Fixing the Decauville

The live steam community is a small one, but it’s incredibly supportive. When there’s a problem, members of the community come together to help each other fix it. This is a good example: a story about a product that didn’t live up to expectations – and what the community has been doing about it.

Decauville - delivery
(Maybe THIS year it’ll actually get to run?)

It’s been more than a year since Peter Foley and I picked up our 7/8″ Accucraft Decauville locomotives while attending a steam-up in western New York – yet due to a number of engineering issues with the models they still haven’t turned a wheel under steam.

That’s about to change, however: on Saturday, Peter and I took our beautiful – but mechanically unsound – steamers for a visit with Jeff Young.

Jeff and Peter
(Jeff and Peter in the workshop at the start of our day. Four hours later, those smiles were harder to coax out of hiding – but we had locomotives that might actually steam! Note the black rectangles in the lower left: those are the replacement gas tanks.)

Jeff has been working his connections in the live steam community since last year to secure upgraded parts to turn these shelf queens into track-worthy models. They had a number of problems as delivered from the factory, including a poor burner design and a gas jet that was too aggressive. Most challenging, the gas tank was located right next to the boiler, which meant when the boiler heated up (as they do), it would actually boil the butane in the tank. Not a good thing.

The fixes included:

– Installing a new burner. This was straightforward: a single screw holds the burner in place, so one simply removes that, swaps the burners, and replaces the screw.

– Installing a new gas jet. From the factory, the Decauville was fitted with a #5. Jeff picked up #3 and #4 jets for us. They’re a screw-in replacement.

– Removing and replacing the gas tank with a new one designed by Accucraft UK and built by Accucraft in China. This was the big project for the day.

Ex-works, the gas tank was located in the right-hand water tank. (This was not used for water, which goes directly into the boiler through a valve under the steam dome.) The new tank would go under the floor of the cab, between the frames.

While the old gas tank could’ve stayed in place, we needed to remove the body so that we could unscrew the connector on the feed line. This required finding and removing about a dozen small bolts… loosening the lubricator… disconnecting the steam pipe from both ends (throttle and cylinders, via the lubricator)… and removing the gas regulator (disguised as a brake stand). We also had to remove the throttle handle, which was in the way for drilling the floor to accept the new tank.

A variety of metric and BA tools were required. This set from Wiha came in handy, and I will pick up one at my local tool supplier:

Wiha Tool Set
(Tool collecting: the hobby within the hobby!)

With everything in pieces, we used a marking template supplied by David Mees at AbbyBach Engineering Services to locate the three holes for the new gas tank:

(We labelled the template with a marker before sending it on to the next Decauville owner – as explained below.)

This is cleverly designed with two pins that line up with two screws in the cab floor. These would be drilled larger to accept the mounting bolts for the tank – one of which is hollow, and designed to mate with the connector on the as-delivered gas line.

Decauville - cab interior
(The cab interior, as delivered: Note the two screws in the floor. The original gas tank is in the near side tank: the filler valve can be seen in the shadow across the top of the tank.)

The third hole – upper right in the photo above – is the location for the gas tank filler valve. With the holes marked, we put the Decauville under the drill press and carefully created the new holes – enlarging them in three or four steps to the size we needed.

Here’s the new butane tank in place between the frames:

Decauville - butane tank

We then annealed the gas delivery pipe so that we could bend it to connect with the new tank. It’s not pretty, but it’s out of the way of fingers, and it’ll work just fine.

Decauville - piping
(The tank has two threaded rods which pass through the footplate. Two nuts secure it in place. One of the threaded rods is hollow and designed to mate with the gas delivery pipe. The shorter pipe in this photo will connect to the gas jet in the burner. Note the gas tank filler valve on the floor to the left of the far bolt. Also note the hole to the right of the near bolt: we accidentally had the template turned 180 degrees, which resulted in an extra hole in the floor. We marked the template for the next user(s), and I’ll add a bucket or other detail to cover the hole.)

The procedure took the best part of four hours, and – frankly – put our already impressive vocabulary of swear words to the test. But it’s done, and we celebrated with a late lunch on the patio at Cuchulainn’s Irish Pub.

I know that in addition to those people mentioned here, many others in the live steam community – including other Decauville owners, but also those who have no skin in this particular game – have been working over the past year or so to address the shortcomings on this model. While I can’t give them a proper shout-out here, I’d like to thank them for their help: Much appreciated!

Thank you, Jeff and Peter, for turning a daunting project into a fun day out, and turning a frustrating locomotive into something I look forward to running!

(While visiting Jeff’s workshop, I couldn’t resist snapping a photo of his scratch-built “Windus”: If I’d only stuck to clockwork…)

The Pindal Electric Tram

I’d heard about the Pindal Electric Tram for many years, and even seen a few videos. But nothing quite prepared me for the experience…

Earlier this month, some friends and I visited Kaj and Annie Pindal to spend a few hours in the afternoon riding the delightful 15-inch gauge, ride-in electric trolley line that runs in their back yard in Oakville, Ontario.

While I could go on at length about how Kaj built his own equipment, powered mainly by motors liberated from electric lawn mowers, made his track from fence rails, switched from trolley poles to bow-collectors which he fabricated himself, and can use the railway to take the household garbage and recycling to the curb… I think a video is the best way to express the magic that is the Pindal Electric Tram.

So here it is: enjoy if you watch…

(You may also watch this directly on YouTube, where you may be able to enjoy it in larger formats)

Thanks, Kaj & Annie: What a wonderful day out!

Steam up at Tom’s

On Saturday, some friends were headed to a live steam meet about an hour outside of Buffalo, New York, and invited me along. Our host was Tom Bowdler, who has a lovely outdoor track with both 32mm and 45mm gauges represented. The weather was beautiful – sunny enough to be comfortable but with just enough chill in the air that we were comfortable in jackets. The cool air gave the locomotives lovely plumes of condensed steam, too!

My friend Jeff Young brought along “Ursula”:

(You can also watch this directly on YouTube, where you may be able to enjoy it in larger formats)

“Ursula” is a 1/12th scale model of the 15″ gauge locomotive built by Sir Arthur Heywood in 1916 for the Duke of Westminster’s Eaton Railway in Cheshire. The model is a bespoke construction designed by Peter Angus and built by Mike Lax. It uses Roundhouse Hackworth valve gear to replicate the unusual Heywood valve gear, and runs on a single flue gas-fired boiler. A batch of three were built – one for Peter Angus, one for Jeff, and one for the fellow who owns the full-size replica Ursula.

Carl Berg ran some terrific, but unusual, live steam locomotives of his own design:

(You can also watch this directly on YouTube, where you may be able to enjoy it in larger formats)

Carl built the locomotives seen in this video using vintage Marx “Commodore Vanderbuilt” O gauge tinplate models. They’re powered by a single cylinder oscillator in the cab and a butane boiler in the tender. And as the video shows, they are pocket rockets. I’ve never seen anything faster on 32mm track: any faster and the railway right of way would need to be built with banked curves. These were a delight to watch.

Many other fine examples of the Live Steam hobby had a chance to polish the rails, either on Tom’s permanent garden railway or on his portable exhibition track, which was also set up for the occasion. Here’s a sampling:

(You can also watch this directly on YouTube, where you may be able to enjoy it in larger formats)

In addition to several hours of running trains and socializing, the steam-up featured a gathering of three examples of the new 7/8″ scale (1:13.7) Decauville locomotives from Accucraft. These are beautiful models, although they come with bad news and good news. The bad news is, they’re poor runners as delivered. The good news is, the live steam community has been working to solve the issues and it appears there’s a fix. So, with some work, they should turn out to be lovely models that also run well, and offer modellers a perfect locomotive for a 7/8″ estate railway.

Three Decauville engines - Tom's

Decauville - Tom's

Decauville - Tom's

Decauville - Tom's

Tom was a wonderful host – I had a great time. He also has a terrific sense of humour. I was pleased to find this wonderful piece of rolling stock on display in his living room:

Hoser Car

It made me feel right at home. Thanks for hosting us, Tom!

McCarthy - Banner

We ended the day with a trip to Gene McCarthy’s – a brew-pub in the Old First Ward in Buffalo. Here, Jeff demonstrates an interesting, historical feature of our table:

McCarthy - Table

A small shelf under each corner provided space to securely stow one’s pint while playing cards. This would keep condensation on the glasses from getting the table wet (and of course prevent one from accidentally tipping a pint onto the cards or any money involved).

McCarthy - Table

Following a nice meal and a pint or two of craft brew, we headed home – and I captured this glimpse of Toronto across the lake from the tall bridge over the Welland Canal in St. Catharines:

Toronto from Garden City Skyway

Thanks to Peter Foley, Jeff Young, and Mike Walton for a grand day out: I’m looking forward to the next one!

Shooting “Fired Up!” Season 2

Fired Up - Season 2

On August 30 and 31, Barry Silverthorn, Dylan Wickware and I visited the backyard of Jeffrey Young to shoot the second season of “Fired Up!” for TrainMasters TV.

As with Season One, we shot six more episodes over the two days. This time, Barry added a much-appreciated piece of equipment – a scrim, to diffuse the sun and help keep us from turning into lobsters. (It’s the giant white thing overhead in some of the shots here.)

For season two, we’re exploring several additional aspects of live steam. Episodes will cover coal firing, portable steaming tracks, tools, workshops, locomotive customization, and rolling stock.

Fired Up - Season 2

Fired Up - Season 2

Fired Up - Season 2

Fired Up - Season 2

Fired Up - Season 2

While this is definitely a niche market, live steam is a unique and fascinating approach to the model railway hobby – and it’s one that may speak more strongly to non-hobbyists for several reasons:

1 – It’s a hobby enjoyed in the garden – which makes it a fun, family activity that takes advantage of nice weather.

2 – Given that many model railway enthusiasts have spouses who are not in our hobby, but who like to garden, live steam is a nice “crossover” hobby – a place where we can all meet and do something together, and where each person brings a unique set of skills to the project.

3 – It’s freakin’ live steam for goodness sake! At public exhibitions where we can bring live steam to the general public, we’ve noticed that those interested in steam punk and/or retro/vintage style are really drawn to our live steam locomotives – in a way that they would not be engaged by HO electric trains.

I’m proud of the work we do on “Fired Up!” and I hope our viewers enjoy it too. Season Two goes to air on TrainMasters TV this winter.

Fired Up - Season 2

Video of the Accucraft Decauville

(You may also view this directly on Youtube, where you may be able to enjoy it in larger formats)

I’m a little late to the party on this one, as the video was published in May. But here’s some footage of the 7/8ths (1:13.7) “Decauville” live steam locomotive being produced by The Train Department and Accucraft.

I’m very excited about this one. I have several pieces of 7/8ths scale rolling stock for an estate railway, but no locomotive to pull them. My order has already been placed…

By the way, if you want to see the prototype, here’s a video of it on the Sandstone Estates in South Africa, which really illustrates just how small the prototype is:

(You may also view this directly on Youtube, where you may be able to enjoy it in larger formats)

Enjoy if you watch!

Thanks to The Train Department for making this project happen. I can’t wait!

Fired Up! with Jeff Young

My friend Jeff Young is well known in the live steam community and he writes the live steam column for one of the major hobby magazines devoted to railroading in the garden.

So I’m thrilled that he and I have been able to work together on Fired Up! – a new series on TrainMasters TV that explores the world of live steam. Fired Up! covers choosing, setting up, running and servicing garden scale live steam locomotives. It’s aimed at those new to live steaming, but I hope even experienced water boilers will enjoy it.

Here’s a preview for the first episode, which will be available for viewing this weekend:

We’re doing six episodes this season – and if it’s well received we have the outlines of six more for season two. And of course if it’s really well received we’ll create additional seasons.

Yes – there’s a reason for the spinning barbecue in the opening credits. To find out more, you’ll need to watch the series – and to do that, you’ll need to be a subscriber to TrainMasters TV. But here’s the good news: membership is quite reasonable and you’ll be able to watch a whole lot of excellent hobby-related content, created and presented with top-quality production values.

Think of TrainMasters TV as an all-singing, all-dancing glossy magazine about railway modelling, and you’ll be surprised at how affordable it is.

Enjoy if you watch – and happy steaming!

UPDATE: The full first episode is now available for viewing.

Forthcoming Decauville 3-ton loco

 photo Decauville-Sandstone-2_zpss4vzrxpe.jpg

Exciting news for those, like me, who are contemplating a 7/8″ estate railway in the garden and looking for something small to pull their stock. Jason Kovac at The Train Department has teamed up with David Fletcher, with plans to bring a 7/8″ (1:13.7) scale model of a Decauville Type 1 3-ton locomotive to market.

 photo Decauville-TrainDept-01_zpspi3pnrx2.jpg
(Click on the image to visit The Train Department’s page for more information)

The model will be based on measurements and drawings of a restored locomotive at the Sandstone Estates in South Africa.

 photo decauville_bathala_sandstone_zps1meoh6hy.jpg

This butane-fired model will be available in Maroon, Green and Black. While the website doesn’t explicitly state it, the model is listed on the “Accucraft” page so it’s safe to assume that Accucraft is the builder. The model will be gauge adjustable for both 32mm and 45mm railways and at just over 8″ long and 7″ high, it’ll be perfect for puttering around an estate railway or small industrial line.

Pricing and delivery to be finalized so I won’t provide specifics on either here, other than to say “Contact Jason if you’re interested”.

An initial planning exercise

I’ve started to think about the potential for a ground-level railway in the garden:
 photo Garden-Plan-v3-web_zpscee4fead.jpeg

I photographed the garden from a deck off my second-floor home office and have doodled some ideas onto the image as shown above. The perspective is quite forced from this vantage point – in reality, the loops would be the same diameter, as indicated on the image.

As this plan shows, the line is set up for continuous running with manually-controlled locomotives. My thought would be to lay dual gauge (32mm/45mm) track on the dog-bone, with two steaming bays (one for each gauge). Alternately, I may just lay both bays with both gauges. Most of my equipment is built to 32mm gauge, but my Isle o’ Man Peveril and its carriages are 45mm. In addition, since the live steam hobby is such a social one it would be nice to have both gauges available when friends drop in.

For the same reason, I’m considering a fairly generous minimum radius, given the available real estate. As suggested in the plan, the 10-foot diameter loops occupy most of the two wide spots in the garden. I have taken a measuring tape to the garden and confirmed that these loops will just fit, although the one at the upper right will be a tight squeeze.

An 8-foot diameter loop would be a better choice, although that might limit what I can run – and I’m currently debating my choices in that regard. In addition to the attraction of building a layout that can host visiting power, my own live steam roster includes a Welsh Highland Railway 2-6-2+2-6-2 Garratt by Accucraft and a Leek and Manifold Valley Light Railway 2-6-4T by Roundhouse.

Both are lovely locomotives, but both are huge. And both pose problems when it comes to building suitable trains for them to haul.

I have kits for the LMVLtR’s carriages and goods stock, but they’re frankly rudimentary. They will take a lot of work to turn into presentable models.

I’ve found almost nothing worth building for a Garratt to haul, particularly since I would prefer to repaint the Garratt into a South African Railways livery. And the Garratt’s massive presence pretty much demands a long train behind it.

Rather than build a social track, it’s tempting to focus on one prototype. For this pint-sized garden, the best match would be the equipment I’ve built for a 7/8″ scale, 18″ gauge Estate Railway:
 photo Seven8th-Estate-Stock_zps8403c804.jpg

My thoughts in this direction got a boost this week when I received my copy of a book on the Sand Hutton Light Railway – another excellent work from RCL Publications:
 photo Sand-Hutton-cover_zpsbe166807.jpg
(Click on the image to visit the publisher’s website)

For those who don’t have the book, there’s a nice capsule history with a map and more photos at the Disused Stations website. Click on the image below to visit the Sand Hutton page there:
 photo SandHutton-DisusedStns_zps4ed8af4c.jpg

I do not yet own a suitable locomotive to model an estate railway scheme in 7/8″ scale, but I’m sure something will appear when the time is right. A number of people have successfully kit-bashed 7/8″ estate locomotives from 16mm mechanisms, for example…

With tighter curves, I might be able to work a more elaborate plan into my garden – at the cost of excluding some equipment (both my own and that owned by friends) from having a place to run.

I will have to doodle some ideas for a 32mm gauge estate railway to determine whether I have anything to gain by creating a garden railway around one theme instead of a design that accommodates everything.

A 1:1 water crane

 photo WaterCrane-MNGRR_zps987ec8d0.jpg
(I’m filling the tank on Monson Railroad 4 at the museum grounds in Portland, Maine – using the water crane I financed and helped build)

The Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad Co and Museum uses a water crane to fill the tanks on their historic steam locomotives. Here’s the story:

Back in 2006, my friend Chris Abbott and I visited the museum in December to help out with the annual pre-Christmas train rides. This is a very busy time for the museum so volunteers were most welcome.

One of our tasks was to top up the water in Monson Railroad 4. We would fill the tank every second run. The process involved one person climbing onto the locomotive, while the other passed him a fire hose, then headed into a warehouse across a parking lot to open the water valve. The person on the locomotive would drop the hose into the water in the tank so it wouldn’t thrash about while the filling proceeded. He would then have to yell at the other person to shut off the water before the tank overflowed.

The building where the valve was located had no lights, so it got quite dark at night and the valve was at the opposite side of the warehouse, so there was a lot of scrambling to turn the valve on and off. In between times, the fire hose would simply lie on the ground and drain out.

And that caused problems. Firehoses are designed to sweat, to prevent them from catching fire and when we put down the hose it would get covered in dirt. The next time we filled the tank, we’d drop the hose into the tank’s water and the dirt would come off. Eventually, the dirt clogged a filter so that one of the injectors wouldn’t work. Fortunately, the other was working and we were able to clear the filter to complete the run.

That night over dinner at J’s Oyster, we discussed the problem and by the next day over breakfast at Becky’s Diner, we had a solution: The museum needed a water crane.

When we got home, I talked to my friend Pierre Oliver about this and he agreed to help with the project. This was a great thing, since at the time Pierre worked in a theatre shop that included a fully-equipped welding bay.
 photo Water_Crane-02_zps34dfd84a.jpg

Rather than build an authentic water crane, we opted for something that would be robust enough to stand up to winter in the museum’s seafront location and that could be repositioned with the museum’s front-end loader. That meant all-steel construction, although we drilled the top of the frame for wood deck boards that could be finished in a less-slippery coating.

At the bottom of the frame, we added a connection for the fire hose:
 photo Water_Crane-04_zps149ec565.jpg

The hose would be installed before each day’s events thus keep dirt out of the locomotives. Between times, a plastic bag over the end of the water crane would keep the connection clean.

We made a ladder from angle stock, drilled for round rungs:
 photo Water_Crane-03_zps257a04db.jpg

The angle stock was left long to act as hand rails when climbing to the platform.

A brass ball valve and a swivel coupling allowed the crane arm to swing over the tank, and allowed firemen to control the water locally instead of from the warehouse connection:
 photo Water_Crane-06_zps6826456d.jpg

The horizontal delivery pipe was made from PVC instead of steel to keep the weight down, and to reduce injury to equipment or people if they should bump into it. The elbow at the end of the delivery pipe was finished with a threaded section to accept a length of firehose that could be dropped into the tank of a locomotive (as seen in the lead photo):
 photo Water_Crane-05_zps12aa084d.jpg

Here’s the finished water crane, ready for pick up by a museum volunteer:
 photo Water_Crane-01_zps13b4738f.jpg

The crane is pretty tall, but was designed to come apart for transport.

This is one of the more unusual projects I’ve been involved in and it was great to be able to give something back to the museum, which had welcomed me into their steam team. It’s been a while since I’ve visited but I hope the crane continues to provide them with good service for many years to come…