A torch lights the way
Well I finally broke down and bought one of those butane pencil sized blow torch/soldering irons. Its all metal construction, and under $20 dollar price tag made it irresistible. Hey I could always have a soldering iron with me in case I encountered any electronic emergencies. So I filled out the order form and waited for the package to arrive. When it arrived it was lovely. It’s tiny and accurate blow torch flame… Ah but what to do with it. The situation demanded some sort of little blow torch intensive project. Hum. I decided upon making a hero’s engine. I had made one in grade school constructed from a soup can and some pieces of rubber hose. The whole thing hung from a tread and was powered by a candle. Even under full steam it’s thrust was almost imperceptible. Now I had a chance to make one that might actually work.
I got some pieces of brass tubing from an art store, and started soldering together a 4 jet hero’s engine. Whilst working on this I happened to mention it to an acquaintance of mine. He said that he’d built a small double acting piston steam engine and he drew a little diagram of the basic principal on a nearby envelope. I was enthralled. I imagined making something that would go chuff-chuff-chuff as it ran. Wow. So I put the hero’s engine on a back burner, and (envelope in hand) I set out to build my own steam engine.
So I set out with nothing but a hand drill, hacksaw, and some files.
I made the sliding valves, connecting rods, and main cylinder from more art store brass tubing. A big problem was finding a suitable piston head. It had to fit into the cylinder exactly. The art store carried brass tubing large enough to form the cylinder, but they didn’t carry every size increment, so I couldn’t build up a piston by just nesting successive tubing sizes, and soldering that into a single mass. So I spent a lot of time combing the hardware stores looking for a brass fitting that was of the right side. I happened on a flange that was very close, so I cut it off, and soldered on the main drive rod. Then I chucked that into the hand drill that I had, and (while holding the drill with my feet) managed to turn the flange and pinch it with some steal wool until it was just the right diameter. (And people wonder why I eventually went out and bought a small lathe. 🙂
I found a fly wheel at a ham fest in the form of a big brass gear that had been part of an old radio. I made (what I later discovered was called) a vertical fire tube boiler by silver soldering together brass sheet and tubing. Originally I took the steam from the top of the boiler, but it’s long transit through some rather thin tubing caused a lot of it to condense in the boiler, so I ran the tube down through the boiling water, out the bottom of the boiler, and back through the flame to give it an extra boost of heat before going off to the steam engine. Apparently real steam boilers sometimes have a similar element called a super heater. I also insulated the boiler itself for better efficiently, and now my steam engine runs on two little alcohol flames. (Or I can run it by blowing into it.) Amazing what you can cobble together with a few hand tools. I have a very early movie of the steam engine in action, as well as these more recent images. Live steam is a fun hobby, and there are a few pages dedicated to that very topic.
The original page in the Internet Archive
Sorry for the horrible quality of the video, it was shot on a Apple Quick Take, and I just converted it to GIF now. I built the thing in the early 1990’2 so be amazed there’s any documentation of it at all. Looks like maybe I originally made a the web page for this in 2006.