espresso Machine Changed Italian Coffee Forever!

Written by Arkadiy Chernov, roaster and owner of Kerch Coffee Roasters, an online roasting business.

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