Spark Plug Inspection and Maintenance – Breaker Point Inspection

in Engine Ignition and Electrical Systems

Inspection of the magneto consists essentially of a periodic breaker point and dielectric inspection. After the magneto has been inspected for security of mounting, remove the magneto cover, or breaker cover, and check the cam for proper lubrication. Under normal conditions, there is usually ample oil in the felt oiler pad of the cam follower to keep the cam lubricated between overhaul periods. However, during the regular routine inspection, examine the felt pad on the cam follower to be sure it contains sufficient oil for cam lubrication. Make this check by pressing the thumbnail against the oiler pad. If oil appears on the thumbnail, the pad contains sufficient oil for cam lubrication. If there is no evidence of oil on the fingernail, apply one drop of a light aircraft engine oil to the bottom felt pad and one drop to the upper felt pad of the follower assembly. [Figure 4-58]

Figure 4-58. Felt lubricator.

Figure 4-58. Felt lubricator.


After application, allow at least 15 minutes for the felt to absorb the oil. At the end of 15 minutes, blot off any excess oil with a clean, lint-free cloth. During this operation, or any time the magneto cover is off, use extreme care to keep the breaker compartment free of oil, grease, or engine cleaning solvents, since each of these have an adhesiveness that collects dirt and grime that could foul an otherwise good set of breaker contact points.

After the felt oiler pad has been inspected, serviced, and found to be satisfactory, visually inspect the breaker contacts for any condition that may interfere with proper operation of the magneto. If the inspection reveals an oily or gummy substance on the sides of the contacts, swab the contacts with a flexible wiper, such as a pipe cleaner dipped in acetone or other approved solvent. By forming a hook on the end of the wiper, ready access can be gained to the back side of the contacts.

To clean the contact mating surfaces, force open the breaker points enough to admit a small swab. Whether spreading the points for purposes of cleaning or checking the surfaces for condition, always apply the opening force at the outer end of the mainspring and never spread the contacts more than 1⁄16 inch. If the contacts are spread wider than recommended, the mainspring, the spring carrying the movable contact point, is likely to take a permanent set. If the mainspring takes a permanent set, the movable contact point loses some of its closing tension and the points then either bounce or float, preventing the normal induction buildup of the magneto.

A swab can be made by wrapping a piece of linen tape or a small piece of lint-free cloth over one of the leaves of a clearance gauge and dipping the swab in an approved solvent. Pass the swab between the carefully separated contact surfaces until the surfaces are clean. During this entire operation, take care that drops of solvent do not fall on lubricated parts, such as the cam, follower block, or felt oiler pad.

To inspect the breaker contact surfaces, it is necessary to know what a normal operating set of contacts looks like, what surface condition is considered as permissible wear, and what surface condition is cause for dressing or replacement. The probable cause of an abnormal surface condition can be determined from the contact appearance. The normal contact surface has a dull gray, sandblasted, almost rough appearance over the area where electrical contact is made. [Figure 4-59] This gray, sandblasted appearance indicates that the points have worn in and have mated to each other and are providing the best possible electrical contact. This does not imply that this is the only acceptable contact surface condition. Slight, smooth-surfaced irregularities, without deep pits or high peaks, such as shown in Figure 4-60, are considered normal wear and are not cause for replacement.

Figure 4-59. Normal contact surface.

Figure 4-59. Normal contact surface.

Figure 4-60. Points with normal irregularities.

Figure 4-60. Points with normal irregularities.

However, when wear advances to a point where the slight, smooth irregularities develop into well-defined peaks extending noticeably above the surrounding surface, the breaker contacts must be replaced. [Figure 4-61]

Figure 4-61. Points with well-defined peaks.

Figure 4-61. Points with well-defined peaks.

Unfortunately, when a peak forms on one contact, the mating contact has a corresponding pit or hole. This pit is more troublesome than the peak because it penetrates the platinum pad of the contact surface. It is sometimes difficult to judge whether a contact surface is pitted deeply enough to require replacement because this depends on how much of the original platinum is left on the contact surface. The danger arises from the possibility that the platinum pad may already be thin as a result of long service life and previous dressings.

At overhaul facilities, a gauge is used to measure the remaining thickness of the pad, and no difficulty in determining the condition of the pad exists. But at line maintenance activities, this gauge is generally unavailable. Therefore, if the peak is quite high or the pit quite deep, remove and replace them with a new assembly. A comparison between Figures 4-60 and 4-61 will help to draw the line between minor irregularities and well-defined peaks.

Some examples of possible breaker contact surface conditions are illustrated in Figure 4-62. Item A illustrates an example of erosion or wear called frosting. This condition results from an open-circuited condenser and is easily recognized by the coarse, crystalline surface and the black “sooty” appearance of the sides of the points. The lack of effective condenser action results in an arc of intense heat being formed each time the points open. This, together with the oxygen in the air, rapidly oxidizes and erodes the platinum surface of the points, producing the coarse, crystalline, or frosted appearance. Properly operating points have a fine-grained, frosted, or silvery appearance and should not be confused with the coarse-grained and sooty point caused by faulty condenser action.

Figure 4-62. Examples of contact surface conditions.

Figure 4-62. Examples of contact surface conditions.

Figure 4-62B and C illustrate badly pitted points. In the early stage, these points are identified by a fairly even contact edge and minute pits or pocks in or near the center of the contact surface with an overall smoky appearance. In more advanced stages, the pit may develop into a large, jagged crater, and eventually the entire contact surface takes on a burned, black, and crumpled appearance. Pitted points, as a general rule, are caused by dirt and impurities on the contact surfaces. If points are excessively pitted, a new breaker assembly must be installed.

Figure 4-62E illustrates a built-up point that can be recognized by the mound of metal that has been transferred from one point to another. Buildup, like the other conditions mentioned, results primarily from the transfer of contact material by means of the arc as the points separate. But, unlike the others, there is no burning or oxidation in the process because of the closeness of the pit of one point and the buildup of the other. This condition may result from excessive breaker point spring tension that retards the opening of the points or causes a slow, lazy break. It can also be caused by a poor primary condenser or a loose connection at the primary coil. If excessive buildup has occurred, a new breaker assembly must be installed.

Figure 4-62F illustrates oily points that can be recognized by their smoked and smudged appearance and by the lack of any of the previously mentioned irregularities. This condition may be the result of excessive cam lubrication or of oil vapors that may come from within or outside the magneto. A smoking or fuming engine, for example, could produce the oil vapors. These vapors then enter the magneto through the magneto ventilator and pass between and around the points. These conductive vapors produce arcing and burning on the contact surfaces. The vapors also adhere to the other surfaces of the breaker assembly and form the sooty deposit. If so, install new breaker assembly.