Sunday, November 02, 2003

Book Review - So You Want To Build A Live Steam Locomotive  

I am slowly working my way through this book. I got the book in late July or early August and expected to read it within a few days. The book is somewhat hard for me to describe - it is written by a man that has been into Live Steaming for quite a few years. He has a background that encompasses metal work and has been in Live Steaming clubs for a long time. He sprinkles his text with personal experiences and makes flat statements about an assortment of issues. He seems to enjoy the hobby and wants to impart some of the knowledge he has accumulated over the years. On the other hand, he is not the best writer of prose I have come across.

Illustrating his pages are pictures of various steam engines and information about who owns them and where they are from. Many of the pictures are fairly old and the book itself is fairly old - as a matter of fact. It is still quite enjoyable for me to see the locomotives that were built over the years and perhaps are not available for me to see in person anymore. If you see the book as a primer on live steam locomotives and not as a textbook or your only guide to building your own locomotive it is a very useful book.

It covers major parts of locomotives and some general knowledge items as well such as water, metals, silver soldering and welding. There is a drawing of a steam locomotive with the various items called out for identification. I do have to admit there is a difficulty for non-railroaders reading this book as the author refers to things that he has not defined. A reference to a mud ring is early in the book but is not explained up to that point in the book. A glossary might be a good idea for future editions as well as a foldout of a steam locomotive with a parts callout. The author is not one to make very many recommendations so it is somewhat difficult to see what he prefers for the points where there are several choices that can be made. An example is when he discusses check valves. He points out there are ball check valves and plain check valves but does not point out if one is superior to the other or why you would chose one for one application and the other for another. Another example is the Belpaire boiler. Although he refers to it and details the problems for fabricating such a boiler he does not describe what it is nor does he say what advantage there is to a Belpaire over a standard boiler or why a person would want one. While looking at the drawings, I was able to understand what it is and why he might recommend you do not try to build one but he never says anything about it.

The cross-sectional drawings are a help in understanding the operation of a part and I applaud his use of the cross-sectionals. They are used for illustration in many areas in the book.

A part of the author takes it for granted that you have a machine-shop background and understand the tools and methods of such a place. This is not to say that the author talks over one's head, actually he seems to be truly interested in imparting his knowledge to beginners.

Chapters that stick in my mind are "valve motions" and boilers. Valve motions are a difficult subject as there were quite a number of them and there are variations of somewhat standard motions. The Stephenson valve motion is a fairly well known motion that is covered in some detail. Also the Baker has a prominent place in the chapter. Why is this important to a Live Steamer? The valve motion is perhaps the single most important part of a locomotive. The valve motion is the factor that decides when the steam is added to the driving cylinder and exhausted. Using a valve motion driven from the driving wheels or cams on the main driving axels is the only way to get a locomotive to automatically sequence the steam process for an efficient and powerful forward motion of the main driving wheels. The steam engine designers struggled with various valve motions over the years to find a mechanism to properly operate the valves to deliver the most horsepower for the amount of steam available with the least wear on the mechanicals. After you get it all to work correctly and efficiently going forward, then there is the problem of how do you get the locomotive to go in reverse?

Boilers are a subject all their own. The author elaborates on how a boiler is designed and fabricated from steel and copper. He touches on stainless-steel but draws the conclusion that a stainless-steel boiler is a better choice to use as it is more durable and easier to steam. My associates tell me that it may be far more durable but they are notoriously hard to keep up to temperature as the steel does not transmit the heat from the firebox to the water boiler efficiently. The main boiler may keep the heat once it is input to the boiler but getting the heat into the boiler is a nightmare. Actual construction details of steel and copper boilers are included as well as pictures and drawings of the process. Since this is the main point that the locomotive can be truly dangerous I suggest that you leave boiler fabrication to the experts. Running too fast for conditions and derailing is a major problem for railroaders and having a boiler blow up from a weak spot is another thing you do not want to be around when it happens.

A chapter is devoted to what hapens on a run day for a live steamer. It covers what steps to go through to get a locomotive fired up and prepared to run. He disusses the various methods of getting a draft in the boiler firebox and the pros and cons of each. He discusses fans and what speed and capacity of air movement is necessary for the locomotives. He explains what to use to get a fire started in the cold firebox (he recommends kerosene soaking your starting materials and using a fan) and what to put in to keep it going.

Another chapter deals with care of a steam engine. After you have one and want to fire it up and run the thing, what do you have to do to keep it runing and working at peak efficiency? Cleaning the boiler tubes, water issues to rakeing the fire grate are all important maintenance issues. Lubricating the moving parts and arranging the coal in the firebox are covered as well.

Operating rules and whistle signals are covered as well as advice about how engineers should operate with courtesy and safety as touchstones. There is information about how to manufacture your own tools to help in construction such as tube rollers for making the seal on boiler tubes during construction of boilers or refitting boilers with burned out or damaged tubes. Other tools are described for building and maintaining your steam locomotive.

Although the book is somewhat dated with much material from the mid to late 1900s, there are many photographs and illustrations that will be of value to a live steam enthusiast. I you are trying to decide if this is the hobby for you, this book may or may not convince you to give it a try. I think it gives a perspective that from a technically inclined mechinistists viewpoint. The author does not lose the sense that the whole purpose of the hobby is to have fun with trains. It is too easy to get wrapped up in the machining and building and never actually enjoy the hobby of sharing time with others while using your train.

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