Most CoffeeGeek readers are aware of the E61 group, because it is still widely used in various forms on both commercial and home machines. In the mid to late 1990s, the group made a bit of a comeback, as it was used in the "prosumer" machines such as the ECM Giotto and the Isomac line. But how many people know much about the actual Faema E61 machines?
This article is the first in a series in which we will take a detailed look at the Faema E61 through my experience with the purchase and rebuild of an original two group machine. I will first put the machine into some historical context and compare it with machines still in production today. Then we will get around to the rebuild and restoration followed, hopefully, by pulling shots.
The Faema E61
The E61's place in history
I had been keen to get my hands on an original Faema E61 for some time. It is such an iconic machine and perhaps the most influential espresso machine of all time.
During the 1950s - the decade preceding the invention of the E61 - there existed two methods for brewing espresso. The first, the lever group, was patented in 1947 by Gaggia. The lever group changed espresso forever by realising that forcing water at high pressure through the coffee created crema. The second method was the hydraulic group, patented in 1956 by Cimbali. At this time, the heat exchanger system was also in use (developed in 1955 by Giampietro Saccani) and was later refined by Carlo Valente, who formed the Faema company.
What the lever and hydraulic groups do is to pressurise hot water; but what the E61 machine does is to deliver pressurised cold water with an electric pump that is then heated in the heat exchanger. So the E61 (introduced funnily enough in 1961) pulled together all the new technologies and ideas into one machine - that is, the electric pump able to deliver constant pressure on demand, a heat exchanger able to heat the incoming cold water, the thermosyphon to keep the group hot, and the three-way valve to deliver the water to the coffee and to release the pressure after brewing. This is what made the E61 revolutionary - not the group itself, but the combination of several technologies in one.
So what has happened in the past 45 years?
Well, there are other heat exchange systems and numerous groups around - most groups these days use solenoid valves to control brewing, and brewing is also volumetrically controlled with the addition of flowmeters and computers. The Cimbali group uses a long heat exchanger cartridge that goes down into the boiler; there is no external thermosyphon. There is also the La Marzocco GS double-boiler system and saturated group (GS stands for gruppo saturo). And more recent years have brought us the double boiler saturated group machines with PID, such as the Synesso Cyncra and the La Marzocco GB/5.
The two group machine I have dates from 1966, and I purchased it along with a Faema Lambro lever machine in the middle of 2006. I had no idea what condition it was in or whether it was even working, but I was assured that all the trim and panels were in place. Thanks to the fact that the group is still being manufactured and used to this day, parts are still widely available.
I actually restored the lever machine first in late 2006, and it was quite an experience, to say the least. I soon realised that Faema had done a great job with the overall machine, but refurbishing old boilers was a nightmare. The combination of copper, steel, and aluminium all fuses together, making rebuilding them an epic adventure. So the E61 sat in the corner for several months, whilst I plucked up the courage to take it apart.
Here are the specs of the two group: - Overall dimensions: 71 cm wide, 54 cm deep, and 56 cm deep (including Plexiglas) - Weight, approximately 60 kg - 13.4 litre boiler with 2600 W element - Gas or electric heating
The Faema E61 unloaded for the first time, next to the Faema Lambro.
The front of the Faema E61 with parts labelled.
Drain tray removed, with pipes labelled.
The machine has one steam wand, one hot water wand, one cup warmer (steam vented), one water valve, a water inlet, a drain water outlet, and a gas inlet.
Comparison with current production machines
I have to say that the machine is remarkably similar to most machines still being sold today. In fact, if I compare it with my Wega Sphera, which is also in my office, the boilers and thermosyphon are almost identical. I think it is easier by far to say what is NOT on current machines. The most obvious vital component that is missing is the autofill control. Yes, that is correct; the barista must, on this machine, manually keep the boiler filled by using the lever on the front. That explains why the sight glass has two indicators for max and min. As with modern machines, the boiler is controlled by a pressure switch. In this case, it is the original mercury tilt switch. The wiring system is very simple indeed; there is no main on/off switch and also no thermal safety switch on the boiler. A simple microswitch controls the external pump, which is activated by the group lever.
The steam and water valves do not have a ball joint, so they cannot swivel. The cup warmer does not utilize a heating element, but uses steam from the boiler. Opening the tap allows steam to escape into the cup warmer area. All the water, gas, and drain connections are located on the outside of the machine. These days, modern machines hide these under the machine, and they can only be accessed by lifting out the drain tray.
Side view of the classic Faema E61 shape.
Then, of course, we get to the group, which is all manual using Valente's "alternating valve" system. These days, most groups use solenoids to control the brewing, and most of these also use flowmeters for volumetric control of the brewing.
It is quite amazing when you actually look at the machine and take note of how little heat exchanger machines have changed in the past 46 years. In fact, I could (if I wanted to... but I don't) very easily and without too much fuss add a few new features to this machine to bring it up to par with current machines. But of course, there is one obvious difference between this machine and modern machines besides the technical differences listed previously.
We are talking about styling and elegance. This thing is just stunning. Modern machines have a very box-like construction and a very angular look, while this machine has curves and bulges that soften the design. Sadly, we don't see this anymore - if there are curves, they are constructed not of metal, but plastic. Faema (and I guess most manufacturers of the era) seem to have spent the extra time and effort to get the design correct and artistically pleasing.
The materials are all pretty decent stuff; a lot of the panels are stainless steel and proudly have Inox 18/10 stamped on each one. My Faema Lambro, on the other hand, was chromed metal - it didn't have any stainless steel at all. The main body has over a dozen smaller panels screwed together to create the shape. Even the screws that hold it all together are custom pieces, and some of them have a wonderful knurled pattern that would never even be considered today. It just seems to me that with modernisation and mass production, a lot of the charm has been lost, and the influence of the accountants has grown.
Over the past few years, I have restored and overhauled close to 30 machines of various ages. My schedule for these is very similar regardless of age:
- Inspect machine for obvious problems/damage and missing trim. - Test components (e.g., elements) and then order parts before dismantling. - Dismantle machine and bag all parts in their sections. - Clean each part, then descale. - Repolish metal and rechrome parts. - Rebuild and test. - Enjoy!
Before getting stuck into the machine, I inspected it and determined what parts were required. This is not the way an individual should go about it - you would probably want to dismantle the machine, check the condition of the components, and then order parts based on your findings. You would then have a gap of a few weeks to a few months to wait for the parts to arrive.
However, since I am a commercial operation, I not only had some spares on hand, but I could guess from experience what would likely need replacing (i.e., every o-ring, gasket, and seal). Before getting started on the machine, I also had my parts bins, plastic zipper storage bags, and my digital camera ready.
After having taken a few photos to ensure I had captured the location of pipes and switches, it was just a case of tearing it down. The plan was just to start removing copper pipes so that only the boiler and the group remained. It soon became obvious that this was without doubt the dirtiest machine I'd come across in a long time. I've had cockroach infested machines before, but this had over 40 years of dirt etched into everywhere.
Now, here's the first of several tips (denoted by bolded text) that I'll offer throughout these articles: it is far easier to get all nuts, bolts and fittings loose now whilst they are being held in the machine.
What do I mean? Well, let's take the group itself; it has to come apart and it is easier to undo all the nuts and fittings now whilst it is being supported in the machine. If I were to take the group off and then take it apart, I would have to put it in a bench vice to support it, which may end up damaging the delicate brass. Also, the boiler is one big beast and is held rigidly by the numerous copper pipes. It is better to undo the end plates now, whilst it is held firmly in place, rather than struggle later to secure it in a workbench.
After I loosened all the parts, I then started putting the copper pipes into a big tub with some degreasing detergent to prepare the pipes for descaling. On this machine, there were a lot of pipe fittings that were stuck, so I made use of the trusty blow-torch a few times. I just heated each stuck fitting for a little bit and maybe also gave it a tap, and that usually broke the dirt or the limescale that was causing it to stick.
One of the most important things to bear in mind when dealing with these machines is to take your time. If a fitting is stuck, don't try to force it; more often than not, the spanner will slip, and you will end up damaging the nut (also known as "chewing up the edges"). On this machine, I found a lot of chewed up fittings.
One thing that intrigues me so much about older machines is wondering what life they have had, who has worked on them, and what have they done. After a while, you get to recognise old dirt and new dirt, which fittings have been undone, which screws have never been touched, etc. By then, you have a good idea of what has happened to the machine in the past.
For example, I believe that this machine has had the boiler removed and rebuilt in the past 15 years, and at that stage, the person that did it painted the outside. Although the paint was not a good thing, it was good news as far as I was concerned, because there was hope that the boiler end plates and the aluminium locking rings would not be too old and not that hard to remove. Also, I could see that the dials on two pressure gauges were slightly different colours, which suggested that one had been replaced at some stage.
Forty years of pulling shots has taken its toll on the famous E61 group.
The water valve with no ball joint, fixed in place; note the wear on the nut.
Dual gauges; note the colour difference between the two.
Okay, so pipes were being removed and thrown into a tub for cleaning. During this stage, I find it is best to remove components one at a time as a complete unit. For example, I'll take off the steam wand and steam valve, put the complete valve into their own parts bin or plastic zipper storage bag, and deal with each component one at a time, rather than try to descale all parts at once. I find this keeps one from losing parts. So at the end of the first session, I have a bare frame, a boiler, and steel panels, all the major components are in their own bin or bag, and the pipes are in a bucket being cleaned.
Exterior body panel removed, showing the pressure switch end of the boiler.
Back of sight glass assembly; note how the boiler has had a nice paint job at some stage.
Taking the boiler apart and starting the descale
Broken aluminium collars.
The boiler is out and apart.
Taking apart my Faema Lambro boiler was an absolute nightmare, without a doubt the most difficult and annoying thing I have experienced so far in terms of coffee machines, because of the boiler end plates. I am 99% certain that my boiler had not been dismantled since it was built. The boiler end flange and the end plate have a gasket in between and the whole lot is clamped together with the aluminium collars. However, what happens over time is that the steel bolts fuse with the aluminium rings and removing them is just a disaster. On the Lambro, all nine bolts had fused with the aluminium, and I had to cut through each bolt with a cut-off disc. So I had to cut through the gasket (in between the copper flanges) to get to cut each bolt. It took three days!!!!
On the E61 BOTH ends of the boilers have end plates, so potentially I was looking at six awful days of cutting away. Not good at all. So naturally, I was a bit relieved, to say the least, when I discovered that 80% of the bolts on the E61 moved freely. The remaining 20% required a little gentle persuasion with a hammer to tap them out. But they all came out within 30 minutes, backing up my theory that the boiler on this machine had been rebuilt fairly recently. Once the two end plates were free, they and the boiler would join their copper pipe siblings in the degreasing tub.
Once the boiler was out, it was just a matter of removing all remaining components from the machine and bagging them up for stripdown and cleaning at a later date. After the copper pipes and the boiler had a quick clean up, it was time to descale them to remove all limescale. Fortunately the machine wasn't that bad - again confirming that someone had rebuilt it recently.
For descaling, I like to have the pipes and the boilers in one large tub, and then smaller components (steam valves) are done individually. I am lucky to have a large steel bath to descale in, but a plastic bucket is fine as well.
I always use citric acid, which isn't the most aggressive of descalers out there, but it is safe to work with, and I have no complaints. It may help to remember that citric acid works better with warm water. Suffice to say that many equipment technicians will have their own preferred acid of choice.
I always let copper pipes soak for a few days and boilers will tend to be a bit longer, maybe even a week. Again, some people use more aggressive acids and can probably descale a boiler within a few hours, but I use the time to do other jobs. So now, you can sort of see a method to my time schedule - get the main boiler and pipes apart first and into the acid, so that while they are descaling over a week or so, you can get to work on the frame and the component parts.
Again, the first thing to do with anything on the machine is to give it a clean! The bad news on this frame was that there was a fair amount of rust that needed to be treated.
The Faema's rusty frame.
A close up of the rust eating away at the frame.
In the same way that you might use a more aggressive acid to remove the limescale, you could, of course, take the frame and have it blasted with sand or some other media; but I love metal work, and to spend an hour or so with a wire brush is good fun. There are also some great discs available these days that strip paint and rust in seconds. Once the frame is clean, rust free, and free of old paint, you should treat it with rust prevention paint, or take it to a professional and have it powder coated.
In theory, the hardest work has been done; dismantling the machine and the boiler and stripping the frame is a huge task. This is a good point, then, at which to pick up the story at a later date.
In the next installment of this series, we will complete cleaning of all the components, rebuild the machine, and hopefully start pulling some shots. I will also attempt to address the thorny issue of "preservation or restoration?"